India is undoubtedly one of the most challenging places you can travel, yet many believe the challenges are more than compensated with the rewards. After my first trip there – an extended backpacking adventure – I didn’t feel this way. I experienced the touts, the ripoffs, the oppressive heat and crowds, the whole cliched runaround, complete with Delhi belly. But my recent trip back was an entirely different experience (hint – there were no backpacks involved this time!).
Here are five tips on how you can experience all the amazing bits of India while minimising the hassle factor:
1) Pre-organise transfers
If you’re a hardcore, independent backpacker this may seem like a soft option, but on reflection, dealing with touts when arriving in each new city or town was the number one worst aspect of my first India foray. In India, finding a ride is a huge source of stress, and transport hubs can attract the worst kinds of touts. There is nothing nicer than being whisked away from the crowds in an air-conditioned car which takes you straight to your accommodation, no negotiating necessary! If there’s anywhere in the world you should book a transfer, India has to be it.
2) Lower your expectations
Know that in India, you will witness unparalleled poverty, beggars, slums, cow poo on the street and many a street dog. (But in contrast, there is majestic beauty, stunning architecture and many perfumed and delicious smells!). The more you can prepare yourself for what you might see and experience in India, the better. If you expect conditions in India to even be comparable to those in other developing countries, you may be sorely disappointed. Case in point – a Vietnamese friend ventured to India, her first trip outside Vietnam, and was absolutely shocked at the rubbish on the streets and the living conditions she witnessed. Expect the worst and you may be pleasantly surprised, like when you discover immaculately maintained gardens surrounding temples and monuments, offering precious respite from the chaotic streets.
3) Feign total disinterest in touts
One huge lesson I’ve learnt is not to engage with touts, whether it’s an auto rickshaw driver you don’t want to use or a postcard-selling kid who won’t stop pestering you. This may seem obvious, but what I mean is to not engage in any way, positive or negative. Once upon a time I was stupidly polite to such people – ‘Oh, no thanks, not today’. This can be seen as an opportunity for further dialogue, that you’re sort of interested or are an easy target who may give in. But the alternative isn’t to be rude either, as that can also result in further harassment. The best reaction if followed by a relentless tout is to feign total disinterest. Look bored beyond belief, maybe give your head a slight shake, and don’t even make eye contact. Keep walking. There is no comeback from the tout if you don’t offer a one-liner, and they’ll quickly move onto another tourist more willing to chat back. Also – never, ever try and deflect any kind of seller with ‘Maybe tomorrow’, as your gentle let down may be taken literally. You will be hunted down and harassed the next day!
108 Shiva temple in Kalna
4) Venture off the beaten path
A huge difference to your India experience may be made if you veer off the well-trodden tourist trail to lesser visited regions. Outside, say, Agra or the main cities in Rajasthan, you may find people are warmer, friendlier, less ‘out to get you’. On this trip, I visited some small towns and villages in West Bengal where people were smiling, friendly, welcoming, or simply went about their daily life. They weren’t so used to tourists, so either ignored us or excitedly engaged with us, with no agenda other than to have a chat, pose for a photo, or snap photos of us with their own camera phones (in a non-threatening way). Visiting places beyond the big drawcards provides a refreshing antidote to negative interactions that might damage your perceptions of Indian people. ‘Real’ Indian people are friendly, hospitable, interesting, funny and wonderful. I now know this.
5) Stay hydrated, cool and clean – when you can
It’s no easy feat to avoid the discomforts that come with travelling in extreme heat and humidity, and sightseeing in crowded, not always clean places. It’s also inevitable you’ll get an upset stomach in India, unless you have a digestive tract of steel. Some things you can do to maximise comfort include carrying a small packet of tissues, as many public toilets at tourist sites are of the squat variety with no toilet paper, use hand sanitiser, particularly before eating (hand wipes or baby wipes are useful too), toting and drinking water all day long (coconuts are also great, if available), sticking to vegetarian food in establishments you’re a little unsure of, and carrying a small umbrella for both unexpected downpours and to shade you from harsh midday sun. I also found a cotton scarf draped around my neck doubled as something to protect my neck from sunburn and soak up the endless outpouring of sweat.
Have you ever travelled to India, or do you dream of going? Do you have any tips to share on how to make travel in India (or anywhere else) ‘easier’? I’d love to hear them!