India is a country that is rich in cultural diversity, history, and the positive sense of shock and awe that truly makes one feel alive and feel the intensity of life all around them. Being the daughter of an Indian-born father, I have experienced these feelings first hand and feel well equipped to share some practical tips to help you prepare for your first visit to India. Before I jump into the tips themselves, let me clarify that my generalization of a society of 1.2 billion people is not meant to be perfect, but instead is designed to give you a sense of what you will experience with a majority of society. With that being said, I think the tips below will prepare you well for experiencing India through interactions with the soul of India as seen in everyday life and culture rather than the typical tourist life in a bubble that can be done in any country on the planet.
Embrace the land of festivals
The first tip is something that applies to international travel in general and that is to intentionally open up your mind and leave your judgmental self at home. Maybe more than most other places on earth, India will require you to be receptive to new experiences, different ways of doing familiar tasks, as well as different foods and sights and sounds, not all of which may be positive or luxurious in the western sense of life. This is an important foundation to create for yourself before you embark on the trip and it will enable a much greater sense of experiential pleasure and fulfillment for you.
The colorful powder is thrown at Indian villagers during the Lathmar Holi festival at the Radha Rani temple in Barsana, some 130kms from New Delhi on March 16, 2016.
During the Lathmar Holi festival, the women of Barsana, the legendary hometown of Radha, consort of Hindu God Krishna, attack the men from Nandgaon, the hometown of Hindu God Krishna, with wooden sticks in response to their efforts to put color on them.
Norms of Indian society
Secondly, learn about the norms and etiquette and safety recommendations for the country. Some things we may do unconsciously in the western world such as wearing clothes that expose a lot of skin, keeping our shoes on within homes and even in places of worship, and greeting strangers with eye contact, are all innocent behaviors that may have negative interpretations in Indian society. India, in general, is not a repressive society for women like some other places on earth, but it is definitely more conservative than the most conservative norms you will find in the west. For women, I would recommend wearing clothes that fit in better with the societal norms such as pants, jeans, long skirts, etc. if you want to stay with western wear. Alternately, trying the salwar kameez for women or kurtas for men, a light fabric pant and top, is a great way to blend in with the locals and experience the culture more intimately.
Water quality in India
My next tip is to always drink bottled water purchased in a store rather than from individuals on the street. This is important not only to stay hydrated but also to stay healthy and avoid water-based diseases. Even when my family eats in a posh, luxury restaurant, we order bottled water rather than using tap water. When we visit the homes of others, it is the same requirement as we request bottled water and avoid drinking the tap water.
Enjoy the curry
Enjoying the street shopping and eating establishments is my next tip for your trip to India. While taking care to consider common-sense safety guidance, you should dive in head-first into the street experience in India. It is varied, colorful, noisy, and even a bit chaotic – in short, it embodies all the characteristics of the country itself. The food vendors offer fresh and tasty fares, but I recommend avoiding them unless you are confident about the strength of your intestines as they carry a high risk of not passing health standards as we define them in the west. Watch them prepare the dishes and take customer orders and fulfill orders all at the same time and all done with seeming ease and speed. Negotiation is a way of doing business whether it is with the street vendor selling flowers or retail stores selling clothes. My suggestion is to make sure you negotiate at least a little and to the extent that makes you comfortable as you go shopping in India. All in all, enjoying the experiences of street shopping and bazaars is a must-do activity on your trip.
Ride the auto-rickshaw
Enjoying the special local travel experiences such as riding an auto-rickshaw and even a short trip on the local buses and metro trains is my next trip if you are really adventurous. As always, the common-sense security precautions are a must and you should avoid night solo trips and always be aware of your surroundings as you travel in public transportation. An auto-rickshaw is a three-wheel automobile that is manipulated through the chaotic traffic in India with incredible skill and seeming ease by the drivers to give you something of a thrill ride while also being an economical means of travel within the cities. The local buses can be extremely crowded and unless you are really adventurous, I would avoid them and just enjoy watching the hustle and bustle of passengers moving on and off the buses at the designated stops. If you see the bus tilting to a side because of having several people hanging off the footboard and holding onto windows, don’t panic as it is a normal occurrence in India and the bus drivers are experts in weaving through traffic with all of this overloaded passenger cargo.
Try some cricket
My last tip is to participate in the sporting culture of India as it is a great way to interact with kids and locals and create unforgettable memories for yourself. Cricket is the most popular sport in the country and you have a wide range of games to attend or even participate in, from the street cricket games that pop up in every park or playground all the way to professional cricket matches that are attended by tens of thousands of passionate fans. Local sports such as kho-kho, kabaddi, and Gilli-danda are other unique experiences that will get you closer to the local culture and living life as a local.