We are hurtling through the Rajasthani desert on a train bound for Jaipur. While exhausted travellers snooze and locals read the newspaper, my eyes are darting furiously, intent on capturing the glimpses of life that speed past. Flamingo-pink temples draped with marigolds next and rat-infested piles of rubbish. Pristine white-columned mansions and cardboard slums, piled three high. India is a country of extremes. It can lift your spirits and break your heart in the same instant.
Sadly, the darker side of these extremes often dominate the perception. As a result, India is one of those destinations that people are intrigued by, but never quite get around to visiting because they are consumed by all the hurdles and potential travel woes that may trip them up.
Fixating on things that might go wrong is missing the point entirely. Speak to anyone who has travelled to India, and they will undoubtedly gush over the hospitality of strangers who welcomed them like family and the blinding array of colour in Old Dehli’s winding streets. Any difficulties they encountered fade into the background.
That said, it’s worth arming yourself with as much knowledge as possible before you go. Read on to find out how to side-step the most common travel mishaps from Mumbai to Mysore.
I’m worried I’ll get Dehli Belly
If you had to whittle down India’s favourite pastimes into two categories, it would be eating and praying. Both they adhere to with biblical enthusiasm. So as a visitor to their country, it would sacrilegious not to follow suit. I recently spent a little under a month in India and, and I followed suit in a big way. I ate everything – spicy food, street food, vegetarian food, meat, buffets, desserts, you name it. And, surprise surprise, I didn’t get even so much as a slight upset tummy.
Unequivocally, the best anti-Dehli-belly defence is to join a tour group and trust the knowledge of local guides. They have a vested interest in keeping you bug-free, and therefore pick tried and tested local favourites that walk the precarious line between authenticity and safety.
If you’re dead keen on going the independent travel route, the humble google search is your new best friend. Check out tripadvisor and zomato to see what other tourists recommend nearby, ask for tips at your hotel concierge and stick to places which are busy with customers. And it goes without saying that you should heed all of the usual rules: avoid tap water, ice and salads, take a daily pro-biotic and wash your hands religiously.
It’s unsafe for women
A slew of violent crimes against women in India has attracted all the wrong kind of media attention in recent years. As heinous as these crimes are, this should by no means stop you from going.
While India still has much work to do in terms of protecting women’s rights, the government taken steps in the right direction, from rapidly increasing the civil defence police presence in big cities to establishing an all-female police motorcycle squad in New Dehli.
While there are still concerns around women’s safety, you’d be wrong to assume that all Indian men are misogynists and women are nothing more than victims. During my travels, I met some of the most peaceful, intelligent men and empowered, feminist women, both of whom were outraged about India’s shameful record of crimes against women.
In order to protect your personal safety, always dress conservatively, avoid venturing out alone after dark except in well-lit tourist areas. Travelling with a group and with a local leader is a good way to put yourself at ease, and when using the train, ride with the ladies in the women’s carriage.
The poverty is too confronting for me
Twenty-one percent of India’s population live under the poverty line, making it one of the poorest nations in the world. You will see shoeless children begging on the side of heaving motorways and entire families sleeping on flattened cardboard boxes.
But poverty by no means defines India. They are also a country at the forefront of sustainable energy initiatives, a country that invented the number zero, with incredible architecture and one of the most widespread railway networks in the world. India’s fascinating and complex culture is punctuated with moments of profound human triumph, from the visionary insight of Gandhi to the temples which feed up to 40,000 people a day for free, regardless of religion.
Yes, the poverty is confronting and unspeakably sad, but remember that there are many organisations helping to break the cycle of poverty and if you are so inclined, there are many ways that you can help too. And the moments that make your heart sink, will be matched two-fold by moments that make your heart sing.
It’s just not my cup of tea
This blanket justification often represents a few travel fears rolled into one – from thinking it will be too unhygienic to assuming the accommodation will be unsatisfactory.
Remember that while India has major issues with poverty, it is also an extremely wealthy country with something to offer every kind of traveller. If you prefer pre-packaged luxury, there are a huge selection of premium hotels and resorts. Many of them are repurposed royal palaces, where you experience history and world-class hospitality in one fell swoop.
Going on an organised tour will take the stress out of getting from A to B. You are often travelling in private, air conditioned buses and the guides know the best times to visit the key landmarks to avoid the crowds. A five am alarm clock is pretty jarring, but a near empty Taj Mahal at dawn? Nothing short of magic.
Book that ticket
Travel whims aside, the bottom line is that if you can go, you should. To travel to India is to experience a seismic shift in the way you see the world. The richness of the land, the fiery bursts of colour, the exotic architecture and the palpable sense of community, India presents the full spectrum of human experience in dizzying, pantomime-like flamboyance.
Around every corner are traces of centuries-old wisdom that resonate on a primal, subconscious level. As Keith Bellows of the National Geographic Society said, “There are some parts of the world that, once visited, get into your heart and won't go. For me, India is such a place.”