49 quick tips for your first time in India

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During my first time in India, I was a relatively inexperienced traveller: I was overwhelmed by its beauty and stunned by its poverty, just as any first-time visitor. The second time I went to India, I expected to be more familiar with its various vagrancies. In reality, I was overwhelmed and stunned just as before.

That said, second time around, I managed to avoid making (some of) the mistakes I made before. When I go back again, and I will go back, I hope to make even fewer mistakes. I’ll never fully understand this vast and contrasting country (that’s what makes it so alluring) but I have gathered some wisdom ­I can share – some obvious, some not. My list is by no means exhaustive, but it’s enough to get you started.

  1. Don’t drink the local water (of course)
  2. Only eat fruit and veg with skins (e.g. bananas, satsumas)
  3. Ask before taking photos of people
  4. There are going to be cows in the streets – just walk around them
  5. Women are usually more modest, and therefore less willing to engage with westerners – particularly men and particularly outside of the cities
  6. Dress moderately – avoid tight or revealing clothes
  7. You’re going to see a lot of poverty: heart-breaking levels of poverty
  8. Don’t give money to child beggars or women with children begging; donate it in a sustainable charity instead
  9. India’s major cities are chaotic – you’ll have to get out to find the calm and spirituality it’s famed for
  10. Somehow, I don’t know how, the trains just work and usually run on time
  11. People will stare at you
  12. Smile, always smile
  13. Don’t get scammed: your train didn’t get cancelled or change destinations – ignore those who tell you otherwise as it’s almost certainly a scam
  14. Don’t get scammed: if your taxi driver tells you that your hotel is fully booked, closed down, or burnt to the ground last week it’s almost certainly a scam
  15. Expect intrusive or personal questions such as “How much do you earn?” or “Why aren’t you married?”
  16. The online India visa application form is tedious and frustrating
  17. Taxi drivers will say “yes” even when they have no idea where you’re going
  18. Agree prices first, for anything (tours, taxis etc)
  19. Haggle, but don’t be aggressive (remember #12)
  20. On the pack of most packaged goods there is an RRP (recommended retail price) – look for it when shopping
  21. Toilets can be bad in India, really bad – take hand sanitiser
  22. Be patient, I mean really patient (take a deep breath and move on)
  23. Get medical advice before you travel – immunisations and malarial prevention are essential in certain places
  24. There’s no such thing as personal space – there are well over a billion people in India
  25. India is noisy – there are well over a billion people in India
  26. Don’t expect hot water, anywhere
  27. Forget timetables and schedules (apart from trains). India has its own time zone called “Indian time”
  28. Take your shoes off before entering homes
  29. There’s always time for tea (chai) in India – a lot of tea
  30. Avoid salads or any food that could have been washed beforehand
  31. Avoid ice in drinks
  32. You can’t take Indian Rupees out of India – god knows why!
  33. Indian bureaucracy is often maddening
  34. Learn a few Hindi phrases
  35. Locals will often want to take a photo of you, just let them and see #12
  36. You’re married – it’s just easier that way, particularly if you’re a woman
  37. Don’t believe everything you hear in the media.
  38. Take Imodium with you or other medication for treating diarrhea
  39. No matter how many precautions you take, you probably will get “Delhi belly”
  40. Carry ID with you, but NOT your passport
  41. It can get cold – do your research about the climate
  42. Take ear plugs
  43. If someone asks you “First time to India?” they’re probably deciding how much to charge you – consider lying
  44. Reserve your train tickets – you’ll get better seats as trains are often full
  45. Expect electricity to cut out or get switched off
  46. Act with purpose: give the impression you know what you’re doing or where you’re going, and you’re more likely to be left alone
  47. Not all travel agents are travel agents
  48. If you’re staying in lower-end accommodation, check/see your room first, even when you’ve made a reservation
  49. Finally, don’t get jaded – tourists are often treated like a payday but get outside the cities, and you’ll find an India you’re bound to love

Lead image: Atlas & Boots

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