Yes, India is big and noisy and crowded and hectic and hot and poor and… and… and… everything else you may have heard.
Yes, there are beggars.
Yes, the food is spicy.
Yes, you will probably get Delhi Belly on your maiden trip there.
But why should you let a few little details like these put you off?
What is travel for, if not for adventure and challenges and discovering a lot about the world – and even more about yourself?
The flip-side of India is a country of extraordinary beauty and history and culture and handicrafts, full of friendly, chatty people, who will indeed stare at you, and ask you a million questions – some of them frankly inappropriate – but who will help you and explain things and show you a kindness and courtesy way beyond your expectations.
So, how to survive India?
1. Pack your sense of humor
Things will go wrong, at one stage or another, in India. That is a given. Shouting and yelling and screaming will not make the train leave on time, or the flight un-cancel itself. All that will happen is that you will make a spectacle of yourself and get absolutely nowhere. If you can laugh at the problems India throws at you, you are already on course for a happier trip.
No one likes to hear their country criticized. So try your best not to do it. (Well, not too much). OK, things are not the same as at home – but that’s why you traveled, right? For a change?
2. Be flexible
India runs on IST = Indian Stretchable Time.
People come late, or they don’t come at all, or they come with their cousin and his brother-in-law’s sister in tow. Don’t fuss, don’t fret, just accept that’s the way things are here.
Try and be on time for appointments, because that’s polite, but if the traffic is bad, and you are late, don’t overly fret. Indians accept lateness as part and parcel of life.
3. Be open-minded
India is – despite an economy that is steaming ahead – still very much a third-world country. Attitudes are different and people react differently. Accept the cultural differences for what they are – cultural differences.
4. Be respectful
Religion is very important in India, so it goes without saying that a visitor must respect the norms and beliefs of the country. Shoes should come off in a place of worship. Respectful clothing – after all, would you like to see someone in short shorts and a skimpy top in your place of worship, back home? Exactly.
Cover your legs when you are in a mosque or a temple, and women should always have a scarf handy, should they need to cover their head.
Look around you, at the way Indians dress – not in discos or clubs, but in their everyday lives. Not much flesh is on show. So, if you go around in shorts or a short skirt, don’t be surprised that people stare.
And now, after all those uplifting commands, here’s advice of a different kind. When it comes to food and drink, you must…
5. Be very careful
Hygiene isn’t always all it could be in India, especially if you are in budget places, so be sensible. Wash your hands. Wipe that glass from which you are going to drink that bottled/filtered water. Eat fruit you can peel – bananas, oranges. Drink coconut water from a coconut opened in front of you.
Don’t eat salads, unless you are sure they have been properly washed.
Don’t hit the uber-spicy food on day one – start gently. Let your system get used to the delicious food that may be spicier than you are used to.
Vegetarian food is usually the safest.
6. Never, ever drink the tap water
Never. Ever. Ever.
7. Travel light
Just about anything you wish/need is available in India, and probably far cheaper than back home. So don’t over-pack. Clothes, books, toiletries, food, memory cards for your camera, batteries, SIM cards – these days, you can find just about anything here. It wasn’t always like that, but now goods are freely available. If you need specialist medicine, for example, you might want to bring it with you, but otherwise, buy on arrival. There are chemists everywhere, and you can buy literally one tablet, rather than the whole wasteful packet.
8. Don’t try and do too much
India is vast, and you are not going to be able to see it all on one trip – unless you are staying for months. So don’t be too ambitious, or you will spend too much time traveling the long distances. Road travel takes a long time, because the roads are often in bad condition.
Rather make a shorter itinerary and take time to enjoy the sights and relax.
India is ready and welcoming and endlessly fascinating. Sure, you will be shocked by the poverty. But you will be equally dazzled by the fabulous forts and palaces, by the wildlife, by the silks and handicrafts and weaving and music and dancing…
This country is truly overwhelming in every sense of the word.
So relax, and let yourself be overwhelmed.
(Just don’t drink the tap water.)