My first visit to India was in 1993. I spent 3 months traveling around different parts of India. This was before cell phones and the internet. Even making an international call in those days was an ordeal. It couldn’t be done from an average home phone. It required a visit to a special store where you could make an international call and had to pay in cash. Calling cards (remember those?) were not recognized. At that time a visit to India was truly an exotic adventure for an American, totally cut off from the Western world in every way. When I returned to India in July of 2019, and again that December, I will admit that I was a little disappointed to see the same fast food chains and clothing brands that can also be found in American strip malls. And of course everyone has a cell phone these days. But although Western influence has definitely infiltrated Indian culture, don’t think that your experience will be just like America but with more Indians. Life is very different here!
In 2021 I married an amazing Indian man and moved to India. At times the adjustment has been very challenging. It is not just the big things, such as adjusting to a different language and climate, but also a thousand little things in every aspect of daily life. For example, the way toilets flush, the way the light switches work, the way water is supplied and heated and the way food is prepared. That is just a few of the thousands of differences you will find in India as a visiting foreigner.
Now that I have been living in India for several years, I decided to write this blog mainly to prepare my visiting friends and family for their stay in India. Life is always changing so I intend to keep this blog updated regularly so that friends and family will always have access to the most useful information that will help them prepare for their visit to India.
**But first an important disclaimer!**
Although I have traveled extensively across India and have been a resident here for several years now, I am not an expert on Indian culture. I see things through my own lens of experience and from my own viewpoint. Others may not agree with the opinions and information expressed here. However, I do feel that this is my honest view, presenting the most valuable advice for friends and family who are preparing to visit me in India.
Before You Go
- You will need a visa to travel to India. You can apply online for a tourist visa here; https://indianvisaonline.gov.in/evisa/tvoa.html I suggest that you apply for your visa about a month prior to your trip. The electronic visa is usually processed within a few days and costs $104
- No vaccines are required for visiting India, but several are recommended. Whether or not you should get the suggested vaccines is completely a personal choice. When I came to India in 1993 I got all of the recommended vaccines. Returning to India in 2019 and 2021 I got none of the recommended vaccines. And with or without vaccines it is always a good idea anywhere in the world to take precautions against mosquitoes, maintain sanitary habits and good personal hygiene.
- Practice brushing your teeth without swallowing the water. Do NOT drink tap water in India! Only consume bottled water, or filtered water from a reliable source such as your host’s home or at upscale restaurants. If you have difficulty not swallowing the water, then practice brushing your teeth using bottled water. If filtered or bottled water is not available, you should boil the water before consuming it. Bottled water is readily available most everywhere you go in India, but if you would like to reduce your use of plastic you can consider boiling the water instead of always buying bottled water. That is what we did while staying in Delhi.
- Buy a “travel bidet” and practice using it before your trip. A travel bidet is basically a plastic bottle with a spray nozzle. You squeeze the bottle and the water comes out of the nozzle. Toilet paper is much less commonly used in India and handheld sprayers are used in place of toilet paper. You will love the clean feeling and may never return to using toilet paper again! However, it is still a mystery to me how one dries off after using the sprayer. That might be the better use for toilet paper; a way to dry rather than to clean.
- Ladies - Purchase a stand up pee device (sometimes called a female urinal) and practice with it before your trip. Public restrooms are less than ideal and oftentimes not available. To prevent the need of dropping your pants in public, a stand up pee device can keep things clean and discreet.
- Purchase a Type D plug adapter so that you will be able to charge your phone or laptop during your stay. They are quite cheap and found easily on Amazon. Please note that this is a plug adapter and NOT a power converter. Electrical appliances such as a hairdryer will require a power converter.
- Buy a pair of flip-flops for indoor use. Shoes are removed before entering homes. If you do not wish to be barefoot inside the home bring a pair of flip flops that you reserve for indoor use only. You might wonder why you just can’t bring your bedroom slippers. Well you certainly can, but slippers are for keeping your feet warm and India is warm enough. Additionally, you may want to wear your flip-flops in the bathroom because the floor is often wet. Therefore rubber flip flops are the best indoor choice.
- Choose your travel clothes with sensitivity to the culture. Yes it is hot in India, but leave your crop tops, tank-tops and short-shorts at home and cover up your cleavage while in India. Whether or not you should bring shorts at all might depend on where you plan to travel. For example, the only time I’ve worn shorts in India since living here was when we went on a beach vacation to Kerala. The place where we stayed was accustomed to accommodating foreign tourists and so I felt comfortable wearing shorts there. Otherwise I wear loose fitting cotton pants with t-shirts or loose fitting cotton salwar suits.
- Pack two smaller suitcases instead of one large suitcase. International flights have a larger luggage allowance than domestic flights. Therefore, if you intend to take any flights within India, plan for one checked bag, and one carry-on bag and you will not exceed your luggage limit for a checked bag on domestic flights which is usually 33 pounds for your checked bag and 15 pounds for your carry-on bag
- Pack a small travel umbrella regardless of the season and weather. You will really appreciate the portable shade! But be prepared to remove it from your carry-on bag when traveling on domestic flights. Along with keys, phone, and charger, airports in India often ask for umbrellas to be removed from your bag too.
- Ear plugs are not only helpful on the long plane ride, but also very useful in India. I have used my ear plugs not just for peaceful sleep in certain places in India but I always carry a pair in my purse because Indians love LOUD music! I only survived the week of my brother-in-law’s wedding because of my earplugs. The drumming, chanting and dance music was all painfully loud to me. If you plan to attend any big social events you will be grateful for the earplugs.
- Essential oils are a nice extra comfort for helping you feel calm in the chaos of traffic and crowds. Also, India can oftentimes have a rather pungent aroma, depending where you are. The smell of diesel fumes will always remind me of my first trip to Mumbai. The whole city of Delhi has the scent of urine mingled with rose incense. Nagpur smells like cows, mogra flowers, incense, diesel fumes and a hint of sewage. Therefore a drop or two of a nice fragrance on your handkerchief or your dupatta (long scarf often worn with salwar suits) can bring some relief if the odors are too strong.
While in India
- Is “Delhi Belly” a real thing? Sorry to say that yes, Delhi Belly (also known as the most wicked diarrhea you have ever had) is a real thing, but don’t worry, it is NOT inevitable. You can avoid it by following these suggestions;
- Avoid ice in your drinks because you can’t be sure that filtered water was used to make the ice.
- Avoid consuming raw foods that may have been rinsed in unfiltered water. When eating raw foods, stick with fruits that can be peeled like bananas, and other fruit where the outside is not consumed like watermelons, mangoes, custard apples, etc.
- Many Indian foods are eaten with the hands, so if you are traveling be sure to carry hand sanitizer as an extra layer of protection beyond soap and water which may or may not be available.
Quite frankly constipation is probably the more likely scenario for most travelers due to the heat combined with a lack of sufficient water intake. You will definitely need to increase your normal water consumption since most of India has a much hotter climate than what you may be accustomed to.
- Use www.makemytrip.com and www.agoda.com for bookings. Use Ola or Uber apps for taxi. Use Swiggy or Zomato apps for ordering food. You can use Google Pay for payment or request Cash on Delivery which is very common in India.
- Should you learn some Hindi words? While many Indians claim that you will not encounter a language barrier because they all learn English in school, this is something that is true on paper but doesn’t pan out in real life. In daily life you will definitely have a difficult time communicating in English. Additionally, language varies by region. There are 22 official languages of India and Hindi is less commonly used in the south. In my neighborhood the most commonly spoken language is Marathi. Even if you encounter someone who is very fluent in English, you may still have trouble understanding each other due to your different accents. Therefore my suggestion is to learn a few Hindi words for the sake of politeness, but rely on the translation app in your phone for more important communications in the local language, wherever you may be in India.
- Traffic is different here. Before you give your Uber driver a bad rating, understand that in crowded cities of India people are used to much less space between vehicles than Americans are comfortable with. To an American, Indian traffic seems utterly chaotic. It is not unusual to see cows and dogs on the roads and even highways. Traffic rules are followed loosely.
- Keep an open mind and go with the flow. Don’t be in a hurry. People aren't as fixated on time tables and schedules here. I remember once we had tickets to a dance and music performance that was scheduled to start at 6:30pm. I wanted to arrive early to get settled into our seats before the performance began. My husband insisted that the show wouldn't start on time. I really couldn't understand this, and so we compromised. Instead of arriving early, we arrived right at the start time of 6:30pm. The auditorium was almost completely empty and the show didn't actually start until 7:45! 😂 Therefore I have learned that, much like traffic laws, start times are merely loose suggestions!
- Do you need dental work, new glasses or even a minor surgery? Get it done in India and you will save yourself a fortune! Most everything is cheaper over here, so even if you don't require any medical treatment, you can purchase clothes, medicines, beauty products all for much less than in the USA.
- Be respectful of the culture by taking off your shoes before entering homes, temples and even many stores. Cover your head when visiting holy places. Head coverings are mostly for women but in a Gurdwara (the worship place of Sikhs) men will also cover their heads. Oftentimes some head covering is available to borrow if you don't have one, but keep in mind they are for public use and not sanitized in between uses!
- If you are a white American traveling to India, be prepared for a lot of stares and requests for selfies with you. It is OK to say no - whatever you are comfortable with. I got swarmed once in Rishikesh by a mob of people wanting photos with me and pushing their babies into my arms for photos too. After that experience I got more comfortable saying no. I will usually say yes to children's requests. Sometimes I will say yes to women but I always say no to men. That is my comfortable boundary. You decide your own.
- Don't be too trusting. At holy sites beware of scammers disguised as holy men or guides. If you really would like a guided tour of a place, book it in advance through an app like Airbnb so you know that it is legitimate.
- Be prepared to haggle! As a foreign tourist you will get overcharged for things regularly. If you are not traveling with a local, don't be afraid to ask any bystander if the price is good. We were at a bus stop in Delhi after just arriving from Dharamsala. A foreign woman was trying to get an auto taxi to the airport and she felt she was being overcharged so she called over to us and asked us what we thought about the price the driver had proposed. My husband told her it was much too high, and suggested a more reasonable price which the driver then agreed to. I understand that many people are struggling for their survival here but I would rather be charged the true rate and then give a generous tip rather than have someone try to fool me.
- Keep track of your possessions and your luggage and especially your passport. I have never had any negative incidents but I have been warned in the same way by local officials so I will pass on this advice to you.
- For many Americans a visit to India might be a once in a lifetime experience, so do all the things! - try all the food, wear the clothes, listen to the music and I also suggest avoiding the big tourist places unless you have a very strong desire towards a particular place. The real India is found in places like the small off-beat roadside temple where you can have a spiritual chat with the priest there or in the rustic homestay tucked away in the foothills of the Himalayas where you can meet the most contemplative souls and share a pot of kawa together. Skip the big chain hotels and stay at the small Homestays and Airbnbs where you will get a real glimpse of life in India.
Most of all, enjoy yourself. Don't be bothered about small things. Keep a positive mindset and soak up every moment. India is a wonderful, beautiful adventure.
Do you have questions about your upcoming trip to India that I haven’t answered? Or have you been to India and feel that I have missed some important advice? Be sure to post your question or comment below so that I might revise this blog to include it.
Lots of love,