Following on from my last post providing India travel advice for women, I thought it would be worthwhile to provide a few more tips that I’ve found handy while travelling across India. These ones are relevant regardless of gender:
Eating in India
One of the most common questions I am asked about India is about eating, and usually about the risk of falling sick. To be honest, when I backpacked across India, I ate thalis for under Rs100 and didn’t get sick once. I then stopped in Bombay and started eating in more expensive places and ended up with gastro for 6 weeks, so my first tip is that more expensive food does not safeguard you from getting ill in India. Instead I’d suggest looking for the following:
- When in doubt go vegetarian. It’s very easy to be vegetarian in India, a large proportion of the population is veg and the food is incredible. I was almost entirely veg for the 10 months I backpacked and it’s the easiest way to avoid getting sick. Of course sometimes it’s just impossible to avoid the incredible scents that waft over from street side stalls, so if you’re salivating for some meat, keep reading;
- Eat in places that are busy. Most small dhabas are usually packed with people who are in and out very quickly. The quicker the food is turning over the fresher it most probably is.
- If it’s cooked in front of you it will most likely be fine. If you can’t resist street food, and it’s usually the best food in India, then stick to something you can see being cooked in front of you. Dosas hot off the griddle, Kati rolls that are made and rolled in front of you, samosas straight from the fryer. If you can see it being cooked then you know it’s hot and fresh. Just watch out for the chutneys and salads that are served on the side, as they may have been sitting around for a while or washed in water that’s perhaps not great for you.
- If you’re given a plate that’s just been washed just wipe it down. Sounds ridiculous, but I always carry tissues with me and wipe down plates. Chances are they’re clean, but the water that they’ve been washed in may not be great for your digestive system so why take the chance of having some. I even make sure all the plates in my own home are dry before I put food on them. It’s one little thing I can do to help protect my delicate constitution so why not do it?
- During monsoon I’d be a little more vigilante about what you eat. I avoid eating much off the street at this time, and many people I know avoid seafood as well. I do eat fish during monsoon, but usually only in places I know and trust. I’d also steer clear of salads and spinach pretty much anywhere. It’s a big time for disease and illness across the country, so better to be safe than sorry.
Drinking Water in India
It doesn’t matter how many people you see drinking from taps in India, don’t drink the water. Remember the mortality rate of children is much higher in India then in western countries, for example the World Bank estimates that 63 out of 1,000 children will die before reaching the age of 5 in India, in Australia it’s 5 and the US only 8. Those that do survive probably have an exceptional immune system.
-When in doubt drink mineral water. It’s not great for the environment, but it’s better than getting dysentery. So when you’re not sure if water has been treated properly ask for mineral water.
- Many restaurants will give you a glass of water with your meal, my rule of thumb is generally if it’s a relatively cheap place (ie. meals are <Rs100) I will opt for mineral water. If it’s a bit more middle class and expensive, and they offer you “normal water” then that means it’s been filtered and should be ok. If you’re not sure, then ask for mineral water.
- Just like the plates, I also wipe glasses dry before drinking from them. I know it sounds ridiculous, but what’s the point of drinking mineral water if you’re mixing it with tap water anyway?
- I go one step further and actually brush my teeth with filtered water. Some people have mocked me for this, but if I’ve got a cut in my mouth or accidentally swallow some, I’d rather be safe than sorry. Don’t let people belittle you and make you feel stupid, keep yourself safe.
Visiting Temples (and Houses)
I am such a temple junkie, I just love visiting temples and India is a veritable treasure trove for this. Most temples are fine and will not cause you any problems, but there’s a few things worth knowing:
- Wear shoes that can slip off easily. You’ll always need to take your shoes off to enter a temple in India, so it’s easier to wear slip-ons.
- Avoid wearing leather. There aren’t many places that are particularly funny about leather, but if you can avoid wearing leather (like a belt) when going to a Hindu temple then do it as a sign of respect, otherwise you may be asked to take it off.
- Cover yourself. This is mostly for women, but also applies to men sometimes. Carry a dupatta or scarf and make sure your shoulders and legs are covered as a sign of respect. Some Muslim temples (Masjids) may require you to wear a special cloak to cover you, these rarely look great but resistance is futile. When visiting a Gurdwara (a Sikh temple) men and women are usually required to cover their hair. A scarf comes in handy then, or you will probably find an enterprising person outside the front selling head covers.
- Some temples are Hindu only. Yes I know, you can’t always prove you are Hindu but some people seem to think they have this gift, and will deny entry to Hindus to temples. I know because I’ve been denied entry to several temples because I didn’t “look” Hindu enough, despite having an Indian name and being named after a Hindu ceremony. It’s ludicrous, but apparently a foreign accent can sometimes mean people think you’re not Hindu. There is no document that proves you’re Hindu, but arguing that point is futile, trust me I’ve tried. I found this problem was the biggest in Odisha, Kerala and Varanasi, and while I was allowed into the temple in Thrissur, despite arguing I was denied entry to temples in Odisha (including the Jagganath) but I snuck into Guruvuyar by wearing a saree.
- Menstruating women may be denied entry. Yes you read that correctly, it’s 2014 and a natural bodily function is still considered to be impure. Personally I find this incredibly offensive, and really no one’s going to try and prove that you’ve got your menses, so it’s really up to you whether you choose to observe this or not. Personally I’ve chosen not to go to my aunty’s temple out of respect, but have been in other temples when I’m menstruating, but I do make sure I don’t touch anyone or anything in there. No one else knows, but I do, and I just felt more respectful not “contaminating” others who do believe in this archaic rule.
Going to the Toilet
And now we come to the question that no one asks but everyone wants to know, going to the bathroom.
- Majority of toilets in India are squats. I strongly recommend embracing them. They are more hygenic (nothing touches the bowl) and it will make going to the bathroom in public places so much easier.
- Toilet paper is usually only found in middle – high end places as the majority of Indians use water instead. You will always find either a water hose or a small cup and tap next to a toilet for this exact purpose. I personally haven’t been able to master the water, it’s just something that I personally haven’t felt comfortable with and I’ve never actually been shown how to do it properly. So I carry toilet paper with me and use that. Whether you’re comfortable with water or paper is really a personal thing that only you can decide on.
If you decide to go with paper, it’s useful to always have tissues with you, because it isn’t always easy to find toilet paper, particularly when you need it.
- If you’re doing a long bus ride, they will stop for toilet breaks, but sometimes it’s just a roadside. I found it easier to dehydrate myself and avoid needing to go than the alternative, particularly as a woman travelling on my own. It’s not ideal, I wouldn’t recommend it and I’m certainly open to any other strategies that anyone else can suggest! Sadly though it is worth being aware that a large proportion of rapes and assaults in India happen when a woman is going to the bathroom in the open.
Unfortunately, most Indians haven’t heard the environmental messages about littering and polluting the environment. Sadly it is impossible not to notice the rubbish on public streets, wilful littering and complete disregard for the environment. But just because others do it, doesn’t mean that you have to contribute to the mess.
- Always hold onto your rubbish until you find a bin. Generally there aren’t too many public bins around India, so I tend to hold onto my rubbish until I get to my hotel or a restaurant. At least then there’s a chance of it being disposed of properly (although not always).
If you have any other great tips on travelling around India, please do feel free to share them here. Happy Travels!