India is a feast (and occasionally a full-frontal assault) for the senses. While every visitor will take away something different from this fascinating country, going in with a few simple things in mind will help first timers navigate their encounter
Go with the flow
Not everything in life goes to plan. Embrace this simple fact, and you will get so much more out of your trip. Things may not necessarily run exactly on time or schedule, and India is large even by Australian standards. The traffic and occasional infrastructure hiccups can mean travelling both near and far may take a little longer. To avoid burning out, or toppling a delicate itinerary, prepare to be flexible, invest in travel insurance and consider enlisting the guidance of a professional who will know how to take things in stride.
Get ready for the gaggle
It’s one thing to read Indian population statistics but it’s another to experience them. India’s cities are a limitless resource for keen people watchers, but personal space can be hard to come by at popular tourist attractions, and foreigners might draw curious stares (and surreptitious photographs). Queuing etiquette, for one, is a bit more flexible – if you don’t cosy up to the person in front, you might lose your place to someone bolder. A sense of humour is invaluable, and the more you take in stride, the less attention you will garner. There are also moments of great serenity to be found, whether it’s watching dawn from a quiet ghat, wandering the shaded halls of a Mughal fort, or cruising a sleepy river through palm groves.
Be curious and courteous
Like any country, India has a deep cultural undercurrent that could take a foreigner a lifetime, or more, to understand. Picking up a few basic customs, however, will serve you well. For instance, pointing with your finger or foot is especially uncouth in India and the left hand is seldom used for eating or passing objects (it’s traditionally reserved for taking care of business in the bathroom). While social mores are changing, dress expectations for women remain quite conservative. Outside of Goa tight or revealing clothing is a rarity, and a light shawl is always good to have on hand. A few local phrases, such as dhanyavaad (thank you), will never go amiss.
Feast not famine
Yes, food safety is important for any traveller to keep in mind but Indian cuisine is one of the most vibrant and varied on the planet so depriving yourself would be a sin. If in doubt, exercise the usual logic: crowds of locals are a good sign, always opt for fresh-cooked and lean on the expertise of those in the know such as local tour guides. The standard of vegetarian food is high, so if you would rather err on the side of caution and skip meat (sometimes a good idea when power outages may impact refrigeration), it’s hardly a sacrifice.
Strike out of the cities
Mumbai and Delhi are dizzying in the best of ways, but for a glimpse of a different side of India try to get out into the countryside. From verdant southern India, where water buffalo lounge in rice paddies and the pace slows to a sleepy rhythm, to the deserts of northern Rajasthan where camels plod by the roadside, rural India rewards the explorer. India’s national parks also justify the journey, with monkeys, deer, birds of every size and hue and even tigers prowling the hidden corners.
Shop up a storm
India is a treasure trove for one-off souvenirs so arrive with a little spare room in your suitcase. From vintage Bollywood posters and colourful trinkets to precious silks and ornate jewellery, the wonders to be found in the markets, bazaars and boutiques of India are never ending. Enthusiastic hagglers will find plenty of excuses to hone their skills in the right setting (it’s not really appropriate in fixed-price stores), but it’s not worth losing your cool over a matter of cents. If you plan to invest in something valuable, take your time and use your head – if the price is too good to be true, it’s probably not genuine. Watch out for rickshaw or taxi drivers offering a discount if you agree to a quick detour to their ‘favourite store’.
Be quick on compassion, but slow to reach for the wallet
Poverty in India is often visible, and pint-sized beggars can be very distressing. But with primary education free throughout the country, children should be in school, so your spare change might do more harm than good. Many Indian nationals are often the first to caution against relenting to begging, which can operate as rackets in busy urban centres. Be wary too of accepting anything foisted upon you on the street as a ‘gift.’ Even something as innocuous as a flower or bracelet may come with an expected fee if you take it.
Get lost (but not too lost)
With a little common sense on your side, wandering the streets of India will reveal sights that will stay with your forever. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology (namely GPS), it’s nearly always possible to find your way. When it comes time to return to home base, many taxi drivers don’t speak English so have your hotel marked on a map and try to memorise a nearby landmark. To make life a little easier, a reputable tour company can help work out an itinerary and tap into that all-important local know-how.