I totally respect the choice, knowing one’s limits is fundamental. I also understand that India may not be for everyone. Many people prefer relaxing places where the less people they meet the better they feel. But for those who are intrigued by the magic of this very special Country but still haven’t booked the ticket because they’re scared, well, knowing what to expect is key. A trip to India will surely include many challenges and some frustrations, it’s part of the game, but I can assure you that none of them will cloud the value of a trip to India.
Here are some of the most common fears about India and my tips on how to overcome them.
Surviving the culture shock
On your first time in India, be prepared for a significant culture shock.
All Asia is renowned for provoking this type of reaction in western first timers, but India takes it to the next level. The usual Asian mess made of huge crowds, hectic traffic, funny smells, open sewage, questionable hygienic standards and poverty, in India is ten times bolder.
TIP: The difference with your own Country will be extreme (which is also the reason why you’re there in the first place) and the secret to cope is taking it easy. You can’t handle the street chaos anymore? Treat yourself to an accommodation that is fancier than your standard. It will be pretty cheap anyway and It will work as your detoxing secrete escape.
Adapting to different public hygiene standards
India is extremely real and human in every possible sense. You will notice that most of human activities like cooking, eating, going to the toilet, being sick can be carried out in the streets. In Varanasi, the holy city on Ganges shores, you can even witness funeral processions, open air cremations and bodies floating on the river. On top of that, you have all sorts of farm animals living –and pooping- in the streets, a consistent amount of rubbish and the odd open sewage.
TIP: Wear closed shoes or sturdy sandals like Birkenstock. Street-level flip-flops are a big no. Don’t put your backpack on the ground (or at least check the floor before you do it – this one I learned it the hard way). A light scarf can be of great use to create a barrier between you and the funniest smells.
Witnessing social injustice and poverty
Most of the time, travelling to India feels like time travel. And in some ways it is so! Some traditions have stayed the same for thousands of years. Unfortunately, one of those is the infamous cast system, which is still thriving in India. Believing in casts and karma means that if someone is in a shitty condition it means that A- they deserved it because of what they did in their past lives and B-there’s nothing they can do to change the situation in this life. This creates a fatalist and hierarchical society, where you will sometimes witness graphic scenes of poverty, sickness, child begging or violence that will be completely overlooked by thousands of other people passing by.
TIP: Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do about it (at least not in short exploring trip). Take your time to adjust to the new environment. If it takes you two days to find the courage to exit your hostel in Delhi, let it be. Then donate if you feel like it, but always avoid giving money to begging children, not to encourage the practice.
Making your way through the crowds
Because of the huge number of inhabitants, in the streets the mantra is “every man for himself” everywhere, all the time. It’s the law of the jungle, even when trying to get a seat on the train, queuing for the toilet, buying bus tickets. You will have to fight your way through a sweaty and solid crowd many, many times.
TIP: Do not overload your days with activities. Visiting a popular site in India can be overwhelming, don’t ask yourself too much. Try not to be in a tight schedule, moving around India is already stressing enough. Leave yourself generous margins to reschedule things due to fatigue, unexpected glitches, sickness or just changes of plan.
Avoiding scams and dangers
Scams happen (and not just in India), that’s a matter of fact. Research online before you go so you can try to avoid the most obvious ones, like the one of the closed hotel (so that the tuk tuk driver can take you to his cousin’s guest house).
TIP: Be ready to hustle: bargaining is key to avoid paying double or triple the price of things. Be prepared to insist if you suffer an injustice (cancelled flights, wrong hotel).
Staying safe as a woman travelling solo
You will notice that Indians stare A LOT. Which, most of the time, is out of curiosity. Thus said, when a horde of men stares at you, maybe even pressing closer, it can be quite intimidating. If you don’t like a situation, just walk away asap (this applies to Planet Earth in general). Guys will ask to take photos with you (they probably just want to show off with family and friends). In this case you can politely decline and walk away or propose a “group photo” this will: A- saves you time, otherwise everybody else will want a picture with you and B- gives you the chance to include other women in the picture. On night trains choose the upper classes, where you will mostly share your trip with families. In stations team up with other local women, that generally are super curious and have a protective attitude toward you crazy gal who’s wandering around alone!
TIP: make sure to dress in a humble and respectful way. If you don’t want to be stared more than necessary, wear long trousers or a Sari, avoid sporting a décolleté and always take a scarf with you. This will help you stand out less in the crowds.
Well, just embrace the risk. Even if you drink and brush your teeth with bottled water, you keep your mouth shut while showering, you repeat “no-water-no-ice-please” as a mantra all day long, you eat at the best looking eateries… You might get sick. I get sick on every single trip. May it be an easy two weeks’ getaway to Bali or a three months long South East Asia experience, I will get sick. It’s a matter of fact. It happens every time and India was no exception. It was actually one of the worst (probably water) intoxication I ever gone through. But for me it’s part of the game now, I’ve been through so many embarrassing situations that Delhi Belly does not scare me anymore.
TIP: be prepared and take the traveller’s Holy Trinity with you. And by that I mean:
- Antidiarrheal drug of choice
- Broad spectrum of antibiotic (I use Ciproxin)
- Probiotics to restore the flora
Just to be on the safe side, I also carry antacid and antispasmodic drugs to settle my stomach and tummy.
Don’t let your fears stop you!
While you are preparing for the worse, a ton other wonderful things will happen: you will witness incredible traditions, costumes, art, architecture and food. You will be amazed by the people: their genuine curiosity towards you and the country you come from (top tip: bring a family photo to pass around while telling –or gesturing- your story to locals, you’ll be amazed by the reactions) their kindness, their understanding despite the culture and language gap. You’ll found that connecting with Indians was way easier than with every other people in Asia (the fact that many of them speak English helps for sure).
My general suggestion here is, if you can, to travel to at least one other Asian country before travelling to India. Learning how to deal with Vietnamese street frenzy, Cambodian dizzying wealth gap or Indonesian no-sewage situation may prepare you for India. But not for the cows (and their poop) in the streets. That’s just in India!
So what are you waiting for? Book that ticket for your first time in India and don’t worry if you’re travelling alone, you will meet plenty of other likeminded travellers to share the road, a laugh and adventure with. And you will have the experience of your life enjoying this mystical, chaotic, colourful and magical Country.
Browse my India photo gallery: