I'm sure anyone who has already been to the all encompassing sub-continent of India will agree to its uniqueness. While it is a place which has unimaginable beauty, it is also a place with mass poverty and poor sanitation. If you grew up in a 'developed' country, like myself, India is a country which may catch you off guard.
When I first backpacked around India I was not prepared for what I experienced and wished someone had warned me. Many people had taken a great deal of time to describe, in oceanic depth, the peacefully desolate landscapes offered by Hampi. But nobody bothered to mention a thing about the squat toilet which was covered in human excrement. Nor did they mention the dodgy bloke unofficially taking payment from tourists for using it.
Situations like these are exactly why I am making this post. I wish to give people a few tips which I feel would have benefitted me on my first trip. A lot of the tips in this post will probably seem like standard protocol to some, if so I apologise. This is targeted towards people who have never been to a country where the air is so polluted that it will literally leave you blowing blood from your nose. It's for the unseasoned traveller who hasn't experienced having their eyes forever scarred with the memories of inexplicable animal cruelty. It's for the people who are yet to have their hearing range destroyed as a result of the relentless noise of the street.
I feel a need to point out the fact that, since that initial baptism of fire, I have returned to India, and am planning to return again. A lot about my introduction to the country caught me off guard.
A Little Background
My dad, who was meeting us out there in order to take us to his hometown in Punjab, was one of the leading campaigners for the making of the plan. So we did. We made the most detailed plan you had ever seen. And what happened? At the first hurdle, the plan failed us.
As mentioned, my dad met us in India so, while we were with him, everything was plain sailing. His driver was taking us everywhere and he was navigating crowds. We ate at either my family home or the home of one of my close relatives. We slept in spotlessly clean beds and our belongings were safe.
It wasn't until the morning of our departure from Punjab that the issues with having a plan were exposed.
We left the house at 5am and drove through fog so thick it was like driving in Snoop Dogg's bong. Our train was due to leave at 7:30am and we managed to arrive at the station at roughly 6:30am. Upon arrival my dad went to the counter to collect tickets and, when he returned, he told us the train was delayed. I asked how long and his exact words were "maybe one hour, maybe one day, maybe it never comes".
This was a huge problem. We were due to begin a hike the following morning. We had already paid for it and it was due to start in Haridwar. Not only was it a hike but it was also a full week of food and accommodation. Not only that but we were still yet to buy gear for the hike.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, this all resulted in an 18 hour drive from Amritsar to Haridwar, via Chandigarh and Ludhiana. Half of which was with a stranger who was an absolute nutter. When finally in Haridwar we were subjected to what is the filthiest room I have ever seen, to date.
After this we had the most travel sickness-inducing 7 hour drive up the Himalayas, ever. This was followed by a disagreement with the hike operator and a 7 hour drive back down to Rishikesh.
There we were, 32 hours of driving and about 3 hours sleep in two days; About £340 down with 7 days un-budgeted for and no accommodation booked. In short, our entire plan had to be rearranged and, had we not have had the plan we would have just stayed in Punjab when the train was delayed.
This brings me to my first tip.
Tip #1: Don't Make Strict Plans
For me this was crucial to my partner and I enjoying our most recent trip so much. Due to so many factors the public transport network in India is hard to predict. In our most recent trip we found that the information you find online regarding local bus routes, and times, is often incorrect. We also found that busses out there break down... a lot.
Don't get me wrong, they often get fixed and, most of the time, in our experience, there is another bus. However, if you have a strict time-frame which you need to stick to it can become an issue and the fact is that some busses do only run once a day, week or fortnight.
Don't take this as me simply suggesting for you to head to India with nothing more than a few night's clothes and a sprinkle of fairy dust. Before you head off, spend some time highlighting your three most desired activities/sights to do/see. When you have cemented the three things which most tickle your fancy, find the area they are in and take it from there.
By taking this approach you will find yourself experiencing more than you would have with a strict plan, and you won't be aimlessly travelling without at least a rough idea of where you're heading. Another benefit is you will have the flexibility to stay for longer periods of time in the places you enjoy.
Tip #2: Expect Situations Which Make You Uncomfortable
This might sound like an off-putting tip but it is one which I feel needs to be emphasised. Even if you simply plan on going around the famed golden triangle you will see, feel, smell or hear a plethora of incidents which leave you feeling mentally disturbed. Within a matter of hours in the country we saw a dead human body on the street.
Dead bodies are not something you can expect to see a great deal of but there is the chance. One thing is for sure, if you spend more than a few weeks in India, you will most likely see a dead cat or dog. And you will, definitely, see malnourished animals on a regular basis. You will also see dogs with such severe mange that they have no fur and their skin is like leather.
If you are a woman you can also, unfortunately, expect to get a lot of attention from leering men. The sad fact is that the cultural norms in some Indian villages has not changed for some time. This means that men from these areas lack education and treat women with little to no respect.
This lack of respect can vary from men refusing to speak directly to you (if you travel with a male partner they will just talk to him), to them literally just groping you when in the street. Dressing down does help but it will not entirely save you. If this is something which concerns you then I advise to stick to places which experience high levels of tourism, such as Goa.
Tip #3: Be Confident and Stick to Your Guns
When visiting tourist attractions you will often find yourself in a situation which requires getting transport. The main thing we found, time and time again, was that the tuk tuk/taxi drivers which hang around the tourist hot-spots will do anything to get you in their vehicle.
All too often we would be calmly waiting for our bus back, knowing that it was a 15 - 30 minute wait, and a taxi or tuk tuk driver would appear from nowhere. He would then casually begin lying about the lack of busses.
Even if you tell them that you are ok and you are waiting for the bus, which you know is arriving in 15 - 30 minutes, they will lie to you and begin telling you there is no bus for the route you are taking. Literally. We have been in a bus station, next to the station master, while a taxi driver incorrectly tells us there is no bus in existence which goes the route which we were told seconds ago.
This is not a rare occurrence and backpackers in India really need to be firm when telling people that they know where they are going.
Tip #4: Watch What You Eat & Drink
With all the stories of Delhi belly this might seem like a no-brainer but, sadly, it isn't. Let's face it, when you go travelling a major part of the fun and excitement comes from tasting the foods which the locals eat. You've spent a load of time and money trying to experience the culture and the food is as much a part of that as the local religious buildings.
However, food standards within many under-developed countries simply does not exist. For example, within India you will rarely see a street food vendor wearing hygienic gloves to handle your food - they will simply just grab it and stick it in the bag or on the plate. This is obviously a health risk as many contagious illnesses are passed this way.
After travelling the sub continent a considerable amount I can give the advice of checking who it is that you're buying from. Street food is fine if you pay attention to the people in the queue, the location of the stand and the apparent hygiene of the person running the stand.
Personally, we found that a quick look at the cleanliness of the serving area was important, as was the ability to see the food going from preparation to cooked. If you cannot see where the, for example, bhaji, is being battered avoid it.
It is also wise to see if it looks like the food has been cooked within the past hour. If it has been sitting out longer than an hour it has a much higher chance of becoming contaminated by anything from flying insects to dirt particles in the air.
Another suggestion is to avoid meat and fish. I occasionally eat meat at home but I'm completely vegetarian in India unless at my family home. Obviously many people have been there and eaten meat & fish to not have any problem, this is just my opinion.
The fact is that dodgy meat & fish is something which can be extremely dangerous makes it a no brainer to be avoided for me. The country is one in which proper food sanitation is rarely witnessed and the use of refrigerators is a luxury which many people cannot afford.
To add to that, much of the food is delivered by unrefrigerated vehicles which allows bacteria to grow. For locals this is fine as their bodies have evolved to tolerate these bacterias but if you, like me, are from the west you may find it an issue.
On my first trip my partner and I went to a very expensive restaurant in Delhi (I wont name it but it was on Connaught Place and the meal was £60 - a hell of a lot in India) and it ended up giving me the worst food poisoning of my life. I was bed ridden for three days and, as a result, nearly went home.
You also need to be strict regarding ice within India. Saying "no ice" should be like a second nature by the time you return. Again, this comes down to the poor sanitation within the country.
You'll find most of the street vendors get their ice delivered in one huge brick by a bloke on a bicycle. The water is not filtered and has been contaminated by god knows what while in transit. Obviously there are some exceptions - if the place you're drinking at clearly has filtered water it will most likely be fine - but it should be a serious consideration at all times.
My partner managed to get a strain of E.coli from the water out there and it ended up destroying both of us. Luckily for me I didn't get ill until back home but it resulted in an ambulance rushing me to hospital and sticking me on the IV before giving me some powerful antibiotics. This was the result of a slip in attention for one second - she didn't notice the sugar cane juice guy running the juice through a sieve with ice in before serving her.
Tip #5: Cross Reference Reviews & Filter for Negative OnesMany people who have been there will instantly know why I have put this as a tip for backpacking in India. When travelling across the tropical sub-continent we found the reviews on sites like TripAdvisor and Booking.com to be unreliable at best.
We had visited places which were rated a 9 for cleanliness on Booking.com and looked like a bomb of dirt, grime, pubes and everything in between had hit them. We have been to hotels where the beds were covered in bed-bugs and the corridors were covered in urine. We have stayed in neighbourhoods where the local children try to physically attack you on a daily basis.
All of this was as a result of not cross referencing reviews, and not searching for negative reviews. One thing we found to be the case on a freakishly regular basis is the act of review sites, seemingly, omitting negative reviews on purpose. All too often, when we sorted by worst reviews, we found that the place which had been rated highly was actually a place which had gone downhill, drastically.
We also found that, when I posted a negative review of a place, it was never included on my partner's results when she checked on her phone. By which I mean, I would post a damning review, she would go on her phone the next day (after it had been published) and it would have been buried beneath all the positive reviews the place in question had received. The only way she would ever find my negative review would be by specifically searching for it.
Love, peace and happiness.