Some call it chaotic… some say Incredible… Some find it intoxicating and crazy… Some feel it daunting and overwhelming. No matter what good or bad adjectives you use to describe it, India is all of this and much more. Right from the moment your jet-legged feet touch the Indian soil and you feel the first wave of cultural shock as the nation of more than 1.17 billion people greets you in one of the 22 official language, you feel like a celebrity here. And as you wander across India, you realize that cows are more important than you and so far whatever you have eaten in the name of Indian food at your local Indian restaurant abroad is nothing compared to what you will taste here.
So how can you possibly prepare yourself from the cultural shock on your first trip to India?
I always say on my India Through The Back Door tours to my clients – “Although the body of India lies in cities like Delhi & Mumbai, but the soul lives in villages!” The real India lives beyond the high rise buildings and if you miss that on your first trip to India, you haven’t seen the real India.
So fasten your belts and take the ultimate plunge into the deep, sacred mystic waters on your first trip to India with my hand-picked tips:
Expect to be overwhelmed.
India is a land of extremes in every aspect – the noise, the smells, the tastes, the sights, the heat, the people and the history. There will be days when you feel like India is treating you hard and days when you feel truly blessed to be seeing “Incredible India” and “Land of the billion Gods”. There will be times when you will witness the extreme richness and poverty simultaneously. There will be moments when you won’t know whether to laugh or cry on them. But you need to absorb them. You need to feel the essence and unless you are coming with an open mind and open heart, India can be rough for you. I would say, “Hold a bottle of Indian Beer, hit the road, get lost in the crowds and say – Bring It On!”
Choose your places.
Find out what fascinates you about India , what you like doing and how do you wish to spend your holidays in India. Then plan accordingly and design your places to visit and things to do in India.
The most popular India tour is the all-time classic Golden Triangle. If you have short time in your hands, this is a fantastic introduction to three of India’s very best destinations. Start in Delhi (Hamayun’s Tomb, Old Fort, Qutub Minar) before hitting Agra (Taj Mahal, Agra Fort, Fatehpur Sikri) then Jaipur (Pink City, forts and palaces.) And if you have more specific interests:
Beaches – Goa / Kerala
Trekking – Himachal Pradesh / Ladakh
Yoga – Rishikesh
River Rafting – Haridwar
Tigers – Madhya Pradesh / Rajasthan
Spiritual – Varanasi
Hills & Snow – Darjeeling, Gangtok
Heritage – Agra / Rajasthan
Too many people try to do too much on their first trip to India. Don’t be one of them. Don’t fill your itinerary with 15 places in 10 days. Instead, go slow and go local. This way it will be less stressful for you and you can enjoy the surroundings in a better way without running from one city to another.
Get Off the Tourist Trail
At times try to skip the very touristy places and head over to destinations which are less crowded. Once you have covered the India’s hottest tourist circuit – Golden Triangle, you can head over to the backwaters of Kerala for some calm and relaxing days. Or if the season is right, you can spend some time alone in Leh,Ladakh meditating with the Buddhist Monks.
The golden rule for avoiding Delhi Belly is – “Either Boil it, Cook it, Peel it or Forget it.” You must avoid anything if it’s not boiled, cooked or peeled in front of you. Avoid tap water everywhere. Go local way in finding the popular restaurants. Avoid the overpriced touristy restaurants mentioned in your guidebooks. Instead go where locals go and eat what locals eat, the way locals eat. If in doubt, eat at a place that’s packed with more locals instead of tourists.
Don’t forget the Hand-wash.
Toilets are major concern in India, especially when you are on road trips. Consider using the left-hand-and-water-jug method preferred by many locals (it is, after all, so much more hygienic than using dry paper), but don’t forget to carry hand sanitizer with you at all times.
Keep Calm & Look Confident.
India is renowned for its touts and scams, for its hassles and for being chaotic. There are various ways you can reduce the chances of being overcharged or just plain cheated, but there’s no way you can avoid them altogether. The best thing to do for any India first-timer is to try to remain calm, no matter what. And try to look for a silver lining even in bad situations.
Cows are more important than you.
Cows are holy in the Hindu faith and can often be seen grazing on grounds or wandering the streets. They are identified as an extension of Mother Earth and considered good luck. Don’t disrespect the cows, no matter how much you want a hamburger.
Feel like a celebrity.
It’s normal to feel like some Hollywood celebrity when you first arrive to India. At some places, children will point at you and adults will stare. A few people will ask for photo taken with you. Some people will try to start a conversation by asking your age, country of origin, marital status and/or weight. Don’t think of it as interrogation, but remember that they are just curious about outsiders. Opportunities to interact with people from other countries are rare, so it’s understandable that they’d want to learn more about you.
Keep Your Ears Closed & Eyes Wide Open
Don’t listen to anyone, but only go to bus or train stations to get your tickets, if you want the best prices for them. And if you have a hotel reservation, don’t fall for the trick of the taxi driver at the airport or train station telling you that you have to reconfirm it once you arrive in Delhi. If you fall for that, it is likely that you will only be told by someone on the phone that the hotel is full and you have no reservation.
Or that the taxi driver knows a reliable and trustworthy government tourist office that can help you. If you listen to that, you’re in trouble, or you have got more money than I do. If you have a reservation, then just get a prepaid taxi at the airport and have them take you to your hotel. Then you are set for the night and can take care of things the next morning without being exposed to these kinds of scams.
Who Should Travel to India?
Anyone with a love of history, culture and deep spirituality; anyone with a passion for beauty, whether natural or manmade; and anyone with the desire to meet some of the most open and welcoming people on Earth. In short…just about everyone should experience India during their lifetime.
There is no way to fully prepare for what India may do to you! It can be heaven! It can be hell too! You just have to be open to whatever may happen and go with the flow. This will be one of the most memorable and possibly most profound experiences in your life! India will change you forever. No matter whether you hate it or love it, you just can’t forget it. The fond memories of your first trip to India will stay in your mind afresh long after. That’s the beauty of India. Go for it!!!