The many words of advice I received while planning a recent visit to India made me feel rather anxious.
‘Shower with your mouth closed’, said one friend. ‘Keep your hands away from your face’, implored another. I’m told to stick to vegetarian meals and only eat food that is freshly cooked. Salads and ice are out; fruits you peel are in. While getting my vaccinations up to date (a very costly exercise!), I nervously ask about rabies. ‘Avoid dogs completely!’, replies my GP. I buy a big box of Travelan (which claims to prevent most food related stomach upsets when taken before a meal) and stock up on copious amounts of hand sanitiser. In short, I am ready for anything!
On arrival in Chennai I take a deep breath and step out of the airport and into incredible India. A sea of people calling out and waving signs greets me. I relax at the sight of my name typed on a crumpled sheet of paper. My driver takes me to a simple guesthouse, where the receptionist explains how to turn the hot water on for the shower, but not how to use the bucket and jug in the corner of the room. It may be obvious to you, but I’m at a complete loss and covertly seek answers from Google at an Internet cafe. I also learn the correct use of the squat toilet (this amusing YouTube video proves extremely helpful!).
For the next week I volunteer my labour on a community building project outside Pondicherry with Habitat for Humanity. The experience is life-changing and one I’d highly recommend. After the build, I join a 15-day Intrepid Travel tour from Delhi to Goa. Transport is by local bus and the two nights on a sleeper train certainly push me well beyond my comfort zone.
All in all the trip is a fabulous experience, and I learn so much. If you are planning your own visit, here are some practical tips for travelling in India.
Cope with the heat by drinking plenty of water — much more than you would at home. Remember that tap water is unfit for drinking. I kept purified water in a bottle next to the bathroom basin so that I would remember to use it when brushing my teeth. A fellow traveller did forget and she paid the price.
I laugh to myself when I think back to my doctor’s advice about dogs. They are everywhere, but they’re not a problem. Instead, she should have warned me about the monkeys! Remember to keep your distance. While visiting Elephanta Island (off Mumbai), a monkey with a baby started to chase me. She bared her teeth, hissed and spat at me. Frightened, I shouted at her. Someone called out: ‘your water!’. I unscrewed the lid of the water bottle in my hand and sprayed water at the snarling animal. Only later did I realise she was probably after the water to drink.
You will often hear travellers to India discussing the gut-wrenching poverty. Consider making a donation to a local charity, rather that giving handouts to beggars and children. If you are travelling with a tour company like Intrepid Travel, they’ll be happy to recommend worthwhile charities that need your support.
The food in India is amazing. I tried hard to practise the food hygiene standards recommended by friends and I managed to avoid getting ill. I ate freshly cooked street food along the way, and drank masala chai in the most unlikely places. The walls of a teahouse might be old and stained, but the tea from the blackened pots will be hot and deliciously sweet.
Some of the highlights of my trip included visiting the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib Sikh Temple in Delhi and the fabulous Taj Mahal in Agra (although naively I didn’t expect the crowds), exploring the market streets of Udaipur and watching the sun rise over the Savitri Temple in Pushkar. A hot air balloon flight over the pink city of Jaipur proved unforgettable.
India is a country of extreme contrasts and what seems to western eyes to be complete chaos. However, there is order. Go with an open mind and you’ll enjoy the experience.
Joanne won a competition to participate in the build with Habitat for Humanity. The rest of the trip was paid for by Joanne.
Do you have any tips for travelling in India? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
Joanne Karcz published a blog when she walked the Camino de Santiago some years ago and has been writing about her travels ever since. She is also an aspiring travel photographer and takes her camera wherever she goes. Joanne loves discovering new things to see and do in her own Sydney backyard, and blogs regularly about the city’s suburbs. She has travelled through Europe and South America and taken a group of friends on the trip of a lifetime to South Africa, Botswana and Zambia. Her visits to Cuba and India were bucket list items, but she still has a few destinations to tick off!