India Survival Guide: 10 Tips and Lessons Learned the Hard Way

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“Expect the best. Prepare for the worst. Capitalize on what comes.” ~Zig Ziglar

India is an incredible country to explore (and I’m not just saying this because my mother was born there). For me, it was certainly the adventure of a lifetime, with its lush vistas and fascinating culture, but I would be sugarcoating my experience in India if I told you it was perfect. It wasn’t. Then again, most of my travels aren’t! I have a horror story from almost every country I’ve ever visited, and this one is no different.

Despite the hard lessons, I wouldn’t go back in time and change a single thing about any of my experiences. I’m sure you’re familiar with the annoying expression “life is a journey, not a destination.” Well, it may be cliché, but it’s true. I loved my journey through India, and now I can share it with you so you know what to try and what to avoid. So without further ado, here is my list of tips to help you enjoy everything this amazing country has to offer without passing out.

TIPS FOR TRAVELING THROUGH INDIA

1. The Secret to Avoiding Stomach Issues

I’m just going to go ahead and start out with the one tip that might be “TMI” but you will thank me for this later. Whether you refer to it as “travelers’ diarrhea” or, in this particular case, “Delhi Belly,” one thing is certain: as Americans traveling abroad (especially to developing countries), we are prone to developing the kind of stomach problems that can be a major buzz kill. Fortunately, I escaped India unscathed, but others traveling with me did not.

So how do you avoid Delhi Belly in India? The secret is…oregano oil! People use oil of oregano to treat gastrointestinal disorders, including heartburn and bloating. It has anti-fungal and antiviral properties and one study even showed that oregano oil is useful for parasite infections. Ingest a few drops before and/or after each meal in order for the benefits to kick in. Be warned, oil of oregano tastes disgusting, but it will save you from a world of pain.

Street vendor
There is plenty of good food in India! I saw a lot of street vendors. Just be smart with what you eat.

2. Drink Clean Water

One surefire way to experiencing a bad stomach problem in India is by ingesting tap water. The water supply is unsafe for travelers whose bellies can’t handle the pollutants or parasites swimming around in there.

Only drink bottled water during your entire trip; brands like Aquafina and Bisleri are good options. Although inconvenient, you may want to use bottled water to brush your teeth as well. Always check the seal to make sure you aren’t being sold a reused bottle of water (yes, it happens).

Sitting on a branch in Munnar
Sitting on a branch in Munnar by the lake. The water looks beautiful, but India’s filtration system won’t get rid of the pollutants residing in there.

3. Alternative to Drinking Bottled Water

If you think you’ll find yourself in a really remote location with no access to bottled water (such as trekking through the Himalayas), you may want to take it a step further and invest in a portable filtration system, such as the Katadyn Pocket Water Filter or Sawyer’s 2 Liter Complete Water Treatment System. It may seem excessive, but learning how to purify water is a necessary skill for anyone who will not have access to safe drinking water. The CDC lists several ways to disinfect water, which include boiling water, filtering water, using chemical disinfectants such as tablets or powders, using ultraviolet light, and exposing water to at least 6 hours of bright sunlight.

Always be prepared when traveling to remote areas.
Always be prepared when traveling to remote areas.

4. Stay Hydrated

The heat can become unbearable. When I visited the Taj Mahal in Agra, I was incredibly impressed by the architecture of the palace. The only downside was how crowded and hot it felt. One way to keep yourself from getting cranky in the heat is to drink plenty of water. Fresh coconut water is also a good source of hydration and tasty too!

Smiling in front of the Taj Mahal
Smiling in front of the Taj Mahal despite the extreme heat.

5. Emergency Numbers

One of the scariest moments of my life is when my mother’s eyes rolled into the back of her head right before falling to the ground. We were in the middle of nowhere with just a few onlookers watching the situation unfold and my immediate impulse was to scream, “call 9-1-1!” But then I immediately realized how stupid that was. Thankfully my mom started breathing again and opened her eyes, but it left me wondering what on earth should I do if I ever needed emergency assistance?

In India, dial “100” for the local police, “102” for the ambulance, and “101” in case of a fire. “108” is used as a general emergency number in some cities. For the full list of emergency numbers to dial all over the world, check out this Wikipedia link. Just be warned that in some places, the streets can be so crowded that it can be hard relying on an ambulance to navigate through all the traffic.

Crowded streets of Delhi
Crowded streets of Delhi

6. Don’t Be Overly Shocked by the Skin Lightening Ads

I wasn’t. I’ve seen the ridiculous Fair & Lovely commercials before and wasn’t shocked when I saw the giant billboards advertising creams that promised more ”fair” skin complexions after use. I love many things about Indian culture, but this isn’t one of them. The idea that “lighter is better” is a widespread concept across the world that needs to stop.

The good news is The Advertising Standards Council of India has banned commercials and ads that make people who have darker skin seem “unsuccessful in any aspect of life” in comparison to individuals of lighter skin. That’s a great step in the right direction and I’m happy that India is progressing towards changing the way beauty companies market their products.

Skin lightening ad
Skin lightening ad I saw in India

7. Embrace the Chaotic Driving

I will never forget my first car ride in Delhi after being picked up from the airport. I wasn’t scared by the wild ride because I knew this was simply how all the locals drive. It may take you aback at first, but trust me, you’ll get used to it. Embrace it. Go with the flow. And whatever you do, don’t close your eyes. Soak in as much as possible. There is so much to take in when you’re being transported through the chaotic streets of Delhi, and you’ll be fascinated by all of it. My eyes sparkled as I witnessed India’s energetic urban life, from people piled on top of motorcycles to rickshaw drivers craftily zooming their way through traffic.

Two women being driven by a rickshaw driver.
Two women being driven by a rickshaw driver.

 

Family of 3 on a mtorcycle
I commonly saw multiple passengers on motorcycles. Here, I captured a mother carrying her baby while riding on the back of one.

8. Respect the Local Culture – Dress Appropriately and Avoid PDA

Men, you don’t have as much to worry about here. Women, on the other hand, must be a bit more mindful of the dress code. Some places are way more conservative than others, so how do you know what to wear? As a general rule, avoid wearing shorts, mini skirts, and anything that shows a ton of cleavage. Even if you enjoy being stared at, you don’t want that kind of attention in India and it can be viewed as offensive. During my road trip through Kerala I covered more of my skin than I did in Delhi because I was told the locals there were more traditional. If you are unsure, be sure to carry a scarf with you. If you notice more stares than usual, wrap that scarf around yourself to minimize the gawking. Always remember to dress modestly when visiting religious sites.

Speaking of modesty, if you’re visiting India with your significant other, try to resist making out with him/her in public. Don’t even hug or hold hands. You may see Indian men walking down the streets hand-in-hand, but not in a romantic way. This is a gesture of friendship.

The lakes of Munnar
I kept my skin covered throughout most of my trip. This picture was taken in Munnar, India.

9. Traditional Indian Toilets and the Right-Hand Rule

You may be in for a wee bit of culture shock during your first public bathroom experience in India. Do not be alarmed by what you see! It’s simply different from what you might be used to, but perfectly doable.  So what do you do when all you see is a hole in the ground? You squat and handle your business.

After you’re done, this is where the right-hand rule comes into play. Clean your private parts by watering them down with the provided hose. If there isn’t a hose, then there is probably just a bucket and a spigot. Fill the bucket with water from the spigot and use your right hand to pour water over your body parts. Use your left hand in combination with the water to wipe away any remaining muck. Afterwards, wiggle around and allow yourself to air dry.

Just remember to always apply the right-hand rule! The left hand does the dirty work while the right hand stays pure. If you ever have the pleasure to dine in an Indian home, never ever use your left hand to eat or pass food to anyone. Since the left hand is used to clean private areas after a bowel movement, Indians traditionally use their right hands when handling food.

An Indian woman eating food with her right hand
An Indian woman eating food with her right hand

10. Carry Soap and Tissue

In some instances, there will be western toilets for you to use, however, more than likely there will be no toilet paper, so carrying some with you will come in handy. Just be mindful about disposal. If you see a bin, throw your tissue in there instead to avoid clogging the pipes.

Carry hand sanitizer and soap with you as well. Either store some liquid soap in a small travel size bottle or place a small bar of soap in a Ziploc bag.  Some bathrooms I went to had community soap bars and towels, and some didn’t have anything at all. The key to enjoying your trip and not getting sick is to do your part in keeping your hands clean and sanitized.

There were monkeys everywhere and we couldn't resist feeding them!
There were monkeys everywhere and we couldn’t resist feeding them!

 Have you ever been to India? What was your experience like and do you have any additional tips to share? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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India Survival Guide: 10 Tips and Lessons Learned the Hard Way

18 Replies to “India Survival Guide: 10 Tips and Lessons Learned the Hard Way”

  1. Great tips. I learned some of this stuff being in the military – like the right-hand rule and how to disinfect water

  2. Good tips! Did you travel solo or with a companion/tour group? Some of these are obviously relevant to everyone, but curious how being a woman impacts the Indian experience.

    1. I flew there by myself, but when I got there I met up with my mom and sister who had arrived there a few days prior. We then traveled together, starting in Delhi and then took a domestic flight to Kerala and took a road trip all throughout that state. Being a woman in India is interesting. I didn’t run into any issues though, because I always remained covered up and traveled with others by my side.

  3. Luckily I too escaped Dehli Belly when I traveled to India back in 2013, although some of the people that I was with had some pretty bad stomach issues. They were given some oregano oil and later those issues cleared up so I definitely co-sign on that remedy!

  4. Looks like you had an amazing experience! However reading your post reminds me why India is not high on my bucket list. I would love to see the Taj Mahal one day And experience Holi.

    1. Yea I totally get it – India is an intimidating place! It’s a place you definitely have to prepare for mentally.

    1. I do! With anywhere you go, I just think you just have to keep your wits about you. There are certain places in India that are safer than others though. Munnar, for example is a beautiful place in Kerala, India. It’s very laid back and safe. The people are honest, hardworking, and friendly. But, if you think you’d feel uncomfortable going solo in India, maybe try setting something up with a group tour so you’re not alone. India can be intimidating – and a bit of a culture shock. So you have to prepare yourself for it.

  5. Oh no, never feed the monkeys! Lol. And amen about keeping your skin covered. I saw a travel show the other day where a young woman was talking about Indian street food and she was wearing a tank top! I cringed.

  6. Not that we walk around making out or something, but the tip about the PDA is good to know. I don’t know why it’s so acceptable in the USA to walk around making out and twerking, but good to hear that’s not cool in India (or many other places I imagine).

  7. OMG this is such an incredible post! India is #1 on my bucketlist and being prepared is sooooo important I hear. Thanks ever so much for your candor and knowledge!

  8. You are right, being prepared helps, regarding the water, it is best to go for bottled mineral water and avoid water at local eateries unless you are sure about the source. Regarding toilets, now most modern homes and hotels have western styled ones.

  9. This is a VERY useful post!! Thank you! I definitely loved the tip about the Oregano oil! I’ve heard the horror stories of the ‘Delhi bellies’ and it’s the one thing I’m a little afraid of when we’ll be going to India. I keep that one in mind!!

  10. Great tips here! The right hand rule seems like an important step to avoid the illnesses. Luckily you also suggested oil of Oregano for those who forget!

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