I travel to have stories to tell, and boy do I have some stories to tell from India! If you abandon your expectations and develop a relaxed and flexible attitude, you will be blown away by the rich, cultural diversity of India and the fabulous opportunities it presents.
Having said that, I'm not going to pretend that travel in India doesn't take a bit of getting used to - so here are a few tips that may come in handy to make your trip a little smoother...
#1: Before you arrive
Let’s get the initial practicalities out of the way first: it is more than likely that you’ll need a visa to visit India. Do not overlook this, and make sure to leave plenty of time for your application. The process is speedier than it used to be, and visitors can now apply online for an e-visa – but this can still sometimes be a hassle.
I’d recommend that even the most seasoned travellers should book at least their first night’s accommodation for when arriving in India, this will give you chance to get your bearings, get used to the heat and refresh before starting to explore. India is also a cash economy, and you shouldn’t rely on paying by card except at large hotels or shops. Most of the international airports have ATM machines, but all have withdrawal limits; usually around 10,000 rupees (approx US $156 at the time of writing).
#2 Keep the itinerary flexible
It’s joked that IST does not stand for Indian Standard Time, but actually Indian Stretchable Time. Indeed when filming and travelling across India, meeting times, start times, deadlines and journey times have all had to be viewed fairly flexibly – if not with a pinch of salt. Working in India has taught me great things about patience, and going with the flow.
Generally, I’d recommend maintaining a relaxed/flexible pace and trying not to get worked up unless you really think that it will benefit the situation.
I've arrived at stations to catch trains in India only to find the service running 9 hours late, and a friend of mine had an in-depth discussion with a man in Delhi about how the trains there were the best in the world - only to discover his train was almost a day behind schedule!
Having said all of this, it’s important to be open minded in terms of time and what we might perceive as effectiveness, as certain feats that would be unimaginably difficult in London or NYC are undertaken with relative ease in Indian cities. In Mumbai for example, there are 58 different newspapers, in 29 languages, which are sorted by hand and delivered across the city. Even more impressive is the famous tiffin lunch box delivery service ‘dabbawalas’, which collects lunches from homes and delivers them to places of work and back again, with only a reported one mistake in every six million deliveries.’
#3: Pay attention to local cultures
Generally the attention you receive as a foreigner will be friendly. Some people might be unnerved by potential staring – but remember, a smile goes a long way in any country, and can turn a situation around! Some of my most rewarding experiences in India have been when I’ve gone with the flow and sat with local people, listened to their stories and eaten what they have suggested.
India is a very diverse country, one of the most diverse I’ve visited. As such, on a visit to the South, one will have a very different experience to someone visiting the North East. There is great pride within each state, and massive differences regionally in food, traditions, style of dress and religion. Observing the customs in one region doesn’t necessarily mean that they will be observed in the same way elsewhere in the country. Don’t be afraid to ask what is expected of you, if you visit any places of worship for example. People will usually be welcoming and happy to answer any questions or guide you towards what is appropriate.
In one temple I was handed a small bowl of cucumber with no explanation, and I spent the next few minutes in a panic as to whether I was meant to present this as a dedication, or to eat it myself.
Just ask, as you don’t want to offend anyone! (Just for the record, the cucumber was intended as an offering, which was luckily the option I went for!)
#4: Forget everything you think you know about Indian food
In the UK we are used to lists of curries; Bhuna, Jalfrezi, Korma etc, followed by a list of meats. Do not expect this in India! You might see some names you recognise on your travels but be prepared generally to throw out what you thought you knew about Indian food and embrace true Indian cuisine.
Secondly, meat isn’t as common in a lot of restaurants, and eating establishments describe themselves as either ‘Veg’ or ‘Non veg’, with veg being the standard. Certainly in the more rural areas such as the Himalayas of Jammu and Kashmir, meat is rather scarce particularly during certain months; whilst filming in this region my diet mostly consisted of daal and roti.
If you're lucky enough to meet some local friends who invite you to dine with them, do it! It's the best way to discover local food you might not have tried otherwise.
Water is served in most restaurants in a jug, and often tourist’s initial reaction is to be wary of it – but it’s going to have been filtered and will generally be fine to drink. I’ve never had any problems from drinking it. One thing that’s interesting to note is that people regularly share water bottles. People tend to not put their mouth to the bottle but tip it in from a slight height so that their lips don’t touch.
Many Indians eat with their hands, which I actually love doing when I’m over there. Hygiene of course is very important when doing this, so most restaurants (or hotels as they are sometimes confusingly called) have sinks inside the eating area.
#5: Take your time
If this is your first trip to India, or indeed your 2nd or 3rd, there will be hundreds of things on your to do list. Bear in mind that the heat, noise and dust can be overwhelming, even to experienced travellers. Make sure you have plenty of time to rest and recuperate during your day.
When exploring Mumbai recently, I actually started my day at 4:30am to see the streets nearly empty and visit the vegetable markets. At 9:30am I went back to my room for a rest and a refresh before a late breakfast ready to restart my day! I’ll stress again, be flexible with your plans and leave plenty of time if you have a flight to catch or somewhere important to be as rush hour traffic can be crazy in the cities!
#6: If you do get sick…
A phrase I love to use is ‘local drugs for local bugs’. Sure, it’s probably sensible to carry a first aid kit with you including medication from home, but my experience travelling in India has lead me to believe that when you get sick (and you probably will at some point), your local legitimate pharmacist will be able to assist you more than just blocking yourself up with Imodium.
To a certain extent I’d say this is true with old wive’s tale type remedies too. The suggestion of chewing local ginger proved incredibly helpful when I developed travel sickness on all the winding roads of Meghalaya. Equally, salted chai was super helpful for altitude sickness in the Himalayas.
#7: A scarf will be your new BFF
My suggestion here is to be more be comfortable, both physically and socially. I tend to carry a scarf with me at all times. Visiting a temple? Cover up with a scarf. Getting a bit chilly at night in the mountains? Wrap up with your scarf. Wearing a vest top and want to be a bit more modest in a village? Throw your trusty scarf over your shoulders.
In the heat, loose clothing is helpful of course, and don’t be afraid to wear colour. Indian traditional dress is often fantastically patterned and bright, often worn alongside fairly bling jewellery.
Above all, ENJOY YOURSELF and go with the flow!