Sunday, June 16, 2013

I Want to Go to India! Any Advice????? Part 3 - General Things to Keep in Mind

I had originally planned for this to be the final installment in this series, but it turned out to be so long that I thought it better to break it up into two parts.  If you haven't read the first two, I recommend reading those first before continuing:

Part 1 - Getting To India
Part 2 - Getting Around India

This post will be some general things to keep in mind

- North and South - when you hear people talk about "South India" and "North India", South India refers specifically to four states - Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu.  Everything else is collectively North India.

- Language - is actually not as much of a problem as you might think.  In major cities and tourist areas, you'll run in to enough people that know enough English to be able to get around.  Before you invest in Rosetta Stone, keep in mind that although Hindi is the national language, there are actually 17 official languages in India, which vary by state, and in many cases are quite dissimilar to each other.  Also, if you do want to show off your Hindi, there is one place where you absolutely shouldn't - Tamil Nadu.  The Tamils are very protective of their language, and although the problem isn't nearly as bad as it was 20 years ago, some will take offense if spoken to in Hindi.  In other words, if you're in Chennai, you're better off just sticking to English.

- Don't drink the water - this is self-explanatory, but NEVER drink tap water in India.  You'll sorely regret it if you do.  A 1 liter bottle of water runs about a quarter at a general store to about 75 cents at a decent restaurant, so you really have no excuse.  Also, use caution when eating from street vendors or unknown restaurants.  If you eat meat, do so only at restaurants that are recommended by friends/family or other foreign visitors.  No matter how careful you are, though, "Delhi Belly" is a fact of life if you spend any significant amount of time in India.  Carry a few packs of Immodium and some Advil, and you'll be fine.  One final word on food - many waiters will assume that because you are a foreigner, you don't want any spice in your food.  Always specify when you order if you want it mild or spicy.  Just beware, an Indian's definition of "spicy" may well be different from yours. 

- Hire a tour guide - many travel bloggers list India as an ideal destination for independent travel, but I actually suggest the opposite.  Tour guides (often doubling as drivers if you hire a vehicle) are cheap, and will help overcome many of the issues you'll face when trying to get around India, such as shooing away overzealous taxi touts or souvenir hawkers, expediting you through lines, and stopping you from wandering into unsafe areas.  They can also double as a translator if you're still concerned about the language barrier.

- At public monuments and museums, there are separate prices for foreigners and locals - prices for non-Indian nationals are usually 5-10x higher than for Indian nationals (an example - at the Taj Mahal, 100 rupees ($1.80) for Indians, and 750 rupees ($13.50) for foreigners).  If you happen to be of Indian origin, you can usually sneak through the local line if you sit quietly and have your tour guide or a local relative buy your tickets for you.  My wife and I used to get away with this all the time.  Otherwise, you're pretty much SOL, and will just have to deal with it.

- Pack toilet paper - while not a problem in major hotels and in the major airports, the vast majority of public restrooms don't have TP.  I'll just leave it at that and leave the rest to imagination.  Bring some from home, or stop at a grocery store and buy a few rolls (be aware that it is considered a luxury in India, and is priced accordingly).

- India is still a conservative country; dress appropriately - you probably wouldn't believe it if you watch today's Bollywood flicks, but much of India, especially in the South, is still very conservative.  Avoid short shorts, tank tops, or sleeveless dresses in public areas (and definitely not in or near religious sites).  You may inadvertently offend someone.

- With the exception of some ready-made garments and mall department stores, prices are negotiable - if you're buying souvenirs, never be fooled into paying the price listed or that you're first told.  A good rule of thumb is to start off by cutting the price by 2/3.  You'll usually end up paying something like 40-50% less than the list price.   Don't be afraid to walk away if you don't get the price you want.  Probably 8 times out of 10, the merchant will magically be able to meet your price when you start walking out the door.

- Each morning, get some small bills from your hotel's front desk - street vendors are notorious for trying to claim "no change, sir" if you try to pay for a small purchase with a 100 or 500 rupee bill.  Carry some 10s, and a handful of coins, to avoid that problem.

- Be prepared for chaotic traffic - I don't know that India is any worse than any other developing country in Asia or Africa in this regard, but if you're not used to it, the traffic can be unnerving, even as a passenger.  If you find yourself getting nervous, read a book or otherwise look away from the road ahead.  Also, at some point, you will be approached by beggars, usually children or disabled adults, while stopped at an intersection.  DO NOT give money to street beggars; this is in fact a scam perpetrated by "street pimps", whereby they get 95% of the money collected.

- Know the seasons - I briefly covered this in Part 1, but different areas have different "ideal" seasons to visit.  Let's just say, you don't want to plan your dream beach vacation in Goa during monsoon season, unless you like to sit on the beach in the rain.  

- It is OK to visit religious sites, but be considerate - some of India's temples and mosques, especially the Cholla temples of South India, are absolutely fascinating feats of engineering and architecture, and really do deserve a visit.  However, do not interrupt prayers or other religious celebrations, and ask before taking photographs inside.  Specifically, check the calendar, and make sure not to show up on a holy or festival day. 

I also get asked frequently if it is safe to travel in India.  For a foreigner, the answer is yes for the most part; you actually have more to worry about if you're Indian.  Although protests and street violence/bombings do occur sporadically, with the exception of the 26/11 Mumbai hotel bombings, almost all violence is sectarian (religious) in nature, and is not targeted at Westerners.  Street protests, meanwhile, generate a lot of noise, but the vast majority of the crowds' ire is directed at government property like city buses and police cars.  I would avoid Kashmir, areas near the Pakistan border, and tribal areas of Northeast India, and I would also avoid traveling by car at night in rural areas (collisions with uncontained cattle or vehicles driving without headlights being the biggest dangers).  But otherwise, stay away from large crowds and exercise a little common sense, and you should be fine.

In the final installment, I'll give you 5 places that you must see on your trip to India.

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