In India, drivers, waiters, and bellboys will expect a tip from you. So, make sure to keep a constant supply of ten-, twenty-, and fifty-rupee notes.
Long been viewed as a symbol of the mystical East, India, with an extremely rich diversity is one of the most prominent destinations on the wish list of almost all travelers. And, why not? From the soaring snow-capped mountain peaks of the far north to the sun-bathed beaches of the deep south, from an absolutely awe-inspiring mix of natural landscapes to the most exquisite pieces of art and architecture created by humans, and from the seemingly exotic cultural traditions to an unparalleled mix of culinary flavors, India has it all and more. Owing to all this, it is not at all surprising that the country leaves her visitors completely overwhelmed and intoxicated, such that most of them want to return for more.
However, there is a flip side as well. India's poverty is confronting, the crowds can be really frustrating, dealing with the Indian bureaucracy can be infuriating, and some locally acceptable traditions/practices can be very irritating. So, in general, India can turn out to be a very very unpredictable country with numerous possibilities―she has a very peculiar ability to inspire, frustrate, and enchant you, all at the same time.
What You Should Know Before Going to India
Owing to the dramatic diversity of India, and of course, her unpredictable nature, it is vital that travelers, especially first-time visitors, do their homework thoroughly. Believing in the stereotypical clichés of India being a land of nude holy men and snake charmers can prove to be the biggest mistake that a traveler to this country ever makes. It needs to be noted that dismissing India as a rather random assortment of people, places, and traditions can turn your tour into an absolute disaster, and it becomes extremely important that you know certain things before you commence one of the most exciting and challenging adventures of your life.
Be Flexible with Your Plans
No matter how well you have organized your trip, always remember that everything might not go according to your plan after all.
India is known for last-minute hassles and unexpected delays and so, it is always advisable to be as flexible with your plans as possible.
Any abrupt thing―a sudden downpour, a government official's visit to the area you are about to visit, a breakdown of your vehicle, or even your taxi driver's mood―may postpone or cancel your best laid plans. So, be patient and expect the unexpected.
Non-Indians are Easily Identifiable
As an overseas tourist, owing to the way you look or the language you speak, or even the way you dress, you will attract attention in India, especially at public places.
You will find people staring at you, or wanting to shake your hand, or taking photos without your permission (or wanting to click a picture with you), or even passing comments.
Moreover, it is also vital to know that India is known for her tourist traps, and as an international tourist, with the kind of local knowledge that you may lack, you might easily fall prey to one (or more) of them.
Non-Indian tourists are also often targeted by beggars and street vendors, and curious strangers, who might unknowingly (or otherwise) invade your privacy.
One of the easiest ways to avoid all this is to befriend a local, who can accompany you everywhere you go, and to ensure that you don't pay more for anything you buy.
Prepare Yourself for Heavy Crowds
India is the second most populous country in the world, and so, needless to say, it is crowded. In fact, certain areas, such as local street markets and train stations, can be so overcrowded that you might actually end up canceling some of your plans in order to avoid crowds.
Moreover, the scene of public transport is some of the major metropolitan centers of the country, such as Mumbai, Delhi, and Kolkata, is also not very heartwarming.
Most trains and buses are almost always overcrowded, and the crowd may not be the best behaved, especially if you are a woman traveling alone.
Private transport is surprisingly cheap in India, and it is advisable to hire it, rather than opting for the rather unsafe public transport.
Traffic Laws are Meant to be Broken
Traffic laws almost always serve as guidelines, rather than strict laws which are meant to be adhered to. A point to note here, in India, as with most Commonwealth countries, the vehicles run on the left side (wrong side) of the road.
While traffic rules are more strictly followed in some core and important areas such as those near government and administrative offices, in almost all other areas, traffic lights seem just incidental and are often ignored by the public at large. Locals rather easily jump traffic lights, honking loudly and passing other vehicles speedily. This, more often than not, leads to heavy traffic snarls, sometimes, lasting for hours together.
Moreover, larger vehicles have their own way through the traffic as they brake less and honk more.
As if this was not enough, cows, buffaloes, and horses are also seen making their own ways on busy roads, thus adding to the commotion. You can now imagine the plight of pedestrians trying to cross Indian roads!
So, while crossing roads in India, it is important to be very careful, and to use crosswalks or pedestrian crossings, in order to lessen the chances of meeting with an accident.
When it Comes to Attire, Modesty is the Key
Compared to America and Europe, dressing standards in India are rather on the conservative side.
What may be extremely funky and fashionable in India may be outdated in the West; however, it needs to be understood that clothes, in India, are not merely meant for covering the body, but are also linked with culture and traditions. So, if you wear "clothes that show a lot of skin", it will not only attract unwanted attention, but may also offend certain people.
In order to sort out the confusion as to what "modesty" may mean by Indian standards, it is advisable to carry only a few clothes with you, and purchase some local Indian wear once you get there.
These will not only keep you cool in the warm and humid Indian climate, but will also avert unwanted attention, and save you from the embarrassment of offending someone.
Be Prepared for the Diversities of the Indian Climate
While the Indian weather is not very unpredictable, it does vary from region to region. For instance, the northernmost part of the country experiences a severe winter, whereas the southernmost part of the country is warm through most of the year.
So, while there might not be an ideal time to visit India, the same will most definitely depend on the region you intend to visit.
The actual catch may, however, arise when you decide to tour all over the country in one single trip. If your itinerary spans all across India, it would be better for you to prepare for the varied climate, you will experience in various parts of India.
The good thing about India, nevertheless, is that buying clothes, cool or warm, is pretty cheap, and hence, even if you buy them after you get here, you won't have to worry much about your budget.
You Can Barely Avoid Falling Sick
While you are advised to take a fair number of immunization shots before traveling to India, yet the chances of you falling sick after arrival are pretty high.
Most non-Indian tourists are often known to suffer from the ailments of the digestive tract, owing to the indulgence in hot, spicy Indian food.
Ensure that you eat at clean hygienic places, drink only packaged drinking water, and always carry a hand sanitizer while traveling.
Moreover, you may also contract respiratory tract ailments, owing to the enormous amount of air pollution in the bigger, industrialized cities.
It is recommended that you carry certain basic medication along; however, over-the-counter medicines are also readily available at Indian pharmacy stores.
Don't Expect Western Standards of Cleanliness
If you travel to India expecting Western standards of cleanliness, you are in for the greatest disappointment of your life.
No doubt, there are a large number of tourist facilities that adhere to the Western hygiene and cleanliness standards; however, these are almost always high-end and elitist in nature (like 4/5-star hotels, expensive restaurants, etc.)
However, if you are traveling on a tight budget and are opting for moderately-priced facilities, remember that the standards are not going to reach anywhere near those in the West.
In fact, everything in India might seem dirtier, right from the streets to trains and buses to public toilets; however, many of these may, in fact, be clean by Indian standards.
Respect Local Religious Sentiments
Indians are pretty serious when it comes to their religion. India is a secular country and numerous religions are practiced there, all of whom have their own specified places of worship and a certain etiquette, which needs to be strictly followed at these places.
For instance, one is required to remove his/her shoes before entering a temple, cover his head before entering a Gurudwara (Sikh place of worship), and wash his hands and feet before entering a mosque. Also, women are not allowed to enter certain mosques and Hindu temples.
Moreover, while most churches demand absolute silence, one may find certain Hindu temples to be extremely noisy, as praises to the Gods are sung to the accompaniment of musical instruments and human claps.
To add to this, there are certain ways to dress while visiting these religious places, which need to be adhered to.
So, even if you are visiting a certain living place of worship merely as a tourist, it is vital that you do your homework properly and ask locals if in doubt.
Enjoy the Indian Festivities
Owing to the fact that India is a melting pot of several different religions and cultures, it does not come as a surprise that numerous fairs and festivals are celebrated across the country. The locals are more than happy to indulge in merrymaking of all kinds.
Be it Diwali, the festival of lights; Holy, the festival of colors; Eid; or Christmas, the indigenous Indian customs always seem to shine through the celebrations as people enjoy the spirited mood and sumptuous cuisine.
What is even nicer to know is that Indians love to include their guests (and tourists, of course) while celebrating their festivals; so, mingle with the locals to enjoy the enchanting Indian festivities at their best.
Remember though, to respect their customs and traditions, and you will be accepted as one of them.
The Urban Diversity will Leave You Dumbfounded
The burden of two centuries of British imperialism is what India carries on her mighty shoulders, alongside the weight of her own post-colonial rework.
Both these blended together have resulted into a unique postmodern combination of posh and elite India on one hand, and a poor, slum-dwelling one on the other.
To add to the complexity, there is also the famous middle-class of India, which is a different section of society in itself.
So (and this often happens in bigger metropolises), especially for a first-time tourist, it is pretty overwhelming to encounter huge, high-end shopping malls or stores located in the vicinity of vast expanses of filthy-looking slums.
Understand that this is the reality of India, and perhaps this is the very thing that makes the country unique in its own way.
Be Careful About Public Displays of Affection
While India features a large number of romantic and seductive tourist destinations like the Taj Mahal and Khajuraho, getting too cozy with your partner in public may be considered obscene and an offensive act.
In fact, many orthodox Indians may get displeased even by a quick hug and kiss in public, gestures that are considered to be pretty normal in the West.
There have even been certain shocking reports of police harassment of certain couples in public spaces, who have been found exhibiting public displays of affection.
Moreover, homosexuality is considered to be a huge taboo, so if you are traveling with your partner, try to maintain as much distance as possible at public places.
Women Travelers Need to be Extra Careful
If you are a lone woman or a women-only group traveling to India, it is vital that you make safety your foremost priority, and there are more than one reasons for this.
For one, due to certain cultural constructs and clichés, Western women are wrongly thought to be more sexually available than their Eastern counterparts. Therefore, sometimes, you might feel pretty vulnerable and exposed to Indian men.
Moreover, unwanted sexual advances and eve teasing on the streets and public places are common in certain areas and regions of India, creating an unsafe atmosphere for women. In the recent past, several incidents of rape and molestation (involving Indian as well as non-Indian women) have been on the rise.
It is not necessary that every Indian man you may encounter is a pervert; however, it is always better to be careful. Dress conservatively in public, do not mingle much with strangers, avoid going alone to suspicious and isolated places, and do not roam/travel alone at night.
Moreover, always keep someone informed about your location, and keep emergency contacts, such as the police helpline number, at hand.
Domestic Etiquette is Extremely Important
If you plan to visit a local friend or acquaintance at his/her home, it is very very important that you know how to conduct yourself, so as not to offend his/her family.
Feet, the lowest parts of the human body, are considered to be impure, and so, it is mandatory to remove one's shoes while entering most Indian households.
Similarly, stepping on anything important and not apologizing for it is also considered to be very rude. Furthermore, touching feet of the elders is a sign of respect, and one is often expected to do so.
There are many other such customs, which need to be strictly adhered to in India, and it is good to learn about them before visiting any Indian home.
Language Problem Can be Big
India's diversity is also reflected through the numerous languages that are spoken throughout the country. Every single region, and every single community of India has its own language, and to make the situation even more complex, there are dialects as well. And, there is absolutely no point in getting into the scripts!
However, it is highly soothing to know that English is a "co-official" language in India, and is widely spoken throughout the country. Only, the flavor and accent of English may differ as you travel from region to region, yet it is pretty easy to understand.
What needs to be noted, nevertheless, is that Indians still use some English terms that are now obsolete/passé in the West, so do not be surprised if you hear any such term, or you may end up offending the person.
As a tourist, you may either love India or loathe it; in fact, there is a mixed feeling amongst tourists several times during their visit. However, the key to spending an exciting and blissful vacation in India is to accept whatever comes your way, and simply go with the flow. So, be patient and accept her unpredictable nature, because by doing so, you will embrace her soul.