“Hi Nic, I really love your India post on Instagram. I too would like to visit India but I’m too scared because [insert every possible rational/irrational fears]”
Dear lovers, I read your messages, and I feel your messages. Admittedly, I encountered the same fear. Most of the things I’ve read and heard on the media about India is pretty scary (the smog crisis, female harassment, contant scams and endless slums). Therefore I had to drag Melvin and Widya to travel with me during this 16 days journey (also because more people=relatively cheaper.)
As I promised, I’m going to answer all your questions related to my trip; covering the frequently asked aspects of hygiene, food, smells, weather, how to avoid scams, to general safety.
First and foremost, let me summarize this long journal into one paragraph, this is going to save you lots of time from reading the whole post:
Let go of your fears and stop fixating on things that could go wrong. I think everyone should most definitely experience India in real life. India can be a rewarding, transformative travel destination if you go with an open mind, grace and a positive attitude. Conversely, if you approach the country with a closed mind, you are likely to have a negative experience. This trip taught me that the world isn’t linear and calmness and chaos can coexist without things falling apart.
That’s it. But if you’re still here, keep reading on!
This is a factor that makes lots of people double or triple think about visiting India. In a country that people drink the holy water that comes from the same source where the pilgrim just bathed in; or where the chai street vendor effortlessly rinsed a used cup without using soap then served it to another customer; or someone who just touched a cow/goat/camel then ate using his hand, I think it’s just a good idea to take a deep breath and… learn to actually STOP making comparisons to your home country.
Admittedly I was a bit taken aback hearing that cow shyt was used to light fire (and to cook) in every household in rural area, and it made me questioning the dal makhani we just had for lunch earlier.
Then I realized that it’s the very act of questioning everything makes me not enjoying what was there to offer… After all, I wasn’t at home. And that dal makhani was friggin tasty.
The purpose of traveling shouldn’t be to incessantly compare every little detail to what the people in your own home country would do and make a judgement based upon your own code of hygiene. Plus, there are hand sanitizer and wet tissues that you can easily carry with you everywhere if it makes you feel better.
The movie Slumdog Millionaire pretty much brainwashed its audience that slums make more than 80% of India. I’m not saying that it was exaggerated. In bigger cities like Agra and Delhi, it truly is omnipresent; from homeless people sleeping on the streets, skinny little kids pulling your shirt to rucksack-wearing holy men begging you for alms; all those views enough to tear the hardest of hearts.
Furthermore you have this incredible disparity between the ultra rich and very poor; you have people living in villages the way they probably lived hundreds of years ago. This kaleidoscope of contradictions is what makes India, India
But I also learned during this trip that here in India, especially down in the rural areas and old cities, that one could find happiness without wealth; and though the view of poverty was devastating, I had never witness a civilization so full of joy, faith and hope for life.
We are aware that not everyone is into the intensely spiced Indian food (sorry to hear that. I don’t understand this, but I respect your life choices); but we love almost every kind of Indian cuisine! And good news, Rajasthan happens to offer some of the best Indian dishes in the whole subcontinent. Of everything that I miss about our trip; dipping the warm, golden cheese naan into the freshly-made, richly-spiced, mind-blowingly tasty curry is one of them. #drools.
Also remember that sometimes the portion can be really huge. Three of us usually ordered one rice, two dishes (chicken or non veg), and a portion of naan/chapati. We would share everything and still have lots of leftovers.
If you travel together with a friend, consider ordering thali. Thali (set meal), is a platter of different Indian dishes, ranging from six to more than 10; with rice, naan, chapati, dal, veg curries, chutney, sour cream, and a lot of heavenly goodness in between. Most restaurant serve it, and a special thali only costs you ₹400-600, tastes amazing, and is enough for 2-3 people.
In bigger cities like Jaipur, Jodhpur, Udaipur, Jaisalmer, Agra and Delhi, there are a myriad of restaurant that serves excellent western food and there are also Indian restaurants that has pasta or other asian dish on the menu (don’t expect an elaborate sweet and sour or teriyaki chicken kind of thing though, but they do have egg fried rice) and yes, they do have KFC.
No, India does not stink more than some other Asian countries. We travelled to rural areas and never encountered really major disturbing stench (Some rural areas in China smell much worse). There are some areas where people would dump their trash altogether until it forms a freaking hill, but that’s pretty much like any other developing countries. You’re bound to pass them when you walk around or take a rickshaw ride, and it’s not worse than riding an ojek and passing the garbage dump hills in Jakarta.
In fact, we were pampered by the calming fragrance of burning sandalwood incense sticks inside the temples and in front of houses, the rich aroma of the spices in the markets, and the tempting sweet smells from the chai wallahs and snacks vendors. It’s one of the things we miss; and thankfully we bought boxes of sandalwood incense sticks to light at home everytime we want to chill, close our eyes and imagine we’re back there.
The sun was scorching hot (40 degrees) and the air dusty when we were there, particularly when you travel to the desert state of Rajasthan. It’s the kind of dry hot, unlike the humid climate in Indonesia. Your best best for protection is: SPF, scarves, sunglasses, drinking lots of water, and slathering moisturizer at night.
Or plan your trip before or after summer, which is October through March (downside: those are the high season months which means most of the hotel rates will double or triple the usual, and it will be VERY crowded.)
We proudly dodged the famous scams in Pushkar (and didn’t fall into much else in Rajasthan) but inevitably pushed into one in Fatehpur Sikri on the end of our journey. After two whole weeks getting so used to Rajasthani hospitality, being in Uttar Pradesh was just… a bit different. We entered the Fatehpur Jama Mosque with a local guide, who started the tour by telling us to sit down in front a fabric seller near the back entrance of the mosque (we realised much later why he had chose this entrance). He told us that had to make a donation or else we can’t enter the mausoleum inside.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind giving donation for charity. This blatant scamming experience though. We sat down in front of a man who insisted to sell us an piece of fabric/chadar (for a fixed price of ₹500/800/1500) that you are supposed to lay as an offering on the tomb, then you tie a red string to the window and make wishes. I said no thank you. He said, “You HAVE TO.” then proceed telling us about not respecting the religion and/or inviting bad luck. We decided not to make a scene, bought one of the fabric and walked away.
He said that the fabric will be used for school uniforms or children clothes. We would later found out that the cheap, gaudy fabrics (not at all suitable for any of those purposes) will be collected from the tomb, repackaged and sold again by the end of the day, and the money is kept by the seller. We felt a little rough on the edges. Bad feelings with which to enter a holy place.
Of course, once you’ve been in India for a while you will be able to tell who is genuine and recognize if someone is trying to con you. Always trust your gut instinct and don’t be naive. HOWEVER, don’t get too paranoid about trusting people either.
However, contrary to the popular belief, NOT EVERYONE IS OUT TO SCAM YOU IN INDIA. There are some moments when I felt like an ungrateful, judgmental bitch thinking that every individual is after money.
On a late afternoon getting lost on the maze of the blue city of Jodhpur, on our way back to the hotel, we encountered lots of barking dogs on the street. An elder guy asked us in Hindi where we were going and we told him the name of our hotel. He proceed to open the way for us, shooed all the dogs away and guided us halfway back to our hotel. I discreetly prepared twenty rupees in my pocket just in case he would demand to get paid.
Towards the end, only a few minute away from our hotel, he gestured (the sweet man didn’t speak a word of english) that our destination was in the end of the street in front of us. Then he smiled and and said goodbye to us and headed back to his house.
I felt like a terrible human.
Another endearing moment was with Raj, the young boy in Jaisalmer (that wouldn’t leave us alone and we first highly suspected as an unofficial guide trying to scam tourists) who dragged us all around Bada Bagh for “The BEST Bada Bagh photo location. Trust me, I’m a photographer too”, then acted as our creative director during the whole hour: directed our angles, lighting and composition; and gifted us a Jaisalmer postcard book before we parted our ways. All he asked from us was just a promise that we will be back to Jaisalmer.
And again, the bitch inside me got slapped and reminded again about human kindness.
After that, we encountered more and more locals who were happy to talk to us and show us the way every time our data connection fails and Google Map isn’t working. The majority of Indian people don’t want to harm you or rip you off and are some of the most open, friendly and hospitable people we’ve ever met.
Safety in general
I am not a backpacker. We had booked a car and reliable driver prior to our arrival, and also hotels from booking.com. We didn’t stay in hostels or guesthouses (though I am not against taking public transport or staying in guest houses, but as our first India trip is pretty short, we deliberately saved up the money for a more efficient journey and experience. Also we carry lots of camera equipments so we rather stay in our own room.)
I also didn’t travel solo, so I can’t tell you how these two factors accounted towards our safety.
When I read about the experiences from backpackers from many travel forums online, their experiences seemed to be more intense than what we had. Walking everywhere to the most crowded market to empty alleys, we haven’t felt unsafe for one second.
If you find traveling in India a bit scary (and you have extra budget to spare), then I will recommend booking a car and a driver from a reputable website (more info about this on my itinerary post). For me it was the perfect way to get to know the country.
Safety for Female Traveler
We are exposed to the news in the media about the Indian men reputation of their treatment to women. We hear about traveler’s horror stories about their horrible experiences in solo traveling to India as a woman. Lots of women reported and wrote about public harassment and objectification; from name calling, groping to even worse cases.
During this whole trip, I walked around small alleys and busy markets, danced with locals in a town festival, made friends with strangers -both men and women of all ages; and was never, not once, harassed, touched inappropriately, or anything else in that category. The most I got was being stared at (this part is inevitable, I think it’s part of the culture), but never up to an uncomfortable situation.
I believe that you need to consider the environment, culture, and country you are in, and to be respectful and mindful to their customs. I also believe that some of the clothes you wear can make some contribution to the attention and treatment that you get.
So some tips for female travelers: dress according to the culture, trust your guts, avoid excessive eye contact to some dodgy guys, sit with other female (locals) in public transport, be aware of your own personal safety and avoid walking out alone at night (this last one applies to almost every big city you travel to, for me even including my own city Jakarta, Las Ramblas in Barcelona and some areas of Paris. Or every place on earth.)
Don’t let your guard down, but conversely, don’t let your fears and paranoia hijack your journey.
India is not a scary place, I promise. It’s very vibrant, full of spirituality and wisdom, and home of some of the friendliest people on earth. You will be approached for photographs again and again. In Jodphur and Jaisalmer, we’re bound to encounter someone in the street, trying to communicate with us with glance, acknowledging smile, or greetings “Namaste,” “Hello, where are you from?”, all were delivered out of friendly curiosity and gentle hospitality.
I find that India gives back to you what you give to it. We came with good intentions and were rewarded with wonderful experience. It might not the easiest country for traveling in Asia, compared to maybe Japan, HK or Korea. But it is an addictive country. The moment I stepped my foot back home, I already started browsing for tickets for my next trip back to India by the end of this year. It’s really easy to fall in love with this magical place.