My over-arching travel tip is: travel with Shwetank. He’s very knowledgeable about Indian history and customs, polite enough not to roll his eyes at the thousandth stupid question of the day, and a Hindi speaker. His father is a microbiologist so he’s paranoid about eating safely, which helps enormously. At every monument, temple or government building, he encouragingly tells you that “two or three years ago there was a bomb blast here”.
However, if Shwetank’s excellent guiding skills are unavailable to you, here are some tips combining his wisdom and my experience.
- Eat well—it’s the secret to gastro-intestinal happiness and security, which can make or break a trip. Whatever you eat, make sure it’s hot. Daal is always freshly made, as are Dosas in South India. Vegetarian food is more likely to be safe (and all that’s available in many places). Make sure you get an unopened mineral water, and crush the used bottle so it can’t be refilled from a tap. Wash your hands thoroughly before eating. Avoid salad or anything raw, unless it’s peelable such as banana. Spend a little bit more and eat in a mall or a hotel. There’s a reason that middle-class Indians don’t eat in those hole-in-the-wall places: they don’t want to shit themselves in a business meeting. Trust me, crapping yourself in public isn’t much fun.
- Junk food: avoid pizza. The only times that we got slightly sick was after we both ate Domino’s and Pizza Hut. If you’re feeling a little delicate and need some stodge, MacDonald’s is surprisingly good. There’s no beef or pork, and plenty of veggie burgers to be had.
- Don’t haggle too much. Accept that you will always pay more. In museums, that’s formalised; Indians pay 10 Rupees, foreigners pay 100, and that’s fair enough:the museums are built and maintained with Indian tax payers’ money. The disparity between your income and that of a rickshaw-wallah is so great that it’s discourteous, churlish and frankly ugly to get worked up about 5 or 10 Rupees.
- Caucasian ladies might want to consider wearing salwar-kameez and a scarf so they don’t stand out too much. A cheap "wedding" ring will deter the more half-hearted subcontinental Romeo.
- If you hire a car for the day, get the driver’s mobile number. Phone (or pretend to phone) someone and tell them that number and the car registration plate. That way, the driver knows that someone else knows who you’re travelling with. It also means that if he drops you somewhere, you can call him after you’ve eaten/ looked around so he can pick you up again.
- Keep your money in a money belt as pickpocketing is rife, particularly in stations and markets. Have change (<100 Rupee notes) distributed amongst several pockets so that you’re not leafing through wads of dosh to pay people. Rickshaw-wallahs or roadside vendors will appreciate smaller bills rather than 100 Rupee notes as they may not have change.
- In some cities, beggar children are controlled by gangs and never get to keep the money you give them. If you feel sorry for kid who say’s she’s hungry, buy her some daal, rice, chapati and fruit. The gangboss can’t take that off her.
- Don’t photograph cremations, veiled muslim ladies or the cops (they’re justifiably paranoid about terrorism).
- Have fun – it’s a wonderful country!