Traveling to India ?

Being an Indian I get asked about this a lot of times : ‘Give me some tips, I am going to India !’

So here is my attempt to summarise a few things someone from London might want to know before making the extraordinary journey.

Disclaimer: This is in no way a complete list, and some things may not apply depending on where do you plan to visit. Also remember “anything you hear about India, the opposite is also true”.

Airport

Let me start with airports. It is most likely that you will be flying in and out. The thing with airports in India is that you will be frisked. Yes, everyone is.

Also be prepared to fill a form when you land and also when you are flying out of India. Don’t fuss too much about it, as its just paperwork, like at many airports around the world, and does not take much time.

Domestic travel: The routine is the same at every airport. After you drop your bags, remember to collect a luggage tag for each of your hand bags. As they need to be stamped once you are through security.

Moving on to security checks, this is where you are frisked after you go past the metal detectors. There is a separate queue for women. Make sure you keep your boarding pass with you when going to be frisked, as you need to get it stamped after the checks. No boarding without a stamp on your boarding pass or luggage tags.

Train

Train journeys can be enjoyable, especially the short journeys, say up to 6 hours. They are cheap as well, and good to explore the real India.

I would not recommend the longer journeys, especially the overnight ones. Mostly because of lack of proper clean facilities like toilets. Unless you are travelling on the Rajdhani Express (Rajdhani means capital) that connects New Delhi (the capital) to other cities, where even a 24 hours journey can be manageable.

If you are in Delhi or Mumbai or some other metro-city you can also travel via the suburban transport systems. In Delhi do use the Delhi metro. In Mumbai you should get on the local trains, the lifeline of the city, although traveling during peak hours is not for the faint hearted. Travel during weekends or during off-peak. As always watch your belongings especially valuables like mobile phone or wallets when traveling through crowded places.

Money

You will need cash. You can get it converted at airports or even at some hotels. Cards are not widely accepted, unless you are in a shopping mall in a big city.

Dress

Dressing a bit conservative could be helpful. Try out a few Indian outfits if you like, they could be colourful, fun and a bit different, something to help you absorb the culture even better. Depending on the weather they could be comfy as well.

Change

Keep an open mind when traveling through the country. Its vast and everything changes fast. The taste of food, language, and culture tends to change every few miles. Observe and soak in. One of the best things to do is find a good street cafe and spend time people watching, or talking to locals.

Culture and taboos

People are warm and welcoming. You can win them over just by smiling and saying Namaste with folded hands. There are few taboos, but you can be excused if you are a foreigner.

Visiting a local temple could be a good way to explore the place. A few places do not allow foreigners, and if that is so try the next one. You will find numerous good ones worth visiting in a city.

A quick tip. When transacting, say giving or receiving money, while handshaking or something similar try using your right hand only. My mom still snaps at me if I hand her a cup of tea with my left hand.

Re Confirm everything again

Its likely that you would be taking the help of local services like drivers, tour operators, and so on during your visit. Just to avoid any mis communications, (and mostly to serve as a reminder), call and reconfirm the night before. Its ok, and you wont be considered rude, you are the customer after all.

Last December when I was home, I remember my dad calling up the driver at 10 in the night for a 5am pickup the next day, just in case he had forgotten or had changed his mind.

Driving

Well, just don’t. Avoid as long as possible. Hiring a cab with driver is easy and affordable even for longer, overnight journeys. Just ask the driver if he knows a place where he can stay as well. Also don’t be surprised if he asks for a tip, its common.

If you can’t avoid driving be extra careful. Also look out for a few differences from driving in the west. Example : In the UK if an oncoming vehicle flashes its headlights it means to give you the way. Its the complete opposite in India, where it means — get away from my way, which will also be accompanied with a lot of honking.

Food

Food is awesome, and different everywhere you go. Variety is great as well. I am just amazed at the size of the menus at some of these places.

The ubiquitous Paani-Puri , eaten as a snack. Avoid the road side vendor.

It could be confusing as well. So experiment. Try out a few things first. Some restaurants offer a ‘Thali’ (Thali means a plate literally), which means a full meal, and contains a good variety of things.

In most restaurants, when ordering a-la-carte, all food is served in portions good enough to share. (Unless you are in a western restaurant with entrees and all that stuff.)

So a curry can be good enough for 2 people.

A small tip about soups: They are appetisers, and are tasty. Go for a mild one. Also you can share them , ask for 1 by 2 and you will get one soup served into 2 bowls (if you are two people that is), or 2 by 3, or 2 by 4 and so on.

For breakfast: Try Parathas if you are in the north of India. Or try Idlis (rice cakes) if you are in the South.

More to come …

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