India is a breathtaking, beautiful, but at times bewildering country. Here are my tips on how to make a trip to the sub-continent run smoothly while making the budget stretch, as I learned from my recent trip to Delhi and Rajasthan with my other half — The Norwegian.
1) They say the clothes maketh the man, and in India, especially if you are a woman or are straying from the tourist trail, choosing modest clothes will certainly make your trip easier. Indian clothes will not only look beautiful, but protect you from dust, insects, impertinent stares and the sun.
The retailer fabindia has stores throughout India, and is an excellent choice. During our stay I visited many temples and forts in a salwar kameez, a long fitted tunic and the most enormous pair of drawstring trousers. Modest they may be, but flattering to the hips they ‘aint. One sweltering day on a visit to Humayun’s Tomb, a kindly yet mortified Delhi matron sidled up to me and whispered to me, “Actually, we wear these inside,” pointing to the drawstrings of my trousers that were swinging brazenly between my knees. Imagine walking into a crowded restaurant with your fly unzipped, this is the Indian equivalent.
2) Most of India is hot most of the time, and the tap water is best avoided. Apart from the environmental impact — which is hard to avoid — the cost of bottled water can really add up. Hotels seem to make a fair profit on bottled water as even the budget joints jack up the price by 50% or more. While we were staying at a cheap and cheerful place near the magical Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, we bought bottles for five rupees at the local shop down the road, whereas our guest house was charging 20. The classier hotels charge 50 rupees and more.
3) Unless you are on really tight budget, mix in one or two nights in a top-notch hotel. India does luxury so well and if you find a place that charges in rupees, it will be excellent value. After nights staying in fairly basic guest houses and sleeper trains, we splurged on a few nights in a converted 15th-century fort, The Neemrana Fort Palace Hotel, for 4,000 rupees a night. Just remember: don’t get too comfortable.
It can be a wrench to go back to basics after lounging by the pool, sipping gin and tonics on the escarpments, and eating gourmet meals under the stars while surrounded by twinkling candles and a lotus pool sprinkled with scented rose petals.
4) It has taken me up to tip number four to mention, but it had to come up eventually (sorry). Most travelers will be on their guard against the famous Delhi Belly, Mumbai Rumbles or Hyderabad I-feel-bads, as traveler’s diarrhea is variously known, and it is important to familiarize yourself with a few simple rules to help avoid it. But one thing which made a big difference to us was the daily dose of probiotics (also known as yogurt pills).
Some people have stomachs of iron. I have the stomach of a paper bag and was really worried about getting seriously sick, but these handy pills kept things in good working order and meant I could be adventurous with my food choices. They didn’t, however, help against the nasty cold both the Norwegian and I developed after our Ayudervic massages, delivered by two sneezing and sniffling masseurs. Vitamin C tablets are on the list for our next trip.
5) Avoid booking taxis from the hotel. Your best bet is to ask around at the local shops or from passing drivers, especially if you are planning a long trip. We saved 2,000 rupees by wandering down to the village near our posh hotel (see tip three) and asking at a silver shop. The owner organized everything for us, but remember to ask if any quoted price includes extras such as air-conditioning or toll charges, and try to agree again on the price with the driver before jumping in the cab.
6) As most night trains leave well after 11 p.m., you can spend an uncomfortable evening hanging out in a restaurant or a guest house lobby waiting for your train to go.
Instead why not find a top notch hotel in the area and confuse the door staff by arriving in the afternoon with your bags but not checking in? Most hotels are happy for people to do this, but it’s courteous to ask. Both times we did, we were met with wrinkled brows, but always a kind wave towards the sun loungers, a generous head wobble and, “Of course, Sir, of course.” This can make tip five harder to organize when it comes time to leave, but well worth it for the soothing evening of luxury on the cheap.
7) Most of the people you meet in India will vary from lovely and helpful to indifferent, but there are the odd few — both locals and fellow travelers — who pose a risk. The best tip when looking for a driver, guide, or a place to eat or stay, is to go for the person trying the least. If someone is pushy, avoid them.
This is especially true if you are looking for a tuk-tuk near a tourist hotspot. Just walk around the corner and you will be able to flag down a normal driver. We learned this after climbing into the laminated back seat of the tuk-tuk whose insistent driver spent a good five minutes trying to persuade us to book him for the whole day. He ended up taking us to “Delhi Hut,” his uncle’s trinket shop, rather than Dilli Haat, a famous Delhi market. A clever, but annoying trick. Before getting too paranoid though, remember most people aren’t trying to rip you off.
8) In touristy spots though, you will often get accosted on the street with calls and pleas to “Come my shop!,” “Just looking!” or “Good price!”
We found the following helpful:
“Where you from Sir?”
Even the most persistent salesman is halted even if just for a few seconds enabling a swift getaway. Portugal, Lithuania or any lesser well-known country would probably also do the trick.
9) One of the things many travelers to India find challenging is the poverty and desperation they see, which leads us to the thorny issue of dealing with beggars. You will be approached by beggars in India, and it is obviously up to you whether you give or not. Some people say pencils or pens given to children is an acceptable compromise.
I choose not to give anything, but try to learn about a reputable local charity and at the end of my holiday send them a donation. For this trip I choose the Salaam Baalak Trust, an organization that runs a number of projects and schemes with Delhi’s street children. They offer practical help as well as striving for longer term solutions. Giving alms in temples and churches is an option, but make sure it is legitimate: they should give you a receipt.
10) India is a stunning, shocking, assault on the senses. Prepare well, arrive with an open mind and you are sure to have a wonderful time.