“Just go with the flow.” If anyone has ever given you tips for travel in India, you have likely heard this phrase. It means that unexpected things are bound to happen and you should just roll with it.
I don’t know how this travel tip has become so unanimously supported as the single piece of advice given to first time travelers to India. I mean, this is India we’re talking about. It’s just not that simple.
Leading up to my trip, I received many warnings that India would be too hard, too polluted, too dangerous. I was not to be discouraged, though. I was a traveler, after all.
I thought I would be immune to the culture shock of India because I thought I knew what to expect. I’d traveled to all kinds of places without difficulty. I’d read the guidebooks and followed the blogs collecting India travel tips, preparing myself for the chaos. I could even order vindaloo at a 5/5 heat level without breaking a sweat.
“Bring it on,” I thought, “I was made for this.”
Well, I was over-confident. And chances are, so are you. If you’re thinking, “Psssh, it can’t be that hard. I’ve traveled to all kinds of places, this advice is just for newbies,” then listen up!
No matter how much you’ve traveled and no matter where you’ve been, unless you’ve been to India, then you are a newbie.
India Travel Tips for Over-Confident Travelers
Don’t force yourself to “go with the flow.”
In India, your senses will be assaulted in every way at once. Assume you will be jetlagged, crabby, possibly sick, and almost definitely hot and sweaty. People will be staring at you – a lot – and taking your picture with or without your permission, and you will be followed persistently by beggars.
The smell of burning trash will be permeating your nostrils and the dust kicked up from the circus-like procession of motorbikes, rickshaws, and cars will be caked to your eyelids. Does that sound like a scenario where you’ll be in the mood to “go with the flow”?
Let’s be real, here.
Really think about it, and evaluate yourself honestly. Don’t think about the Instagram photos you’ll post of you doing yoga poses at the Taj Mahal or taking selfies with street cows. Think about the version of yourself that is real, vulnerable, and human. The version of yourself that likes things like air conditioning and toilet paper.
I was way overconfident.
I wasn’t honest with myself about my own limits or needs for comfort. When I had completely overextended myself, and tried to do way too much, culture shock reared its ugly head as I gripped the seat of my swerving auto rickshaw with one hand and wheezed through a Kleenex held in the other. I was not in a mood to embrace the culture and “go with the flow” at that point. I was in a mood to just stop.
I wanted to find a magic soundproof box in the middle of the city with clean, cool air, a glass of potable water, and a chair, and just sit in there alone for an hour.
When I get in that state, further immersion and embracing the craziness is never the answer. But you know what does work?
If you’re used to traveling in Europe, Southeast Asia, or even Latin America, it’s easy to think you can flit from city to city, soaking up as much of the culture as possible in your limited time. Just about anywhere in the world, that would work. But in India things will not always go smoothly and they won’t always work the way you expect.
If you put too much pressure on yourself and try to do too much, you’ll just wind up disappointed and miss out on some really incredible experiences.
I know it just kills you to have to cut something out of your trip, let alone an entire city or region. So you’re really going to hate me here. I want you to cut your number of destinations in half.
I’m not saying this to be annoying or to burst your bubble. And I get it – traveling to India is such a big deal. It is so far away, and you want to see as much as you possibly can to make the most of it. But the more stops on your itinerary, the more time you’ll spend in-transit dealing with some of the hardest aspects of culture shock.
But if you slow down and give yourself time to breathe, you would be amazed what a difference it can make. Suddenly everything will seem a lot easier and you’ll be able to appreciate all of the wild, unique and incredibly beautiful aspects of India.
That is what you came for, after all, isn’t it?
Take the upgrade
Upgrade your accommodation, travel, meals, really anything if it means you’ll have an easier time. If you normally stay in hostels, consider private guesthouses in India, or if you normally stay at budget hotels, spring for luxury. If you typically take sleeper trains or long-haul buses to save money, consider spending a little extra to fly between cities. If you’re a public bus kind of traveler, pay the few dollars for a taxi.
Just one upgrade in comfort level can make extreme changes to the outcome of your day. It did for me. And in India, where most things are quite cheap, most travelers can spring for luxury without breaking the budget.
Enjoy the food!
For western travelers, India’s food scene will give you some of the most unique experiences of your travels. Each region has a completely different cuisine, and it’s worth a trip to the subcontinent if only to experience the food. There are, however, some things you need to look out for as a traveler.
It’s pretty easy to avoid getting sick as long as you follow these tips for eating in India:
- Eat only food that is fresh and cooked.
- Avoid street food, but if you must try it, find the busiest cart and make sure it looks clean.
- Avoid raw fruits and vegetables, as they are washed with tap water. Only eat these if you peel them yourself. (Pomegranates are a great option because the outer skin protects them from contamination!)
- Avoid juices and drinks from street vendors, except for coconuts. They will hack open the coconut with a machete and you can drink straight from the coconut, without risk! Just make sure the straw is clean.
- Drink and brush your teeth with bottled water.
- Avoid drinks with ice.
Also, don’t be worried about the food being too spicy! I think this myth has sort of spiraled out of control. The food in India has tons of spices but they make the food flavorful, not the hot kind of spicy. If you can handle medium heat at an Indian restaurant at home, you’ll be fine. Also, as a general rule, the further south you go in India, the spicier the food.
If you remember to follow these India travel tips and check that over-confident traveler’s ego, you can have a really incredible experience traveling in India. Just please don’t delude yourself into thinking you can speed through the country or rough it like a local!
India is not all magic and mysticism. It’s a real place with real people and real problems. Take it slow, give yourself some opportunity to adjust, and don’t make things more difficult than they need to be. Only then, will you be in a state to use the #1 India travel tip: “Just go with the flow.”
I’m Sonja Riemenschneider, a PhD chemical engineer with a dream to make travel guides. On my travel blog, Breadcrumbs Guide, I create in-depth guides to inspire people to travel independently. I tell it like it is, and will do anything to help you have the best experience possible! Subscribe here, and see where else I’m traveling on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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