Travel Tips: India

Writer & Editor

Travel Tips: India

Where we went

In July 2015, my then-boyfriend and I went to India for two weeks. Our main reason for the trip was to attend the wedding of a good friend, but we were also excited to see such a different part of the world.

Swimming in Goa.

Swimming in Goa.

We visited several cities within the states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Goa. These are all located in the south of India (so the following advice may be completely irrelevant if you’re going to a different part of the country).

 

At the botanical gardens in Ooty.

At the botanical gardens in Ooty, Tamil Nadu.

India in July?

Before we left, everyone told us July was the worst time of year to go. Not only would there be the torrential rains of the monsoon, but India was also experiencing a major heat wave. However, either they were exaggerating or we were incredibly lucky, because we had sunny blue skies almost every day.

Fresh air at the top of Ooty hill.

Fresh air in the Nilgiri mountains.

We did get caught in the rain a few times, but there was no wading through knee-high puddles or getting soaked through in under 30 seconds. (I’ll admit I was slightly disappointed not to have had the full “monsoon experience,” but at least we never had to worry about our luggage being permanently damp.)

The view.

Surrounded by tea plantations.

Getting your visa

When planning your trip, the first thing you need to do is get a visa to enter India. It’s pretty easy for Canadians to do online at https://indianvisaonline.gov.in/visa/tvoa.html.

The form is somewhat confusing, but apparently they never check the minor details (whether or not they check the major details is open to debate).

Once you’re approved, they email you a form that you have to print and show upon arrival in India. They’ll stamp your passport when you pass through immigration at the airport – that stamp is your actual official visa.

Boarding the plane.

Our Coimbatore-Chennai flight.

Navigating airports

Have your boarding pass ready when you get off the plane

For some reason, they check everyone’s boarding passes again after the flight has already happened.

Mumbai airport

The Mumbai airport is super fancy. (All low-quality photos in this post were taken with my ancient iPod Touch.)

Remember to get your bag label stamped

At the airport security gates, you need to attach a label to your bag and have the label stamped by the person who watches the bags pass through the x-ray box thing on the conveyor belt.

Nobody will tell you this needs to happen. There won’t be any signs saying “get your stamp here.” That would be far too simple.

Instead, you’ll proceed through the x-ray step in blissful ignorance, head to the next checkpoint, and be denied entry. Then after a great deal of miscommunication you’ll discover that you lack the proper bag label, and the only solution is to get back in line and go through the conveyor belt/metal-detector process all over again.

Don’t make the same mistakes we did: get your label, and get it stamped!

Mitigating health concerns

I visited a tropical diseases clinic (CHUM in Montreal) before the trip. They made sure all the typical vaccines were up to date (Hepatitis A and B, tetanus, etc.), and gave me a flu shot.

Not where you want to end up.

Government hospital – not where you want to end up.

Indigestion

I paid $100 for Dukoral, a drinkable concoction that’s supposed to prevent traveller’s diarrhea. It’s taken in two doses, one week apart.

Pros: I didn’t get sick at all in India.
Cons: I had a slightly upset stomach for a week after taking the first dose.

Was it worth it?

Well, my boyfriend skipped the Dukoral, and he didn’t get sick either. So if you’re going to be as careful as we were about what you eat and drink in India, you probably don’t need it, unless you really value the extra peace of mind.

Malaria

The clinic also gave me a prescription for malaria prevention pills because Goa is a risk zone. I took the first pill the day before going to Goa and felt nauseous all day.

Our Goan cottage.

Our Goan cottage.

Once we arrived at our cottage, the couple who ran the place told us the malaria pills are essentially useless. They said you can still get malaria even while taking them, because they only prevent a few strains of the disease, and the pills make you feel sick during what is supposed to be a vacation!

So… I didn’t take any more malaria pills. A wise decision? Perhaps not, but I’m still alive.

Update 6/5/2019: I just visited another travel clinic, and the doctor there told me malaria pills aren’t supposed to have any nausea-inducing effects. Maybe it was all in my head? He also said I should definitely have been taking the anti-malaria pills in Goa. So yes, not taking them was extremely unwise.

Inside the cottage at Olaulim Backyards.

Inside the cottage.

(P.S. The place we stayed in Goa – Olaulim Backyards – was totally awesome and thoroughly deserves its 5-star TripAdvisor rating.)

Insects

The doctor gave me a lot of advice on this subject:

  • When traveling to Goa or other mosquito-heavy areas, bring insect repellent with at least 30% DEET.
    • The doctor recommended a cream formula instead of a spray because it’s easier to know exactly where you’ve applied the cream, so you can make sure you’ve covered all exposed skin.
My bug-avoidance outfit, which could only be improved by wearing socks with the sandals.

My bug-bite-avoidance outfit, which could only be improved by wearing socks with the sandals (and a mesh bug hat).

  • Also note that insect repellent will cancel out the effects of sunscreen unless you apply the repellent first, wait 15 minutes, and then apply the sunscreen.
    • Fortunately there aren’t too many bugs during the day, so I usually applied sunscreen in the morning and insect repellent at night.
    • The combination of sunscreen and bug cream, as you may imagine, leaves one smelling less than delightful. There’s really no way around it, since even if you shower frequently, the mosquitoes begin attacking as soon as you step out of the water.
  • Bugs are the worst at dawn and dusk, which is why I suggest wearing thick pants and a long-sleeved shirt at these times.
    • Make sure the material is thick enough that mosquitoes can’t bite through it – thin, stretchy fabrics won’t work, which rules out leggings and workout tops.
    • You should also cover your hands, neck, and feet (including the soles, if you’re wearing sandals) in bug cream.

My boyfriend ignored most of this advice on the first day, and woke up looking like he had a serious case of bacne. (It was bug bites.)

What happens when you ignore the advice above.

What happens when you ignore the advice above.

Eating

If you don’t want to get sick, keep the following food safety tips in mind. We followed them pretty closely (transgressions included ice cream at the wedding and ketchup from a refillable squeeze bottle – but who’s perfect?).

  • Only eat food that was recently boiled or fried.
    • This means no fresh fruit (unless it has a peel, and you peeled it yourself), no raw vegetables, and no dairy products whatsoever. Bread is ok, since it’s generally freshly baked.
Yum!

All safe to eat.

  • Do not eat street food (i.e., from carts or stalls), no matter how delicious it looks.
  • Avoid spicy food.
    • The idea is that if your digestive system does get upset, at least it won’t be overloaded with the additional burden of having to process spicy food. Obviously, Indian cuisine is famous for its spice, but where we were (in the south) it wasn’t hard to find less-spicy choices.
  • (Potentially) Clean off your banana leaf.
    • Lots of food in south India is served on a banana leaf. I read that you should clean off your leaf with bottled water before the food is put on it. However, it’s a bit awkward to take out your water bottle and start emptying it all over your leaf in the middle of a banquet hall. I saw several wedding guests sprinkling a few drops of water onto their leaves, but that didn’t look very effective. Am I missing something here? Perhaps a sprinkling is better than nothing, but I just ate the food straight off the uncleaned leaf – and again, I’m still alive.
Yum!

Yum! (Aside from the yogurt and raw fruit.)

  • Eat with your right hand only.
    • This one doesn’t really have to do with food safety, and I’m sure it will be the first thing you read in any guidebook, but it’s still important to remember. It is considered very rude to eat with your left hand.

After all of those warnings about food safety, hopefully I didn’t scare you away from Indian food altogether. Almost everything we ate during our trip was incredibly fresh and flavourful.

Those donuts were amazing.

Those donuts were amazing.

Breakfast

Breakfast was probably the best meal of the day: the coffee was rich and deliciously spiced with things I can’t identify; the eggs tasted light and delicate, and somehow they even smelled extra egg-y; the slices of bacon were substantially meaty, not like our wafer-thin crisps; and the hotels we stayed at had freshly baked (or more likely fried) doughnuts topped with sprinkles.

Lunch and dinner

We often had chicken that was juicy and fall-apart tender, completely unlike the “seasoned” chicken breasts we often find here (which are more like a pureed mystery substance that’s been reconstituted into a breast-like shape).

At the mall food court.

At the mall food court.

Super yum!

Super yum!

At the mall food court.

Almost done.

If I couldn’t decide what to order, I had whichever fish the waiter recommended, with rice and an accompanying sauce. It was unfailingly delicious.

Chinese food is also popular in south India, and we found fried rice and Chinese-style fried chicken at most restaurants and hotels. (We probably ingested a year’s worth of MSG in two weeks, but it was worth it.)

Drinking

  • Don’t drink anything that didn’t come in a sealed bottle/can that you opened yourself.
  • Use ONLY bottled water for brushing your teeth.
  • Keep your mouth shut in the shower and while washing your face.
  • Don’t put any ice cubes in your drinks. Even at five-star hotels, the water they use to make the ice – or the containers they store it in – can be filthy.

Untreated water has perhaps the greatest potential to wreak havoc on your digestive system.

However, a few drops of water definitely did get in my mouth while showering and washing my face, and I swallowed a whole mouthful of river water when we went whitewater rafting.

Whitewater rafting in Goa.

I accidentally swallowed some of this river water, and nothing bad happened. A point for Dukoral? (Probably not, since our guide said the water was safe anyway.)

Miraculously, my intestines did not spontaneously combust, and I was completely fine. So if you do accidentally swallow some untreated water, you might still be okay; and in any case, there’s no point making yourself sick with worry.

Sightseeing

Obligatory photo of cows blocking our path.

Obligatory photo of cows blocking our path.

Always have a map

Taxi drivers will sometimes pretend to know where they’re going, even if they don’t. So download a GPS map of the area whenever your phone has WiFi.

A bit of culture shock in Coimbatore.

Hustling, bustling Coimbatore..

Before approaching any tourist attraction, hide your camera and/or video camera in your bag

If the ticket booth people notice them, they’ll charge you an additional entrance fee just for the privilege of bringing these inside.

My boyfriend and I didn’t bring a camera (we just used the ones on our phones – well, he used his phone and I used the aforementioned ancient iPod) and they would sometimes ask if we had one; we felt no remorse about saying we did not. Moral theorists may weigh in as to whether we should feel bad about this.

BYOB – Bathroom items, that is

Outside of the fanciest hotels, toilet facilities will not be what you are used to.

You might not be able to tell, but every bit of surface in this public bathroom stall is wet (walls included).

You might not be able to tell, but the entire surface of this public bathroom was wet (walls included).

Make sure you always bring packets of kleenex and hand sanitizer, as you will find neither toilet paper nor soap.

This mall appeared to have an impressive bathroom...

This mall appeared to have an impressive bathroom…

...But look at the state of the hand dryer.

…But look at the state of the hand dryer.

What to wear

Men: Western-style shirt and pants

In big cities the men generally wear cotton pants, button-down shirts, and sandals. My boyfriend did bring one pair of cotton pants, but apart from that he only had quick-drying athletic t-shirts and shorts.

Mr. Boyfriend.

Mr. Boyfriend.

If only we’d known about the unofficial uniform of shirt and pants, he could have worn those to the wedding instead of the Indian kurta he bought. He did look rather dashing, but he was the only male guest in traditional attire.

Women: salwar kameez, t-shirt and pants, or dress over leggings

Most places in India still retain their traditional, conservative values, which are particularly noticeable when it comes to women’s clothing.

Those sandals are from Crocs – highly recommended.

Visiting a fort.

Any travel guide will advise female travellers to cover their legs and shoulders. You probably don’t want to wear anything too tight or too flashy, or anything that shows cleavage.

Covering up can feel counter-intuitive when the Indian climate is so hot – for instance, temperatures in Chennai were around 40 degrees (104 F) every day of our trip. But think of this approach as helping to keep the sun off your skin, rather than hindering you from wearing your favourite pair of shorts.

Most of my outfits consisted of a pair of loose pants and a quick-drying t-shirt or a knee-length, shoulder-covering dress over leggings.

My wedding-guest outfit.

My wedding-guest outfit.

Common sense

Know what you’ll do if your wallet gets stolen

Before the trip, make photocopies of all your important documents and pieces of ID, then scan them and email them to yourself. If they get lost or stolen, at least it will be easier to have them replaced.

You should also print out several sheets of paper listing the phone numbers of your emergency contacts, the nearest embassy, etc. Keep one in your hotel safe, one in each of your bags, and one on your person at all times (even better if you memorize them).

Inform your credit card company of your travel plans

Even if you’re not planning to use the card, you don’t want it to be declined in an emergency.

(Potentially) be safe when getting in taxis

I heard that before getting in a taxi, you should take a picture of the taxi’s license plate and tell the driver that you’re sending it to someone you know. We didn’t bother doing this, but I might have if I’d been traveling alone.

The 3-wheeled yellow vehicle at right is a tuk-tuk.

The three-wheeled yellow vehicle at right is a tuk-tuk.

We also heard you shouldn’t take a tuk-tuk (auto-rickshaw) after dark, but we did anyway. Again, not something I would have done alone.

Do not feed the wildlife

Especially do not feed any dogs or monkeys you come across. You do not want to end up like the friend of a friend I heard about:

While hiking in the jungle, he tried to get a monkey to come closer by holding out a piece of food. He kept teasing it… until finally it came so close that it bit him on the arm.

This would have been a photo of a monkey, but early iPod technology wasn't quite up to the task.

This would have been a photo of a monkey, but early iPod technology wasn’t quite up to the task.

This was definitely an idiotic thing to be doing, but reserve your judgment until you hear his punishment: since doctors weren’t sure what diseases the monkey may have been carrying, he had to undergo immediate treatment for HIV/AIDS, hepatitis A, and hepatitis B. My friend said his face has been green since the treatment began.

Suggested reading

A quiet place to read (Olaulim Backyards, Goa).

A quiet place to read (Olaulim Backyards, Goa).

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

☆☆☆☆☆

A true story of people trying to survive in a Mumbai slum. It’s nonfiction, though it reads like a novel; the author spent years in Mumbai conducting research for the book, and expertly weaves together the lives of the real people who live there.

It’s the type of book that makes you feel ashamed to admit that even though you’ve read it, you continue to live your comfortable first-world life and complain about the same minuscule annoyances you’ve always complained about, and so far you’ve done absolutely nothing to change the state of the world. Read it anyway.

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

☆☆☆☆☆

This epic semi-autobiographical novel follows the life of an escaped Australian convict as he makes a new life in Mumbai. It’s extremely long, and the first 100 pages are quite boring, but once you make it through that part the subsequent tales of slums, prisons, gang warfare and illegal gunrunning will keep you hooked until the end.

It’s not all about violence – there’s also romance, and family ties, and communities working together (though the author does get a little too sentimental at times).

This is also a great book if you’re trying to improve your vocabulary. I’d recommend reading it on an e-reader, because every few pages I found myself having to look up a word’s definition.

The Toss of a Lemon by Padma Viswanathan

☆☆

When I was 12, I wanted to read a book set in India, and my local librarian said this was the only one she could think of, even though it would probably be way too adult-y for me (as in adult themes, to specify).

Well, she was right, and I only read a few pages of this book before giving up. I haven’t attempted it since, but maybe I would appreciate it more now. If you’re the type to enjoy a long literary novel that “uses life itself as its plot” (in the words of the National Post’s reviewer) then this is the book for you.

The Namesake by Jhumpha Lahiri

☆☆☆☆

This book is rather contentious among book lovers. I loved it (although my favourite Lahiri book is Unaccustomed Earth); but several people I know found it way too long and full of the types of insignificant details that English majors believe represent the mysteries of life, and everyone else rolls their eyes at (perhaps making it unfavourably comparable to The Toss of a Lemon).

Regardless, it mostly takes place in the US, so if you want to read a book that will remind you of where you are while traveling, pick a different one (perhaps Interpreter of Maladies if you like short stories).

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

☆☆☆

The story of a man who escapes from poverty in rural India, using any means necessary. The plot is more of a slow build than the other books on this list, but it’s worth reading if you want a modern, critically-acclaimed novel on the theme of globalization.

More references

Apparently MSG is not even that bad for you:
http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2005/jul/10/foodanddrink.features3.

If you are interested in learning more about Indian clothing, this visual glossary is a great place to start:
http://thesari-torialist.tumblr.com/glossary.

Oprah is a good example of how not to behave while eating:
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2178765/Oprah-Winfrey-draws-India-remark-people-eat-hands.html.

© Kate Stern | kate [at] katerstern.com