I don’t know if it is the fact that Gregory David Roberts wrote a new book which inspired me to read Shantaram again, but lately, I have been thinking of India. Funny enough because I think of it even more as I am in Morocco at the moment.
A few years ago I took what I think in hindsight was a defining trip, a trip that made me want to travel always and everywhere. For this trip, I was deciding between India and Morocco. For no good reason, Morocco ‘won’, a decision I have never regretted because I have since developed a strong love for this wonderful country. I do wonder how my life would be now and where I’d be this moment had I gone to India.
As it was, India moved to the back of my mind and instead I went to Vietnam, Cambodia, Borneo, Thailand, Brazil, and Morocco over and over. It’s not that I wasn’t interested anymore, I just had other priorities and opportunities over the past few years.
When I was at home in Cape Town, I picked up Shantaram again and with that – yes, I know I’m such a cliche! – India was back on my mind. While I was in town I went to a bookstore to check out the Lonely Planet section and their issue on India was the size of 2 bricks. That scared me. Where would I even start? What did I want to see, what should I see? And yes, still that question, how safe is it for a woman to go on her own? With these and a million other questions swirling in my head, I decided to get help from an expert and do what I would do if I had a good Indian friend – ask her all my stupid and not so stupid questions. I finally found such a person online (hurrah for the internet!) and since I thought I couldn’t be the only one to be toying with the idea of India, I decided to make my conversation public.
Of course, Shivya likes German beer – that’s why I picked her!
Shivya Nath is from small town Dehradun at the base of the Himalayas. There she spent her childhood wondering what lay behind the mountains before she went to Singapore to study. A job in tourism taught her everything there is to learn about social media and 5 years ago she quit it to travel the world solo. Pretty unheard of in India. Wow. She is not only a slow traveler but prefers places that are a little less known as well as experiential accommodation and local experiences. Her blog The Shooting Star is a cumulation of her travels so far, spanning everything from solo travels, travel blogging, and of course, traveling in India. All in all, that makes Shivya the perfect person to answer some questions for first-timers in India, how to stay safe, and whether I will finally have to succumb to wearing elephant pants in order to fit in.
Shivya, help! I have never seen a Lonely Planet book bigger than the one for India. Something is just calling me to go there, but where do I even start?
India is almost like 29 countries rolled into one. Even as someone who grew up in India, I find it baffling that each state has its own culture, language, traditions, food and geography. So yes, it’s a tough one, deciding where to go on your first trip.
My recommendation would be to start with yourself. What interests you? Many people want to actualize the version of India they see in popular documentaries and hear from past travelers – the chaotic India with throngs of people and cows and temples. If so, head to the tourist spots – the golden triangle of the north, where even at the Taj Mahal, you’ll see that India is home to 1.1 billion people!
But if you really want to experience India, go beyond the tourist spots. If you love the mountains, consider spending time in a colonial homestay in the lower Himalayas or a remote village in the cold mountain deserts; you might be a little far from all your urban comforts, but it is in that that you’ll experience the real warmth and love of India, and the feeling that little is enough.
Responsible tourism – are there special things to look out for? To do or not to do that are somewhat unique to India?
Definitely. I think the concept is still at a very nascent stage in India, and there are no regulations around it. Some places – as with other parts of the world – claim they are ecotourism hubs just because they are amid nature! I would spend a fair amount of time and effort in researching community-run initiatives and accommodations that actually benefit the local ecology and community. Besides blogs, initiatives like India Untravelled, Kabani and Kipepeo can be helpful.
You are also likely to see a significant amount of poverty and poor standard of living in India, and the temptation to hand out money or goods is high. A better way to invest is to find a local organization, analyze their work as best you can and offer to make a contribution – either monetarily or by volunteering your time and skills.
Issues like elephant riding or any kind of animal entertainment are very dear to me. Are there issues in India to be especially aware of?
Like I said, these issues are still at a pretty nascent stage in India. A bit of research or asking questions goes a long way. Many animal entertainment places – like the temple elephants in Kerala or elephant interaction – are ethically questionable and best avoided. But I find that the forest department is doing a good job in helping conserve wildlife in India’s many national parks. My favorites are Panna and Kanha (amazing forests, and home to the royal Bengal tiger, though seeing one is truly upon your luck). You can also see wild elephants in Kerala’s Muthanga Wildlife Sanctuary.
What does it mean to be culturally sensitive in India?
India is, unfortunately, a pretty conservative society. Funny because at some point, we came up with the Kamasutra! So part of being culturally sensitive is to dress conservatively and not flaunt your cleavage or midrib. Avoid public displays of affection. When strangers get chatting and ask you personal questions (like why you aren’t married or what your salary is; trust me, that happens a lot, even to me!), know that they are simply curious and mean no offense.
I want to say so many other things, but I’ll just say this – India is bound to be a culture shock to any first (or tenth) time visitor. Just travel with an open mind and treat it as an adventure.
With that said, women traveling on their own in India – yay or nay? And are there certain precautions they should take?
I’d say yay, simply because it is the best way to experience a country that has much warmth to offer. The single biggest precaution – avoid tourist towns! That’s where you’re most likely to be harassed as a foreigner. The moment you go off the beaten path to a small mountain village, for instance, you’ll find that almost everyone knows everyone else, and people both welcome you with open arms and look out for you. It’s also where you’ll find solitude and beauty like nowhere else. Stay in a homestay over a hotel / guesthouse, so you have a host family looking out for you.
I mean, have you ever? That little face is just so cute!
How should a woman dress traveling in India? And do I really need to wear elephant pants?
That’s an unexpected question! Some might disagree, but I think wearing Indian-style / hippie-style clothes is not absolutely necessary in India. What matters is that you dress conservatively. Don’t show cleavage, don’t wear a hugging t-shirt, wear long pants or jeans.
Can I wear a sari or will that make me look like a silly, dressed up tourist?
Haha! But depending on where you are, you might open the door to conversation with women fascinated by your choice to wear a sari. Especially if you’re staying in a homestay, it could be interesting to go to a local event or wedding with your host family, dressed up in a sari like most other women.
And now, a question everybody is dying to know – How not to get a Delhi Belly? And if I do get, what should I take? Any special medication I should buy while there or take a supply kit with me?
I guess India is one of the few countries in the world where you can’t just eat anything you see! Sure, you can find really cheap (and enticing) street food or small roadside restaurants serving up really cheap meals. But the hygiene standards of these places are usually poor. I would recommend researching where you’re going to eat – like read reviews on TripAdvisor or see which places are crowded with locals – and budgeting a little more than the cheapest eats.
For instance, if you really want to try street food in Delhi, go to Haldirams – an outlet that offers very affordable street food but uses filtered water and high hygiene standards. You can also ask them to customize the spice level as per your taste! You know, many Indians would eat spicy food till they have tears running down their cheeks 😉
It’s probably better to get some medication along with you, so in case terror strikes, you’ll be prepared!
Are there certain “funny” customs I should know about beforehand?
Not really a custom, but you’ll find people – men AND women – staring at you. It just stems from a curiosity, and a simple smile can melt away the stares. If you find men passing comments / whistling at you, just ignore them and walk away. Eve teasing is often the first step to harassment, and you’re better off avoiding them altogether. Again, this happens far more in big cities like Delhi and tourist towns.
My cousin took a bus trip from hell in India and ever since I am very scared of the public transport. What is a safe and comfortable way to get around?
Ouch. I’d still have to say public transport, but there are hugely varying levels of those in India. In a train, for instance, you can go unreserved, sharing a hard bench with 15 other passengers! Or you can book all the way up to first class – a private coupe for two. Same with buses – the locals ones tend to be over-crowded with hard seats, but there are private air-conditioned ones that are much better and only go with reserved seats.
My suggestion would be to choose midway. Book AC chair car on day trains, AC 2 tier on overnight trains and private AC buses as far as you can – you’ll still interact with locals but have a comfortable journey. If you happen to be traveling alone, just to be on the safer side, ask the bus conductor to switch your seats so you’re sitting next to another lady.
Taj Mahal – overrated or first-timers must-do?
Despite the crowds, it’s a truly fascinating part of Indian history and I was blown over the first time I saw it. But if you’re making a long detour just to see it, I would skip it. You’ll come back to India anyway 😉
With these words you must excuse me now, I am off to buy a plane ticket…