India is an incredible country – but a bewildering, daunting one too. Will you get Delhi belly? What to wear? How much to budget? This guide will help you sort fact from fiction...
The food is amazing…
Before my trip, I was told there are only two things guaranteed on the menu in India: lentil curry and Delhi belly. The street food? “Too dirty”. Meat? “Don’t eat it – it’s not worth the risk”. I have no idea how India got its reputation for having terrible food, but I can assure you it’s absolute tosh. Sure, like anywhere, there are some questionable restaurants, but most are fantastic – and serve all kinds of delicacies you’d never find at your local curry house. Crispy samosas and grilled paneer (cheese); spicy lamb curry and mild veggie medleys… all fresh, varied, and utterly delicious. Most restaurants have their own traditional-style bread oven, a super-hot pit from which pillowy naans and chapatis emerge – ready to be dunked into curries or wrapped around juicy grilled chicken. I didn’t get Delhi belly, and nor did anyone else in my group – and we ate pretty much whatever was in front of us. The usual rules apply: drink bottled water, avoid salads and fruit you can’t peel, and beware undercooked meat. I was told I’d lose half a stone – I didn’t. I put on 5lbs instead.
…but the wine is not
Wine is expensive in India, and usually disappointing – best saved for cooking, as my mother would say. But good news: the beer is brilliant, and the gin is plentiful! Though if G&Ts are your tipple, remember that ice is off-limits (it’s usually made with tap water).
On a budget? No problem.
Your Rupees will go a long way: India is fabulously cheap. A meal in a decent restaurant costs just a few pounds, while a top-notch cup of chai (spicy sweet tea) will set you back pennies. Expect to pay around £80 a night for a top-class hotel, or a fiver for a hostel bed. As a Londoner well-versed in penny-pinching, I felt like a Russian oligarch as I flitted between five-star hotels, swigging gin cocktails and ordering three-course banquets for lunch.
But be generous with your cash
According to World Bank, an authority on international development, 22% of India’s population lives in poverty. That’s 270 million people. Wherever you go, you will see a fraction of that poverty – in all its shocking, humbling reality. People at home may tell you not to give to beggars – “You’re encouraging them to rely on foreign tourists,” they say – but screw that. Give as generously as you can, because you can. And also because Indian people are so darn generous themselves. They are friendly, polite, and always quick to smile – generous with their time, their food, their money. I was overwhelmed by the warmth of the welcome wherever we went. Travel with your eyes and mind open, and you’ll have the time of your life.
Bring your favourite clothes
The tailors in India – especially in Jaipur and Udaipur – are outstanding. They can whip up made-to-measure suits and dresses in just a few hours, and skirts and shirts in the blink of an eye. You choose the fabric, and off they go; they’ll even hand-deliver your garments to your hotel when they’re done. If you bring a favourite outfit with you, they can copy it too – even making alterations if the original has always been a little too tight/long/low-cut. If, like me, your idea of a good shopping trip is buying one great garment in *all* the colours, it’s a dream come true.
It’s important to dress modestly in India, to avoid unwanted attention or unwittingly causing offence. That rule goes for both sexes. But modest doesn’t mean drab. Indian people love wearing bright, bold colours – so you should too!
Barter, but not too hard
Haggling in bazaars is expected – indeed, it’s part of the fun. Work out (in your head) how much you’d be happy to pay, then ask the shopkeeper for his ‘best price’. And let the fun begin! Keep your haggling good natured – politeness and a smile go a long way – and remember who has to make a living here. You’ll encounter countless street hawkers, too – usually selling souvenirs such as postcards, pens, and tiny Taj Mahals. It can be intimidating when they descend en masse, but don’t be put off: these little trinkets only cost a few Rupees, and if you’re not interested then just don’t make eye contact – they’ll soon move on to someone new.
Get your vaccinations
Go to the travel clinic a couple of months before your holiday, and get up-to-date advice on the vaccinations required. I was astounded to find that some people in my group hadn’t – simply because they are scared of needles. I’m more scared of Hepatitis B! And tetanus! But maybe that’s just me. It’s unlikely you’ll actually need protection, but it’s a load off your mind nonetheless.
It’s nice to travel in a group
If this is your first time to India, it’s probably best not to go it completely alone – even if that means joining an organised tour for the first day or two of your trip, to ease yourself into the country. Chances are, you’ll be flying into Delhi – a bewildering city at the best of times, and intimidating at the worst. Treat yourself to a plush hotel, and take a couple of days to get your bearings. And remember: it’s pretty much impossible to get lost in India, because tuk-tuks (rickshaws) are everywhere – and they’ll whisk you back to your hotel in a heartbeat.
Explore a cultural hodgepodge of sights, sounds and smells on one of our tailor-made India holidays.