Have you always dreamed of experiencing the colours & chaos of India? Of visiting the home of the world’s oldest religions? Are you a little nervous of getting Delhi-belly, being ripped off or suffering culture shock? The truth is, India can feel overwhelming, but the best approach really is to accept it & get on with your trip. Distract yourself with guidebooks, browse the last minute flight deals & before you know it you’ll be sipping chai on a street corner while watching cows hold up the traffic.
India’s potentially overwhelming factors are the sheer number of people, high poverty levels & inescapable piles of dirt. There are also unending scams & people who want something from you.
The dirt is easy enough – take plenty of anti-bacterial hand spray & follow sensible precautions about drinking-water, ice & food hygiene. If it all gets too much, having a little cash lets you retreat into a nice restaurant, or pay for a night in a special hotel. You can travel first class on the trains by booking in advance.
Decide how you intend to deal with beggars before you arrive. We gave small change whenever we had it, but never to children. We also researched & donated to charities that work with the most needy, which sent our cash towards the causes of poverty, as well as patching its symptoms.
For the scams, the best advice I can give is to accept that it will happen, & that you can ruin your trip by being suspicious of everybody who speaks to you. You might pay 10 times the going rate for a taxi, or be conned by a moving sob story. But it’s rarely going to cost you more a pint of beer at home. It is a horrible feeling when it happens, but try to keep it in perspective.
Some simple scam-avoidance tactics:
1) Sounds too good to be true? You know the drill. The moto rickshaw driver promising a $2 all-day tour of the city will take you to every antique shop in town. Genuine rare gems at bargain prices will be glass. That incredible exchange rate, at best, will leave you with less cash than you counted on.
2) Do your research. Knowledge is the best armour against the majority of scams. Make sure your guide book has good maps, & print out relevant information before you leave. Internet cafes let you check up-to-date info. There’s not much wifi, but the ‘Cafe Coffee Day’ chain was rolling it out across their outlets as we were leaving.
3) Trust your guidebook. The attraction/ticket office/hotel has not burned down. It is not closed & your new friend’s brother is not the right person to help you.
4) Book hotels in advance. Consider getting a local sim card for your phone. It’s much easier to breeze through the touts at the station if you know where you’re going, & having a phone lets you call the hotel if something goes wrong.
India is an extraordinary country. It would be sad if a fear of it becoming too much stopped you from visiting. The cliché is true – you will love it, hate it, & probably want to go back.