India is a magical mix of colors, flavors, scents, sounds, and even textures. It will bombard your senses with both the good and magical and the heartbreaking. There is no country in the world where you see the contrast so deeply: the temples filled with gold and adorning Gods, with ragged stray dogs and beggars on the streets.
It is not just the contrast of rich and poor (although that is obvious nearly everywhere), but also spiritual and crude; kind and selfish; peaceful and obnoxiously loud. In India, you will find all the contrast – and some of the most incredible inner and outer beauty you can find anywhere in the world.
What You Need to Know Before Your First Trip to India
My India Connection
For me, India will always be home, although I’m not sure I’ll ever live here for more than a few months at a time. From the first time I landed in India more than a decade ago, I felt a rush of peace and familiarity, even though almost NOTHING was familiar, and I haven’t looked back since.
In all, I’ve spent over 3 years of my life in India, usually in 2-3 month blocks of time. I’ve been in the north, from Delhi to Haridwar, Rishikesh, and up into the Himalayas. I’ve been to the major spiritual centers of Varanasi and Allahabad (Prayag). And I’ve been to the south, driving from Chennai through Tamil Nadu past Pondicherry, and up through Andhra Pradesh to Tirupati.
India is a huge country with 29 states and 7 additional territories. In fact, they’ve made new states in recent years as the population continues to expand. The land mass is about 1/3 the size of the USA, while the population is currently at 1.33 billion and growing fast! That means everywhere you go there are a lot of people.
To help you make the most of your time in India, here are some great tips to prepare for your trip!
The first area of tips is regarding culture. Remember to keep an open mind about culture. This means respecting their culture, and also having an attitude of inquiry. Indians love to share their traditions with others, and if you are open and respectful, they will be happy to include you. A few general cultural points:
In big cities like Delhi or Mumbai, you can wear anything you wear at home, although generally long pants are favored over shorts.
However, if you venture into rural areas or temples, you will want to dress in a more conservative manner. That means covered shoulders, long pants, a long tunic top or kurta, and a scarf to cover the chest area for women. You can also get a local friend to help you wear a sari!
I find the prints are so beautiful, the quality of the cotton and silk exquisite, and the incredible variety of things to wear makes this a treat rather than a burden. As a bonus, kurtas and long tops are becoming popular in the west, so you will come back with a great new wardrobe!
Shops I Recommend:
If you are starting out in Delhi or Mumbai, you can get everything you need by shopping at Biba, Anokhi, and W (used to be called Westfield). There are malls in Delhi like the Ambiance Mall in Gurgaon that have an excellent variety of shops.
For a more authentic modern Indian experience, head to Khan Market in Delhi for all these shops, plus beautiful house wares and more. Be sure to try the delicious French pastries in L’Opera in Khan Market as well!
If you are looking for local handicrafts in Delhi, head to Dilli Haat, where you can find handmade items including carpets, saris, pottery, crafts, and more.
If you are feeling really adventurous and up for negotiating, you can head to Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi for saris, kurtas, and more, but honestly I’d stick with the malls.
India is the land of temples, and each one celebrates one or more forms of the divine connecting and adoring that quality of spirituality on earth and connecting individuals to this higher intelligence. People go for temples as family outings, to pray to get good grades on tests, to pray for a child, or to pray for supreme liberation (enlightenment). For everything, the temples are the center of India culture.
While you are in India, I’d definitely recommend experiencing the temples and see how you feel. I also like to meditate in any temple I visit. You can ask the hotel or any locals for important temples in the area. Almost anywhere in India will have some temples of important cultural and historical significance. You can feel the spiritual power!
Once at the temple, you can hire a local Pandit (priest) to take you through the temple and make the appropriate offerings for about 500-1000 rupees. Just be open and follow their guidance.
As mentioned above, they really appreciate if you wear traditional clothing for your temple visit, and you will be received more warmly. But at the very least, you will need to be covered up or you may not be allowed in.
A few additional points about temple visits:
- You always leave your shoes outside as a sign of respect. Actually, this is also true of most homes and many smaller shops in India as well.
- Whenever you make offerings in the temple, use your right hand, or use both hands. To use your left hand is considered disrespectful (but they’ll give you a pass if you forget).
- You should not go into a temple or attend a puja or yagya while you have your period. This is true in most Hindu cultures. It’s fine to go shopping, out to eat or anything else, but it is important to them, and their trust of western women, that we respect this cultural request.
- Because most rivers are considered Goddesses in India, the same period rule applies to getting into the rivers or boating on them: avoid during your period. I realize this could be a whole cultural discussion – let me know if you’re curious and we can have a whole post on it.
- When they give you a few drops of water to drink as a part of the Puja in the temple, I will often put it on my head to avoid drinking it for health reason. Which brings us to our next points – health!
A lot of these tips center are related to health, because although India is rising fast in the world, the sanitation has not yet caught up. In addition, there are many different strains of viruses and bacteria that you may not have been exposed to before, so unless you grew up in India it is good to be careful. Here are the main tips to keep you health and feeling great during your trip.
One of the main sources of uncomfortable and troublesome viruses and bacteria is the water. Therefore here are a few of my key rules:
- Always drink bottled or RO purified water.
- Be sure all plates and utensils are dry before you use them.
- Brush your teeth with bottled water. This includes rinsing your toothbrush. Yes, it is annoying. Yes, it will also (hopefully) save you from many uncomfortable stomach bugs.
- Following the above, keep your mouth closed when you shower. Be sure not to breathe in the water (weird, but it does happen).
- I find that my skin often breaks out from the water in India. If that happens to you, after your shower do a final rinse with bottled or purified water.
- If you are cutting fresh fruit, give it a final rinse in purified water before cutting into it. With that, I think you get the idea.
Because of the above mentioned health concerns, in general, you want food that is freshly prepared. If it is cooked, it should be piping hot. If it is fresh, it should be freshly cut.
In general, if you are eating fresh foods at all, they should only be thick-skinned fruits and vegetables that can be peeled. If you want the gross details on why the others are probably not clean – let me know in the comments.
More safe fruits you can eat are papaya, watermelon, banana, oranges, and pomegranate. You’ll want to avoid grapes, apples (unless you peel them), and fresh carrots and tomatoes. You’ll also want to avoid fresh fruit juice as the fruits are not always washed and the juice is sometimes mixed with unpurified water.
And, as if this list isn’t long enough: you’ll also want to avoid eating from street vendors. I know they are tempting. Just imagine them rolling those delicious looking laddus in gravel and cow poop and your desire for them will diminish. Yes, in India that is totally possible.
But never fear! India has some of the most delicious cuisine in the world! Favor hotel restaurants and other restaurants known to have good sanitation standards. You can always ask for local recommendations. In many places you can get a thali, which is a complete meal, for 80-300 rupees and be totally satisfied.
And finally, you can also buy some of those delicious fruits and vegetables and cook them yourself! The fresh fruits and vegetables are fresh, varied, and I’m sure you will enjoy the food.
Internet and Technology
To communicate in India, you’ll want to pick up an Airtel Sim card in the airport when you land in Delhi on Mumbai. You can put that into your unlocked cell phone and use it for most of your Internet and calling needs. Even International calls are relatively cheap from the Sim card, so an emergency call home won’t break the bank.
Wifi in hotels is notoriously bad, although you might get lucky. If you need more Internet than your cellphone provides you can get a dongle from Jeo that will give you a reliable 4G connection. A local can help you to get the Jeo dongle in larger cities.
Electrical Outlets and Electrical Surges
Indian electrical outlets are unique to India, but EU plugs will fit in them. That means any adaptors you have for Europe will also work in India. But there is one important point: the power often goes off in India, and when it comes back on, it surges. This will destroy your electronics quickly. One mistake can cost you a computer. I’ve had friends who lost computers in one power outage. Yikes.
You will want a good surge protector. But even with that, I usually remove anything from electrical outlets when the lights go out – that way they are disconnected when the power surges.
India and Spirituality
India is the place to come for spirituality. There is nowhere else in the world with deep spirituality so woven into the land, the temples, the cities, and the hearts of the people. Come and experience the sense-overwhelming variety of India, but be sure to settle and experience the deep spirituality that is the essence of India. I promise, it won’t disappoint you.
I’d love to hear: have you been to India? What was your favorite part?
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