What you need to know before travelling to India
I don’t know one person who isn’t at least intrigued when it comes to India. For the western’s eye, India sounds mysterious, enchanting, full of different customs and traditions. Let’s be honest most of us get our ideas of what India has to offer from Bollywood films and/or random media coverage. Both mediums usually offer a distorted image of India. Bollywood films glamourise it, presenting it as if people would burst out dancing and singing at any moment, and media coverage usually shows the poverty and “underdeveloped side” of India.
When I travelled and then stayed in India for a few months I was blown away by its culture, food, people and history. The country is so big that everything changes from North to South, and especially between the countryside and the big cities. I was based in Mumbai, where I worked as a production assistant for a film production company (Excel Productions) and worked for pre-production for the Amazon original series Inside Edge. During the weekends, I travelled up north to Rishikesh, Agra and spent a weekend in the countryside a few hours south from Mumbai.
HEALTH & SAFETY
This was one of the first questions & doubts I had before going to India. I wanted to know if the country is safe for a young woman and also what to do if I get the infamous Delhi belly (which I did not get from street food but by eating at KFC at the airport – not fun).
During my stay in Mumbai, I stayed in a hotel really close to Juhu beach ( literally 5 minutes walk and I would be at the beach). I always felt safe, had great customer service, room service and dry cleaning (which I found more affordable at the hotel than at other local spots in Mumbai). Depending on your stay I would recommend you get an Airbnb rather than staying at a hotel. I did have the luxury of having breakfast included, which was great cause I could go have breakfast and then go straight to work, however, after 2 months I missed having my own kitchen and just a normal house.
Mumbai always felt really safe. My main means of transportation was taking rickshaws (they are not available in every part of the city/country), Ola or Uber. If you are a foreigner, locals do tend to ask you for photos or sometimes they just take them and not ask at all. It can be annoying but I never had an experience where I felt unsafe.
Indian food is one of my favourite cuisines in the world. As long as you stick to bottled or filtered water, stay away from ice & wash your fruit and vegetables with filtered water you should be fine. I had some street food, however, when the monsoon season started I tried to stay away from it, as advised by local friends.
Even if you take all precautions you might still get Delhi belly. I got it after travelling to Delhi (ironically) and eating KFC at the airport. The next few days were anything but fun. I did not take any medicine and it kinda went off by itself, but that depends on your immune system and how fast your body adapts to the new climate, water, spices, etc. This is completely different for everyone.
HOW SHOULD I DRESS?
India is hot & humid, really humid. So try and bring clothes that are very breathable and comfortable. I ended up buying cotton kurtas from Mumbai and honestly that’s what I wore the most.
Depending on where you stay you would dress more modernly or more conservatively. Mumbai is very open-minded, so as long as you are comfortable (heat-wise), you can dress however you want. But trust me it’s not the most comfortable thing to sit in rickshaw wearing shorts. If you don’t want to get much attention, I say you dress a bit conservatively, dresses that are up to your knee or cover it, same with trousers, and maybe t-shirts and no crop tops, but that is up to you. However, if you go to the countryside, temples, religious ceremonies, please do dress accordingly and avoid having all eyes on you.
It was my second day in Mumbai, I was walking around the neighbourhood when I saw a temple. I was wearing shorts and a tank top, but I thought I might just ask if I can still enter dressed like this. The people at the entrance said there was no problem so I went ahead, took my sandals off and ventured in. I was definitely standing out, so one of the monks approached me and offered to give me a tour of the temple and tell me about its history, which was very interesting. Needless to say that was the last time I entered a temple wearing shorts.
I had a few experiences going to Hindu and Krishna temples, as well as going to the Ganga Aarti ceremony. The ceremony took place in the evening when it was already dark outside. People gathered by the Ganges and there were mantras/prayers recited on speakers. If you want to give a puja, you can pay someone to say the prayer to mama Ganga (the river Ganges), and you can place the flowers + candles down the river. It can be quite an overwhelming experience as there are a lot of people and I had no idea what was going on. However, I do recommend going to a Ganga Aarti as it is such an unique experience. The ceremony takes place daily in certain cities such as Rishikesh and Varanasi.
THINGS TO KNOW
AVOID GOING DURING EXTREME WEATHER – I was in India during summer and monsoon season, and even if the raining season can disrupt a lot of your plans (i.e. there was water up to the cars’ window), it is a bit more bearable than the scorching sun. The best time to go is between October & March when apparently the weather is drier & just warm. I was in India between June and August.
PACK ACCORDINGLY – Pack breathable, lightweight clothes, when available go for cotton, linen and natural fabrics that will allow your skin to breathe.
DRINK ONLY BOTTLED WATER – Tap water is not safe in India, so make sure to avoid fresh salads (if you don’t know what water they washed with, however there are many salad bars that are safe and delicious), iced drinks or anything that might have tap water.
PUBLIC TRANSPORT VS CAR – There is no secret that having your own car or driver makes things easier anywhere in the world, and it’s not different in India. However, if you do not want to book a car & driver, you can definitely travel around by bus and rickshaws. I took a non-AC bus from Agra to Delhi and even if it was not the most comfortable drive I felt safe at all times and I definitely saved a lot of money. If you do want to invest a bit, having a driver is super convenient, only make sure the driver speaks English. I had a driver who did not and it was a hustle to communicate for the three days I travelled around Rishikesh.
BRING YOUR OWN TOILET PAPER – Many hotels don’t include toilet paper as many people only use the wet method (cleaning with a water faucet). I was a big fan of it, but if you are not, make sure to buy your own toilet paper to avoid an unpleasant moment.