Before heading off to our around the world trip, people were shocked to hear that we wanted to see India. „What? After all that's happened?“ Everytime I read or saw the news about India, I was shocked. And I am still. But I have wanted to see this country for such a long time that I tried to make the best of it. I was happy that my boyfriend was willing to give it a try.
To start with, traveling within India is not easy. There were quite a lot of obstacles we had to deal with: the heat, trash piles, pollution, bad smells, homeless people, the amount of people at one place, stray dogs, etc.
It's quite important to expect that you will have a difficult time. Especially if you're backpacking. Here are some tricks and tips that may help you for your next trip.
It is exhausting to travel in this country. Especially when you go backpacking and you end up in cheap lodging like we did on our first stop in Mumbai. Do not book the cheapest place, it will be horrible if your stay in India starts like ours. Slow down. Arrive at the hotel, take a shower and rest for a bit before you head out into the bustling city. It will make a big difference. It was also the first time I had ever experienced smog. The pollution in Mumbai is high, and the same is true for New Delhi. Apparently, one day spent in Mumbai is equivalent to 100 cigarettes a day. I'm glad I just read about this fact just before leaving India. Some days the weather forecast will only say: 'fog'. The traffic is pure chaos, but to my surprise, I didn't see a single accident during the 35 days of our stay. There are no traffic rules, you just have to fight your way through it. Sometimes I sat in Rikshas and enjoyed watching all of the different traffic scenes. Sometimes I was very tired of all the honking and the stress. Anyway, the traffic somehow magically works out, even with (almost) no rules. In the capital New Delhi though, traffic accidents are 40 times higher than in the United Kingdom's capital, London. I am happy I didn't see any.
Renting a motorbike in the touristy town of Goa is tempting. We decided against it as lots of Indian tourists get drunk and drive around like crazy. If you rent out one, insist on receiving helmets. I saw some foreign couples driving around with kids on their bike without helmets. Seriously? If you don't do that kind of stuff in your home country, why would you put your kids in such a dangerous situation on vacation?
To use most of the Indian apps, you need an indian SIM card. It's quite complicated as you have to know someone who will apply for it. At our first night in Mumbai a guy at the hotel offered us to organize one for us. Do not go for TATA, instead go for Vodafone, but be sure and discuss the price.
Uber is the best app for affordable cab rides in cities. Whether it was Mumbai, Bangalore or New Delhi, it always worked out perfectly and I felt very safe as a woman. A driver uses his private car and has a profile on Uber with his name and his references. They will even pick you up from the airport or train station if you are willing to walk a few metres away from the main entrance as they are banned from there. If other cab drivers ask you, just tell them you're waiting for someone. You will get a 4 digit code which is located on the side of the car, always check the code before you get into the cab. We decided it would be better that Michael had a profile on Uber, so the driver would only see a man, not me. It worked out very well. The driver will then call on your Indian phone, to make sure he finds you. If you want to sign up, please click here.
Also, we got some great deals for hotels on Make my trip where you often get special deals. They will send the confirmation via email and to your Indian phone as well.
Through Make my trip or Cleartrip you can also book your train tickets.
Trains vs bus
I found the best and most enjoyable way to travel through India is by train. The easiest way is to book tickets online through either makemytrip.com or cleartrip.com. You will need to register an account to use these sites. Here is a short overview of what you need to know:
- It has 3 bunk beds stacked on top of each other, but during day only 2 (lower and upper) are available. If no one is sleeping, three people will sit on one bed.
- It's hot - there are 2 fans above 6 people and no AC
- The sleeper train has less space, is more crowded, and houses a larger variety of people than the AC section
- I would not recommend it at night as there are no curtains and everyone will see you right away.
1 AC/ 2 AC / 3 AC
- Max only 4 beds (upper, lower), and is much more comfortable and safer at night
- We only used 1 and 2 AC. You can close the cabin so no one can see in. It's more condusive to sleep.
- With AC it's sometimes a bit cold at night, but the blankets are comfortable and without AC it is so hot that you wouldn't be able to get a good night's sleep.
Safety: Always tie your luggage to the lower bed and lock the bags' zippers with little locks. We held our hand luggage while sleeping and sometimes used a money belt as well. The Indian government has put some posters in the trains and at the train stations to educate men that any harm done to women is a crime. We never felt unsafe in the train. Sometimes we only got one bunk bed to share and we always stayed together, especially at night.
Travelling by bus in India is cheap, but I can only recommend it for short distances around 2-4 hours. We took one sleeper nightbus and of course we saved money, but we didn't sleep at all. There is a lot of noise and honking all night long and way too many bumps on the street.
Dress conservatively, pretend to be married and act like the Indian women
India's culture is quite conservative. One exception to this rule is Goa where you can wear shorts or shirts without any problem. But, other than that, you're better off as a woman wearing long blouses that cover your shoulders and leggings or skirts that cover your knees. I mostly took a scarf with me, sometimes to put over my hair because of the dust and dirt of the street or also to protect my mouth and nose from the pollution, especially when riding a riksha. The worst city for me, concerning pollution, was Dehradun. Although, according to the Indian Express, Dehradun is the same as Delhi in terms of the pollution level.
Before traveling to India, I bought myself a cheap but nice ring in Abu Dhabi and Michael bought one in Mumbai. Yes, we tell everyone we are married and we referred to each other as wife or husband, instead of girlfriend or boyfried. I heard from this trick before we arrived, and I wanted to give it a try. Especially in a country like India where arranged marriages are still common and people get married quite young, we found it better to tell people we were married. Sometimes a woman would look at my ring and then at the two of us and smile. Whenever families or men heard that we were married, we had their fullest respect. I think it will take a while for arranged marriages to become less common. Until then, a boyfriend/girlfriend will probably not have the same amount of respect for Indians. When you make up a story, make sure both of you know the same details. When and where did you marry? Also, if someone asks about the ring (because the quality is not the best), I would have said that we left our real rings at home as we were being told it's not save to show off jewelry as a tourist.
If you're traveling alone as a woman, try to ask women or families if you need some help. A fake wedding ring might help, just make up a plausible story (your husband will come later to India, he is working here, etc.) All in all, I was always thankful to have a man on my side although I am usually not that type of person. I would not recommend you to travel alone as a woman, but even as a couple you do have to take care and be cautious.
Act like an Indian woman. This doesn't mean that you shouldn't talk to men at all, but be careful. The first few days I was struggling. Coming from Europe it is normal to me to smile at strangers as a sign of being polite. It's different in India. It is not common for women to smile at men; they see as an invitation. Therefore, try to avoid too much eye contact with men, let your 'husband' do most of the talking. I found that in areas like Hampi, Agra or any other tourist destination (except Goa), men who talked to me and wanted to take a photo with me were very respectful. These are completely different people than some you'll find at train stations or on the street who take secretly take pictures of you or just stare.
Goa though is different. Lots of Indians go there to party, and when it comes to taking a picture with me, they were rather rude than polite. In Goa I refused to be in pictures without Michael.
Choose the right season and take your time
We definitely chose the wrong time to visit India. May/June is way too hot! Especially in places like Hampi or Agra. Go instead during the cooler months. We always made sure to carry enough water with us and take lots of breaks in the (very limited) shades. In Agra, we had a hotel with a pool and it was great to jump in after sightseeing. Generally speaking, when you travel through India, do not over plan. We were quite rushed in the beginning, and shortly before we left, we were close to a travel burnout. Take your time to see everything you want and stay two nights in Agra rather than just one. Travel slowly and allow your body to rest when it gives you signals.
- Indian trains have western style toilets and indian style toilets. I highly recommend: western style! Also, take toilet paper with you as lots of cheap accommodations don't provide it.
- Spitting is still a noise that I cannot stand, even after a month in india I'm not used to it. In some public places it's forbidden.
- Always buy bottled water. Do not drink unfiltered water. You should even wash your mouth after brushing your teeth with bottled water to avoid any diseases. If you're at someone's house and they have filtered water, I always cleaned it once more with our water cleaner Steripen.
- Buy a cheap bottle of whiskey somewhere and take each day a sip of it. It will help ward off any diseases. We went to a holy place and were not able to buy more alcohol. When I didn't drink whiskey for a while, I got quite sick.
- Don't pay with credit cards in dark bars, they abused mine and tried to shop online with it!
- There are frequent power outages, so bring a flashlight with you. It's better to walk around with a flashlight, than your iphone.
- If you know a Bollywood movie or some Indian music, it's an easy and fun way to start a conversation with locals.
- Do not give pens to children on the street. It's recommended in some guides to give pens instead of money. Do not give money, nor pens, as they will only sell them later. It's hard to ignore them, but please do not support begging.
- Do not go with cab drivers or Riskha drivers who talk to you during the monetary train station, they are often trying to rip you off.
- Save some pictures on your phone to show locals what your home town looks like (lots of Indians were to Austria or were planning a trip there).
- A classy handkerchief that I got from my friends' mom was a perfect gift to get rid of the sweat on my forehead in the heat.
- Join a dancing crowd in a bar, you will feel like a star and everyone will want to dance with you. Once Indians get out of their shy shell, they become real party animals.
- The most difficult thing for me to accept was the trash which everyone throws everywhere. There are not enough trash cans and except for some educated people, most of them don't care.
Let me know what you think, is India a country you want to visit? Have you been already? What was it like as a couple? If you liked my post, please feel free to share.
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