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A visitors guide to India

By in Culture

Nicole Barrington

The Taj Mahal, just one of India’s many beautiful sights.
The Taj Mahal, just one of India’s many beautiful sights.

When it comes to bucket lists and traveling, experiencing a foreign culture is a popular pick. After studying the Hindu religion, and as a lover of hellishly spicy food, India seemed like an obvious choice for me.

I recently had the opportunity to pursue an Indian adventure, and have come to a distinct realization: everyone should go to India at least once — just not in May or June, when temperatures hover around 40 degrees in Delhi and northern India.

While I only explored the northern tip of India, I can attest to the vast diversity of its land and people.

Some cities have a strong conservative Hindu atmosphere, like Pushkar, and near the Pakistan-India border, the Golden Temple has its Sikh devotees. Further north in the Himalayas, the city of Dharamsala is also home to many Tibetan Buddhists as well as the Dalai Lama.

For tourists, it’s crucial to know that laws vary from state to state and, in some cases, from city to city. These different laws and social norms dictate the way citizens eat, drink and dress. While foreigners should be cognizant of these norms, there are also some unwritten rules to be aware of.

Your journey is not going to be like Eat, Pray, Love at all, so surrender that notion now.

You’re going to need Gravol, Immodium and at least one bar of soap. Although avoiding diarrhea in India is damn near impossible, your overall travel experience will be a lot less shitty if you stay far away from street-vendor-food.

Try and stick to sit-in restaurants and, if possible, choose meatless dishes — especially in the scorching summer months. There are plenty of amazing vegetarian dishes that use lentils and paneer, a curd cheese often mistaken for tofu, so you basically have no excuse to not be a vacation vegetarian.

Literally millions of Indians are vegetarian for various reasons, so it’s pretty easy to find filling meat-free masalas, kormas and curries for under six dollars.

Unlike Canada, most places in India do not have drinkable tap water or public fountains, so bottled water is your best option. Make sure to budget in about four dollars a day to stay hydrated, and be prepared to guzzle bottled water like you’re nursing a hangover.

Another way to stay cool is to dress light and stick to cotton clothes or sweat-wicking fabrics. Long cotton trousers and t-shirts are absolute essentials for both men and women, especially if you plan on visiting religious sites.

When it comes to clothing, it should be noted that being a woman in India and being a woman in Canada are two very different things. Even in the intense heat, Indian women generally do not wear shoulder-baring shirts or shorts that go above the knee. For female tourists, especially those traveling without males, it’s best to follow in the common dress code.

This brings me to my final point on cultural differences and human rights. While traveling through India, one will likely see and hear things that will make them uneasy. Although India is rich with jaw-dropping ancient brick and marble architecture, and intricate, colourful, religious ceremonies, it has some unmitigated poverty and pollution issues. Additionally, gender roles remains central to Indian culture.

I was surprised to hear from my Jaipur-born tour guide that the majority of Indian marriages are still arranged and it is expected that wives adhere to the traditional role of staying at home, being financially dependent on their husband. These cultural values are things to keep in mind.

And lastly, although some fearlessly traveling India alone, I strongly advise traveling with an established ecotourism company—at least for your first time.

Not only is it safer to travel in a group, but also you will make new friends and get to experience hidden local gems like temples, shops and restaurants.

Taking a yoga class with a local guru, listening to Hindu swamis speak on the Ganges and visiting a fair trade textile factory were all eye-opening experiences that I wouldn’t have had if I’d travelled alone.

Photo: nicolebarrington/flickr

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