Some simple tips that will go a long way for your time in India:
Cows. Literally everywhere, they are considered a sacred animal of India. This is because they are the mother provider – their milk sustains our young, without them we wouldn’t survive. So it is illegal in India to kill cows, which explains why there is a surplus! Once a cow reaches the stage where it is no longer productive on the farm, the farmers will release the cow from its paddock, where it tends to wander into the streets and ends up living off the garbage on the side of the road. No matter how crazy the traffic might seem in India, it will always stop for a cow, and the cows know it!
Young local guys asking for selfies. I never really got used to it either, especially when people wouldn’t ask and would just try and take a sneaky selfie from afar. Where ever we went, I found that people were constantly coming up to members in our group asking for our selfies. I read somewhere that there isn’t really a problem with group selfies, but just be cautious of individual selfies, because it is not uncommon for young guys to then photo-shop your face and use it for inappropriate purposes. People seemed to have a general fascination with our blonde hair and comparatively pale skin.
Traffic. Something that you never quite get used to, but something that almost becomes endearing. Every journey was always an adventure, and more often than not, would leave me with some kind of adrenaline rush. It’s a bizarre system (well, lack of) yet it seems to work. Horns are used by drivers to let others know that they are there, rather than exclusively in times of road rage. Beeping your horn is a constant form of communication, to assist with their pro-active method of driving (compared to the reactive driving we are inclined to see in the Western world). Similarly to New Zealand, the Indians drive on the left hand side of the road, but unlike New Zealand it is common to overtake on the left hand side of the road as well. Rickshaws are a common sight; except for in Mumbai, where they are banned from the inner city (which helps with traffic congestion; Delhi could learn something here). Do not trust Google Maps when timing distances – unfortunately for us all, Google Maps knows nothing about cows, bicycles, pedestrians and tuk-tuks. Supposedly there is a law that everyone is required to wear a helmet when riding a bike, except for Sikh’s, who are exempt because it gets in the way of their turbans! On our first day in India we learnt a phrase that stuck with us the whole way through the trip, and that is when driving in India you need three things: good brakes, a good horn, and good luck!
Tipping. Being from a country that is not accustomed to tipping, I actually found it quite a difficult adjustment to make. I had to work super hard to think of the tip as being part of the price, rather than something extra. It made it slightly more palatable this way. It’s actually a funny thought, because really you are tipping only one or two dollars at a time, but it gets to you when it starts feeling like it is adding up! A rough guide to tipping is paying 10% of the price for drivers and at restaurants (although check first at restaurants, because sometimes they will include a service charge on the bill, meaning that you don’t need to tip) and 10-20 rupees for porters, bell boys and the people who look after your belongings at temples.
Clothing. Dressing appropriately is important. Females should take care that their knees and shoulders are covered (which can be hard to do when it is so incredibly hot). It can be a bit more flexible depending where you are – the further south you go, the more relaxed it seems to be. It is compulsory to cover up at religious sites, and even in places like Goa, you should still prepare yourself for a few more stares than usual if you decide not to cover up. I got into the habit of carrying a head scarf in my bag, so that if I felt uncomfortable anyway I could just slip it around my shoulders.
The Indian sideways headshake. It is quite confusing what it means, because it seems to be used in all kinds of situations, but it’s something that I found extremely endearing. Sometimes it means yes, sometimes it means no, and honestly sometimes it just means maybe! It was something I always enjoyed looking out for.
Expect the unexpected. A warning that we received on the very first day, and something that you really need to embrace. If you can, you will find your entire India trip rewarding and enriching; but if you can’t, it will be so much more stressful and exhausting. It also pays to be patient – miscommunication is certainly a daily part of life as a tourist in India.
Don’t forget: sanitiser! India is grubby, and with the heat, dust and bad smells, I can personally guarantee that you won’t regret taking it. Face-wipes, for similar reasons, go a long way to freshening you up after a long journey or a sweaty day exploring. Bug spray is another essential; nobody wants to catch malaria!