1. Heed reports and warnings, but they can be exaggerated
Of all the countries that I wanted to visit, India was the one that made me the most nervous to travel in alone. I heard plenty of horror stories of pickpockets and scams to avoid, sexist attitudes that made it more uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous to travel alone as a woman, unsanitary foods that make you violently ill, and the general grime and crowds everywhere.
And then there were all the warnings: only eat things that are cooked or peeled, avoid meat, don’t make eye contact with men, don’t travel anywhere by yourself after dark.
As a result, my image of India was not altogether great. But after spending about a week looking around, India really isn’t as bad as the picture that I had painted. So far I haven’t had any stomach problems and I’ve managed to avoid any situations that feel unsafe. There is grime and poverty, yes, but it’s similar to that I’ve seen in China and other developing countries.
Of course, I’ve been very careful and it’s important to take precautions, but traveling in India has not been nearly as bad as I feared. This seems to be the general consensus among many other travelers (including a large handful of other solo females) that I’ve talked to as well. As my dad says, live like a optimist but prepare like a pessimist! And sometimes you just have to go see for yourself.
2. Ask your network for recommendations
I came to India without any idea of where to go except for the two biggest cities, New Delhi and Mumbai. Some brief research yielded Jaipur and Varanasi, and I planned to just wing the rest of it. Even though I have many Indian friends and coworkers, for some reason I never took the initiative to ask them for recommendations.
It wasn’t until I had actually gotten to Mumbai that, during brunch with a friend of a friend, I asked for advice. She suggested Amritsar, and the Golden Temple there turned out to be the highlight of my trip. A little too late, I realized that I could have planned this trip a lot better and potentially seen more highlights like it.
So if you’re going to be lazy and not do research, at least ask a couple of friends! And preferably before entering the country.
3. Don’t get hung up on principle
My SIM card saga during the first few days in Mumbai left me with a useless SIM card and a bitter taste in my mouth. I paid for the SIM card and they told me I should be able to use it within a few hours, but 5 days later it still had not been activated. At that point I gave up waiting, but I also didn’t rush to get a new one because of self-righteous principle.
However, an episode in Agra made me realize that not having data was a major inconvenience. My train, which was supposed to arrive at 9:40pm, got delayed for almost 5 hours and didn’t pull in until 2:20am. I got a tuk tuk that couldn’t find the way, and I would have been completely lost if my phone had not saved the hostel phone number by luck.
After all that, I came to my senses – a SIM card only costs $10. Yes, it sucks that the first $10 was wasted, but surely I would pay another $10 to avoid another situation like that in the future. Why was I making myself suffer, just because I was bitter on principle? And the same thing applies to negotiating for tuk tuk rides. Yes, I might be ripped off by 100 extra rupees, but if that’s the fastest (or only way) to go, it’s less than $2.
4. Spend some extra money to get the experience
It’s common in hostels to ask each other how long you’ve been in India and how long you’re staying. In Jaipur, when I told one of my new hostel friends that I was leaving on March 10th, she replied with, “but Holi is on the 13th, you’re not staying?”
Shit. I already spent $75 on the airplane ticket, which I was pretty sure I couldn’t get back. It would be amazing to experience Holi (the festival of color) in India, but it’s also celebrated in Nepal (where I would be flying to), and I could come back another time to do it. At the same time, though, even if I do come back to India at some point, would it likely be around the dates of Holi?
I wavered back and forth on whether to keep my original plan or make adjustments, and finally decided that I should stay for Holi. It’s the things you don’t do that you regret, after all, and while money can be regained, the same cannot be said for experiences.
5. Seriously, though, look up the holidays
In addition to looking at a map before booking, which I previously learned. Totally my fault for not realizing Holi was so close.
Looking up holidays would have also helped to avoid the struggles I had at Adams Peak. You think I would have learned then…but naw.
6. Boldly explore (while still being respectful)
I often hesitate to do things for fear of being told off, even though they’re most likely fine/nobody would likely care. I like to say that I’m trying to be respectful, but if I’m honest, fear of reprimands is closer to the real reason.
Part of the reason why I enjoyed the Golden Temple so much, though, was because I explored beyond the highly trafficked tourist areas. It was while wandering in the kitchen that I met locals that taught me more about the temple.
That doesn’t mean barging into places, because respect is still important. I still took care to avoid clearly blocked off areas and to get a nod of permission before entering if I wasn’t sure about a particular area. But I can definitely be a lot more bold than I have been, and asking for forgiveness is not the worst thing in the world.
7. Allow plenty of buffer time
You can’t necessarily count on anything being exactly on time, but I’ve found that trains in India are especially bad. My train to from Jaipur to Agra was delayed by 5 hours. And my train from New Delhi to Varanasi, which was scheduled to arrive at 6:15am, didn’t pull into Varanasi until 4pm (that’s 10 hours, count ’em!)
I’m not necessarily complaining, because sleeper trains are still moderately comfortable and all the train time is wonderful for blog post writing productivity. But I’ve definitely learned not depend on the arrival time or to schedule anything within a full half day after a train is scheduled to arrive. And it’s probably smart to pack one more meal than you think you’ll need. Maybe two.