How to survive India while backpacking and have an awesome time!

Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh, India

Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh, India

Oh India…the pot of gold at the end of the spice route, known for delicious food, sacred gods and Bollywood. Such an interesting and friendly country but for those who don’t know what to expect, India can be a huge culture shock from our comfy western ways. Never fear! Here are a few tips on backpacking through India, actually surviving, and having an AWESOME time!

1. Bring an antidote to the dreaded “Delhi belly”

I don’t know the exact statistic but out of all the people I know that visited India, 90% of them have had stomach problems while there (the other 10% were either from India and somehow grew immunity which seems like a scientific enough explanation OR they have been feeding their stomachs disgusting food for years so it was a walk in the park. I belong in the latter – all those years of greasy Chinese food and late night McDonalds visits finally paid off!)

For the rest of the 90%, the best way to combat stomach problems is precaution and drugs! And no, I don’t mean illegal drugs. I mean the talk to your doctor and get a prescription kind of drugs. I went to see my trusty travel doctor in Canada and he suggested that I don’t take Dukoral because it wouldn’t help in India. Instead, I was told to stay away from drinking tap water, bring along anti-diarrhea medicine (Immodium) and received a prescription for trusty ciprofloxacin which is an antibiotic taken after the initial signs of Delhi belly (i.e. diarrhea). I didn’t need to take the cipro in India but my friend and travel buddy, Mike, swears by ciprofloxacin when he took it and regained his appetite after losing 10 lbs in a week-long battle with the toilet. Trust me, even the strongest and healthiest get sick in India. Just ask Mike – all it took to take him out of commission was one dirty train ride.

2. There will be people EVERYWHERE.

The country’s population is over 1.2 billion and all of that is squeezed into around 3,287,263 square kilometres – that’s approx. 371 people per square kilometre which means yes, there will be lots of people and yes, they will be everywhere that you want to be. Instead of stressing out about how congested the streets are or getting pushed around in a train, just sit back, relax and enjoy the symphony and theatre show that is before you.

The best way to conquer it is to join in on the fun. Mike and I quickly learned that crossing 8 lanes of traffic is a lot easier when there are 50 other jaywalking buddies beside you. We played the game of count how many schoolchildren they can fit onto one bike rickshaw (the number to beat was 13 by the way) instead of turning on the TV while enjoying our morning chai tea. The intense density of the country only adds to the buzz and will make you even more grateful when you eventually get a patch of sand that you can claim as your own to wiggle your toes in.

3. Queuing is an art.

Queuing (or lining up for us North Americans) does not really exist in India. It’s more of an elaborate dance of wits and patience. Don’t be surprised if you are touching the person in front of you in line and same thing for your suddenly very friendly neighbour behind you. This is to prevent anyone else from slipping in between or any type of budding (front bud, back bud, switchbacks etc). However, none of this actually makes a difference because it’s all about commanding the attention of the person behind the counter – think of a super busy club bar but a thousand times worse and on crack. Whether it’s buying a ticket at a train station, queuing to see the Taj Mahal or lining up to buy water, it all comes down to an art.

I suggest you come up with a plan because here’s one place where western manners and etiquette will not make a difference in service quality. Mike and I devised a very clever and effective method. Due to my smaller, ninja-like size, I would squeeze my way into any small opening at the counter and Mike, being double my size, 6ft 100 inches tall and sporting a very threatening beard, would put both of his burly arms out straight and rest his hands on the counter surrounding me in a protective shield and allowing me to shout at the person behind the counter. This helped tremendously as Mike’s main responsibility was to prevent people from sneaking in so I could focus on our primary task of buying Micky D’s vanilla ice cream cones.

4. Bargain everything.

You know how you always wonder if you’re being ripped off while in a foreign place? Well in India, that answer is always yes. The fabric of Indian consumerism was built on bargaining so everyone knows that the listed price is not the real price. You can bargain taxi rides, hotel rates, souvenirs, heck, you can even bargain internet cafe rates. The key is not to get the lowest price possible but to get to a price that you’re comfortable with paying while keeping your dignity. Some people are masters of the bargain and can put on a bluff worthy of an Oscar. Others can’t hide how much they want something and give in at the earliest sign of defeat. It doesn’t matter if your rickshaw ride was double what your bus seat neighbour paid, you’re comfortable with what you paid and didn’t get spat on. I would call that a win.

My general rule of thumb is to ask for the price, think about it and come up with a maximum price you’re willing to pay. Then counter offer with 50% of the asking price. If you think they quoted something ridiculously high, 20-30% of that will put them in their place. Act like you can walk away with it (even though we all know we can’t walk away from pashminas and wood-carved statues of Ganesh). Never get angry and always be polite and courteous. This is all part of the game so instead of being insulted, look at it as a challenge.

5. Last but not least, just take a deep breath and relax.

India can be stressful – you’ll get lost in alleyways, transportation will take twice as long as you originally planned, and you will be side-stepping cow, dog, chicken, goat and buffalo poop in flip-flops – but just take a minute to pause and remember, you’re in frickin’ INDIA! How awesome is that?!

For all the stress and hectic days, India has so many beautiful and unique things to offer. Don’t let the little, unfamiliar details ruin your trip and if anything, these stressful moments will all turn into great party stories at home. Just ask me about the time I was dragged onto a movie train by a crowd of people or woken up by kids yelling and trying to feed an elephant that was dodging traffic in the narrow streets. That’s India for ya!

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