before you go

You Should Know Before You Go to India

1. Keep your plans flexible. No matter how well organized you are, your plans probably will not go accordingly. You should always allow for more time than you think you will need because unexpected delays tend to happen, with or without explanation. Be patient. On our way to the Taj Mahal, our 4-hour drive lasted 8 hours on a freezing bus when the driver decided to take the back roads instead of listening to our director and going on the highway.

2. Dress modestly. To avoid unwanted attention or offending someone, it’s best to cover up – absolutely no cleavage, shorts, skimpy tank tops, or short skirts/dresses. I have had to adjust my concept of “revealing.” One day I wore a shirt with an open neckline that would be considered conservative back home, but I still received leering glances. Western clothes are worn as often as Indian clothes, but would be considered as conservative or very modest by American standards. It’s best to pack a small amount of clothes and plan to buy a few Indian items once you arrive. Indian clothes are much better suited to hot weather, so they’ll keep you cool while keeping you modest.

3. You will be easily identified as a foreigner. Whether it’s because of the way you look, the language barrier, or general lack of cultural awareness, you will attract attention. I’ve become very used to people staring at me on the streets and sneakily (or not so sneakily) taking pictures of me. Being an obvious foreigner also poses problems regarding safety. Street vendors and beggars target foreigners, and strangers often strike up a conversation with you or invade your privacy. Be assertive, make sure you know where you are, and know how much something should cost.

4. You will get sick. There are a number of vaccinations you must receive before traveling to India, but you will inevitably catch something that will leave your digestive tract in distress. Luckily, over-the-counter antibiotics are readily available at pharmacies. I felt great for the first 5 days in India before I fell prey to “Delhi belly,” and have had a few other stomach upsets since. Carry around hand sanitizer and use it often. Also, the pollution in the bigger cities may irritate your nose or throat and give you a cough.
One of the most important factors in warding off illness is choosing the right foods, so:

5. Do not drink the local water. Buy bottled instead. Avoid street food but if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, only buy street food that has been cooked hot and hasn’t been sitting out. Buy fruits and vegetables that are whole (not cut open) and that you can wash and peel.

6. Traffic is merciless. Traffic laws are more like guidelines. Bigger vehicles have the right of way, except for cows, which always have the right of way. Traffic can be anything – from buses and cars to rickshaws, bicycles, carts, horses, cows, and more. Much of the traffic is like a game of chicken, so the driver will keep driving straight and fast until the other car swerves. Brakes are not used regularly, and honking is encouraged. It’s rare to find seat belts. Carefully dodge traffic as you cross the street, and always look ahead of you.

7. Have reasonable standards for cleanliness. It’s rare to find bathrooms or hotel rooms that would compare to America’s sterilized standards. It’s normal to see large piles of garbage on the streets, and the large cities have a haze of pollution. Most everything is dirtier than what you would find at home, so you will learn to adjust your criteria. Don’t expect to find toilet paper or Western-style showers.

8. When you find one thing to be true, the opposite is also true. India is a country of incomprehensible diversity, so it is impossible to make blanket statements. There are few steadfast rules regarding India, so keep an open mind and ask questions. Be warned: the long answer will leave you with more questions. It seems to me the more you learn about India, the less you know..

When to go

Kerala has been a favourite haunt of travellers for nearly 600 years; exhilarating, enchanting and enthralling with its top-notch beauty and culture. Here are our favourite 10 activities that get under the surface of this incredible state. Related article: Mini guide to Kerala, India
Cruise the backwaters No trip to Kerala is complete without a languid boat ride on its idyllic backwaters. Lined by emerald coconut plantations and interspersed with turquoise lakes, these placid lagoons are the perfect place to shake off pent-up urban stress. For an extra-special experience, spend the night on board a houseboat, and witness a dreamy sunrise break over the serene bayous at dawn. Houseboats can be chartered through the District Tourism Promotion Councils in Kollam or Alleppey, or a multitude of private operators.
Live it up in Munnar Green is the colour that swathes the lush mountain slopes of Munnar, Kerala’s answer to the fabled hill stations of north India. The crisp air and clement weather in this scenic hill town are perfectly engineered to give you the most restful experience possible. Order a steaming cup of tea from a nearby plantation to go with the breathtaking views.
Photograph Kochi’s fishing nets Top among Kerala’s iconic photo opportunities are the cantilevered Chinese fishing nets – dating back to the 1400s – that line the harbour at Kochi. Crafted out of teakwood beams and resembling giant alien arachnids poised to sting, they form unreal silhouettes against the seascape and provide some dramatic camera fodder, especially at dusk.
Get beached in Varkala You will wish you were an Alex Garland character the moment you set foot in picturesque Varkala. Perched on a precipitous cliff and overlooking the sapphire waters of the Arabian Sea, this beachy paradise boasts some dazzling and pristine sands to relax on.
Embrace Ayurveda Centuries of Indian therapeutic wisdom and practices, perfected to soothe the body, mind and soul, can now be accessed at the many ayurvedic spas across the state. Feel your senses come alive with an invigorating panchakarma session, or pamper those knotty sinews with a revitalising aromatherapy or herbal massage.
Watch a Kathakali show If you thought Kabuki was spectacular, think again. Kathakali, Kerala’s very own classical dance tradition dating back to the 17th Century, is a highly-celebrated performance art known for its colourful make-up, elaborate costumes and graceful movements, not to mention the trance-inducing music that accompanies each spirited performance. If you are inspired to give it a go, head to the Margi Kathakali School for courses in kathakali and kootiattam (traditional Sanskrit drama) for beginner and advanced students. Know your spices You will find a huge range of spices in this state, such as pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, mace, fennel, turmeric, cumin, coriander, aniseed, tamarind, allspice, saffron, poppy and mustard. Ambush your senses at the spice markets of Mattancherry in Kochi, and pack an extra bag for the inevitable shopping. Meet Periyar’s tigers Some 50 of India’s fabled Royal Bengal tigers can still be found in the virgin forests of the Periyar Tiger Reserve in inland Kerala. Keeping them company are elephants, leopards, Indian bison and myriad species of snakes, deer and monkeys. Head out for a wild day with the beasts.
Learn your Kalarippayat moves The basics of this acrobatic and flamboyant 12th-century martial art are based on the science of attacking pressure points in the human body, Kalarippayat is known to be the fount of other revered martial arts such as kung fu and karate. If you want to see real professionals have a go at it, it is best to travel out to Ens Kalari, a renowned Kalarippayat learning centre eight kilometres southeast of Ernakulam.
Get a taste for Malabar Fiery pothu (beef), fluffy appams (rice hoppers), aviyal (vegetables in aromatic coconut gravy), fish molee (spicy yellow curry) and payasam (semolina in caramelised milk) -- these are just a few of the delectable dishes that emerge from Kerala’s kitchens day after day. Pair a platter with a glass of the locally-tapped and deliciously refreshing toddy (coconut palm wine). Try Suprabhatham in Kovalam or Sreepadman in Varkala for cheap and truly authentic Keralan fare.