It’s often said India’s vibrant cities overwhelm the senses with their myriad of sights, aromas and sounds, but truly understanding the enchanting nature of this nation can only be achieved in person. From the colourful bazaars to ancient stone forts, each city’s astonishing fusion of heritage and culture will leave a lasting impression. Theresa Szejwallo, Managing Director for Trafalgar, provides tips for first time travellers to India.
Secure your visa in advance
Securing a tourist visa to visit India is easy for SA passport holders. All you need to do is apply with visa processing firm VFS and your visa should be ready within four to five working days. The visa is valid for visits of up to six months.
Set your clock to Indian time
India is between 3.5 hours ahead of South Africa, which is not substantial enough for you to have to adjust for jet lag. “It’s always a good idea to start fitting in with the local time immediately and I always set my watch to my destination’s time once I board the plane, even if it means having dinner at the time that would be breakfast back home,” says Theresa.
Savour the flavours of India
Indian food is renowned for its tantalizing smells and flavors, with the most defining element of the cuisine being the herbs and spices used, incorporating pepper, turmeric cardamom and curry leaves. “It’s a dream destination for vegetarians and if you’ve ever considered trying a meat-free diet, this is definitely the place to do it,” says Theresa. Rice is the staple to most dishes, as well as various types of bread such as chapattis and naan.
Many people start their day which a cup of chai, a tea with cardamom and sugar - it will be the best tea you ever taste and quickly becomes addictive, in a good way. Alcohol is not traditionally part of the culture but is sold in restaurants in larger towns and cities and hotels. Avoid tap water and ice, unless you’re assured it has been made with filtered water and steer clear of any food that may have been washed in tap water. Bottled water is generally always readily available to purchase and many international hotels also have good filtered water systems. India has a diverse collection of sweet treats, so be sure to sample the local specialty in each different town or city that you visit.
India's languages, religions, dance, music, architecture, food and customs differ from place to place within the country. “My favourite thing about India is that it is the home of Yoga, which I’ve been practising for over 20 years,” says Theresa, “I am so enamoured with Yoga that I studied to become a teacher of this incredible discipline.” Hatha Yoga is excellent at improving flexibility and joint mobility. It also strengthens, tones and builds muscles and corrects posture.
Hindi is the language most widely spoken but there are many other languages which are spoken such as Punjabi, Bengali and Urdu. The religion of around 80% of the people is Hinduism, whilst Islam is practiced by around 13%. Other religions practiced are Sikhism, Ayyavazhi, Buddhism and Jainism.
Embrace the local customs and traditions of whichever part of India you are travelling in and try to learn a few words of Hindi before you arrive – a ‘Namaste’ with your hands pressed together as a salutation is a very common form of greeting In India and is always well-received. ‘Shukran’ is thank you in Hindi and Arabic, an extremely useful word to remember.
Dressing for culture and climate
The climate in India varies from region to region as it stretches over such a wide geographical scale. Summer is from March to June, with the monsoon season generally being from June to September but Delhi and Rajasthan receive comparatively less rain. In summer, cotton is the ideal material and loose and lightweight clothing will make your experience more comfortable when facing the high temperatures. It’s worth packing a jacket for the evenings and definitely don’t forget a light rain coat or umbrella if you’re visiting during the rainy season.
“India has a relatively modest culture and covering shoulders, arms and legs is a simple step toward respecting this. I always travel with a couple of scarves and pashminas to cover up in temples and keep warm,” continues Theresa, “this, as well as removing shoes, is particularly important when visiting temples”.
India is a great destination for a spot of shopping with many winding bazaars, busy markets and shiny new malls. Haggling is customary in street markets and it’s important to stay calm and be pleasant but firm when doing this. For a truly Indian souvenir a sari is a good buy (it’s possible to buy these ready-made or stitched, so you don’t have to worry about managing the fabric folding when back home) or maybe an embroidered pashmina shawl, which is a great buy and a versatile travelling accessory.
“India, much like Thailand and Vietnam, is home to the most wonderful tailors,” says Theresa, “so make time to get a bespoke suit or shirt made while you’re in the country.”
There’s a beautiful array of jewelry to choose from and whilst most is gold, silver is very popular too and is a great purchase if you’re in Rajasthan. Make sure you visit a local market or spice emporium – the smells and colors truly bring the Indian experience to life. You can buy sealed packets as great gifts to take home. And tea is a must when it comes to purchasing gifts for friends and family. Homewares are also a really good purchase and great value – you will find beautiful cotton bed throws and cushion covers at a fraction of the price you’d pay at home.
Embrace incredible India
A land of contrasts and a total feast for the senses, there’s a good reason why it’s often referred to as Incredible India. As with all travels, but particularly to this part of the world, the best travel accessory you can take is an open mind. Not everything runs to plan in India, though that’s a huge part of the charm. You’re on holiday, so go with the local know-how and embrace and enjoy!