There are a few things to know before going to India that will help eliminate surprise challenges later.
The Indian subcontinent is crammed with every extreme of nature, humanity, and history. Traveling to India for the first time can be an eye-opening experience. The old saying from the road is true: India can make you laugh, cry, and shout all in the same afternoon! While enjoyable, traveling there independently can be a test of the senses and fortitude for uninitiated travelers.
Knowing a few India travel essentials before hitting the ground will help you adjust more quickly. The less culture shock and small challenges to navigate, the faster you can get on with trying to understand exactly what is happening around you!
The Indian Head Wobble
The quirky head wobble is fun but tricky to master. It's been bewildering Westerners for centuries.
You'll encounter the all-purpose gesture all over India. A head wobble can mean "yes" or "OK," is sometimes used as a greeting, and can be used to acknowledge what you are saying. For instance, your busy waiter may give a head wobble when you come in to show he noticed, and later he may give another when you ask if something on the menu is available.
Don't be surprised if your question is answered with a silent head wobble! Try to take your question into context to understand the meaning of the wobble.
Squat Toilets in India
Although sit-down toilets are frequently found in hotels and tourist restaurants, you'll still encounter plenty of squat toilets in public places such as monuments, attractions, markets, and temples. Some of these toilets are grotesque enough to prompt nightmares later.
Carrying toilet paper with you is a very good idea — but never flush it! Instead, put TP and other items into the bin beside the toilet. You may want to carry hand sanitizer or wet wipes as well; soap is rarely available in public bathrooms.
Maybe cliché, but yes: cows do wander freely throughout India, even in the streets of major cities.
Give them room; they are harmless. Try not to be the stereotypical tourist who points, laughs, and takes obnoxious pictures of the respected animals. Cows are honored and esteemed by Hindus. You won't make any friends by messing with the cows in India.
Money in India
You'll find ATMs on the usual major networks in all urban and tourist areas around India. Avoid using remote ATMs at night when you may be followed while carrying a large amount of cash.
Card skimmers are a problem throughout Asia. Be mindful of the card slot on the machine; some are rigged to capture your credentials as the card passes through. If it looks tampered with or modified, move on to another machine. The safest ATMs to choose are the ones in busy areas, especially the ones with armed guards.
When possible, horde your small change and accumulate some. Enter odd amounts in the ATM to receive smaller denominations. Small shops and vendors will have difficulty making change for large banknotes.
Power Outlets in India
Despite a history of British influence, power sockets in India are of the round, two and three-pronged types (type "C" / BS-546) used in Europe rather than the square plugs found in the UK (type "G"). Frustratingly, you'll also encounter some of the three-pronged type "D" sockets. These are less common and more prevalent in local or budget guesthouses. Big hotels should have universal sockets.
Power is 230 volts at 50 Hz. Check the chargers and transformers for your electronic devices to ensure that they work in this range and won't produce fireworks. Most modern devices with transformers or USB chargers are dual voltage; they'll be fine. Watch out for hair dryers and power-splitting implements with built-in surge protection.
The power can sometimes be unreliable with surprise outages and surges. Be cautious about leaving electronics to charge when not in the room. Power surges when generators are switched on can damage sensitive electronic devices. When you see the lights dimming and brightening, unplug!
Don't be surprised if the wall in your room has more unlabeled switches than the Starship Enterprise. Having individual switches for controlling each light, outlet, and appliance is the norm, especially in budget accommodation in India.
Older hotels in India may not have centralize hot water; you'll need to switch on the small hot-water tank in your bathroom to warm the water at least 30 minutes before you shower.
The breaker switch may be in the bathroom, outside the door, or even outside your room in the hallway! Don't complain: the breakers save power and are also a safety feature.
Tipping and Taxes in India
The prices displayed for items in shops should be inclusive of tax, however, that may not always be the case for restaurants and hotels. Nicer restaurants may itemize additional charges for VAT (government tax), service, bottled water, and alcoholic drinks — all at different rates! The bills can be slightly bewildering.
Hotel rooms above a cutoff price have additional government tax levied on them. Your bill may reflect a 10 percent service charge added.
Although tipping isn't the norm in Asia, a little gratuity is sometimes expected in India. Tips in India are generally referred to as baksheesh. A tip of 10 percent is generous, while other services have loosely fixed amounts. For instance, you can tip hotel porters 20 rupees per bag carried to your room.
The service charge added in restaurants may go to pay the salary of the staff or just into the owner's pocket. Unfortunately, there's no way to be sure. If you want to ensure that your hard-working waiter is rewarded, you'll need to leave them a small tip in addition to what is already added to the bill.
Checking Into Hotels
Handling check-in is not as arduous as completing the Indian visa online application, but it's still very bureaucratic. Checking into hotels and guesthouses often requires a good 15 minutes of paperwork due to government regulations. Copies will be run, signatures are required, and paperwork gets stamped and stapled.
You'll need to keep your passport handy, even if you have the number memorized, for your India visa number and issue/expiry dates. Have it available so you don't have to lift a shirt and dig through your money belt at reception!
Time Difference in India
India has an interesting time configuration: The country's only timezone, India Standard Time, is 5.5 hours ahead of GMT/UTC. That means the whole Indian subcontinent is 9.5 hours ahead of Eastern Daylight Time (New York City).
Water in India
Tap water is generally unsafe to drink in India. Some local residents, particularly nearer the Himalayas, will argue otherwise. Even if the piped water is deemed safe by the government, the aged plumbing of each guesthouse or hotel must also be taken into account. Don't risk parasites and heavy metals: stick to drinking bottled water.
Check the seals on bottled water before paying. An old scam in India consists of refilling old bottles with unsafe tap water and resealing them. The bottles that simply came open in transit are safe but get passed on to tourists because locals won't accept them.
Many cafes and tourist places will refill drinking bottles for a small fee. Doing so is a great way to avoid contributing to the epic problem of plastic rubbish in Asia. Declining plastic straws or bringing your own reusable straw is a good idea, too.
What Is Ghee?
Ghee is a clarified butter made from cow's milk; it turns up nearly everywhere in India. Ghee is used in food, sweets, medicine, blessings, and even lanterns. It's valuable stuff!
Although ghee is high in saturated fat, it is considered healthier than hydrogenated oils or regular butter. Unless rejected by particular vegan religious sects, ghee is used in dishes and breads throughout India.
If you are vegan or suffer from dairy allergies, you may want to learn how to ask for food without ghee. Note: asking for your meal to be prepared without ghee doesn't always mean that it will be! But there is some good news: ghee is low in the protein that triggers allergic reactions for dairy sensitive people. It also contains only trace amounts of lactose, so lactose intolerant travelers are often fine as well.