1. Eat everywhere.
Just don’t be an idiot about it. Stick to stalls with a steady flow of traffic (especially women and kids), and if you’re really wary, opt for items that have been deep-fried beyond recognition. Trains and train stations are fantastic places to have lunch. Just trade a few crumpled rupees for an unidentifiable snack wrapped in old newspaper handed to you through the open window just as the train starts moving, or flag down the biriyani-wallah as he navigates the crowded aisle peddling his wares from steaming silver trays, calling out in a nasal tone: “Veeeeg, non-veg biriyaaaaaani!!”
2. Always ask for directions from no fewer than 5 different people…
…and try to discern the correct path by piecing together their inevitably conflicting answers. Indians are notoriously helpful, a trait which can extend to a reluctance to admit when they simply don’t have the answer to your question. This can result in directions that are essentially useless. I’ve also found that adopting a vaguely Indian accent when soliciting help can greatly improve your chances of being understood.
3. If you’re a woman, be prepared to be ogled, eve-teased, and/or photographed by strange men.
Stealthy budding photographers armed with cell phones may snap you as you walk by, often making full and creepy use of the zoom function. Bolder fellows will approach you directly and ask to be in the photo with you. Don’t be afraid to combat this unwanted attention with shame! Smile pleasantly at the offender and ask him whether he’d like his wife or sister to be objectified in such a manner. (Even if there is a language barrier, your discontent will be clear.) In a pinch, a mustachioed and tattooed male companion does wonders as a deterrent – still, you’ll never be completely left alone.
4. Know what things should cost, and pay accordingly.
Savvy folks who work in the tourism sector may try to charge you the special sucker price because rich (by local standards) tourists don’t feel it’s worth disputing. Don’t perpetuate this cycle of sketchiness! Find out what that tuk-tuk fare should really be, put on a confident smile, and barter away. It’s expected.
5. Pack light, and shop there.
There are a number of things you really don’t need to schlepp with you to India. I brought a few items of clothing but quickly switched to wearing loose-fitting pants and tops I bought in little shops and stalls – they were inexpensive, cute, and culturally appropriate. When Riccardo got a touch of sunburn, I picked up a gigantic bunch of aloe vera stalks for about 10 rupees and was glad I hadn’t lugged a plastic bottle with me from home. On the other hand, there were some things I couldn’t have done without – among them, bug spray and tampons.
6. Don’t drink the wine.
While I’m well aware that India boasts a burgeoning wine market, and have heard from people in the know who say there’s hope, I did not experience a single decent-tasting glass of wine in one month there. Each sip always seemed to be tinged with… pollution. Most of the Indian-bottled liquor tasted off to me as well. Eventually, I gave up and just drank beer.
7. Beware of crocodiles.
They may appear to be big, cuddly, perpetually-smiling lizards, but they are actually kind of mean.
8. Brake for cows.
In the Indian hierarchy of the road, cows come first. Don’t ever forget it.
9. Go to Pizza Hut.
Back home, you may pride yourself on your resistance to frequenting chain restaurants. But after a month of nothing but delicious Indian food, you may find yourself yearning for the comforting taste of a pan pizza and a coke. The sparkling floors and overly perky staff will make Pizza Hut seem like a shining beacon of civility in what can otherwise be a lonely and confusing place. If you’re feeling guilty, indulge in one of the many Indian-friendly toppings. You deserve it.