India: The Land of the Sacred Cow

India is a fantastically varied land with jungles, deserts, and mountains, and a cultural history that spans millennia. Two of the world’s five major religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, first flourished here, as evidenced by the numerous shrines and temples, and other religions, such as Islam, have greatly influenced the country. One of the most populated countries in the world, India provides a unique vacation experience, that, while inexpensive, can completely transform your perspective on life.

Getting in, out, and about

In addition to having a valid passport with at least one blank page, US travelers to India must apply for a visa prior to traveling there. Anyone without a visa will be deported. When you apply for a visa, you should go through an Indian consulate or embassy and be sure to request the correct visa type. You should also keep in mind that visa regulations can often change abruptly with little notice. Tourist visas typically allow US travelers to stay in India for up to six months. It is good practice to have additional copies of your biometrics page and the page with your passport stamp, as well as a copy of your visa. In case you lose the original documents, copies of these can help US embassies to issue you a new passport.

Being a highly populated and polluted country, India poses health care concerns that travelers should be aware of when planning a vacation. While travelers with HIV/AIDS do not officially have to disclose their condition, you will be deported if you are found to have this. Unless you are traveling en route from a country that has been designated a yellow fever country by the World Health Organization, you are not required to have a yellow fever vaccination. However, even if you have a layover in such a country where you don’t even leave the plane, you will still need a yellow fever vaccination in order to enter the country. US citizens should also be up to date on the common vaccinations.

The US Center for Disease Control also recommends that most travelers take vaccinations against Hepatitis A and typhoid. Some travelers may also wish to consider vaccinations against Hepatitis B, rabies, or Japanese encephalitis. The necessity for these is largely based on what your specific vacation plans involve, so consult your local doctor before you travel to determine if any of these are necessary.

India has two separate monsoon seasons that hit different parts of the country each year, although in northeastern India, both monsoon seasons hit the country, making it the rainiest region in the world. The southwest monsoon hits most of India between June and September. The northeast monsoon occurs between the months of October through February, but only hits the eastern coast of the country. Consequently, the low altitude areas of India, particularly during and just after these times of year, become massive breeding grounds for mosquitoes, including those which carry diseases such as dengue fever, malaria, and H5N1.

Travelers should consider taking malaria medication which makes you more resistant to contracting malaria, even though it does not completely prevent it. Malaria treatments usually involve three treatments over a particular schedule. Consequently, you should discuss this possibility with your doctor well in advance of your departure date to India. While you are in India, take as much care as possible to prevent mosquito bites by wearing clothing that covers most of your skin and by applying regular amounts of the appropriate kind of mosquito repellent.

In addition to these precautions, the US State Department also recommends taking an influenza vaccine if you are traveling to India during the country’s flu season. The flu season in northern India runs from November through April, while south of the Tropic of Cancer, the flu season occurs in the months of June through November. There is another period of influenza outbreak in the south between February and April.

While safaris and expeditions to see India’s diverse and unique wildlife are extremely popular, you should avoid trying to feed animals or even get up close to them. For example, monkeys can spread Herpes B through their bites. When hiring a tour guide for a safari, make sure that you are going through a company that provides trained and licensed guides.

India is the birthplace for many of the world’s religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. In addition, it has a large Muslim population and a growing Christian population. Consequently, the country is rife with opportunities for religious strife. Because of this, India has strict rules regarding religious proselytizing and conversion. If you are planning to travel for missionary work, you have to get a specialized visa in order to do so, and you should familiarize yourself with Indian laws regarding which activities are and are not permissible.

While you can rent a car and drive around India, it is highly inadvisable. India is the world leader in traffic accident fatalities. People in India drive recklessly and often ignore traffic signals. Outside of the major cities, roads are usually two lanes at best, and people don’t always drive in the correct direction in their lane. Bus drivers tend to drive vastly overcrowded buses extremely aggressively as well, so that bus travel around India is also not ideal.

In addition to road dangers, India’s aviation authority is recognized as subpar by the US. Travel using local airlines or by helicopter can involve subpar safety standards, including a lack of safety standards altogether.

The rail system in India is extensive and offers a good way to get around the country. However, some parts of the rail system are underserviced and can experience break downs. Another option for getting around the country outside of the major cities is to hire individual drivers and tour buses. Avoid travel at night whenever possible.

If you absolutely must rent a car and wish to take your life into your own hands, keep in mind that what you’re doing is a form of adventure travel. You will need an International Driver’s Permit to drive in India. Keep in mind that laws considering both alcohol consumption and limits upon driving while under the influence can vary from region to region, but these rules are typically stricter than in the US. If you are involved in an accident in a rural area, you may be in danger from being attacked by mobs. A good option is to drive to the nearest police station if you find yourself in this situation.

Hikers should only use officially marked paths and campsites when trekking through India. Be sure to avoid traveling at night. It’s also a good idea to travel in groups for safety’s sake. When you are a pedestrian in cities, you should be fully aware of your surroundings and take great care when crossing the street because drivers often rely upon you to move out of their way.

Although India doesn’t have a particularly high rate of violent crime, tourists can expect to get mobbed constantly by people offering to show you best-priced tours, hotels, or goods or wanting to inform you that your own hotel has gone out of business. These people, called touts, are usually looking to scam you out of your money, particularly when this occurs in tourist centers in cities. In more rural areas where they don’t get as much tourism, it’s quite possible that someone volunteering to help you is doing exactly that, but in all cases be wary of people who are being too helpful.

One form of violent crime that does seem to be on the rise in India is the sexual assaulting of women. Female travelers should not travel alone if at all possible, and dressing conservatively is also advised. Harassment can range from catcalls to groping and can make for a frightening experience. LGBT travelers should be aware that same sex sexual activity is officially prohibited in India even if the enforcement of these laws is inconsistent.

Once you enter India, you cannot extend your stay. If you are caught in the country after your visa period has expired, you will be subjected to fines and imprisonment, and you won’t be allowed to leave the country until you have paid.

The traveler’s tongue

While Hindi is the official language of government, only about 40% of the population in India actively speaks it. Each state tends to have its own official language, and there are over 400 languages still spoken throughout India. In some places, speaking Hindi might provoke anger from locals, so be sure and research which languages are proper for the regions you are going to.

English is commonly spoken throughout most urban areas, but the frequency and level of fluency can vary widely. Younger generation Indians are more likely to be fluent in English throughout the country. Most signs in India are in both English and the local language or Hindi.

Money matters in India

Indian currency uses the rupee, which is written with either Rs followed by the price or with the most recent symbol, ₹, followed by the price. Many taxis and other businesses try to avoid taking larger denomination bills or having change available for these, so it’s a good idea to carry some small bills – ₹10, ₹20, and ₹50 denominations – with you.

Changing rupees outside of India usually gives you poor exchange rates, so you should probably do so inside the country. You can change money at dedicated money changing booths as well as at banks. ATMs are widely available throughout the country, and some businesses, particularly the larger ones, will accept credit cards.

India is a fairly inexpensive country where travelers on a budget can reasonably get by on less than $100 a day. Be aware of special “foreigner” rates that you may be charged for buying goods in India. These are typically significantly higher than what locals pay. Haggling is a way of life in India, and the more time you spend in a shop, the more likely you will be able to get prices closer to the non- “foreigner” rate.

Highlights of a vacation in India

India is such a massive country with a wide array of landscapes and cultures, that a single visit would not be enough to do it justice. Travelers who want to really get to know the country will often use a vacation to explore a specific region. Here are some highlights:
• The Golden Triangle. One popular approach for tourists is to explore the Golden Triangle of India, a circuit that includes the cities of Delhi, India’s capital; Agra, where the famous world wonder, the Taj Mahal, is located; and Jaipur, the Pink City full of temples, palaces, forts, and monuments, and a great jumping off point for excursions into the Thar desert and fort cities such as Jodhpur and Jaisalmer, where you can take a safari by camel.
• Holy Ganges. Another popular tourist circuit is to follow the Ganges River from the holy city of Varanasi towards Nepal and sacred source of the Ganges in Uttarakhand region, known as the Land of the Gods. You can go south into Kolkata or head north towards the Indian part of the Himalayas and the myriad monasteries that populate this area, including the region of Dharamsala where the Dalai Lama lives in exile from his homeland of Tibet.
• Mumbai. This port city is the largest city in India, and the home of Bollywood, India’s massively popular film industry. With numerous beaches, museums, shops, parks, and temples, there’s no lack of things to see and do in Mumbai.
• Trek or go on a safari. There are numerous opportunities to get out into India’s diverse wilderness. Hire a guide to go on a safari in Bandhavargh National Park or hike through the mountains in Himachal Pradesh or the Green Route along the rail line that connects Bangalore and Mangalore.
All of these suggestions, however, are but a smidgeon of the numerous sights and activities you can find in India, a land that would take several lifetimes to fully explore.