More so than with my Sri Lanka guide, due to the vast size and variation of India – and the limitations imposed on meaningful travel by lingering food poisoning – I have to emphasise that this is not by any means comprehensive. India seems to me to be practically unconquerable when it comes to writing. It is the kind of place that divides opinion to both extremes of the spectrum, that is so widely varied it’s hard to ever get a full picture of it in your head, and that leaves every person with a different set of memorable moments, earning the label for each of them of paradise, hellhole or something in between. I think writing about India is at least 50% trying to sort out your little piece of it in your own head. Well, this is my piece.
What To Eat
Paneer – occasional digestive challenges aside, ‘cottage cheese’ (as it’s often listed on menus) is a simple, delicious, versatile ingredient that’s used in curries, sandwiches or as kebabs.
Seafood – this is best on the coasts, where it’s fresh and done pretty much any way you want: beachside restaurants often lay out the day’s catch on ice for the customers to pick from, and you can get good red snapper or prawns done on the barbie or in a curry. We even saw baby shark, though I didn’t have the guts to try it.
Biryani – the cheap roadside places or hawker stalls are often best for this fried rice dish. Sometimes you’ll find a hard-boiled egg hidden in there, which is a pleasant surprise.
Barfi – a fudge-like bar chopped into cubes and sold in ‘sweet shops’. They can be yellow (saffron), white (coconut) or pink (general sweetness). I have no idea how they’re made, but I love them.
What To Drink
Beer – if you’re in Goa, the exclusively local brew Kings is really good. Elsewhere, Kingfisher is a fine substitute.
Lassies – I fancy myself a bit of a connoisseur of these yogurt drinks. The cream of the crop can be found at Blue Lassi, Varanasi, but I had a cardamom one in Udaipur that was to die for.
What To Pack
This section should probably be called What Not To Pack, because the sizzling heat of India in April and May makes any clothing feel superfluous. Unfortunately, darn social boundaries mean you can’t go au naturelle, so pack clothing as light and breathable as possible.
A good camera – there were at least a hundred times when I wished I had a decent camera to capture the visual complexities of some of the scenes in India, like a mass of bats roosting in a tree. iPhone cameras just don’t hack it.
What To Buy
Clothes – So. Cheap.
Jewellery – See above. There are lots of ‘costume jewellery’ stalls, especially in Delhi, and you can get some really lovely earrings for almost nothing.
What To Expect
Staring – more so than I’ve ever experienced, and it feels more threatening than it did in Sri Lanka. I think female travellers should be able to do what they want and go to all the places male travellers do, but just beware. Prepare to feel like an alien prostitute.
False advertising – they’ll say they accept all cards, then the card machine will mysteriously be broken. They’ll hand you a long menu, but won’t be able to make most things on it. They’ll call themselves Chicago Pizza, but only serve wraps and samosas. False advertising seems to be an accepted fact of life, so get used to it.
The unexpected – no matter how many blog posts you read, no matter how many friends you talk to, no matter how religiously you’ve read your guidebook, India is going to bitch slap you in the face at some point. If you expect the unexpected, you’ll probably be fine.
The sound of India – honking. So much honking.
The smell of India – curry leaves, fresh curd, not-so-fresh curd, motorbike exhaust fumes.
One Last Tip
Write everything down. Hundreds of little moments make up India’s magic, and you’ll want to remember them.