Pack light. You can buy most anything you need more cheaply here than you can at home. But bring an extra empty suitcase for things you will want to take home. India is a great place to buy souvenirs. I kept thinking of more and more people I could buy for. And of course, for myself.
Restrooms are few and far between and usually don't have toilet paper. Plan accordingly. Use the toilet before you leave home, and whenever you have a chance. Always carry toilet paper with you. And hand sanitizer.
Dress like the people around you dress, as long as you can be comfortable doing that. Most of the women in Chennai wore traditional dress, either saris or kurtas and salwars. I opted for the latter. They were inexpensive, lightweight and comfortable, colorful, and allowed me to look a liittle more like I belonged here.
The length of your trip will determine what you get out of it, of course. I am glad I stayed a little over four months. The three months in Chennai allowed me to actually live here, rather than be a tourist. They were the richest time in terms of learning about India. The travels in April were great too. I'm very glad that I allowed at least a week in each place I went. It gave me a chance to settle in and explore a bit. I'm not much for touch and go tourism. The only place I did that was the Taj Mahal. I think in that case, it was okay. Agra was not a place I wanted to spend more time.
I wish everyone could stay with a family like the Shankars. And in fact, they do offer residential Yoga workshops. http://yoganidhi.in/yoga-program/. The other option is to check out homestays. I don't know much about them, but I know there are some available here that you can research on the web. If at all possible, don't stay wrapped up in a tourist bubble with other Westerners.
That said, be cautious. I met a lot of young women traveling on their own here, some of them looking for the cheapest place to stay. I worried about them. When I first got here, I stated that there was no way I was going to travel around India on my own. Yet that's exactly what I did in April. I would have preferred to travel with a companion, but there was no one available. I was very careful in planning my trip to make sure I knew that I would feel safe each place I was staying.
The most challenging part of being in India, to me, was getting from one place to another. In the city, I think autorickshaws are probably the best bet. But if you go alone, try to call a rickshaw driver who Is known to you. Or ask the place you are staying to arrange for a ride for you. Always make sure someone knows you are going out, where you are going, and when you plan to be back. Traveling from city to city I prefer either private drivers, working with a reputable company, or planes. Trains and buses are cheaper, but they are not as safe. A bomb exploded on a train in Chennai just as I was returning from my April adventure, killing 1 person and injuring 14. This morning, a train derailed, killing 18 and injuring hundreds.
Know a little about India before you arrive. There will always be surprises, but it helps to have some idea what you will be experiencing. Read, talk to people who have been here, see movies. I continued to read about India the whole time I was here. No need to bring books with you. There are many bookstores, and the books are cheaper here than In the US. Checking out a newspaper is good too.
Keep a beginner's mind. No matter how much you prepare, it won't be enough. Your first few days will be intense. Go with it.
Don't give money to beggars. I won't go into all the reasons; you can study up on that or ask me and we can talk about it. If you must give something, carry some dried fruit or nuts with you to give. It isn't easy.
India is not one culture. There is a big difference between the north and the south, and even within those divisions the differences are huge. Each state has its own official language. Each state's food and dress is at least slightly different. Yes, there are also regional differences in the U.S. But nothing like the differences here.
Don't expect everyone to speak English. In fact, unless you are in a tourist area, chances are English will not be spoken by the people serving you.
Keep an open mind. On the surface there is much to be critical of, but in the end it all seemed insignificant compared to the richness of the culture and the inner beauty of the people.
Don't be stupid. Don't dress provocatively or draw attention to yourself. Don't be rude or crude. Know the customs and respect them. India can be dangerous, especially for women. I only went out alone at night one time, and that time I had the autorickshaw driver who took me home talk with Ravi by phone so he knew someone was expecting me.
Be prepared for power outages. In my experience it happens frequently all over India. There is a real shortage of electricity. Some outages are planned and can last all day. Also, I had read that power surges can play havoc with cell phones, iPads, etc. I always plugged my chargers into power strips with surge protectors. In fact, I carried one with me when I traveled in April. Of course you will also need a plug adapter. I tried to find the right one before I came over, and had no luck. They are inexpensive and easy to find here.
Be careful about what you eat to begin with. Stay with bottled or filtered water, don't order things that have water in them, like chutney or lassis. Know what your stomach can take in terms of spice. I had one short, mild case of stomach rumbling. No fever, no need to take the meds I brought with me. In fact, I look back on it as my inoculation. The longer I was here, the more adventurous I became. But I was always aware of the choices I was making.
Get an Indian cell phone if you are going to be here for more than a couple weeks. It was important for me to be able to communicate with folks locally. It gave me a sense of security, knowing I had a way to contact someone if I needed to. I also found that calling the states was incredibly inexpensive, like less than 2 cents a minutes, if you have the discount plan for calling the US. I think that plan cost me less than 50 cents for a month. You can also use Skype, of course. Wifi was available to me almost everywhere I stayed. iMessage and FaceTime work great if both ends have an iPhone or iPad. The most difficult thing was figuring out what time it was back home and scheduling calls appropriately.
See a travel doctor several months before you leave, in fact as soon as you start to think about international travel. Hepatitis protection requires a series of shots. Some other things need to be done weeks in advance of leaving. Make informed decisions. I opted not to take malaria meds because I was not staying in an area where it was a problem. I made my own insect repellant using essential oils, because I didn't want to be doused with Deet every day. You can buy oils here, so no need to bring a bunch with you. There are lots of suggestions on the internet. Sometimes and in some places, mosquitos were an issue, but not as often as I had anticipated.
I wished I had brought along small gifts for people I became acquainted with while I was here. But it's hard to know what to suggest. The one thing I think I can get better in the US is chocolate, and Sheela concurred. For kids, she suggested markers and crayons. Otherwise, she suggested novelty items from Trader Joes or Whole Foods. Like maybe a gourmet pasta or a really good brownie mix. I had a hard time finding chocolate chips when I wanted to make cookies for my family. Novelty items from someplace like Bed, Bath and Beyond are also possibilities.
And now, some unrelated pictures.....
A fisherman at Pulicat.
I will miss the colors.....
A performer at Dastkari Haat, the traveling handicrafts show that I went to in Chennai.
Morning assembly at Sacred Heart School, where Ravi and I went to teach Yoga to the teachers. Birthday children can dress up.