When you are a backpacker planning your first trip to India, excitement and anxiety engulf you in parallel strokes. I mean who doesn’t want to plunge into the mystic Indian subcontinent and finally check off all the exotic experiences from your bucket list. But for a lot of backpackers, specifically on their maiden trip to India, the health concerns are really paramount. Travelling takes up all the zeal and strength you can possibly muster, it changes you physically and mentally; obviously, the last thing you would want is to fall sick on a journey that you were supposed to recount to your grandkids! (we millennials are gonna make such cool elderly, aren’t we?) So here are 7 absolutely essential health tips for travelers in India. You might wanna open your tablet notes for this one because this is going to be important; right now or over the course of terrible diarrhea in a cramped lavatory. You can take your call, really!
1. Packing Essentials
There are a few things you must absolutely pack in your backpack for staying healthy in India.
- Vitamins and Protein Supplements : Indians do have a fair share of vitamins and proteins and minerals and basically everything else that you can imagine in their staple palate. But whether you and the local Indian palate will get along is the main point of concern. Since it is going to be your first time in India and you can literally forget beef and pork in most of the Indian eateries, it is better that you carry your dietary supplements lest you wanna return to your homeland like a battered Chihuahua.
- Every Insect Repellent You Possibly Can : India is a developing nation and our problems in population control has far reached beyond the human race; insects are ubiquitous too. Mosquitoes will be the highlight of the thriving insect community here. So lots and lots of mosquito repellents must find their space in your luggage.
- Hand Sanitizer : When in India, wash your hands frequently, and I mean OCD frequently. You never know what dirty thing you just touched which is gonna leave you sick in the next few hours. So just be proactive and wash your hands as much as you can. And of course, that requires water and you might not find clean water to do the same on a variety of occasions, so the hand sanitizer will be your savior. Before a meal, after eating, after using a lavatory, after embarking from a crowded bus, after flipping out the old saint’s beard; basically all the time!
- Dental Floss : This might sound a little weird but Indians just don’t seem to get around with the idea of dental floss and we have resorted to toothpicks (a half-hearted thin woody alternative of floss). You might not like using toothpicks like the people here, so better carry your floss around.
- Toilet Paper : Well, fables have it, Indians and toilet paper don’t go around. As a country that is just getting comfortable with western toilet seats, toilet papers of any kind are a far lingering possibility. But believe it or not, toilet papers are actually less sanitary than the Indian ways of using water sprays. Don’t believe me? Check out this link.
2. Water Can Literally Make or Break Your Trip
I am not even gonna state all the ways in which dirty water can make you really sick. You just need to be aware that in India, being careful about potable water is a must even for the locals. First things first, you will not find the general choice between still and sparkling water here. Indians literally never consume sparkling water per se, so all you have is still water. But there are two kinds of still water you get here, the waiters will probably give you the options as- regular or mineral. Always go for the mineral or bottled water, you can really not trust the source of the regular water people offer you here. Not just in restaurants, wherever you go in India, this must be your rule of thumb. It is definitely clean and will not mess up your belly. And of course, as a direct conclusion, never ask for ice in your drinks because again, you don’t know which water was used to make that ice in the first place. Basically in India, be content with chilled mineral water bottles.
3. Use a Straw
You can’t even trust the containers of any drink being offered in India as there might have been tons of flies buzzing around that drink recently. So it is better to consume the least amount of beverages (like ‘fresh juices’, smoothies etc that the vendor swore he made out of his finest fruits!) and use a straw whenever you are having one.
4. Fruits Are Not Always Healthy
While your mind might tell you that the best way to stay healthy in India is to consume healthy food like fruits, consuming the wrong kind of fruits can have adverse effects on your health. The general rule should be to consume fruits with a natural covering; like bananas and pistachios must be preferable over apples and cashews. Anything that has a natural shell is more likely to be palatable than something that doesn’t. But it’s not like you need to eliminate all other fruits entirely from your diet. There are ways to be smart about fruit shopping too. Indian vendors often sell waxed fruits (a fruit that has a thin wax coating on its surface), so you must specifically ask for unwaxed fruits. Once you have bought it, it’s a good idea to gently scrape it with a small knife and if it still has some wax, you will be able to see it coming right off. In that case, peel off all the wax, wash the fruit with bottled water and then consume it. Finally, if something looks too good to be true, it really is the case. Cherry red apples and stark coloured oranges might have artificial colouring additives in them, so always purchase more believable, natural fruits; or just follow the brilliant indian housewife found in every indian market and go parallel with her shopping. Trust me, they know it all!
5. The Correct Restaurant Is Gonna Be Your Noah’s Ark
Indians are literally crazy about food; it forms an essential part of their life and culture, so you will have a myriad of dining options to choose from. There are banquet dining halls in five-star hotels, local restaurants, cafes, multinational food chains and of course our good old street vendors. There are literally a million things you can try so making the right choice becomes crucial.
- If you bruise like a peach and fall sick quickly (you know who you are!) you might as well steer clear of Delhi Belly and go for the certified neat places, the high-end restaurants and banquets in a star-studded hotels (Howdy, million dollar backpacker!) and the multinational food chains. McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Burger King and KFC are literally going to be your saviors in finding affordable, familiar and most importantly ‘clean’ food in India.
- The stronger ones of you can always go for the local cafes and restaurants. Not all of them are gonna give you diarrhoea, really! When trying to pick a local restaurant, follow online reviews and offline crowds. If a place is crowded, it must be for a reason, so just hop in the queue.
- As a foreign traveller in India it is really advisable for you to not dive in too much into street cuisines but then what is a good trip without a pinch of the local staples? My advice would be to take India slowly at a time; in the first few days you might wanna stick to more familiar and safer options and then you can start trying street food real slow probably taking the advice of some locals on the ‘least objectionable’ vendors. When you are trying street food, I would recommend you have some company who can explain the vendor that spicy food is an absolute no-no. Take my words on this, you cannot handle the indian spices in the street food right away. It is an acquired taste, so better start off without it.
- Try to go vegetarian every once in a while! Indians are literally the best in the world when it comes to vegetarian cuisine, you get a plethora of options and it goes without saying that its healthy too. You will find a vegetarian option for every possible meat course in the world! You might wanna give it a try, really. But if you are an absolute meat junkie, India has a lot of options for you too. Just remember one thing, if you are ever doubtful about a meat option, like maybe the chicken doesn’t look so fresh, just go for the vegetarian alternative. India is a hot country and not all outlets can afford the proper refrigeration and maintenance of meat and related products, so veggies are just less likely to be objectionable.
- Finally, when you have found the places you wanna grab a meal in, always clean the plates and spoons you are about to use, with a tissue paper and some water before you start your meal. You can be sure that way that your meal is being served on a clean plate.
6. Read a Book
You will be able to find dozens of food blogs and travel books about India which intricately discuss the intricate cuisine of this country. It is better to get acquainted with what is about to be served to you by reading one of these books or blogs. It will make you aware about the ingredients of your new diet, the general meals etc. And you will be specially thankful for this tip when you are in some local restaurant where the waiter is blurting out names of specials, and everybody else gives a blank stare while you are thankful for having done your homework!
7. Vaccinations, Insurance, And The Entire Hospital!
Medical care in India is not exactly the finest in the world, but you are gonna be fine with the right kind of preparation.
- Vaccinations : India is a developing nation which means we still have a lot of diseases that are non-existent in the western world. So get your vaccinations prior to your trip to India. It is advisable to plan your trip well in advance because you may need to get some vaccines whose courses can last for months. Consult your doctor for the vaccines you might need. You can also go through this link for the WHO recommended vaccines, and country specific travel vaccines.
- Medicine Boxes : Inspite of taking all precautions possible, there is still a slight possibility that you may fall sick anyway. Ergo, you must be prepared with your medical kit. Basically, put together a box in which you have all general medications like your prescription medicines, anything you take for allergies, mild antibiotics, antihistamines, something to prevent malaria, cough drops, paracetamol for fever etc. A first aid kit with bandages, disinfectant and soothing creams is essential too. You will be able to get most of these things in India too, but it is better to be prepared with your own kit rather than running around pharmacies when you are already battered.
- Health Insurance is not Always a Must : Simply put, healthcare is not wildly expensive in India like a lot of western countries. You can often take a trip to the Doctor’s place for less than ten dollars. So unless you are going to be doing adventure sports, hiking, mountaineering, and stuff; investing in health insurance is a waste of money. Even you catch a fever or something like that, it will much more economically beneficial to visit a local doctor and pay by cash (prefer Apollo hospitals and AIIMS dispensaries over others). But if you are about to venture into something that can cause some serious injuries, health insurance must be taken in that case; surgeries and operations are not cheap in India either. A medical evacuation insurance is also something you can consider in the case of the possibility of grave accidents and/or natural disasters.
- Avoid contact lenses : If you are backpacking across India and don’t associate yourself with the Bill Gates family, chances are that you are on a budget like all of us and will be taking a lot of cabs and buses that are not limousines. While you are traveling through these dilapidated cabs and buses with open windows, and the sir outside is dusty, contact lenses will drive you crazy. Getting dust particles stuck in your lenses while traveling in Delhi Autorickshaws is really common and your eyes will turn red like a witch in a horror movie. When you are traveling extensively it might not even be possible to disinfect your lenses time and again, so the wiser option would be to go for spectacles. Carry atleast two pairs of spectacles and your prescription card too; just in case you break both of them, it will be fairly easy to get a new pair in India.
This list might seem like a lot but these are very basic guidelines, and if you think about it, you can follow most of them without hindering any part of your trip. Better be safe than sorry afterall! You are gonna love India inspite of these little quirks, it is gonna be worth it. Healthy travels, mate!