Avoiding bed bugs, bacteria and bad guys

photograph of woman coconut seller in Pondicherry, India

Street vendor selling tender coconuts in Pondicherry.

How to not get sick in India and other tips

These are my top tips for how to not get sick in India, how to avoid bed bugs and how to protect yourself from theft and other problems.

TRAVEL IN INDIA, and in so many other places, definitely has its challenges. But that’s no reason not to go. In fact, it often seems the greater the challenge, the greater the reward! The three biggest fears a lot of people have about traveling in a ‘developing’ nation seem to be bed bugs, bacteria and bad guys. (The other fear is confronting scenes of poverty, which I wrote about in Top 5 myths of India and India, poverty and the fear of traveling to poor places.)

My own experience is that there’s usually nothing to fear but fear itself. A positive attitude, a healthy immune system, and liberal doses of resilience, resourcefulness, caution and common sense are usually enough to get most travelers through most situations. But here are some tips that I’ve discovered for dealing with the Big Three fears of insect, microbe and human kind.

Avoiding bed bugs

1. To avoid bed bugs in India, don’t stay at the Flea Bag Inn. In India, it is a badge of honour among some travelers — i.e. backpackers — to brag about how they only spent 150 rupees on their hovel, er, hotel. I don’t buy in to this at all. I have found that the backpacker’s ghettos are not only dirty, they are not a very authentic travel experience. (See my post Is backpacking in India a beaten path? for an explanation.) Paying a bit more — such as 500 to 1,500 rupees a night — can usually put you in a nice, clean guest house run by friendly, local people. And, if you show some genuine interest, they will probably be happy to help you experience the local culture.

2. Pack a sheet sleeping bag. I use a cotton one, but they also come in silk, which packs smaller and is warmer.

3. If you can get it, carry Rest Easy, a natural product you can use to spray around your bed to chase the bed bugs away. I carry it with me, but haven’t had to use it so far — so I can’t vouch for its effectiveness.

Avoiding bacteria

1. To avoid getting sick in India, and in many other places, it’s really the water you have to watch. Be very careful about the water you drink, and also the water used in ice cubes, drinks and some food preparations. You also have to remember to keep your mouth closed in the shower and brush your teeth with bottled water. In India, buy bottled water as a rule, and make sure the seal is intact. Also carry a stainless steel water bottle. Some places have reverse osmosis filters, and you can fill up your bottle for free.

photograph of Indian food on a banana leaf in Tamil Nade, south India

Banana leaf lunch in Chennai.

2. There are no hard and fast rules about avoiding bacteria in food. You can eat street food and feel fine; and then eat at a five-star hotel and get sick (a lack of continuous power and spotty refrigeration is often the culprit). Make sure the food is fresh or freshly prepared, don’t eat raw foods (such as salads) or fruit, unless you’ve peeled it or washed it in a bacteria-killing solution.

3. Carry heat-resistant probiotics and either GSE (grapefruit seed extract) or oil of oregano, and take every day. There are homeopathic remedies you can use too — consult a naturopathic or homeopathic doctor before you go. The one thing I always carry with me from those small medical kits are the oral hydration salts pouches. If you get “Delhi-belly” you need to keep hydrated. Otherwise, I follow my “when in Rome” philosophy. In India, I eat lots of homemade curd (yogurt) and if I get sick, I consult a local doctor. They know what works for their particular brand of bugs.

4. I have never had food poisoning, which is a different problem than “Delhi-belly” (caused by ingesting bacteria or parasites). I’m not sure how to avoid it — it seems like it’s just the luck of the draw — or even treat it.

Avoiding bad guys

1. To avoid theft while traveling, keep your eyes open, be aware of the risks and travel with a couple of cables and good quality suitcase locks. I put everything valuable in my carry-on bag and lock it up, using the cable, to a solid piece of furniture. Sometimes, I will put my laptop, camera and/or passport in the hotel safe. It’s unfortunate that in some hotels and resorts, it is the staff who do the thieving. I am very sympathetic — they are often very poor people who clean up after a parade of people with iPhones, computers and high-end running shoes — but I don’t want to lose anything, so I am cautious.

2. I do the same thing while I’m traveling: I lock my bag to the bus seat or train bunk.

photograph of Mariellen Ward at Taj Mahal, Agra, India

Me with friends at the Taj Mahal in 2006.

3. As a woman who travels alone, I am of course very cautious — even more cautious than at home. I don’t let people I meet during the day know where I’m staying, for example. In countries that are foreign to us, the way men and women relate is usually foreign, too. You have to be careful to make sure you’re not giving the wrong signals. In India, I dress very modestly, and in Indian-style clothes. I think this goes a long way towards being treated with respect and deference. I’ve been approached by sleazy men, but I shook them off pretty easily and I’m happy to report that I’ve never had a real problem. On the contrary, I’ve met a lot of very friendly, helpful and genuinely nice people during my year of travel in India.

4. In some countries, you do have to be aware of terrorist activity. And though you cannot, of course, anticipate where or when an attack will occur, it is wise to have a sense of the typical targets. I have never been to Srinagar or Kashmir because of this threat, and I also avoid places that are super popular with tourists. Terrorists attacked two of the most popular tourist hangouts in India — the Leopold Cafe in Mumbai and the German Bakery in Pune.

5. I love the Lonely Planet guide — it is a treasure trove of useful and interesting information — and I usually travel with it … but I have to say it: I sometimes use the Lonely Planet guide to decide where NOT to go. This tip might not work for everyone: if you’re in India to follow the well-trodden backpackers trail and meet up with other foreigners along the way, you need to know where they hang out. But I prefer to eat where the locals eat, shop where the locals shop and get to know the country and the culture.

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22 Responses to Avoiding bed bugs, bacteria and bad guys

  1. Kristin March 1, 2011 at 3:45 pm #

    Great advice – especially the “bad guys” one. I always lock up my packs and recommend the Pacsafe brand because no one can cut through the straps or fabric.

  2. Yogesh March 1, 2011 at 5:21 pm #

    Good tips. One more tip to add while traveling in India or any other countries for that reason – If you have friends in that country through some contacts , ask them for some help about where to go , what to see OR how to commute and keep their contact number handy for emergency. Recently my manager’s sister traveled to India , so my sister in India helped her in her traveling.

  3. Mariellen March 1, 2011 at 6:03 pm #

    Thanks for your comments. And here’s another one: I always carry a mobile phone with me when I travel in India and I am constantly in touch with my friend there. I even phone him when I get in a taxi and tell him the taxi number — loudly, so the taxi driver can hear.

  4. freya March 1, 2011 at 6:51 pm #

    Ahh Mariellen this is advise I would give Indians traveling in India too 🙂
    Great tips!

  5. Amanjeet March 1, 2011 at 4:15 pm #

    All true, and I especially like the part about using LP as a guide of where not to go – like the “backpackers’ hovels”, eg Paharganj. To be fair though, I love my Lonely Planet North India guide simply because to there has been some important and useful info in it that I have shown my relatives and once they verify that info, off we go!

  6. Vicki Edmunds March 5, 2011 at 9:12 am #

    Hi Mariellen,

    Loved the fact that sometimes you avoid the places recommended by Lonely Planet, I remember visiting Quebec and finding a restaurant only to discover it was fully booked and most of the tables had occupants with a ‘Lonely Planet’ guide book by their plates.
    As a solo traveller I use http://www.eatwithalocal.com I eat with the local people through this site and gain tips about the area from them. Recently, I dined in Colva, Goa with Meghana and her husband we watched the sun set on the beach sipping cocktails. Meghana gave me very good advice on where to shop and eat and relax and kept into contact throughout the rest of my stay. You gain a great insight into the culture of a country eating with the local people.

  7. Lindsay March 5, 2011 at 1:36 pm #

    Thank you for this wonderful advice! I head to Indian in a week and can’t wait!!! Need to get me some of those probiotics….

  8. kp March 8, 2011 at 4:21 am #

    Good post. And useful

  9. Betina March 10, 2011 at 9:10 pm #

    Gosh, I can even apply these great tips while I’m in Africa! Thanks, Mariellen 🙂

  10. Mariellen March 11, 2011 at 1:17 am #

    Thanks everyone. These tips are really tried and true. You learn a few things after you’ve traveled for a year in India!

  11. Satu March 11, 2011 at 4:06 pm #

    You’re so right about avoiding backpacker fleapits and staying in those mid-range places that still are pretty cheap for us Westerners. There are some amazing homestays in India, family-run, comfortable, clean, with home-cooked food… much nicer than, say, the Pahar Ganj in Delhi!

  12. Twangy Pearl March 16, 2011 at 5:20 am #

    I travel to India every year, and just got back from my sixth trip. This trip was the first trip (whoot whoot) that I didn’t have at least one episode of violent puking out of both ends. I’ve tried all manner of homeopathics, probiotics, GSE etc etc etc. And I’m very careful about water. Last year my medical kit took up more room in my pack than my clothes, literally. This year I left all of that behind and vowed to eat curd for breakfast every day and a drink a coke at lunch. Seems crazy (as I don’t drink pop/soda at home) … alas a friend who travelled with us last year and also got sick along with me was scolded by a doctor upon coming home for taking antibiotics and was told to drink coke while on vacation. I added the curd, as if it kills all the bad bacteria, it’s also killing the good – which you need, especially while travelling. And @Satu – I’m with you on the homestays!

  13. Mariellen March 16, 2011 at 1:32 pm #

    Thanks for comments @Satu and @Twangy Pearl. I totally agree about eating fresh curd in India — it’s full of good probiotics and can help keep you well, I am sure. I’ve never heard the coke tip, though — but I do drink Limca when I’m in India because it is so refreshing and can help keep you from getting dehydrated.

    This is why I believe in “when in Rome.” Local people know what the best protocols for their climate, geography, culture, etc. are.

    And definitely love the idea of homestays. India is exactly the right country for homestays because the people are so warm and helpful, and because it is a family-centric culture. In fact, if you haven’t stayed in a home in India, I don;t think you’ve really experienced the culture.

    • Jonathan Ratner September 25, 2014 at 5:46 pm #

      By far the most important thing to take starting at least 10 days before heading over is Neem Leaf. It dramatically increases digestive power the key defense against ingested bugs.

      Add the probiotic and Swedish Bitters and you will be amazed.

  14. Suzy September 12, 2011 at 12:42 am #

    Great tips, even if you aren’t traveling in India. A parasite is really luck of the draw as you say. I got one in Portugal, generally considered very developed. I have no idea where, but sometimes those things just happen. I love your tip about using guidebooks to know where you don’t want to go.

  15. Mariellen September 12, 2011 at 2:17 am #

    Thanks Suzy, and thanks for featuring me. I felt bad saying that about Lonely Planet because it’s such a good book, but I find the “hippie” scene in India quite appalling. The government is trying to clean up Hampi, for example, a sacred site in South India that has degenerated into a foreigner’s drug scene.

  16. Nona Oneill December 13, 2011 at 11:15 pm #

    A parasite is really luck of the draw as you say. Loved the fact that sometimes you avoid the places recommended by Lonely Planet, I remember visiting Quebec and finding a restaurant only to discover it was fully booked and most of the tables had occupants with a ‘Lonely Planet’ guide book by their plates. The government is trying to clean up Hampi, for example, a sacred site in South India that has degenerated into a foreigner’s drug scene.

  17. Dave E Wilkes March 29, 2012 at 3:58 am #

    I like the Flea Bag Inn reference! And even though 500 to 1,500 rupees is more than staying cheap -really cheap! – it still isn’t all that much really.

    However, bed bugs have even been found in some of the most expensive hotels in the world and so even though paying a little more for a place to stay in India will get you better accommodation, we still need to do a quick routine check for bed bugs before really settling in.

    I loved this post and reading it brought back many good memories of happy times spent in India. Thank you

  18. Mariellen March 29, 2012 at 9:29 am #

    Thanks David, it’s true, bedbugs don’t pay hotel rates so they go wherever they can! You have to be careful.

  19. Sar23 October 27, 2012 at 6:45 pm #

    Hi Mariellen, I really appreciate your blog! The company I work for is sending me to India for a few months and I was wondering what probiotics you take? There are so many different types and brands of probiotics and I am not sure which would survive India’s climate. Thank you so much!
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