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.
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.
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.
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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