Photo: Shutterstock/Amith Nag

How to: Travel in India and Not Get Sick

India Travel Safety
by Robin Esrock Oct 8, 2010
Modern Gonzo and Matador Breaking Free host Robin Esrock shares 10 tips for iron-stomaching it through India.

IF THE THOUGHT of squatting over a hole for days on end is holding you back from one of the most incredible journeys of your life, I urge you to read this.

It is possible to travel extensively in India and avoid a case of Delhi (or Rishikesh, or Anjuna, or anywhere) Belly. What’s more, you’ll be able to eat some of the best food on the planet. I know this because I spent a month in the country, and while travelers around me seemed to drop like flies, I remained healthy.

This is not because I have a superhero gut of steel. It’s because I took some basic precautions, and stuck to them. Our digestive system just isn’t ready for the onslaught of foreign microbes you’ll find on the subcontinent. Over time it will adjust, but for travelers, here’s my plan to prevent a messy disaster:

1. Don’t drink the tap

Obviously, enough said.

Don’t freak out too much about that scene in Slumdog Millionaire where tourists are duped into buying bottled water straight out of the tap.

Most packaged water is fine — just check the cap to make sure it’s sealed.

Keep a bottle of drinking water handy for brushing your teeth. And ever important, watch out for ice in drinks.

2. Don’t eat meat

India is a country of vegetarians, where cooking sans animal flesh has been elevated to an art. You’re not going to miss beef, pork, or chicken, even though it is widely available.

Relish the veggie curries while staying clear of potentially contaminated meats.

3. Don’t eat uncooked cheese

Cheese is packed with nasty microbes. A friend of mine was doing great until she sprinkled some Parmesan on a pasta dish and spent the next 72 hours expelling fluids from every orifice.

Paneer is fine — it’s an Indian cheese cooked in many amazing curries. And pizza should be okay, so long as the cheese has boiled at some point.

4. Don’t eat eggs

Leave the sunny-side-up for treats back home. An undercooked egg will probably tie your intestine into a sailor knot.

5. Don’t drink milk

For some reason, most travelers deal well with lassi, the cold yogurt-based drink. However, it’s sometimes mixed with tap water and ice, so use your judgment.

Since dairy farming refrigeration is sometimes not up to the standards you’re used to, milk is a risky business. Do your gut a favour and take your coffee black.

6. Don’t eat fish…unless you see it caught and cooked

On the coast, fish doesn’t come fresher, although you may want to make fully sure that’s the case before eating.

Uncooked fish or fish left sitting in the heat too long is going to mount an all-out attack on your immune system.

7. Don’t eat uncooked vegetables

Fortunately, most vegetables are cooked in curries so delicious your taste buds will dance a Bollywood musical.

Peeling fruit is another wise choice. And if you’re washing stuff, make sure you do it with packaged water.

8. Eat in tourist/upscale restaurants

A place with a good reputation and steady clientele usually knows the value of good hygiene, and the importance of keeping itself within the pages of the guidebooks.

When it comes to dining out, it pays to follow the advice of those who’ve come before you. The only time I ate meat was at a famous international hotel and it was fine.

I know you’re dying to eat street food like the locals — just be aware that locals can handle things in their tummies you probably can’t.

9. Wash/sanitize your hands regularly

And especially before eating. Just like your momma taught you.

10. Trust your gut

You could follow all of this religiously and still get sick. Or you might meet travelers who down whatever looks good and do just fine. Everyone’s system is different.

However, being paranoid about what you’re eating will definitely rob you of an awesome experience. India is no place for that.

The best way to deal with the sensory overload of color, smell, noise, and people is to relax, be patient, keep a sense of humour, and listen to what your gut is telling you.

Community Connection

Have you traveled to India? What do you think of Robin’s advice? Is it right on, or do you believe there are some travel risks worth taking

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