One of my favorite quotes from Patrick De Ridder’s podcast episode was about street food:
“Maybe you are not sure about the quality of the food. Have it. Get violently sick. Get better.”
There are two kinds of approaches to staying healthy in India. One is Patrick’s caution-to-the-wind perspective. The other is the person who brings their own hand sanitizer to a five-star hotel and insists on seeing the seal being broken on their mineral water before drinking it.
If you are more of the second type, this article isn’t for you. Nothing personal against these people, but it’s just not something you can keep up if you are going to enjoy being in India for a long time.
This is the ‘minimalist’ guide to staying healthy in India, for those who prefer to live a little dangerously, but don’t want to be stupid about it. If you follow this advice, you will thoroughly enjoy your experience, but be warned that most of us have had a stay or two in the hospital as well.
Cover Your Bases
Before you come, check out the vaccination guide and get acquainted with hospitals in India. These are things you don’t want to find out about too late. If you take prescription medicine, bring a good supply of what you need, but basically every medication can be bought here as well (and for much cheaper).
Rule #1 is eat food hot. Stay away from food that has sat out for a long time.
Rule #2 is to ask an Indian to recommend a place or go with you before trying out the local dives on your own.
For all street food, apply rules #1 and #2.
Be a bit careful around fresh fruits and veggies. Wash them in clean water at home if you are going to eat them raw.
At a restaurant, you will be 99.9% safe drinking what they call ‘regular water’. This water comes from large 20 liter plastic ‘cans’ and has been filtered and treated. Most people get these large cans of water delivered to their home for drinking purposes. If you are skeptical about the hygiene of a particular restaurant, don’t be ashamed to ask for bottled, or ‘mineral’ water.
Don’t drink tap water. This either comes from a borewell or supplied by the local government. It is safe to use for bathing, washing, etc. Many homes will boil this water and use it for drinking instead of buying the cans. If you visit any home and they offer you water, you can assume it is safe to drink.
Trust your taste buds. If you are out somewhere and the water tastes markedly different, don’t drink it.
One big question is about water for brushing your teeth. The minimalist approach says to go ahead and use the tap water, but we won’t take away your card if you use filtered water.
There was a recent article from a NY Times reporter about the sad state of air quality in Delhi. There aren’t many effective ways to avoid the pollution in these huge cities aside from not living in them. If you have the option and this is a big concern for you, chose a nice Tier 2 or 3 city that isn’t as industrialized. If you don’t have the choice, make plans to get out of the city on weekends.
These suckers are serious, but you can’t be a minimalist and take malaria medication every day for years on end. Put nets up around windows and balcony areas so that you can still enjoy the outside. Use a spray if you are going to be out at twilight, and try to clear out any mosquitos from your room at night before you seal it up.
It’s easy to get dehydrated in India, whether you are in the dry heat of Delhi or the constant humidity of Chennai. Stay out of the sun, especially in the middle of the day. I know it sounds obvious, but in our first year, we kept walking out to get groceries at about 2 or 3 pm. No one else was out, and anyone who could see us probably thought we had lost our minds.
Tender coconut water is a natural rehydrator that helps keep your body replenished. When I go for a long run, I make sure to have some Electrol, which is a powdered mix easily obtained from any medical shop. Pharmacies also carry juice boxes called ORS-L that are good for kids.
Listen to your guide. Don’t be a hero.
Washing Your Hands
One of the only drawbacks to the Indian method of using the toilet is that on occasion there isn’t any soap available to wash your hands. Do as the Indians do and refrain from using your left hand for touching anything (especially food and other people), and try to scope out the next nearest soap dispenser.
Staying healthy in India is a very important concern, but it shouldn’t get in the way of having some great experiences. Follow these minimalist rules and you’ll enjoy yourself while keeping the hospital at an arm’s distance.
Image Credit: Rajesh_India on Flickr