Drinking the tap water in India isn’t safe for travelers. You may know that already.
But what you may not know is that in India, buying bottled water doesn’t always promise safety, either.
When I entered a crowded guesthouse café in Hampi, I looked around to see backpackers from all around the world. So food-wise, I felt safe. But when I walked past an employee sitting off to the side, with a line of empty water bottles, what did I see?… He was filling the bottles with tap water and recapping them! Ever after, it’s ruined my trust in “sealed” bottled water in this country. I didn’t want to get sick in India from bad drinking water .
This made me wonder,…
Is buying bottled water in India an exercise in blind faith?
I began inspecting the ones I bought; sure enough, some of them were tampered with! Even if they had a brand label wrapper loosely sealed over its cap.
How did I know?…
Plastic caps make a subtle “click” when unscrewed. Sometimes you see where they’re broken. When I twisted my cap, I felt a sandy slide. No broken bumps on the inside of the cap. It was glued on, probably with Crazy Glue. But trodding around in the sweltering Indian heat, what can you do?
Though I didn’t get sick from any of the water I drank, as a traveler, I felt my choices limited. You either have to trust that the tap the water used is safe drinking water or do a combination of things…
Four ways of avoiding bottled water in India:
1. Buy soda and juices
Sodas and juices are usually harder to refill or make– especially if they’re in a can! Go for the can– it’s the safest option. However, old-fashioned glass soda bottles are also a common in India and you’ll see familiar brands such as Limca or Coke. Also, local soda dealers will use recycled glass bottles to sport their own soda or carbonated water. The local soda isn’t as sugary and is priced at rupees less the commercial brand (i.e. 5 rupees vs 25 rupees!). If you’re a ruppee-miser, then local sodas are actually cheaper than buying regular soda and bottled water!
The bottles can be recycled for reuse so many merchants will prefer you to drink it there on the spot so they can return the bottle.
Advice: To be safe, ask for a straw or do as the locals do– don’t touch the bottle to your lips, but pour the soda into your mouth as it’s uncertain how the bottles are washed… if they even are!
2. Buy a travel water purifier
These are especially good for those traveling to developing countries over a longer period. Pump filters and sport bottles filters assure you they’ll catch 99.9% of the bacteria in bad water. Not bad. The only drawback is that the pumps and water bottles require effort. In short, you’re getting a workout for each mouthful of squirt you make!
It’s not as light-weight either.
The Steripen however, doesn’t need hand-pumping, is pen-sized and runs on AA batteries. Supposedly it makes 1 liter in 90 seconds, which could be a decent solution. Because as much as you think you’ll live off of your own filtered water, it’s the constant workout that propels you back to the store… to buy your bottled water!
I bought a Sport Berkey Portable Water Purifier (below) for $25. Wasn’t a big fan because it was like operating an exercise squeeze ball just to squirt my water. But it does the trick.
3. Boil your water
Perhaps you can’t filter out funky residuals but you can kill off water-borne bacteria and viruses if you boil it. Even better, unlike the water purifiers, you can make pots full of water without the muscle gain!
Obviously, a hot plate may be extra weight for backpacking travelers, so let me share a handy tool I just discovered– a
Coffee/Water Heater. It’s a little travel size plug-in heating wand that you put in your water, bringing your water to a boil in seconds! It comes in several sizes (mine is about 5 inches) and you can also find them India household and appliance shops! As for cups to boil water in– India has a wealth of stainless steel cups for mere rupees.
4. Employ traveler’s blind faith and buy the bottled water
Last but not least, if you spend enough time in India, you might find yourself getting a bit careless. Call it an exercise in blind faith or just being too tired to analyze everything.
When it’s hot, you have limited choices. Sometimes, you end up crossing your fingers, holding your breath and trusting that the sealed bottle you have is legitimate and clean.
Has your bottled water been tampered with?
While I can’t guarantee my advice is foolproof, it might help a bit. Unfortunately, you have to buy the bottle first. When you twist the cap, you should feel it snap in at least the three (or more) places where you break the plastic. If you don’t hear that, but hear a sandy slide, the cap was glued on. Also, a plastic wrapper over the cap is not always a good indicator of safety either. Check first how sealed over the cap it is. If it’s loose (vs snug or shrink-wrapped) AND your cap is too easy to remove, chances are its been opened.
Notice the plastic grooves on the cap where the plastic is broken. You should feel the plastic pop when you twist your cap.
What can you do to with your water bottle?
Take your plastic water bottle after you’re done and crush it. This prevents others from reusing the bottle– refilling it and setting it back on the shelf.