There’s so much I want to say about India. After a month, it feels both like we just got here yesterday and also as if we’ve been here forever. Every day we become more familiar with the way of life here but equally there is still so much we don’t know and probably never will. You could read for a lifetime about India in the thousands of books and reports written on this beguiling land of rich history and contrasting states, but you will never truly know India until you have set foot in this dusty, colourful, non-stop country.
Here, I’ve laid out my musings about 10 things I/we have learnt from travelling India for 4 weeks. Please note, these are my own views and opinions and I’m well aware that a month is nowhere near enough time to see or experience everything. I do not wish to offend anybody in my writing and nothing I’ve written is meant as such.
- India was probably not the best choice of location for first-time backpackers.
Maybe traditional gap year destination, Thailand would have been a gentler breaking in to the life of a traveller. India is the sort of place where a few bad experiences can totally skew your perception of the country. Everything is so intense that one negative thing can be amplified completely out of proportion. Although not total novices to new places, this was the first time we’d been anywhere more than two weeks and not had a fixed plan of where to go and stay etc. As I explained in my post ‘Flying out of my comfort zone’, this was difficult for me at first and India is just so different from anything either of us had experienced before, it took some adjustment. At least we started in Goa which is slow-paced and peaceful compared to much of the rest of the country.
- The country will not change for you
This might seem like a strange thing to say but what I mean by this is there are so many aspects of life here that are confusing for Westerners and it’s futile to get frustrated about them. The easiest example to give, is the traffic. This is one of those things that cannot be explained satisfactorily unless you have experienced it for yourself. But I will try. In most places we visited, traffic consists for the most part of tuk tuks, motorbikes/scooters, small trucks transporting things, buses and a handful of private cars. In some places, like Delhi and Agra, you also find cycle rickshaws and horse drawn carts. Of course into all this add some cows and the occasional dog trying to cross the road. Oh, and the pedestrians. Everyone is heading wherever they’re going without much consideration for other road users, or so it seems at first. Drivers weave through traffic and pull into spaces that to the untrained eye, aren’t there. The horn is part of daily life here. It is used as a horn should be used, to alert people to your presence. But in the chaos that is Indian roads, there is a constant barrage of horns. For example, a horn will be sounded when overtaking, when coming up to a sharp bend, to alert pedestrians, to frighten cows out of the way, and also (in my skeptical opinion) to scare the tourists. In the UK, and most parts of Europe, the horn is used as a sign of anger at another driver, so it takes some time to stop thinking like this when you get to India. If a scooter sounds its horn the whole while it’s going round you, it’s to tell you not to cross the road rather than telling you you’re in the way. The more we use the roads, be it walking or in tuk tuks, we understand more how it works. And it does work. While on the surface it’s a complete mess, only once have we seen an accident and it was only a cycle rickshaw scraping a car, no injuries were involved. While I can sit in a tuk tuk thinking if only they actually used the highway code, there wouldn’t be the need for the horns, this is never going to happen and noise is part of the culture here. I won’t pretend like you get used to it, you just have to accept it.
Other things that I’ve struggled with include the spitting, the staring, the lack of toilet paper and the ‘apparent’ lack of respect Indians have for their country. Which brings me to point 3…
- The people do the best with what they have
This point is mainly in reference to the non-existent waste disposal scheme here. It is commonplace to see litter on the streets and in areas slightly out of town, large patches of ground are dedicated to burning waste because this is the only way they can dispose of it. While this verges on a political problem, local people are doing their best. This can’t be said for everyone however, and often you will see locals, old and young, throwing their rubbish out of train windows or just on the ground as they walk. James said he saw a young man about our age throw a banana peel out the bus window, but it was inside a plastic bag. As divers and big advocates against marine pollution, seeing this is difficult for us and ultimately I think (and hope) it comes down to poor education on the subject and not merely a disrespect for the environment.
Additionally, we’ve noticed a lot of the temples, forts and palaces we’ve visited have been damaged by people engraving their names or initials into the walls. This cannot be solely down to locals, although a lot of it is in local language. In Rajasthan, where the history is so plentiful and a major tourist attraction, I cannot understand why the monuments are not better cared for by the people who benefit from the money they bring into the area. In the last two years, prices for almost every attraction have increased by at least 200 rupees, if not more (like the Taj Mahal), so hopefully that indicates a plan for greater conservation work and protection. Although I won’t hold my breath. The best looked after palace we visited was the City Palace in Udaipur.
Back to my point, poverty is still a massive issue in this country and I won’t pretend to know enough about it to comment. But I will say that from what we’ve seen, people are happy and lead basic but fulfilling lives, something we could definitely learn from.
- Indian food is not the complicated mystery I always thought it was!
Onto slightly lighter topics, at our last guesthouse in Udaipur, we had a cooking lesson with our hostess. We learnt how to make chai, cabbage masala, aubergine tomato curry, daal fry, vegetable biryani, fruit curry and three varieties of chapati: plain, butter and paratha. We learnt the basic paste that can be used for all these dishes and each one only took about 15 minutes! Not the hours that I’d been imagining. I’ll definitely be using less oil when I recreate them at home though. That’s been my only complaint about northern Indian food so far, the oil. We’ve been pretty much vegetarian since we arrived, aside from two or three meals with chicken, and I haven’t missed meat for a second. Everything is so tasty you don’t notice! I can’t wait to cook a feast for our families when we get home!
- How to cross the road properly
Given what I wrote earlier about the traffic here, crossing the road as a pedestrian is a daunting prospect for the newly arrived. It took us about a week to cross the road confidently. This often means walking out in front of traffic or stopping in the middle of the road for a tuk tuk to go round you. The drivers are used to it though because that’s the only way to get around. A narrow market street is one thing, a big city road is quite another and this takes a lot of nerve, something I think we developed in Bengaluru.
- A bit of open-ness with the locals can go a long way, but stay vigilant
A lot of the locals in India are very curious about Westerners. This means they stare and point and talk about you quite obviously with their friends/family. This is just something you have to get over. Most of the time its just small children running after you waving and shouting ‘Hi!’ over and over, so that quite cute and a wave back normally satisfies them. Then there’s the photos. A lot of people want photos of you, with you; and they don’t always ask. If you accept to one person, don’t be surprised to find them calling to a group of their friends waiting nearby for a group shot! But if you talk to these people, often they are very friendly and will try to answer your questions even if their english isn’t great. It’s the same with shopkeepers, tuk tuk drivers and restaurant owners, if you chat to them they will most often happily tell you want you want to know. Just be careful that they’re not talking you into some scam or buying something you don’t want. It’s very easy not to trust anyone in India after reading all the warnings about scams and touts. Especially when almost everyone you meet in a tourist capacity appears very friendly and then often reveals that they have an ulterior motive. Just be careful and firm about what you want and where you are going and you’ll have no issues. It’s also a good idea to have your hostel or guesthouse pinned on maps.me so you can follow the progress of your journey and also so you can direct your driver when they get lost, it happened to us more than once. Although they preferred to stop and ask for directions rather than take them from me, with the map, so I guess the trust thing goes both ways!
Some of the best interactions we had though were from complete strangers on the train. Especially for our first couple of journeys when we clearly looked a bit lost, we had a lot of help in sorting out our beds, and interpreting the announcements for our train that was 5 hrs late. I even had food offered to me by a mother travelling with her son, even though we had to use gestures to communicate because of the language barrier.
So my point is, yes do be weary, but after a little while you start to recognise the genuine interactions and those that just want your money so you can start to trust a little more and this will improve your experience of India. It’s tiring to be fearful constantly, so don’t be!
- Dressing modestly is an absolute must
All travel websites will tell you to dress modestly when visiting India, particularly when going to temples where it is simply a sign of respect for their culture. But also just for your own personal comfort when walking around, try to avoid tank tops or low cut tops because people will stare (even more than normal). It took me a little while to realise this. As we started in Goa, a very touristy, beachy place, people would wear anything and that was accepted. So when we moved north, I was still going round with my shoulders uncovered. This is generally fine and you won’t get told off or anything, just a week or so later when I started wrapping my scarf around me, I noticed far less unwanted attention. Of course this seems obvious, I’m just warning all you ladies out there, take the covering up tip seriously. Pack a couple of scarves, or buy some out there, or invest in some traditional clothing!
- India isn’t for everyone
Unfortunately, due to many of the points listed above and several other things, we did not feel that India was a good fit for us. I suspect that this is primarily because we stayed mostly in the cities where it is noisy, dirty and full of people trying to get you into their shops, give you a tuk tuk ride, sell you something or take your photo. It is just non-stop. You cannot walk down the street as a white-skinned tourist without upwards of 20 people shouting things at you. This gets very tiring and I just wish that they’d understand sometimes we WANT to walk to places or that we do actually know where we’re going or that if I wanted a coconut, I’d ask for one. But this is how they make their living so you can’t be too resentful, they’re just being sales-people, albeit not very subtly.
I’m convinced if we’d gone further into the countryside we’d have enjoyed ourselves more. But for a first visit to India, it’s not so easy to get off the beaten path like that until you know a bit more about the country. That’s how we felt anyway. So next time we’ll definitely aim for more rural places. Having said that, we ended our month with 6 days in Udaipur, which was by far our favourite place. The old town, where all the tourist stuff is, is a quaint little place set on a lake. The maze of little streets is easily explored on foot and there are countless rooftop restaurants and cafes to relax in for the afternoon overlooking the lake and the boats making their way round it. It’s also a great place for shopping with everything you could want available from sarees to tiny leather-bound books.
“Side note – If you are in Udaipur and want to buy one of the leather books, we found what seemed to be the manufacturer that then sells on to all the other shops. Books in here are considerably cheaper. You can find it on the road leading away from Jagdish temple towards the Nepalese market. Its a little way down on the left hand side going in this direction, and you’ll see lots and lots of books outside. Inside, shelves upon shelves of books line the shop and it goes back quite far. They also stock other leather goods such as belts, wallets, folders and bags. You can also see the books being made in here.”