India was challenging. India was frustrating. India was exhausting. India could be heartbreaking. India was very, very dirty. And it was all worth it. Travel in India comes with a learning curve. The longer I was there, the more I learned how to be a traveler in India. And if you go, you’ll be ahead of the game after reading about what I learned on my trip.
Please, don’t be scared away. When my trip was done, a number of people told me that based on some of my comments, they would never want to go to India. NOOOOO! That was never my intention! India is such a fascinating place. You just have to be ready to accept all that India presents to you in order to get to the good stuff. Because the good stuff is really, really good. And simply put, India is the most exciting, vibrant, dynamic place I’ve ever been.
I will say that India is one place where I wouldn’t have qualms about people deciding to go on a group tour. India is just that challenging. And I know most people are not as adventurous as I am. For one (very important) thing, going on a group tour (or even hiring a personal tour guide) will keep away all the people who are trying, very cleverly and persistently, to separate you from your rupees. And then there’s the factor that it’s such so much easier. A guided tour is not for me. But if it will get you to India, go for it!
The People of India
Like people throughout Asia, Indians are wonderfully friendly and helpful. Some of the hotels I stayed at may have been a bit below standard, but the staff were so eager to please, it pretty much made up for any deficiencies. Just like when I was in China, people would often approach me and offer to help when I had a confused-tourist look on my face. I learned quickly that too often people eager to help me were hoping to ultimately get money from me somehow. Unfortunately, this made me sometimes initially dismissive of people who wanted to help me purely out of kindness. I assumed their friendliness was just a marketing technique. India does harden you that way. And even later in my trip, I thought some people were just being friendly, but ultimately they were hoping to make sales of some sort. What’s funny (in a way that redeems your faith in humanity) is that even the people looking to make money from you will still be authentically helpful. Turn down a tuk-tuk driver who’s relentless in trying to give you a ride? He’ll still be happy to give you directions.
Being as white as I am, I stuck out in Indian society. This attracted the profiteers. Regardless, some of the most fun interactions I had out on the streets of India were with people who were just curious or, which was often the case, were hoping to get a picture with the pale American.
One time, as happens now and then on my trips, I must have looked like I knew what I was doing. After I visited Nahargarh Fort, high above Jaipur, I was ready to take the path back down to the city. A young man, who turned out to be from South India, starting asking me about getting back to the city. He had taken a taxi to the fort and wanted a cheaper way to get to central Jaipur. I was suspicious that he wanted something from me. But we just ended up having a lovely chat on the way down the hill. He asked me lots of questions about getting around in Jaipur and what to see. From the hillside, I was able to point out some of the city’s sights. At the bottom of the hill, we each got in a tuk-tuk and went our ways. He wasn’t interested in trying to sell me anything. He was just looking for some guidance and tips. He came to the right place!
The longer I was in India, the better I got at saying “No!” I had to. Just about anytime I was outdoors, people looking to make revenues off me were constantly haranguing me. In most cases, it was the relentless tuk-tuk drivers. On the 1st day of my trip, I thought riding around in the tuk-tuk was the funnest thing in the world, a real authentic experience. Unfortunately, I really got to resent the drivers after a while. They would always pump me with questions about my plans. Not because they were truly curious, but because they were looking to score big with a foreign tourist. Giving a tourist a tour around the city would be like hitting the jackpot for them. They often also tried to get me to stop at some market to buy souvenirs to bring home. Of course they didn’t mention that they would likely get a commission on anything I bought (or that the stuff on offering would likely be of low quality). I just had to keep telling them: “No, no, no!” If I was walking down the street and refused an offer for a ride, the driver would persistently ask me where I was going. I would repetitively say, “No thank you.” Eventually they would give up and drive off.
When I took a ride somewhere, the driver would often offer to wait. Even with the time lost to waiting, he’d make more money off a foreign tourist like me than he would driving around locals during the same time at a fraction of the cost. I didn’t have the drivers wait very often. One time at dinner I felt very rushed knowing someone was waiting for me. The drivers sometimes got pissed off when I insisted that I didn’t want them to wait after drooping me off at an attraction. Too bad!
One lesson I had to keep learning was to agree on a fare beforehand. Some drivers told me to pay whatever I pleased when I asked what the fare would be. But upon arrival at the destination, a few of them weren’t happy with what I offered. It didn’t matter that I knew I was already paying more than a local would pay. Often, drivers happily offered to keep the change when I didn’t have the exact amount. Shameless!
People selling trinkets often told me the objects they were selling were made by their families. I quickly learned not to believe them. These items were mass-produced. I’d see the exact same trinkets everywhere. A couple times men approached me and asked, “Do you remember me?” Rest assured I had never seen these people before. They were just trying to seem friendly so they could try to sell me something. Other times, friendly, chatty men in the street assured me, “I’m not trying to sell you anything.” Technically, they may have been correct. But they would try to steer me towards some market where an associate would try to sell me something. I swear, these markets seem to have half of the country on their payroll.
I knew I was usually paying more than locals do. This was especially true with tuk-tuk drivers. (Actually, for tourist sites, it’s official. The ticket price for foreigners is several times the price for locals.) The funny thing about India is that even when you’re getting ripped off, you’re probably still getting a bargain. That’s how cheap things are in India!
Women’s liberation has not come to India. After a few days in into my trip, I realized that I was barely interacting with women at all. All of the hotel employees were men. At every restaurant I went to, men waited on me. All of the tuk-tuk drivers were men. The shopkeepers were all men. Train attendants were men. During morning rush hour, subway passengers were overwhelmingly male. It shocked me on the last day of my trip when I checked out of my hotel and the front desk clerk was a woman. At dinner that evening, it surprised me once again when the busser was a woman. But for almost 2 weeks, it was male service employees only.
Yes, living conditions for so many in India can be shocking by Western standards. Just about everything seems to be run down and not kept up. People are begging in the street, especially around places of worships. In such places, I had never seen so many people with useless or missing limbs. I quickly understood that raising fingers of one hand from the other hand to the mouth is a sign of begging. Adults would sit silently on the side of the street begging. But the children… The children would latch onto me and not leave me alone. I had to leave one park because a group of children would not stop pestering me as I tried to walk around the park. They seemed like zombies to me. With their arms reaching out to me, they continuously muttered in low voices. I didn’t know what they were saying or what language they were saying it in. Their faces were expressionless. It was annoying, but mostly it was heartbreaking. In same cases, mothers would send out their children to beg. But I suspected that in numerous cases the children were being exploiting by unscrupulous adults not related to them.
The unfortunate welfare of animals can often get to me more than poor human conditions. Animals are everywhere in India’s cities. But I don’t think I’d want to be one.
Yes, cows, for the most part, roam freely on the streets. It took a while to get used to seeing such a spectacle. I don’t know if anyone owns them. I assume they’re just strays. There were also plenty of other cows, as well as goats and sheep, that were clearly owned as they were tied or chained up in a yard somewhere (and I use “yard” loosely). These owned animals were kept on very short ropes or chains. These ones definitely weren’t roamers as they couldn’t move very far. One thing I got used to was being able to count the ribs on the various 4-legged locals. The roamers seem to subsist on whatever subsistence they can sort out of trash.
As strange a sight as it was, I was expecting ahead of time to see cows on the streets. What I wasn’t prepared for was all the dogs. Every place I went was teeming with stray dogs. I think only twice on my trip did I see a dog with an owner. The rest lived in the streets. Like the cows, they were very skinny. They were always scratching. And it seemed like just about all of them were pregnant. They didn’t have the happy and content look you normally expect from man’s best friend. I saw bowls of water put out for the dogs, and sometimes I saw people throw out scraps to them. But like the cows, they mostly seem to subsist on what they could pick out of the trash.
The farm animals and the dogs are in theory domesticated, even if they are living more of an independent (if not feral) existence. Then there are the monkeys. As comfortable as they may be around humans, the monkeys are by no means domesticated. They are wild and are probably more healthy for it. They definitely appeared more well adjusted and well fed than the other animals. Plus, they were so damn cute. I could just not stop taking pictures of monkeys!
Oh, and I learned not to be surprised, especially in Rajasthan, to see an elephant or a camel come strolling down the street. (But I would have been surprised if the animal had been without a human attendant. Now that would have been wild!)
One thing that was really disheartening to me was the omnipresent trash. I know that people in the United States used to be more complacent about littering, and that things have gotten better since the ’70s. But I had a hard time seeing the pollution in India as anything but an insurmountable problem. One day, as my train approached the station in Agra from the outskirts of the city, I could see endless piles of trash lining the tracks the entire way. What type of superhuman effort will it take to clean up India? One small thing that would help is many more trash cans. I often had a hard time finding one. Putting more trash cans around India’s cities (and educating the populace to use them) would make just a small dent in the problem. But it would be a start.
I must say, there was one time the trash came in handy. One tuk-tuk driver in Jaipur who spoke limited English had a hard time finding my hotel. I got him in the general vicinity of the hotel, but he was just driving down random streets. At one point, I recognized a pile of trash I had walked past earlier that day. From there, I was able to retrace my steps back to the hotel. Trash saved the day! Yay trash! Well, not really. I would rather there be cleaner streets. We would have found the hotel eventually.
Yes, Indian food is quite spicy. Fortunately, I like spicy food. What I’m not a big fan of is curries. I don’t love curry powder to begin with. But I learned that in Indian cuisine, a curry is food served in a sauce, somewhat like a stew. However, the proportion of sauce to meat (or sauce to vegetable or sauce to chunks of cheese) is much higher in a curry than in a stew. This is pretty unappetizing to me. After eating a few chunks of meat, I’m left with a bowl of sauce. I know you’re supposed to scoop it up with bread or something like that. That really doesn’t work for me. What did work for me is tandoori dishes, basically grilled meats and such. I enjoyed plenty of those.
Interestingly, tandoori is actually a regional food from Punjab. Punjab was split between India and Pakistan as a result of the Partition of India in 1947. This caused the displacement of enormous masses of Punjabis who found themselves on the wrong side of the religious dividing line. Much of the Punjabi population was dispersed throughout India, and they brought tandoori cooking with them. Good news for me!
And there’s good news for vegetarians. The menus at all restaurants are split between vegetarian options and non-vegetarian options. Even better for vegetarians, vegetarian restaurants are everywhere. Vegans, however, may need to dig a little deeper.
Oh, right. Lots of people have asked me if I had any GI issues. I did my best to avoid things like uncooked vegetables, tap water/ice, etc. (I was dying for a drink with ice in it by the time my trip was drawing to a close.) I always used bottled water when I brushed my teeth. To be frank, I did have to take a handful or so of Imodium during and after my trip when things felt a little unsettled. (If you want me to get any more specific, you can send me a message here.) But at no point did I have full-blown diarrhea. I was never running for the bathroom. Not once did any digestive concerns interfere with my trip. Success!
One thing that all of the hotels where I stayed had in common was seriously friendly and helpful service. Fortunately, they all had Western-style toilets too. But some hotels were more Western than others. A couple times I had to check out while it was still dark to catch an early morning train. I came down to the lobby to find the night staff sleeping right in the lobby. In one hotel, they were sleeping on lobby furniture. In another, they were sleeping right on the floor. I felt a little bad that I had to wake them up. But they were on duty, so I didn’t feel too bad. They seemed to be sleeping pretty light anyway.
In one hotel, rooms were locked by a bolt and a padlock. I’d definitely never seen that before. The good news is that I didn’t have to get locked inside my room from the outside at night. There was a simple latch on the room side of the door to keep me safe at night.
But really, Western-style toilets notwithstanding, it was in the bathrooms where most of the unusual items popped up. For one thing, hotel bathrooms for the most part came with a stingy ration of toilet paper. On my very first night in India, I picked up some TP at a retail center so I wouldn’t worry about running out. I carried my supply around with me from hotel to hotel. It came in handy at a few hotel rooms. Also, in most hotel rooms I stayed in, there was a bucket sitting below the shower head. I guess this must be for a traditional Indian style of bathing. The funniest thing was at 2 hotels where there was a shower but no shower stall. I just showered in the middle of the bathroom. That was sort of fun and sort of crazy.
Nothing in India came with a learning curve quite like the rail system. For starters, I had to figure out the different classes. I learned that a 2nd class sleeping berth can be better than a 1st class chair seat. As you can guess, the sleeping berth comes with a bed and there was a lot more room. And first class is not quite what you might expect. It’s pretty non-luxurious by Western standards. That’s why it’s so cheap. Train cars come with both Western-style and traditional squat toilets. I will say that the bathrooms weren’t disgusting. (Is that what’s considered faint praise?)
I learned not to trust the LED signs along the platform for figuring out which train car is which. The 2nd time I took a train, I thought I had boarded the right car. But the 2nd class sleeper compartment just didn’t seem to have enough room for me where my seat was. It turned out I was in 3rd class and on the wrong car. I got off the train and checked the numbers posted directly on the car. Then I was able to get on the correct car and have plenty of room in 2nd class. It ended up being a fantastic train ride. I eventually learned that the higher class cars start at the front of the train. It was actually a much more logical system than I was expecting.
For some reason, 1st class sleeper berths don’t get assigned in advance (although berths and seats for all other classes do). To find my 1st class berth, I had to check the dot matrix printout taped to the side of each car. Now that’s some real space age technology.
I learned the hard way not to wait patiently if for some reason the train’s platform number is not listed on the departure board. That’s how I missed my train to Haridwar. The next time something like that happened, I immediately got proactive and searched for my train, rather than assuming the platform number would show up eventually.
And then there was the time my train to Amritsar was canceled. It turns out that particular train had been canceled for several weeks already and would continued to be canceled for a couple more weeks or so. Why? I have no clue. Anyway, I never made it to Amritsar. India and its trains really defeated me that time.
In any developing country, the traffic is going to be crazy. But I’ve never experienced chaos like the traffic in Old Delhi. Cars, motorbikes, pedestrians, even oxen! And throughout India, crossing the street can be a competitive sport. Fortunately, it’s not a contact sport. Most of the time anyway.
I’m sure you have heard that India can get unbearably hot. The colonial British had to head for the hills during summer. Happily for me, I didn’t encounter anything like that. As a matter, of fact, I had absolutely perfect weather on my trip. Most of the times it was highs in the 70s except on a few days when it got into the low 80s. And I hardly saw a cloud in the sky the entire 13 days. Perfection!
I specifically went to India in February to avoid the brutal heat. (Things really heat start to heat up in March.) Another reason why I went in February was to avoid the peak travel season, December and January. I also avoided those months because I was going to Rishikesh, in the Himalayan foothills, and Amritsar, considerably further north. I didn’t want to be too chilly when I visited those places. (And I had already frozen my butt off in Beijing on my previous trip.)
India actually has 5 season: winter, spring, summer, monsoon, and fall. Winter is December and January. The temperature is pleasant, but it can get cold in the Himalayas and other points north. Spring is February and March. I can vouch for this season being a great time to visit India, especially in the north. Summer is April and May. Hot, hot, hot. Scorching Our summer (at least in the northern hemisphere) is monsoon season in India. The rains are heavy. And when the rain breaks, the air is full of humidity anyway. Fall is October and November. A nice time to visit, although South India gets a second monsoon in the fall. Of course, the further south you go, the hotter and more humid it gets any time of year.
The Cash Situation
Late in 2016, the Indian government abruptly declared that some of the national currency in circulation would no longer be valid. This led to a cash crisis, with people standing in lines for hours at ATMs. The lines had mostly dissipated by the time I got to India. But sometimes I had trouble finding an ATM with cash. This was the case in Jaipur. A friendly man struck up a conversation with me on the sidewalk. (Yes, ultimately, he wanted to sell me jewelry, but he was still very nice. And I ended up buying some jewelry from him.) I asked him where I could find an ATM with cash. He took me down an alley and showed me the way to the bank:
Cash crisis or not, one thing I learned but wasn’t always able to put into practice was to carry plenty small-denomination bills. Like I mentioned above, some tuk-tuk drivers were happy to offer to keep the change when I paid my fare. Having exact change would come in handy. But it wasn’t just the drivers. Tipping this person or that person just seemed to be going on all the time. There were plenty times I over-tipped because I ran out of small bills. And then there were the Hindu temples, which offer countless opportunities for donations. I wasn’t used to being asked for multiple donations at temples, so I ended up giving till I was just left with bills that were way too big to use for a token donation. Obvious lesson: Carry small bills (and coins) at all times!
So, I really want you to go to India. India presents a lot of challenges, more than most places you’re likely to travel to. If some of the negative stuff I’ve written about has you not wanting to go there, just look at the picture at the top of the page. The Taj Mahal. There is nothing else like it in the world. Nothing prepares you for seeing it in person. And there’s only one way you can see it: Go to India!