India is the seventh largest country in the world, and is unlike any other. From the Himalayan Range in the North to the desert in the West to the tropical waterways of the South you’re going to see breathtaking and meet some incredible people. India truly is an exciting place to be where twenty religious streams flow together and any visit to India will be immersed in spirituality. It’s diversity, history, religions, population and rapid growth to a modernized society leaves it culturally colorful.
Whilst nothing can really prepare you for the assault on your senses, you can make your first time traveling in this amazing country quite a bit easier, and learn from the tips, misadventures and hindsight from this blogpost. Knowledge is power and visiting India with confidence is key!
A Busy Lifestyle
When you first arrive in India it can feel chaotic and overwhelming. You might feel like vehicles are always honking, dogs are always barking, cows are always in the road, and people are either trying to take selfies with you or sell you something. It’s true, it’s a sensory overload, BUT as you spend time in the country, you start to understand its weird quirks, and it becomes clear how millions of people can function in the madness.
Embrace the Diversity
India is a land of many people, religions and cultures. India cannot be defined by one culture. Forget the stereotypes. India is both modern and traditional, poor and rich, chaotic and calm. When you travel in India, absorb everything around you. Notice that, not only is the snake charmer part of Indian culture, but so is the elite business man. India has a high contrast of modern and traditional, take it all in.
The Traffic is Insane
Believe the hype, it’s true! In large cities such as Delhi, avoiding rush hour is going to be in your interest. There’s millions of people in India, hence hundreds of thousands vehicles trying to get to their destination. Also, you’ll see stop signs and lights, but regardless no one follows them.
Religion is Very Prominent
According to the 2011 census, 79.8% of the population of India practices Hinduism and 14.2% adheres to Islam, while the remaining 6% adheres to other religions (Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism, etc). Performing pjua (worship) is a big part of people’s lives everywhere in India. Many Hindus get up at sunrise and do the Surya Puja. An important part of the ritual is the offering of flowers to the gods. Respect the religion and culture.
Poverty, Malnutrition, & Begging
India is full of innovators and young professionals with many similarities to other regions across the globe. However, poverty is real and readily apparent to anyone visiting India. More than ⅓ of the world’s malnourished children live in India. You’re human, so you will likely be emotionally impacted.
In big cities you will likely see both children and parents begging or very persistently selling something. I’m someone who gets the urge to help everyone, so it’s hard not to help when I can. I’ve learned, however, that you have to understand everyone has a different way of living. Begging, for many in India, has become a job.
Truly, there’s no way to beat around the bush.. there are a lot of dirty places in India. The exposure to bacteria is UNREAL. Scattered garbage is commonly seen and you will likely see animal, and sometimes human, excretions. You can imagine that sometimes the smells are more than one can handle. In Varanasi we saw urinals that men could just walk right up to in the alley. Depending on the region, and regardless of what’s on the ground, it’s not uncommon to see people walking barefoot. Hand washing is being pushed for, but for many is not common. Also, the air quality is among the worst in the world so if you have asthma, make sure to plan accordingly.
Food & Water
The food in India is AMAZING! It’s extremely flavorful, colorful and spicy. So, if you’re not a big fan of spice then make sure you request no spice; almost everywhere will cater to you. A lot of Indians are vegetarians, because of this there’s The food differs greatly depending on the region of India you go to. Gosh, just writing this makes me miss it!
The majority of people will tell you to avoid all street food in India. However, I think you just have to be smart about what you eat. I am the type of person that wants to try as many local foods as possible from the country I’m traveling to, and street food is the most common in India. I tasted some amazing chat, dosas, and pani puri from street vendors. If you’re like me, then just make sure to only purchase foods from carts that have a lot of people at them. I also tried to expect the “food-making” area, based on others that I’d seen. It’s like a good, better, best thing. If you want to ensure that you don’t get sick, then you’ll likely be safest to pass on the street food. Maybe we got lucky, I’m not sure, but neither my husband or I got sick!
Most of the diseases are water-born so instead of tap water stick to bottled water or sodas, especially if you’re traveling to smaller villages and towns. Make sure that if you purchase a bottled water, the cap is sealed correctly. I know people who bought what was supposed to be a sealed bottle end up being one that was refilled from who knows where. For the most part, India is hot and humid so stay hydrated, and have extra change with you just in case you need to purchase water while you’re out and about.
Skewed Sex Ratio & Status of Women
There is a skewed sex ratio between men and women that is noticeable from the moment you arrive. You will see a lot more men than women. The gap between the two gender titles is a direct response to the gender bias within India. Prenatal sex determination followed by selective abortion of female fetuses is the most plausible explanation for the low sex ratio at birth in India. To many people, females are considered to be a big financial burden on a family, especially those with little money. Status of women varies greatly by region, but especially in low socioeconomic families inequality between men and women can be seen.
As many parts of Asia, Indian women take a lot of pain for little gain with plenty of hard work to do and little authority at the decision-making level. They’re the ones doing the manual labor and the men are the ones running the businesses. It was hard for me to get used to this because I would see woman carrying heavy bricks up and down ladders while the men were in the stores sitting down. I’m not used to this at home, but understanding that this is their culture helps.
How to Dress
No matter how you dress, if you are a foreigner woman realize that you’re going to have a lot of eyes on you. With that said, covering up appropriately and respecting their culture is going to be best. India is both a modern and a conservative country and so it’s best for women to cover up – tight or revealing clothing for women is usually not worn and may attract unwanted attention. Wear something loose and comfortable like baggy cotton pants, tunics and tops and don’t bring expensive clothes because traveling through India is rough on clothes and they can easily get ruined. Purchasing a scarf, sari, and salwar kameez will help you feel a little more in tune with the culture. Plus, they’re beautiful!
Indians work very hard to sell an item or their services for the price they want. The rule of thumb is that the first offer you hear will be about double what it should be. It can be exhausting to be told a price and know we would be taken advantage of if we didn’t barter. To avoid overpriced items or services, make sure you barter hard with the person until you both agree on a lower price. In many cases, we found that disagreeing and walking away would force the other person to lower their inflated prices to the one we wanted. Once we had been in India for a couple weeks we would point to the thing we wanted and state the price we knew it should be. We found a lot of success doing that.
One of the most important things when traveling in India, or anywhere else really, is to be confident, assertive and hold yourself well. Our tour guide in New Delhi told us the best thing to do was to ignore salesmen or touts. He said that saying a polite no thank you is still engaging with them and could be mistaken for a sign of interest.
Be Aware of Scams, But Also Don’t Let It Get In the Way
Be aware of the common scams but don’t perceive every ‘hello friend…!’ as a danger. Stop and chat, accept their invitations, answer all of the questions they ask you, ask just as many back in order to learn more about their day to day life and culture. Once you do you won’t believe the warmth and kindness that you’ll be showered with.
Ignore the Staring
People will stare at you – for a long time. In most cases it is just folks being curious, but you will notice it happening and there’s not too much you can really do about it so don’t let it bother you – it’s not considered rude here. Depending on the region, some people might be staring because it’s unusual to see foreigners. Don’t surprised if they want to take a selfie with you either. This happened very often to me–even at the Taj Mahal.
Infamous Head Nods
After just a few days in India you’ll understand what I mean. The infamous Indian head nod is not up and down or side to side, but rather a mixture of both. It can leave you confused and frustrated if you don’t understand what it means. From what we understood, it normally means that they agree with what you are saying or asking. I’m sure that can’t be said about all head nods, but we noticed that if you head nod back to them when you agree on something, they just might appreciate the gesture.
*Pictures from http://www.neeminc.org by Autumn Shipp