After traveling in India for 8 ½ months, we thought we’d try to sum up our experiences, impressions and lessons learned.
‘You’ll love it or hate it’ is what most say about India and during our 8 1/2 months, we felt both emotions at various times. It is a very difficult country to both travel in and live, but there are so many incredible people and places that the difficult parts can be tolerated. We traveled extensively in India and in this time we feel we were able to get to know the country and its people. In no particular order, here are a few idiosyncrasies of India.
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Possibly the first thing you’ll notice about India is the loud, disorganized mayhem that is everyday traffic. This is true of many Asian countries, but India takes it to a whole new level. Drivers do not abide by the typical rules of the road. Horns are continuously honked whether there is need or not. Drivers don’t shoulder check to change lanes, make a turn or merge into traffic, they expect cars in the other lane to honk. If no one honks, the driver continues to merge without looking. Lanes do not exist either. The result is, as many cars, auto-rickshaws and motorbikes that can fit into one space do. Vehicles, especially motorbikes, drive on either side of the road, weaving in and out as needed. The good thing (and the bad) is that they only travel 40 km/hr so accidents are rarely serious.
On top of this, cows frequently walk or lie on the streets and highways causing sudden stops or swerves as vehicles try to avoid hitting the holy animals. The strange thing, is that even with all of this congestion and disorganization, cutting each other off etc, drivers don’t get mad at each other as we do in North America. They just veer around them and continue on their way.
Traffic circles – One interesting and often scary practice is how Indian drivers use traffic circles. Instead of going around the traffic circle in one organized direction, vehicles take the shortest route, which is often opposite to oncoming traffic!
Even in the craziness of traffic, we loved the colourfully painted and decorated Goods Carrier trucks and buses.
One misconception we had of India before arriving was that the country was quite lawless. We were prepared for pick-pockets, hotel thieves and abductors. As it turns out, we never felt unsafe in India. In India, sales people chased after us with our forgotten change. Locals often stared, but it was out of curiosity and not at all malicious. We have felt much more unsafe traveling in South America. Even still, you should not draw attention to yourself. Do no flash money or jewelry and dress modestly.
Diverse cultures, people, religions
As we traveled through India we were amazed at the amount of different cultures. The 29 states are mostly divided by language and culture, but within each state there are also regional differences. In Himachal Pradesh, for example, each valley has its own language that is sometimes completely distinct from the neighboring valley. As well as varied cultures, there are many different religious beliefs across the country. The most common are Hindu, Islam, Sikh, Buddhism and Jain. Even with such diversity, tolerance for other beliefs is very high. Other than Kashmir, we didn’t experience violence or hatred toward other religions which is a pleasant surprise in today’s world.
It is loud everywhere. Car/auto-rickshaw horns honk constantly, Bollywood music and movies blare from high-power speakers on buses, touts yell, people talk loudly with each other. It’s a noisy country and they’re probably all half-deaf.
From high mountains to tea plantation from deserts to ocean beaches, there are many different landscapes to explore. The Indian Himalayas are as diverse as the country. With arid mountains, green foothills and snow-capped peaks there are many gorgeous mountain landscapes. Hiking trails are still quite untouched, although Indian millennials are starting to take up this activity, so the mountains are likely to get busier.
Tea plantations are found in the north, the south and everywhere in between. Offering a respite from the heat, hill stations are a favourite tourist spot for Indians. The golden, hilly sand dunes in the deserts of Rajasthan are breathtaking. Equally impressive are the calm, backwaters that cover much of Kerala. Both have unique beauty that draws many foreign travelers.
Goa’s beaches are popular with foreign tourists, and for good reason. The sand is fine, the waters are warm and the ocean views are spectacular. The Andaman Islands have both idyllic beaches and world class dive sites. The laid back culture of the island life makes you feel like you’ve traveled to the Caribbean.
The Indian head wobble
This commonly used non-verbal communication is confusing. The lateral nod appears to westerners as ‘I don’t know’ or ‘maybe’, but really means ‘yes’, ‘okay’ or ‘I understand’. We were often confused when asking someone directions. We would say “Bus stand?’ and point to where we think it is. Their response is a head wobble. Even knowing its meaning, we would hesitate before realizing that the head wobble means ‘yes’.
Bromance is alive and well
Public displays of affection are not tolerated between romantic couples, however, best friends (especially males) will often walk arm in arm or hold hands. The odd part is that they have a very affectionate touch with their same sex friends, but that same affection can’t be shown by romantic couples.
Being from Canada, we’re used to people lining up and patiently waiting their turn. In India, there’s no such thing. People crowd up to a ticket or shop counter and onto buses and trains, butting in to be next. Our personal-space bubbles were tested constantly.
One of the unexpected finds in India was the vast amount of interesting, historical architecture. Like everyone we had heard of the Taj Mahal and the forts of Rajasthan, but there is so much more. Nearly every state has interesting sites that are unique to their history.
Jewlery and Make-up
Indian women wear a lot of gold jewelry such as earrings, nose-rings, bangles and necklaces. What is strange though, is that they put makeup and jewelry on their infants and toddlers. Until you get used to it, the babies look possessed with a full smear of eyeliner!
In almost every city and town, the amount and condition of street cows, dogs and even pigs is deplorable. The animals are thin and mangy. In addition, there is pee and poop everywhere and no-one cleans it up. Dogs sleep all day in the middle of the street and sidewalks, and howl all night long. Cows spread out on streets and sidewalks. Some street bulls are aggressive too, probably because they have upset stomachs from eating street food! We saw many cows limping or severely injured and lying in the middle of the street. It’s difficult to understand why it is better to let this holy animal suffer, but you would be put in jail or stoned if you tried to euthanize them.
Indians love selfies! And they love taking selfies with westerners so be prepared to be in a lot of pictures or to say ‘no’ a lot. We even had people ask us to take their picture, on our camera, and they didn’t even want to see the picture.
Almost every centre we visited had garbage problems. Trash including plastic containers, food wrappers, food waste, shoes, cans, clothing, everything, is littered on the streets, sidewalks, rivers and in empty green spaces. If garbage cans are used, they are usually torn apart by the street dogs and no one picks up the mess. Only a few cities appear to be doing something about this: Shimla, Panaji, Visakhapatnam and Mysore were quite clean.
Air pollution can be just as bad. Many people burn wood and coal for cooking and heating, or burn their garbage on the city street. When in Agra, there were times when we could barely see across the river.
Smells – It’s true that there are a lot of horrible odours in India. The causes include open sewage, public urination (which is prevalent everywhere), cow/dog poop, pollution, garbage…
Most things seem to be run quite haphazardly making it a difficult country to navigate. Everything is difficult, from buying train tickets to finding the correct bus at the correct time and station to even buying tickets to tourist sites. There is rarely signage or even street signs and if there are, they are in Sanskrit or the local alphabet. The more touristy areas such as Goa and Rajasthan are much easier to navigate as they understand tourists’ needs, but away from these centres it becomes very difficult.
Even though it’s a cash-based economy, no one seems to have change. Auto-rickshaw drivers, restaurants, shops, they all claim to not have change, hoping you’ll leave it as a tip. Be firm and they’ll eventually find change.
We experienced at least one power outage in almost every city in India. Some would last a few minutes and others would last hours. Some hotels and restaurants have back-up generators, but many don’t. The rat’s nest electrical wiring in the pictures below may explain some of the reasons.
The food is amazing. We can only think of a few meals that were only average and even fewer that were poor. One custom that is difficult to get used to is that Indians eat with their hands; they don’t use cutlery. To an outsider, it looks unhygienic and is unappetizing.
Asian markets are always interesting places to visit as they’re filled with different fruits, vegetables and meats. They’re also great places to people watch. Indian markets are no different, except they are a lot more crowded.
This social structure is another thing that is very difficult for a westerner to understand. From our perspective, it seemed that those in a higher caste treated everyone else as if they are less worthy than themselves and it comes across as very unattractive.
In a country where there doesn’t seem to be any traffic rules, they appear to be highly regulated in many other areas. For example, no one is allowed to enter most forts as they’re used by the military. We compared this to our experiences in Sri Lanka where the military personnel gave us a tour of the fort. To enter areas close to Indian borders, foreigners have to obtain a ‘Restricted Area Permit’ which involves a lot of paperwork. At each check-point the army officers manually wrote our names and passport numbers on a long list that is probably never checked. Another strange rule is that hiking over age 60 requires a physician’s note, even on easy hike.
As well as having a lot of rules, Indians are very risk averse. We were often told by other trekkers that part of the route is ‘very dangerous, please be careful’, when it was only a 30m crossing of a boulder field or simply a slippery trail.
Should you go to India?
So, with all of this, why did we stay so long? India has incredible history and dynamic, diverse cultures that make each region very unique. There is so much to see in this large country and we did meet great people who are now good friends. We definitely recommend India as a tourist destination, but a month or two at a time is probably best for your mental health.
Coming up next: Travel Tips India
To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.
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