Although we’ve been sharing a lot of our experiences from the road, there are so many details about the places we’re visiting that aren’t captured in articles specific to places or activities. We decided to start a new project, “Looking Back“, which will be a series of articles that address some of the random things we’ve learned about each place, including our overall impressions and favorite moments. Hopefully this will fill in some gaps for our readers and help us remember the unique aspects of each country before they start running together in our memory. World travel has a way of making the last city a blur, let alone things that happened months ago!
We’ve written a lot about India but at times it’s difficult to be completely honest about our experiences without sounding overly negative. India truly has a lot to offer the traveler who is willing to venture far outside his or her comfort zone. But before considering a trip to India the following should be kept in mind. (Note: Yes, there is some ranting below and yes, I realize no destination is perfect.)
India at a Glance
What Did We Learn?
There are many levels of hotels in India, but if you’re a budget traveler you can expect conditions a bit below what you may consider reasonable at home. Hot showers are luxuries that most budget hotels do not provide. Luckily, much of the year India is HOT and it’s hardly necessary to have a hot shower. In super-budget places the plumbing is often laughably bad with toilets that are barely operational and sinks that drain directly onto the floor. Electricity is available most of the time, although considering the quality of some electrical work we saw, a surge protector is probably a good investment. Cleanliness is variable but we rarely had issues with bugs and most linens and pillows fell under the “clean enough” category. If a place was questionable we just used our sleep sheets.
As Sam discussed in our budget article, lodging in India can be extremely affordable if you don’t mind the issues mentioned above. Prices and quality do go up rather quickly if you want a more comfortable level of accommodation.
As travelers, most of the locals you deal with on a regular basis are hotel owners, shopkeepers, servers at restaurants, transportation workers, beggars, and scammers – many of whom have little interest in you outside of getting as much money as possible. Some of them have no issues with scamming you or charging you well above the going rate for their services, and they may bug you endlessly when you clearly have no intention of doing business with them. Needless to say, these relationships don’t last long.
Most other people you come in contact with on a typical day are Indian men. As a man myself I am usually ignored, but Sam gets quite a bit of unwanted stares – and occasionally more, as Sam wrote about in her post describing our Holi experience.
If you want to meet genuine people who want nothing from you, try striking up a conversation while taking public transportation. Many Indians were interested in learning all about us and were open with sharing their stories and photographs. They’re not afraid to ask questions about your religion and relationships that Westerners might consider personal. Sometimes they wouldn’t leave us alone because they wanted to keep the conversation going, but in general we really enjoyed these interactions. It can be difficult to know at first whether people are being genuinely nice, but this is something you have to deal with in any developing country you visit.
Those overly concerned with safety will probably want to skip India. Leaving your hotel room can be terrifying. It’s hard to feel safe walking down the road when you have to balance between looking up at what’s coming and looking down at what you’re stepping in. We witnessed a number of accidents, most notably when I was hit by a rickshaw on a crosswalk while crossing the street. Traffic laws are almost completely ignored. You’re sure to see stray cats, dogs, cows, and even monkeys that will sometimes attack without warning. You’re probably not much safer in your hotel room as there are no fire alarms anywhere, nor emergency exits, nor, from what we could tell, building codes of any sort.
The good news is that we don’t think food safety is as big of an issue as people often say. Sure, there’s a good chance you’ll get sick, but most food poisoning passes rather quickly. Drinking only bottled water and going to restaurants that have a lot of customers will go a long way in helping you avoid the worst. And your stomach will toughen up if you stay long enough.
Prices are very low by western standards. In most cities we spent less than $10 a night for a hotel and maybe $20 a day for food, and it certainly can be done for less if you are on a tighter budget. With that said, prices for everything are about double what was listed in our 2007 Lonely Planet guide book and the price of major attractions is comparatively high for foreigners. Nevertheless, this really is one of the least expensive countries to travel.
Do be aware that prices are not fixed for anything except food and trains. If you want a good deal on gifts, clothing, hotel rooms, taxis or really anything else, be prepared to bargain hard for it. When purchasing things the best strategy we learned was to never show interest in the item you intend to buy, but rather one right next to it. Find a reason you can “settle” on the item you want if they’ll take less money for it. Bargaining isn’t so much about making sure both sides are happy with the deal (which almost never happens), but rather making it appear that you didn’t get exactly what you wanted. In the end, try not to be one of those people that bargains down to the last twenty cents. It’s easy to get caught up in the process, but we always try to keep in mind that our very presence in their country means we’re probably better off.
Hopefully we’ve covered enough of the sights and activities in our articles that there’s no doubt you won’t be bored here. From temples to beaches, India has it all, but some of the best experiences come from just watching people go about their daily lives. India is extremely colorful and is full of interesting characters.
In general food is very good and varied in India. If you need meat with every meal, you may run into problems since it’s not always available. But India does have some of the most flavorful vegetarian food in the world. Despite its reputation, we didn’t find the food extremely spicy (full of spices, yes, but not all that hot), but I’m sure some will disagree. You do need to go to more local restaurants if you want good food though. Without fail, food served in hotels and more touristy towns ranged from bad to awful.
Yes, I’m giving noise it’s own heading. Trust me when I say it is well deserved. India is an extremely noisy place. I’ve mentioned this before, but there is an epidemic of horn use there. The video below is of a relatively uncrowded street in Jaipur. The traffic flow is interesting to say the least, but make sure you watch with the sound on. The constant sound of horns blaring is commonplace, as practically every road in India is like this. At first it’s humorous how people honk at everything and at nothing at all. Eventually it does get to you. On more than one occasion I found myself yelling at the drivers who felt it necessary to honk continuously and without cause as they passed.
It’s not just the traffic noise though, Indians themselves are generally just very noisy people. There doesn’t seem to be a concept of an indoor voice. People shout even if you’re standing two feet away. There’s no concept of entering a train quietly at three in the morning.
One of the last places we visited in India was a hotel that was known for its quiet gardens. We visited hoping to get away from noise for a few days. The owner told us that Indians often complain when they stay there because it’s too quiet. I suppose if you lived your whole life with constant noise, dead silence might be unsettling.
Our Best Memory
One of our favorite memories from India is the morning we woke up early and saw the ghats in Varanasi. That experience really can change your views on how interconnected we all are, as well as what constitutes beauty.
Would We Return? (aka, What Did We Miss?)
We would certainly return to India after some recovery time. This time we’d focus our travels on far southern India and the northern area near Pakistan and the Himalayas (if safe). We’d also take some cooking classes to gain a better understanding of regional Indian cuisine.
Should You Go?
This is not an easy question to answer. India is huge and is quite different from one region to another. The urban areas are usually dirty (on the verge of disgusting), loud (on the verge of mind-splitting), and overwhelming (on the verge…or rather…completely tear-inducing). But it has such beauty and charm it’s very hard to write it off completely. India is not a place for all travelers, but if you are strong enough, traveling there can be a very rewarding experience.