I thought I was ready for India. By the time I visited I had already done lots of travelling to developing countries with limited tourist infrastructure. I had experienced language barriers, aggressive hawkers, very basic accommodation, dietary restrictions, anarchic public transport and had witnessed extreme poverty. I thought these experiences had stood me in good stead for India; that there wasn’t a travel experience left that would unnerve me. I was wrong.
The main reason I wasn’t concerned prior to travelling around India was because I knew the country welcomes many tourists. A friend of mine who had never backpacked and had only previously experienced resort style holidays in nice hotels came back from three weeks in India and said she loved it. With this in mind, and the fact I had already been to countries few tourists go to like Nicaragua and El Salvador, I didn’t expect to find India challenging. But what I didn’t take into account was that the people I knew who had been to India had either stayed in high end hotels, joined tour groups or stayed in backpacker areas with a community of travellers there. Mine and Paul’s style of travelling, where we organise our own accommdation and transport, turn up without a daily itinerary, do everything on our own and explore the streets on foot, was not compatible with travelling around India, or certainly did not result in an easy experience there. Here’s the things I discovered about travelling around India which surprised me.
Mid Range Accommodation Is Low Range
Mid range accommodation is low range. I have spoken often on this blog about how Paul and I do not tend to splash out on accommodation while travelling and in India this was to our detriment. We thought the places we had booked would be fine as they weren’t particularly cheap. They were, however, far less comfortable than we expected. The hotel we booked in Mumbai, our first destination, was the most expensive and we were shocked by how grubby and tatty it was. In Delhi we stayed in a guesthouse that was, again, not particularly cheap, and which I was really looking forward to after a few spells of staying in hostels. Once again, it was far less salubrious than I expected and my longe- for hot shower lasted about two seconds until I was blasted with cold water. Our hotel in Amritsar was freezing, had no central heating and the portable heater they brought to our room barely worked; I lay in my bed shivering, unable to sleep I was so cold. I’d experienced very basic accomodation in my travels before but the places we had booked were nowhere near the most low range available and, as I said, were not particularly cheap. It made me realise there is no midrange when it comes to accommodation in India – it’s low range or high end, like the five star hotels. And if you want to ensure you stay in a clean room with a hot shower, you need to go high end.
India Is Very Expensive Or Very Grubby With Few Inbetween
On a similar note, things in India are very expensive or very grubby and there’s few inbetween. We booked a few train journeys through India, including an overnight train, which I imaged would be like the Wes Anderson movie The Darjeeling Limited. I pictured a cosy cabin with patterned walls, curtains and a dinky little bathroom. What I got instead was a cockroach ridden bunkbed, the world’s loudest snorer opposite me, and crowds of people piling in en masse each time the train stopped at a station. I realised if I wanted The Darjeeling Limited experience I would need to pay a lot of money for it. Similarly, Paul and I went to the rooftop bar at the Hilton in Mumbai and discovered it was £20 to get in – that’s just to get into the bar, not for any drinks. The friend I referenced before who had previously only been on resort style holidays? I found out afterwards she and her partner had a personal driver in India taking them from place to place. That’s why she enjoyed it so much! If you want an easy, comfortably experience in India with any hint of luxury, you will need to shell out and go top of the range.
The Poverty Is Extreme
Not a surprise, but the poverty in India is horrendous, the worst I have seen in all my travels. I regularly saw people living on the street with what appeared to be absolutely no possessions. Outside our hotel in Mumbai was a woman and her very young son who seemed to simply be living there on the pavement as they were there every time we went out, day and night. They had nothing, not even a scrap of clothing for the young child. Every time a taxi stopped at a traffic light young children would run up to the window to do a little dance or performance in the hope you would give them money. India is the fastest growing economy in the world but the money does not seem to be trickling down to those who need it most.
India Is Very Dirty
Again, probably not surprising, but India is filthy. The streets are filthy and the rivers and oceans are filthy. We saw not one, not two, but many people do a “number two” in the street. We also also saw many dead rats and quite a few live ones. I remember we went to a cafe in Varanasi which I thought was actually quite nice then I saw a rat scurrying across the room.
Death Happens Often
We also saw two dead people during out time there; one lying on the street in Varanasi under a blanket (maybe because that is the place many Hindus travel to to die in) and the other hunched over a tuk tuk in Delhi. Maybe this is because life in India is hard and death happens easily.
The Food Is Incredible
The food in India is incredible. I love Indian food and was more than content to tuck into pakora, curries and rotis every day for three weeks. There wasn’t a meal we had that wasn’t delicious, and every detail of the meals, to the side chutneys and raitas, were mouthwatering. A highlight was Rajdhanji Restaurant in Delhi; we made the spontaneous decision to go in as we walked past and were presented with a Thali plate of curries which was continually filled up. There was also a waiter on hand pouring hot ghee over the naan (sounds yucky but trust me it was amazing, probably 10000 calories but who cares). The cost of the unlimited food of which was amongst the best I’d ever eaten in my life? £20. Other memorable food moments were the huge bucket of pakora served at our accommodation in Amritsar and the Thali breakfast we got each morning at our guesthouse in Delhi which came with a yummy doughy roti. The hot and sweet chai tea, served from flasks from the ubiquitous chai wallahs, were delicious too. Also, as a vegetarian it was a relief to travel within a country where abstaining from meat was no challenge; there were always several vegetarian options on menu.
India Is Hard For Women
As a white woman I would not have felt safe travelling around India on my own. Everywhere I went, I always had Paul by my side. The reason for this is I was constantly being stared at and sometimes had intimidating behaviour displayed towards me by Indian men. This is something I have experienced in several countries around the world. We visited India not long after the famous bus gang rape that hit headlines worldwide so the subject of women’s safety and India’s attitude toward women was very much on the forefront of everyone’s mind. I know lots of women do travel around India on their own and it absolutely is possible, just from my experience I’m glad it’s something I wasn’t doing.
Delhi Belly Is Inevitable
Delhi Belly. So ubiquitous there’s a colloquialism for it. To put it bluntly, I think it is impossible to travel to India without a dose but personally, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Surprisingly, the worst culprit for me seemed to be those delicious chais from the chai wallahs. Obviously, while probably unavoidable, there’s lots of things you can do to ease the trauma of the Delhi Belly, like travelling with tummy soothing medication, taking antiseptic wipes, etc.
You Will Get A Lot Of Attention
I was amazed by how much attention Paul and I got. As India welcomes a lot of tourists I thought the Indian people would be fairly accustomed to the sight of white people but we were constantly stared at and sometimes had crowds following us. Paul in particularly got a massive amount of attention, probably because he’s particularly pale and over six foot. When we went to the Gateway of India in Mumbai six different groups people in that spot alone asked Paul to pose for a picture with them! He was happy to go along with it, content to play the role of the exotic big whitey. At a mosque in Mumbai yet another person asked to get a picture taken with us and as I posed with them I looked out to see a massive crowd of people watching us. It was what I imagine it must be like to be famous.
The Scamming Is Very Persistent
The scamming in India is extraordinarily persistent and aggressive. Every taxi and tuk tuk we sat down in, the meter was immediately switched off and we were quoted some hugely inflated amount at the end of the journey. Not a massive surprise. But what was a surprise was the extreme lengths people went to to get more money out of you. We got a tuk tuk to Delhi train station to get the train to Agra when we visited the Taj Mahal and during the journey the driver asked us where we were going. When we told him Agra he told us the Taj Mahal couldn’t be done from Delhi in one day (a complete lie) and what we should do instead was go to the “official India travel agents” who would organise a journey to visit the following day (no doubt somewhere he got commission on). We told him categorically we were not interested and to take us directly to the train station. He remained silent then a few minutes later pulled up in front of said travel agent, only taking us to the train station when we insisted upon it. At the Taj Mahal itself we had read in the Lonely Planet that the tuk tuk drivers at Agra station may drop you off further away from the Taj Mahal out of spite if you don’t go along with whatever tour they want to take you. This is exactly what happened to us and we were dropped off fifteen minute away after refusing to go on the driver’s Agra Fort tour. And, of course, in Mumbai we had the “dragged along to the driver’s friend’s silk shop” experience where we were aggressively pushed into buying some silk. In India we were constantly being lied to and scammed and it was exhausting to deal with.
Everything Is A Hassle
Everything in India is a hassle. Queuing for things (particularly train tickets) is horrendous; unless you’re an experienced rugby player you’re probably going to be at the back of a huge scrum of people. Trains are late. Walking down the street is a hassle. At the sight of white people, tuk tuks and taxis constantly stop and trail you. Crossing the street is difficult as cars and taxis always, always slow down to get a look at you. You are constantly being followed, stared at, lied to and swindled. It is exhausting.
India Is Not As Cheap As You Might Think
India is not as cheap as you might think. As I referenced before, accomodation is not particularly cheap and is generally poor. A tax is added on to alcoholic drinks in bars. In India you won’t get the dirt cheap travelling experience you will get in South East Asian countries.
But India Is Incredible
After reading all the points I made above you might be wondering why the hell would I recommend anyone go India. There is one main reason; for colour, character and experiences, India stands head and shoulders above the rest of the world. If life is lived in shades of grey, India is orange. Its sights are incredible; the incomparable Taj Mahal (completely deserving in its status as one of the best in the world), the Golden Temple in Amritsar which shimmers on top of a lake, the bonkers border closing ceremony between India and Pakistan, the chaotic Dhobi Ghat in Mumbai. It doesn’t surprise me the photos we took in India are the best of all of our travels; every inch of the country tells a story. Travelling in India is not easy. But if you take what I said on board, and perhaps shell out for more of a pampered travel experience than you might have considered, you will have an incredible time. India is a magnificent, flawed country which enriches far more than it challenges.