The ultimate truth about travelling in India is, you will never know what to expect.
Before going on our two-month trip in 2014, I read a lot of blogs and found them very helpful (I’m working on a post with my top blog picks) but, not that long after we arrived, I realised that everyone will have an entirely different experience – no one can ever truly describe the crazy beauty and culture shock of India.
Having said that, here is what I know you can expect when travelling in India:
If you have pale skin, you will be stared at
Even in the most holy and scared locations.
We were warned about this and knew to expect it, but I didn’t fully understand why until talking to our hostel owner in Amritsar. He had travelled widely and when I mentioned that I didn’t understand this cultural habit he laughed and explained that, to the general Indian public, pale skin equals beautiful.
In the same way that media in the west promotes a certain image of beauty, Indian’s grow up with advertising, media and marketing that outright tell them, white skin is beautiful – which is why they have a multibillion-dollar skin whitening cosmetic industry.
The other reason they stare?
You are different.
In western cultures we’re taught from a young age that it’s not polite to stare, especially if someone is different. This isn’t the case in Indian culture, so they don’t feel ashamed by fully embracing and showing their curiosity.
This isn’t a bad thing, it’s a wonderful cultural difference but it’s one that might make you uncomfortable. Just remember, staring doesn’t mean judgement (most of the time), it’s curiosity – about you and how you’re different to them.
If anything else, you could think of it as though, in some odd way, to them you are beautiful.
You’ll see more naked body parts than you care to count
Generally speaking, this shouldn’t be something to be bothered about, but I thought I’d note it anyway.
It may come from something completely natural, like watching people bathing at the Ghats in Varanasi and appreciating the cultural and spiritual significance that comes with it.
Other times it will not be so natural or welcome, like looking out the train window and seeing person after person taking their morning constitutionals, or seeing a man masturbate while staring intensely at you.
Remember – if you are pale, you are beautiful – so it may make sense that this might happen, and although it can be a slightly uncomfortable moment, as it was for me, I imagine others might find it much more offensive so I can only suggest that if you are not in harms way, it’s something to shrug off.
You will need to isolate yourself every once in a while
This isn’t a bad thing or anything you should feel ashamed of wanting or needing.
Travelling in India has its fair share of confronting and overwhelming moments. Your senses are overloaded, you suffer from decision fatigue, and you will feel exposed and claustrophobic.
Usually when I need a break to clear my head I’ll go for a walk outside and get some fresh air. When we were in Jodhpur I mistakenly thought this would still be an effective technique.
Unfortunately, when you share the streets with a million other people and their constant staring and calling for your business, with the added assault on all of your senses, it doesn’t always make for a successful outing.
So understand that if you need to take a break – there are quite places in India – maybe choose to lay on your bed for five minutes with your eyes closed, sit on the roof of your guest house with a delicious chai and a book, or find that quiet spot along the waterfront and watch the people (and time) pass.
Of course, not every walk is like this, sometimes it may work, sometimes it won’t – you will be overwhelmed in a very intense country and its okay to take a break.
You will have trust issues
One of the things I didn’t expect when going to India was how untrusting I became of people. It’s not a nice feeling, it felt unnatural and it was something I had to push against sometimes because generally speaking, people in India are friendly, interested and willing to help.
We’ve always been very ‘aware’ while travelling, but never to the extent of being untrusting.
However, in India I found it very wearing on my trust when you feel like everyone is looking at you like you have a dollar sign on your head – they want tips for everything and anything, and you never know if when someone tries to help you, they are genuinely trying to help, or just trying to get something from you.
It is something you should be conscious of – the most important reason is because if you trust no one, you might miss some truly genuine and interesting experiences and interactions with people.
Great moments with local people don’t always happen on a daily basis, but they will happen, and it’s important to be open to them and fully appreciate and remember them as a great part of the real India.
You will see horrible things that question your being
Travelling in India will show you things that make you want to cry and rage about the injustice of it all and ask why something isn’t being done about it.
It will make you feel helpless, and it will make you realise just how cruel and beautiful the world can be all at the same time.
This may come as a result of witnessing abject poverty for the first time in your life, or the 100th time – I’m not sure anyone ever gets used to seeing it.
It can also come from seeing confronting animal cruelty – whether inflicted directly by people or as a result of the lack of food, services and resources.
For me personally the animal cruelty was particularly disturbing. I’ve always had a soft spot for animals of all shapes and sizes, which makes it so difficult to witness and even more difficult to accept.
You have to remember that if there is something you can do to help the greater outcome (as opposed to giving child beggars money, which doesn’t help them at all), you do it, but if it is beyond your power to change, then the best thing you can do is try to accept it the way is, and try not to dwell. It’s horrible and it will question your being, but you cannot single-handedly help one billion people and their 280 million sacred cows.
And who knows, you may be able to effect change more successfully at another time.
You will love it, hate it and all of the above
I don’t know if any country has ever had such a polarising effect on people who travel than India.
This is the power of India. It will challenge you, offer you unimaginable experiences, it will break you, it will embrace you, and it will do all of the above repeatedly in quick succession.
I’ll be the first to admit my time in India was not all ‘immersing myself in the culture’ and ‘sipping lassis and chai on roof tops’. It was tough and it challenged me in so many ways, particularly with the constant harassment, staring, child beggars at train stations, and unsanitary conditions. I had to learn (somewhat unsuccessfully) to ‘let go’ and just go along for the ride.
But in return for all the tough times you will get a truly unique experience that tells you more things about yourself and the world than most other experiences can. You will meet amazing people, both locals and travellers alike, and you will share great experiences with them.
You will either never want to go there again or feel the power of hindsight making you forget the difficult times and want to go back as soon as you can.
Even though I’ve had some of my most difficult moments while travelling in India I would go again in a heartbeat. India is mysterious, beautiful, powerful, challenging and ever changing. It will weave a spell on you if you let it. It did on me.
What have you experienced while travelling through India? Did you love it, hate it or all of the above? Leave us a comment below