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India to me was the place of travel dreams. I don’t think I have ever wanted to travel somewhere quite as badly as I did India. Its been in my blood for years, an image that transpired from some magical place I can’t remember, into a full-blown obsession. I spent most of last year with whimsical and romantic images of spice markets, elephants and chaotic colours.
I would dream of hearing the din of humanity and feel its crush that only seems possible in a place like India. When I did arrive in India I was blown away by my own presumptions and flung head first into the most crazy and exhaustive month of travel. I love India, I hope to go back again and again because while it may not be easy, it is truly exceptional.
Here are my top tips for not just surviving, but thriving in India.
DON’T PRESUME YOU ARE PREPARED FOR EVERYTHING
I naively thought that because this wasn’t my first journey to a comparatively alien country to my own westernised Australia, I was immune from culture shock. I thought having spent three months in Tanzania and many a trip to Asia had taught me all I needed to know about tuk tuks, bargaining, third world public transport and big city crowds.
I was unbelievably wrong. India is like no other place on earth (something I’ll be saying a lot). Delhi is a mass of 25 million people doing whatever it takes to survive and yes, that includes conning, tricking and lying you out of as much money as possible. You may think you won’t spend money on silly items, but you’ve never met a sales person until you have met an Indian sales person. They are incurable, so no matter how good you think you are at resisting, you have nothing on their persistence.
I think everyone has some romanticised view of India in one way or another, I certainly did. I also was completely aware of the not so picturesque aspects too. I think having heard stories first hand I was well equipped but by no means perfectly prepared. India can test even the most seasoned traveller. Indian food is not what Westerners call Indian food. Balti curry is a British invention, as is the fabled butter chicken. Cities do not always smell of spice markets and most travellers do not experience palatial Maharaja palaces and luxurious elephant rides. Real India is dirty and noisy.
You will spend hours in lines that go nowhere and wonder why you pay 300 times the price of anything compared to a local. You will infuriatingly explain the same things over and over to achieve no result and will probably wonder what actually is the meat in your tandoori “chicken” dish. This isn’t to say, that all of this doesn’t all amount to a picture perfect Exotic Marigold Hotel movie set, because in all honesty, India might just be the most picturesque place in the world to visit. There is something about the life there that makes for an overwhelmingly beautiful view.
REJOICE IN THE STREET FOOD
Some guides and travellers warn against street food because it’s unsanitary and often cooked outside with unfiltered water. For a week and a half after arriving I avoided the golden samosas and parathas, ignored the delectable smells of freshly cooked gulab jamun and tore myself away from the chai stands.
That was until an 8 hour bus journey from Jaipur to Pushkar broke my resolve and I took a cone of Aloo Tikki wrapped in yesterdays newspaper from a young man through the window of the bus. I never looked back. From that day on, I ate nothing but street food served piping hot right in front of me and never had any trouble. So long as its hot you are pretty safe and you can eat like a Maharaja for $2.
FORGET THE TIMETABLE AND A WATCH
If you are one for strict scheduling and arriving on time then India will test you. I am the type of person that likes to arrive 10 minutes early for everything, but there is no such thing in India. Time doesn’t seem to mean the same thing as it does to us caught up in our city lives. And in fact, the world does not end when we are 5 hours late to check into a hotel or when I don’t eat lunch at lunchtime.
I have come to realise that the best adventures are when they are unplanned, unscripted and untimed. Embrace the unconstrained living and enjoy the things that come when they do. If your train is cancelled, spend an extra day sitting in your favourite lakeside cafe in Udaipur or go back to the market because one can never have too much silver jewellery.
BE KIND, BUT BE SMART
Being foreign in India does attract a fair bit of attention and especially if you are a solo female or group of females. I experienced a lot of this attention on the street where people, men in particular, would want to talk to me or invite me into their shops for chai. This is often harmless and can be ended with some small talk while still moving. If you say you might be back later for chai then they will often just leave you alone, because all they really want is to talk.
In this regard it is important to be kind and polite, but still remain appropriate and comfortable. Use your instincts in this matter. The other times I experienced attention was when people (again, mainly men) asked to take pictures with me. At first my friend and I both agreed to it, but we were later told by a Yogi we met that they sometimes use these photos on their social media, pretending that the girls (in this case, us) where friends or in some circumstances girlfriends/prostitutes. Be particularly careful around the main tourist spots as this is where this mainly occurs.
This is of course not okay, but again not always the case. Indians are generally just very social and love meeting new people. There are some instances where it will be women or families who ask for photos. I found this less intrusive and it’s often for the same reason that I take pictures of locals on my travels, because they are in some way exotic, interesting, beautiful and capture the culture. Just be aware and only do what feels right to you as it can become very exhausting after being snapped 10+ an hour.
LET YOURSELF CHANGE
India has a way of changing you. No one can fight the immensity of the colour, culture and way of living in India. It’s unsurprising that India’s cultural export is huge and far-reaching, it’s a hell of a lot of fun. Let yourself wear orange, pink, yellow and purple all at once with an armful of bangles and bells on your feet. Embrace the crush of humanity, the smells of the streets, the sounds of the markets.
You cannot fight a place like this, because you will never win. To fight it would be miserable and you will leave vowing never to return. India is not easy, I will never pretend it is, but if you allow yourself to let go and marvel at what it is, then India becomes one of the most magical places on earth. That is really the most important tip for thriving in India, let yourself experience it for what it is rather than for what you perceive it to be or for what it should be.
Don’t compare it to anywhere else because it is unlike anywhere else! There is a reason that the so many elderly come here to live out their days, nowhere is as or makes you feel more alive than India.
We hope that this article has inspired you to visit India. If you have any questions about the destination please leave these in the comments below.
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