After two awesome trips to India, here’s some advice on what to expect while travelling there. This is from a westerner perspective, although it should be useful and entertaining to all. =)
1. There are a lot of people there!
This sounds like an obvious statement, and it is – but you just don’t get it until you’re there. There are people (lots of people) everywhere, at all times. Every business may have nine times the people it would have in the U.S. Basically, every hour feels like “rush hour”. Not a place to go if you get anxiety from being in crowds. The upside is that the country feels very much alive!
2. It is a big country!
This is another obvious statement that just doesn’t sink in until you’re there. The sheer geographical size is one part of it, but the differences in weather, culture, religion and people are what I’m really talking about. (See next two points.)
3. India is very diverse.
In fact, I almost don’t know what “Indian” is. It’s like calling something “European”. There are some threads in common, but there are a lot of differences too. In part because it’s a big country, in part because it’s populous and in part because it was invaded by pretty much every other civilization out there, India is a beautiful mix of different people and cultures. The best part of it, aside from numerous world heritage sites to visit, is the food! Awesome, delicious, flavorful, Indian food.
4. Eat awesome delicious local food. All of it.
You think you’ve had Indian food before? No you haven’t. At best you’ve tried some… like a small tiny fraction of it. Tikka Masala and curry are two lines on a 100 page menu.
You can’t wait to get you curry on? Well, there is a lot more than curry… in fact, most meals we ate had nothing to do with curry. I could explain what we ate, I could show you pictures, but it won’t do it justice. You have to taste it. You have to smell it. You have to feel it. And you have to let it keep your belly warm. =)
5. You will eat with your hands.
It will happen. Don’t ask. Don’t fight it, just go with the flow. It’s part of the experience. It’s part of actually feeling the food texture in your hands. It’s the full experience you traveled thousands of miles for.
6. Don’t eat non-Indian food. Just don’t. You will be disappointed.
After a week in India, we were tempted to have an Italian meal. Nice, fancy Italian meal at a top hotel in Mumbai, with an actual Italian Chef. (Yes, I talked to him). Still, it was a waste of time and a meal, when so many delicious local options are waiting outside. One exception is fast food (see below) – which is a fun “fill-in” meal.
7. Try the U.S. fast food.
If you’re there for a week or longer, give it a try. You will be amazed, but fast food is actually good in India (and generally in most of Asia). I used to scoff at people eating McDonalds and KFC abroad before (see # 4 & 6 above), but it’s actually worth a try. At home in California, I eat fast food about once a year, mostly on road trips with limited food choices. Aside from In’n Out, which has some of the best burgers out there, my visits to McDonalds, KFC or Carlitos are mostly motivated by the prospect of clean restrooms – definitely not the food. However, in Asia, it’s a different story. Cheese (as in all paneer and no beef) burger at Mickey D’s is pretty good, their masala chicken was yummy and the chicken sandwich at KFC was pure goodness! Oh, and the plain McDonalds fries come with curry powder on to! Awesome!
8. You will get ripped off / scammed a bit. Call it a white (foreigner) premium.
The cab drivers will suggest some “cheap” souvenir stores with amazing “deals” (tourist traps). Every tour will include a recommended stop at a restaurant, souvenir shop or “historical site” where someone happens to sell stuff. Don’t buy it, they’re all traps. Do your research beforehand, and be assertive about what you want, or not want. Or, like I did, turn the game on them. Need a bathroom and a break in an area with AC (see next point), sure – I would love to check out your tourist trap. =)
9. You will sweat. Continuously.
This may depend on the time of the year you go there, but it’s hot and humid in most of the country – pretty much year around. December / January is probably the best time to visit (my first trip there), but it’s still balmy, especially in the south. On my second trip, we were there in June, and it was a nice toasty sauna all around the country. I highly recommend dry-fit clothing.
10. You will walk barefoot.
You have to take off your shoes to visit temples, and a few other places. Some folks are cool with that, some find it gross/strange. Either way, respect the local customs, and bring extra socks if you want to keep your feet clean. (I saved up a bunch of the free disposable socks you get on the planes and used them.)
11. They speak English, but don’t be fooled. Their English is not the same as yours.
Most folks you interact with will speak English – as in folks working in tourism industry or with an education. However, communication may still be a challenge. Just chill, relax and take it easy – stuff will get figured out. After a while, you’ll develop an ear for the local English variations. Or you may not. Whatever, just relax and focus on delicious food and amazing sites. Oh, and they love puns! I thought it was pretty awesome and entertaining.
12. Customer service is amazing!
You will get lazy. Even at average hotels and restaurants they will treat you like royalty. We had kebobs at a Sikh place in Mumbai which was nothing more than a street stand, yet we got better service than at most restaurants around the world. Take it as an upside of point # 1, but at most businesses there are people everywhere trying to help you. Need someone to carry your bag? Done. Need directions with a smile? Got it. Need service in your room 30 seconds after hitting the butler button? Yup, they’re already knocking at the door (true story. I didn’t even know butler buttons existed…)
And last, but not the least, you will be confused by the Indian head-shakes. Here’s a link to an instructional video that tries to shed light on it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uj56IPJOqWE