This post may contain affiliate links, which means I may receive a commission, at no cost to you, if you make a purchase through a link. Please see my full disclosure for further information.
India for First Timers: 6 cold hard facts about India that will help you understand whether a trip to India is for you.
Wow a trip to India! How exciting! Taj Mahal, yoga, massages, a dip in the Ganges, curry chicken, funny cows walking the streets, fairytale palaces, tigers and elephants!
This is probably what comes to mind when you think of India. It’s all pretty cool but India is not just that.
I will never stress that enough but a trip to India isn’t for everyone. And it’s one of the trips that I wouldn’t recommend to everybody.
The first thing you need to consider before planning a trip to India is to understand whether this journey is for you. If you are the right traveler for India.
So before giving you all kinds of tips and information on how to plan a trip to India I will tell you 6 cold hard facts about India. The ones you don’t find in travel brochures or booking confirmations.
I don’t do that to put you off. At all! I do it because I don’t want your journey to become a nightmare just because you realized too late that a trip to India isn’t for you.
With that said, let me start right away with the 6 cold hard facts about India. Some you might know already, some you might not. Let’s find them out!
INDIA IS DIRTY.
India is dirty. And I’m not talking about a-little-dusty-dirty. I mean real dirty! That kind of dirty that can be quite dangerous to your body.
Starting with water. I think we all know how dangerous Indian water can be to our delicate stomach. This means that you absolutely can’t drink any tap water. And you might also want to check that bottled water is properly sealed. Unfortunately many people will sell you “bottled water” which is just a bottle filled with any water. You can’t have any iced drinks if you are not sure where that ice comes from. You can’t eat fresh fruits or vegetables because they might have been washed with bad water.
Besides you want to brush your teeth with bottled water and make sure not to drink accidentally any drop of water while taking a shower.
But it’s not just water. The streets are dirty as well. Cows wander around freely so you can imagine what you might find on the streets!
It’s not only cows‘ fault. Poor thing! There is a lot of garbage. Which creates a deadly combination with the heat! Many people are homeless and have to do their business wherever. In many cities smog is unbearable. Almost everywhere the smell really tests your stomach. If salmonella hasn’t done it already. Or any bacterias who can’t wait to have a journey in your body!
And don’t even get me started with trains and buses! The crowd, the dust, the smell, the dirt is unbelievable. As Bruno Mars would say, don’t believe me just watch. Actually. Don’t watch. Just believe me. And take a taxi or a rental car instead.
Oh and what about the Ganges? Do you dream of bathing in the Ganges river to purify your body, your mind, your soul? Well, people release ashes, bones and human remains in the river. While others wash their clothes!
The Ganges river is one of the most polluted rivers on earth! So I would look for a different purification ritual if I were you. I don’t know, what about coconut incense?
INDIA IS POOR.
India is poor. Extremely poor. Heartbreaking poor.
A third of the world’s population lives in India and almost half of the Indian population lives below the poverty line. They don’t have a place to sleep. Or in the best cases they sleep on the floor in a shack with twenty more people.
Many of them don’t make it and die of hunger, or other illness caused by a total lack of hygiene. They die on the streets, in the public eye.
When you see someone laying on the street you never know if they are sleeping or dead.
This hurts. A lot.
And then there are the billionaires. India is the eighth country in the world by number of billionaires.
In India there are people who have nothing and people who have it all.
INDIA IS CHAOTIC.
India is chaotic. It’s impossible to hide from the traffic, the noise, the crowd, the cows.
You can have a break just in the desert or in some remote village.
But anywhere else it’s total chaos. As you turn something happens. Crossing the street is an adventure each time. Pray god and cross. Try with Shiva, the Lord of destruction. Well maybe not Shiva.
I don’t know pray something and try not to get run over. You need a good balance between courage and prudence.
Besides, you will bump into someone who wants to take a selfie with you every 100 meters! I will never understand why.
It might be nice at first but after a few days it gets a little annoying!
Oh, I almost forgot! There are also cobras on trees!
IN INDIA NOTHING GOES TO PLAN.
If you are an organizing freak like me, well, sorry but that won’t work in India! Forget all about it. I had to do it too!
Setbacks are an everyday reality in India. Besides punctuality doesn’t really matter in this country.
Indians are not bothered much if a train comes 12 hours late, that’s pretty normal! They call it “Indian Style” and consider Westerns too uptight and strict.
In India they don’t really care about details. Schedules and life rhythms are completely different here.
So alarm at 7:02, shower at 8:07, taxi at 8:31, museum at 9:01, just forget about it. It’s a concept that doesn’t work here.
When you plan your trip to India try to be flexible. If you think you need 2 days to visit a city, stay 3. India is not for people who are in a hurry. And short on time.
INDIA IS FULL OF SCAMS.
India is full of scams. Unfortunately you can’t trust anyone.
Starting with the drivers. Most of them receive commissions from hotels, restaurants, shops, for each customer they bring. It usually goes like this. You ask them to take you to a specific hotel. They will tell you that the hotel is closed, that it doesn’t exist anymore. But they will offer you a solution. Another “great” hotel. Well they will take you there only because they receive commissions from that “great” hotel.
So don’t trust them when they tell you something like this! They lie. This happens all the time.
The best thing to do is to choose a quality hotel (I list a few of them in my next post) and let the hotel staff do everything for you, especially the airport pick up. But also local taxis, rental cars to move around India. Anything local you need.
Now if you need a tuk tuk for short-distance trips you can of course just hop on one. But never trust what they say. For example when I was in Jaipur I asked a driver to take me to the Monkey Temple. He took me instead to a random temple where there was a guy selling peanuts for monkeys. Like, giant scam!
Be always aware of where you are going exactly. Use the GPS on your phone. Always check that they are taking you where you asked them to take you. It’s frustrating, I know. India is like that.
Here’s another usual scam. Somebody gets close to you. Usually a woman with a baby. She will ask you to buy some milk for her baby in a very specific shop. But the truth is she was sent just by the owner of that shop. And most luckily that baby is not even her baby.
I know it’s very hard not to help. Buying some milk is no bother at all. But by doing that you just keep supporting something really wrong. Something where they keep exploiting women and children.
There are other ways to help poor people in India. Bring yourself some food and drinks. Make donations to competent organizations. Volunteer. There are many groups that carry out volunteering trips to India. But don’t trust people who approach you on the street.
And there are fake priests! They usually give you something, like a bracelet. They tell you fascinating stories and offer you prayers in exchange for the money. If you refuse to pay, in the best case scenario they curse you and your family. In the worst case scenario they involve the police (real police, fake police, we don’t know) that will force you to pay. The best thing to do is to ignore them from the beginning. As mummy used to tell you, don’t accept anything from strangers!
Another example is Varanasi. Some “guides” approach you by the burning ghats and give you interesting information on the cremation and Hindu rituals. But then they ask you for expensive donations to buy the wood for the families who can’t afford it (in India it’s the family of the deceased who buys the wood for the funeral pyre). Does this money go to the families to buy wood? Or in the pockets of the guides?
Unfortunately this feeling of distrust is something that gets into you since your first days in India. Try though not to let it stop you from meeting wonderful people. In India I met very special people! With time you will understand who you can trust and who you can’t. But at the beginning be careful and keep to yourself. But above all, don’t ever trust monkeys. EVER.
INDIAN FOOD IS VERY SPICY.
Indian food is very spicy.
Before going to India I thought I liked Indian food. But local food is quite different from the food they serve in Indian restaurants around the world.
To each his own, obviously! But after a few days in India I couldn’t take it anymore! I just wanted something “western” and to have a break from spicy food.
Besides there are things you must avoid if you don’t want to spend your days in India in the toilet!
They are, in order of danger:
- WATER, ICE, RAW FRUITS AND VEGETABLES. You must avoid them at all costs. No stomach can take it. No one is safe.
- MEAT (ESPECIALLY CHICKEN). Tandoori chicken is amazing and you have to try it! But eat it only in a restaurant you trust (for example in a restaurant of a starred hotel) or else forget about it. If chicken is not properly cooked you might get salmonella or other dangerous bacteria. Conditions of chicken in India are not the best, so avoid eating it if you don’t know the restaurant.
- EGG AND DAIRY PRODUCTS. This goes with the previous point. Anything that comes from animals is quite risky. Once again, if you don’t trust the place, avoid it.
Unfortunately I don’t eat many vegetables so I didn’t have many options in India. I lost a lot of weight in India and my parents were kind of scared when they picked me up at the airport! Like, where is the other half of Sara?
But there were also things I loved eating in India, like the amazing curry! Delicious!
WHY TRAVEL TO INDIA THEN?
So why travel to India? Why would I do that?
Exactly! Why would I do that? You wonder before traveling to India. But once you get to India you wonder instead “why did I do that?”. No kidding. It’s just the way it is.
But India is a place that changes you completely. A place that shakes your soul and gives you a new one. A place that helps you put it all into perspective. That makes you stronger. That makes you ready for all kinds of journeys.
And then of course Taj Mahal, yoga, massages, a dip in the Ganges, curry chicken, funny cows walking the streets, fairytale palaces, tigers and elephants! (But please promise me not to bathe in the Ganges).
If you still want to go to India, despite all you read here (are you sure?), click on my next post. I will give you all kinds of information to plan your trip to India at its best.
In the meanwhile, I leave you with a quote by Tiziano Terzani.
Those who love India know it: they do not know exactly why they love it. It is dirty, it is poor, it is infected; she is sometimes a thief and a liar, often smelly, corrupt, merciless and indifferent. Yet once met, you can’t help it.