I always knew I’d make it to India in my lifetime, but it was always a matter of ‘when’. Hearing stories about Hindu mythology, maharajas and ancient temples sparked my imagination but stories of dead body parts in the street, rampant flies and poverty made me think realistically. For a place as complicated, diverse and drastically different as India, I wanted to be ready to soak it in.
You could also say I hyped it up.
Now, after having been traveling around India for almost four weeks, I can say that it really has been amazing. We had a slow start though, and while in Goa and Mumbai I was afraid India wouldn’t meet my expectations. Now having explored some of Rajasthan, my expectations have been exceeded.
I’ve learned a lot in the last few weeks about what it really means to travel around this country independently, but just like most other travel experiences it’s made me realize this– there is still so much more to see and I understand so little. Translation: I am already convinced I’ll be returning to India again someday.
It is good to keep in mind that my perspective on India comes from: having lived in Korea for the past two years, having visited third world countries previously and the fact I am traveling alongside a male. Considering these, here are some misconceptions about India which I had and what it has really been like so far.
Originally I expected…
1. I’d be living in squalor
Regardless of our budget (high or low), I assumed there would be many times when Simon and I would be staying in dirty, small hotels with cockroaches as roommates. Though we were going to be visiting decently touristy areas, I still figured we would somehow find ourselves staying in $#%& hole after @#*& hole. I mentally prepared myself for the squalor I’d be in the midst of and the thick layer of dirt that would constantly coat my body.
Instead, I’ve only seen one bug in any of our rooms, always had accessible wi-fi (even if it only worked half the day and was at tortoise speed) and sometimes had TVs (with HBO!) and air conditioning. There has always been a slew of guesthouses to choose from and a wide range of prices. In this past week, Simon and I have paid 300 rupees a night (less than $6 total, that’s less than $3 each!) to stay inside the walls of an 800 year old fort with a clean private bathroom and slow, but sometimes functional wi-fi. The week prior we paid 1200 rupees (about $20 total per night) to stay in a large decorated room with a TV, sitting area, air conditioning, hot water and wi-fi on the rooftop. We actually thought we were getting ripped off a bit and overpaying, but we very comfortable nonetheless.
In India, you get what you pay for, but many times our expectations have been exceeded for the prices we have been paying.
This isn’t to say all of India is clean. India is also one of the dirtiest places I’ve ever been and I’m convinced my feet will never be clean again no matter how many times I scrub them under the faucet.
2. The men would be very intimidating
I read so many articles and seemed to talk to so many people that explained how bad the Indian men could be. It made me never want to travel India alone, even if I had to. I heard it would be an offensive kind of stare intended to make you feel disgusting on the inside. While I’m sure some woman certainly have bad experiences with Indian men while traveling, I now believe it to be a huge generalization.
Surprisingly enough, I find Koreans to be much worse at the staring habit than Indians can be. All the times I sat on the subway in one of the largest cities in the world, Seoul, and was grossly stared at by old Korean men, being in India doesn’t bother me at all. In fact, the staring here –when it happens– also seems to make a bit of sense.
For one, I understand how I’m a bit of an anomaly. With Indian woman usually staying at home and living under the certain cultural guidelines of Hinduism, I embody the opposite of that. Additionally, just the way I want to gaze at all the women’s saris and take their pictures, they just want to do the same with me. 90% of the time I find the stares to be ones out of curiosity, not out of rudeness.
At times, men will only talk with Simon when inquiring about our lives and almost pretend I am invisible. I don’t take offense, in fact I’d rather not have to chat. But many other times, I have found Indian men to be really kind to me, have made me feel comfortable and have been completely non-threatening.
Being the only women in a whole crowded train car, not to mention being non-Indian, would lead anyone to expect some beady and inquisitive eyes!
3. There would be more tourists
It would take months, if not years, to explore all that India has to offer. India isn’t new to tourism either, and unlike some other countries, people have been coming and going pretty freely for decades. Have I mentioned yet how cheap it is? Considering these aspects, I figured some places would be chock full of tourists.
Instead, all the tourists in India must be on the beaches of Goa because we don’t usually come across too many. Sometimes, Simon and I find ourselves to be the only tourists in an entire bus or train station. We also book tours and accommodation extremely easily. When we went to the old capital of Rajasthan, Chittorgarh, to visit ruins two hours outside of Udaipur, I don’t think we saw any non-Indian visitors besides ourselves.
Possibly this is just how India is, or it has to do with the time of year we are traveling, but we have enjoyed this aspect. While India seems very authentic this way, there still is one downside– we stick out like sore thumbs and become walking ATMs.
4. Everything would be difficult
Another thing I mentally prepared for were the difficulties we thought we would face. We were told how slow things could be and how sometimes the simplest task would be impossible.
Again, maybe Korea really was that frustrating for me because I haven’t been bothered by too much in India. Sure this is no South East Asia with comfortable and clean tour buses leaving every 30 minutes, but it is also not as difficult as cracked up to be. The most difficult thing we face is getting all of our food to arrive at the same time or within an hour. Now we just expect meals to be spread out and lengthy.
I also expected to get much sicker than I have. Though I tend to eat street food in every country I visit, in the last few years I’ve also gotten sick in each one as well. I figured India would mostly likely top them all. Interestingly enough, I’ve only had minor stomach cramps and “Delhi-belly” problems so far, and when they came up we just got some medicine at a local pharmacy and I felt fine in a day or two. These stomach problems also came from an expected source– road side samosas in the middle of the desert. I probably wouldn’t have eaten them but we had been traveling for over 12 hours and they seemed to be the only option besides potato chips.
Choosing popular restaurants (even if a bit more expensive) and staying away from meat, have been two easy and successful strategies in keeping us healthy.
Two things that have made our lives in India easier: making a Clear Trip account ahead of time to be able to purchase and print train tickets online easily AND having a little extra spending money to be able to afford some comfort and ease. (A little extra honestly meaning a few extra dollars a day.)
Overall, all of my perceptions above are just exactly that: perceptions. If I wasn’t already expecting the worst, or hadn’t already traveled a fair bit, I am sure I would be having a tougher time. Originally, I had such exaggerated images about some things which have made my time here currently easier.
Coming to India with a realistic mindset about the poverty, cleanliness and culture goes a long way once you actually arrive. If you come with these expectations, you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised, just like myself.
Simon and I still have a couple of weeks left in India to go. In our very last week (after a jaunt in Nepal) we will be visiting the holy, chaotic and crazy city of Varanasi. Who knows, maybe once we have been there I’ll be regretting writing this post entirely…