When asked which countries I have visited recently, listing Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam barely produces a reaction. However, while the ‘banana pancake trail’ may be somewhat uninteresting to the non-backpacker world, the moment I mention India I’m instantly the centre of attention. India seems to hold a special place in the Western mentality. People are always keen to hear about my experience, in a semi scared, semi-excited kind of way. And for me, India was exactly that – amazing and terrifying, all at once. While the culture shock is unavoidable, knowing these few things might have made the transition easier.
- Budget India is VERY different to non-budget India
You see them when you’re wandering the palaces of Jaipur or perusing the markets of Delhi. Immaculately dressed, probably bearing a straw hat, and looking like they’ve just stepped out of the best exotic Marigold Hotel – the older tourists. The non-backpackers. Whisked from luxury 5-star hotel to luxury 5-star hotel in an air-conditioned four-by-four, they’re experiencing a very different India to the budget traveller. It’s hard not to feel slightly bitter as you make your way down a questionable side alley to your cockroach-infested hostel. And yes, this holds true for most travel destinations. Backpacking is always going to be different to luxury travel. But somehow in India, the dichotomy feels more potent. However the benefits of backpacking are still the same – some of the things you see might be missed by non-backpackers. And you’ll meet people who wouldn’t step foot in a hotel. So although you might not be going for high tea at the Raddison, you might experience a side of India that is bypassed by more affluent tourists.
- The North-South divide
No, I’m not talking about Manchester vs. London. It turns out that India has its own North-South debate amongst backpackers. I travelled in the North, mainly around Rajasthan. This allowed me to have some amazing experiences, including visiting the desert in Pushkar, seeing Jaipur’s Amber Fort, and (of course) the Taj Mahal. However, I’ve also been told of the beauty of the South, in particular, Goa. I’ve also heard it has a more laid-back vibe and is slightly easier to travel. Although everyone has his or her opinions and preferences, this might be something to consider before you venture to India. If you’re looking for parties and beaches, the South is probably for you, while the North might appeal to those more interested in sightseeing and older India.
- Troublesome travel
The hardest part of travelling in India is probably the actual travelling. I was warned before going about how booked up the trains get. No problem. I’ll simply book my trains before I go. Right? How naïve I was. Unfortunately, the Indian train booking system is a complex one, and particularly difficult for foreigners. After a lot of effort, I finally managed to get some tickets through Cleartrip. However, this turned out to be the easiest part. I rolled up at the train station in Delhi to find crowds of people harassing me and trying to stop me from entering. Would this be a different situation for men? Possibly, but possibly not.
I was also warned about the tuk-tuks in Delhi, which apparently target tourists to scam them. Again, I don’t know how true this is but it wasn’t something I wanted to risk.
Many people choose to travel India by bike, which is a terrifying idea in Delhi but may be easier in other areas. Alternatively, hiring a private driver is a simple, and not too expensive, option.
- Eat the food!
I probably should have had bigger worries before I travelled to India. However, as someone who dislikes spicy food and someone who DETESTS curry, my main concern was what I was going to eat for three weeks. However, my worries were pretty unfounded. The food isn’t that spicy and there is so much choice of curry, I eventually found a few dishes I liked.
Also, let’s take a minute to talk about the dreaded Delhi Belly. People really freak out about this and make it into a huge deal. And they shouldn’t. First of all, just because you’re going to India does not mean you will get food poisoning. Plenty of people visit and come out fine. Second, if you do, it probably won’t be that bad. And finally, ever heard of Bali Belly? Or Thailand Tummy? Ok, I possibly made that last one up. But my point is you’re just as likely to get food poisoning anywhere where your body isn’t used to the food and water. All I’m saying is don’t spend your whole trip freaking out, drowning in hand sanitiser and refusing to touch the money because of some nonsense people have told you at home. You look pretentious and it will probably make no difference anyway.
- Prepare for your fifteen minutes of fame
I’m a young female with blonde hair and blue eyes. While this is nothing special in England, it turns out that I’m pretty interesting in India. And the same goes for most non-Indians. Despite the influx of tourists that swarm India every year, foreigners are always interesting. This isn’t a bad thing, but it can be quite a shock at first. In Delhi, I found it hard to walk down the street without being chatted to by a local. While I was on my guard for scams, most of them seemed genuinely interested in me and simply wanted to chat. Very different from the standoffishness of most Brits! At some times it did go slightly too far. Specifically, when I was stood in a museum and found a baby thrust into my arms. I turned around to see about 30 people brandishing camera phones and taking pictures of me and the terrified infant. Yep, it takes some getting used to.
My trip to India was full of crazy experiences, but also amazing and unforgettable ones. You can read more about my time there in these posts: