A land of contrast and controversies, of extreme riches and poverty, of diversity far greater than any other country; it is the land of my birth – India.
I have marvelled at its snow clapped peaks and swam in its turquoise waters, driven across its length and breadth, yet cried in frustration at its traffic jammed highways, eaten in its fancy restaurants while savouring its street food.
As a proud Indian girl, I write this article not to talk about what to see in India, but rather how to experience this gem of a country, manoeuvre its crowded markets and take home with you warm friendships and true adventure. I guarantee that each day you spend in India will be filled with shock, fascination and excitement all at once.
Fascination with its multi cultures, colours, flavours, scents, smells, Gods, festivals. Shock at its poverty, open defecation, filth, pollution, scams and population, while still leaving you excited with its movie industry Bollywood, holy men, ashrams, beaches, party scene, never say die attitude and tranquillity amidst chaos.
India has history dating back 5000 years, religions that span every religion in the world, 1000+ languages / dialects and a population that will soon surpass China despite being half its size. India is a country of extremes where you will see the whole spectacle of life played out before your eyes, uncut, uncensored, and unashamed all in a single day.
If you are a first time traveller to India, no matter how experienced you are, get ready for a culture shock! Till the time you are in the airport – Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore or where ever you choose to land, sanity will prevail. Now take your pre-paid cab and step out into the chaos and confusion that is India. Day or night there are traffic jams and blaring honks. Not something I have ever gotten used to, but make your peace with it early on, to truly appreciate the country for what it has to offer.
If you are a rookie traveller doing a solo trip, you may fear venturing out of your accommodation, the first few days, due to the culture shock you have just experienced. But fear not. People in general are hospitable, warm and welcoming. In India we have a saying ‘Atithi devo bhava’ a.k.a ‘Treat the Guest like God’. Of course dangers do exits like any other country in the world, there are touts and scams and being cautious and street smart is the rule of the road.
Food: Indian food is mouth wateringly delicious. From North to South and coast to coast the variety of food on offer is truly unmatched. One could plan a food tour across the country and yet realise there is more to discover. There is no ‘one type’ food that can be classified Indian. We have 29 states and each state has its own traditional dishes. Remember to always go to restaurants the locals eat at, to enjoy authentic food at economical prices As a tipoff remember, Indians enjoy spicy food, so if that is something you cannot handle, make sure to mention the same while placing your order.
Dress: Now depending on which part of India you are visiting, it is important to dress accordingly. In the more liberal Goa, wearing a bikini on the beach, shorts and skirts is absolutely acceptable and I myself do the same. But in the more conservative belts of North and Central India, it is advisable to wear longer knee length clothes, avoiding chest exposure at all times. In general the Indian value system believes in modesty with no skin exposure. While dressing up in western wear to party is definitely permissible and I do it all the time, avoid walking on the road while dressed in such attire.
Travelling in India: The entire country is well connected by air and train routes. While taking a train is the cheaper option, it will certainly increase your chances of experiencing the real India, as large parts of tracks run through rural India. While compartments are categorised as 1AC, 2AC, 3AC, 2 sleeper, 3 sleeper, opt for the 2AC or 3 AC coaches. They are comfortable, hygienic and safe. Taking a train journey from North to South India or reverse gives you a first-hand feel of how diverse the country truly is. The language you hear spoken around you will change as the train journeys through different states, the food on display at the railway stalls will appear different, the dress worn will not be the same. At times you may wonder if you are still in the same country or whether the train has crossed borders? But remember, this is India, the land of true diversity.
Travelling within local areas is possible through buses, auto rickshaws, taxis and more recently Uber and Ola. Before stepping into autos and taxi, make sure to negotiate the price. Check with your accommodation folk the average cost and pay only that amount. If the driver does not agree, do not step into the vehicle, fetch another one. In cities like Mumbai, autos and taxis charge according to the meter, this is fair and should be paid. In tourist locations like Kerala and Goa renting a bike for a few days is quite common, cheap and the best way to explore the place.
Not all of India is poor as often depicted in western music and movies. We are home to some of the world’s richest, while also being home to one of the biggest slums in Asia. It is common site to see a Mercedes, Audi along with cyclers, pedestrians and cows all trying to cross the same road. The rich, the poor and the sandwiched middle class all live together, intermingle with each other in our day to day lives. The rich form part of the Business community, politics, Bollywood –Indian movie industry and cricket. The middle class (which I form a part of) consists of the employed working class or small business start-ups. And the poor class make up the support category in our day to day lives.
The even bigger difference lies in the urban – rural divide with close to 60% out of our 1.2 billion population living in the country side. While literacy and internet has penetrated to the grassroots levels, 100% education to each citizen is yet a goal we seek to achieve. This huge diversity in India stems from the fact that India is made up of the British rule provinces + 566 princely state. Each state is formed basis language and could well be compared to each of the countries that form Europe but with far greater diversity. Several religions are practiced and professed freely in India. Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Parsis (Parsis are Zoroastrians of who fled from Persia, today’s Iran several hundred years ago)
But why am I telling you this? Knowing a little about the economic structures in India, will help you better your understanding of this already complex country. By no means will your understanding touch even the tip of the ice berg even after spending 3 months in the country, but knowing basics that govern life in India, will help you enjoy your time here even more.
Now that you are aware of the diversity in food, culture, income it is important to understand why you will be stared at anywhere in India J Most places you go to, be it a mall, street walks, railway station, cafes will have you wondering why are you the object of attention. It is not out of racism that people stare. It is more out of curiosity. Some of them may have never seen a non-Indian before. For others it’s a feeling of awe, especially if you are a white, having been colonized by the British for over 400 years. You are that exotic cocktail that one can’t have but wishes for.
As an Indian girl who myself have road tripped across Europe and South East Asia, I welcome you to explore this land of contrasts. India has tons to offer if you keep aside the traffic, dirt and poverty. Gandhi, the number 0, Ayurveda and Yoga all originated from India. Coffee, tea plantations, spice gardens, camel fairs, dessert safaris, jungle tours spotting lions and tigers, ascending the Everest summit, swimming in the Arabian Sea, are some of the nature related activities you could opt for during your time here.
Visit the symbol of immortal love at the Taj Mahal, attend an Indian wedding that typically last 3-4 days, sprinkle colour on each other during the festival of Holi, light earthen lamps during Diwali, watch as crowds gather for the Friday prayer at local Mosque, play road side (gully)cricket with local neighbourhood boys and practice your bargain skills as you haggle for souvenirs, auto rides and local street food.
India has so much and more to offer. It is a must do for all travellers. In today’s increasingly intolerant world, it is so much more important to visit India, and appreciate its diversity in religion and customs. If there is one value you will pick up here, it is being patient and tolerant. Come open minded and go home feeling like alive. There is method to the madness, that can never be explained. You will love it or hate it, but will never forget it.
Feel free to reach out to me for any details on best time to visit India, how to pack for India, where to stay etc.
Best time to visit India:
- While India is an all-weather destination, Nov – Feb are the best months to visit most of the country. The temperature is moderate to low all throughout, while it snows in Northern parts of the country.
- June – September is the monsoon season in India, once more a beautiful time to ride through lush green valleys and dance under gushing waterfalls
- March – May is summer throughout the country and best avoided. The temperature in most part gets unbearingly hot and humid.
Where to stay and what to see:
- I cannot tell you what to visit in India. By now, I’m sure you have understood the magnitude of diverse landscapes, festivals and cultures India has to offer. Choose what best tickles your taste buds from mountains to beaches, deserts to jungles, temple tours to village tours
- While there are several luxury hotels to choose from, opt to stay in traditional home stays, farm stays to get a through feel of India. Chat up with the locals, ask them questions. Most locals are more than happy to share their country with you.
What to wear:
- While big cities are quite modern in their dress sense, ensure to cover up while walking in public, taking a bus, taxi, train and in smaller towns and cities.
- Comfy, cotton track pants, loose long flowing dresses, Tees, and a few skirts and dresses for nights out.
- Ensure to carry plenty of sunscreen, which can also be picked up locally, a hat and bottled water wherever you go. Carrying a scarf will help cover your head, shoulders while entering religious monuments.
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