India is a whirlwind. I haven’t been to every country in the world, but I’ve been to enough that I can say it is absolutely unlike anything you’ve ever experienced.
It’s hard to know how to prepare for a trip to India! Here’s what I wish I had known before I went to India:
Be prepared for contrasts
India is a land of extremes – extreme wealth, extreme opulence, and extreme poverty. Next to the incredible marble building with gorgeous inlays that is the Taj Mahal, you can see people who are living in extreme poverty.
There are crowds everywhere
India has a whole lot more people than it has space in the cities. The crowding is something you have to see to believe. I’ve been to China, I’ve been to Egypt, and I’ve been to slums in South America – the crowding in India is on a whole different level.
Traffic is terrible
You will get nowhere fast. Bring your patience, and use the time to see the world outside your window. Especially in the cities, traffic can be quite a pain. But you also get to see how people in India drive – which is awesome to experience! (If mildly terrifying for someone from the US used to calm and order.)
You might get ill in unexpected ways
If you’re planning a trip to India, you’ve undoubtedly heard about Delhi belly (and hopefully prepared for it!) But don’t be surprised if you don’t get Delhi belly but get something else instead.
The air quality in India is quite poor – I ended up with one of the worst sinus infections I’ve ever had! If you’ve got active allergies, make sure you prepare for that just like you would Delhi belly!
Exchange any leftover Rupees at the exchange desk at the airport
I normally keep my currency and find a better deal than the airport for anything I have left. The airport rates are always horrible. That was definitely a mistake in India. It’s really hard to exchange Rupees outside of India. So, in this case – it can be worth it to take the bad exchange at the airport rather than be stuck with something that’s very difficult to change later.
Even if you think you don’t like Indian food, try it again
This is one area it’s really helpful to take a group tour to India. (Group tour ideas are here if needed!) I went to India pretty nervous – I’ve never liked Indian food before. I came away from India really loving it! Indian food is more regional than you expect. Having a guide who is Indian can help you understand what each thing is and try different types of Indian cuisine.
If you’re flying into Delhi, know that you can’t go back in the airport once you leave
If you’re from the US, you’re used to being able to get in and out of the baggage claim areas without a problem. It’s always open access. In Delhi (and I don’t know about the rest of India,
but this is likely the case in other major airports), you can’t go back into the airport once you leave the doors. Make sure you know where your ride is picking you up, or have an internet connection on your SIM card BEFORE you leave those doors. I learned this the hard way.
Not everything is dirt cheap
This is another where I think the blogosphere and media make India out to be a place where everything is dirt cheap. While it is true you can do quite a lot for not a lot of money there,
there are also things that are quite expensive. A middle of the road restaurant will commonly work out to about $10 US or more per person. If you want brand-name food like McDonald’s or Baskin Robbins, you’re going to be paying prices that are similar to the US. Yes, some of them are cheaper. But some are more expensive.
Souvenirs are another area this comes up. Saris are actually quite expensive. Don’t expect to find one for $20. They’re also gorgeous! Generally, just be prepared that many things will feel like quite a bargain, but not everything (especially in the cities).
Mentally prepare if you’re taking a tour of the slums
I struggle with slum tours in general. I don’t think it’s right to treat people and the places they live like it’s a zoo. But at the same time, tours offer a chance to see a different lifestyle, and to understand a different side of India. They also raise a lot of money for the people who live in the slums. So no matter how you feel about it, mentally prepare for it.
One rule of thumb I use everywhere – not just in slums – is to not do anything I wouldn’t want someone doing in my neighborhood. If there was a tourist in my neighborhood, and they stopped to take a picture of me doing yardwork, that would make me uncomfortable. If they took a picture of my house, it wouldn’t. If they walked through my neighborhood and looked at the different houses, I’d be fine with that. If they looked at me like I was a specimen to examine, I wouldn’t be. This rule works well for me, but it might not for you. Just mentally prepare yourself. It’s not a zoo. It’s not a model. It’s people’s lives.
Spend some time understanding India’s religious culture
It might just be me, but I’ve always thought of India as being solely Hindu. While Hindus make up a large share of the population, there are also large numbers of Sikhs, Buddhists, and Muslims. There is a huge diversity! I loved being about to go and see Hindu temples, Sikh temples, and mosques. It’s awesome to see things coexist and learn about the different religions. There’s a Sikh temple in Delhi that serves free meals to all who need it. They serve thousands of meals a day – to people of any religion! How cool is that?
It’s very difficult to get those awesome pictures without people in them
Who doesn’t love pictures without other people in them? It’s extremely hard to achieve in any of the cities in India. And if you’re going to get one, you’re going to need to be somewhere early!
Consider having a wide-angle or some level of fisheye lens on your camera so that your camera can be closer to you and still capture a lot of the background.
India is not all slums
I think the media frequently portray India as a country of slums. It’s such a shame, because the country has so much more than that! There are large slums, and large numbers of people living in poverty. But there is also so much wealth and beauty there! There are very modern areas of every city with skyscrapers that wouldn’t be out of place in New York or Shanghai. There are leafy tree-lined boulevards. There are mansions. And there are also displays of incredible wealth.
(Like the palaces and temples!) Don’t go to India expecting it to be all poverty.
You should study some Indian history
I wish I had spent more time studying pre-colonial Indian history before I went. I would have had so much more context for some of the forts and palaces we saw. India’s history is incredibly rich, and didn’t start when the British took over. (Though that might be the only part you learned in school.)
Cows really aren’t a big deal
They’re a big deal in India in the sense that cows are sacred. So cows are allowed to wander freely. But there’s always talk about them blocking roadways and being everywhere. That was not my experience at all! You see a lot of cows wandering, but they didn’t seem to come close to the roads much!
You will be surprised by the wildlife outside the cities
I always thought of India as being so populated there wouldn’t be much wildlife. I was wrong!
Especially near the border with Nepal, there are incredible game preserves. And even in general towns in Rajasthan, there’s wildlife. I’d never seen wild peacocks before! And I was there during mating season. Peacocks are quite loud when attracting a mate. That to say – you’ll be surprised by what you see in India every day!
Your perspective will change
People told me this before I went to India, and I didn’t really believe them. But it’s true –
India changes your perspective on the world. It is such a joyful country, so mystical, and just purely amazing. It will challenge you. It might scare you. But no matter what, it will make your life and perspective richer.