I don’t think I’ll ever forget my first six hours in India. As we drove from New Delhi to Dehradun, I stared out of the air-conditioned car, completely mesmerised by what I was seeing. The sheer volume of people, vehicles and animals on the streets was enough to send me into a complete and utter culture shock, to the extent where I felt like I was dreaming. By merely observing from the backseat, I quickly realised why personal space is of little importance here; when there are so many people everywhere, there’s little opportunity to ever have any space. I felt completely overwhelmed and, in all honesty, was wondering how I’d cope with travelling around the country for an entire month.
As we come to the end of our four-week stay, however, I’m pleased to say that the experience was not even half as traumatic as I expected it to be. The truth is, I quickly adapted to the crowds, but that’s not to say that I didn’t find them exhausting at times, like when we were in the City Palace in Udaipur and had to walk around the exhibitions at a snail’s pace due to the swarms of local tourists that were visiting.
I can see why people are utterly charmed by India when they visit, though – the people, the colour, the food, the landmarks, the natural beauty, the culture. Likewise, I can also see why people utterly hate it – the crowds, the dirty streets, the poverty, the corruption, the lack of customer service. The negatives are a totally unique experience within themselves, and after giving it a lot of thought I’ve realised that in order to enjoy the country you need to let go of all expectations and preconceptions that you may have of how a place should be. It’s only then, if you visit as a blank canvas so to speak, that you will really be able to enjoy it.
Let me elaborate further. Once we had travelled around a few places, I realised that hotel standards are just not comparable to the ones we have experienced so far in countries such as Vietnam and Thailand. And, to make things worst, rooms are expensive – for $30 a night in Vietnam, we were able to enjoy really decent three-star hotels that were clean, had great service and really comfortable beds. In India we were paying on average $55 for rooms that were mainly not very clean and for very poor service.
But in order to enjoy India, these are the things you need to overlook. And by overlooking the things that ordinarily would rile you up the wrong way back home or in other less challenging countries, you’ll be rewarded with a country that’s rich in experiences, human warmth and heritage. Here are, in greater detail, my reasons why you should most definitely consider visiting India, followed by all the reasons why you shouldn’t visit – if you can’t let go of these, then it’s best you head elsewhere.
Want gorgeous beaches? India has them. Want historical monuments and UNESCO World Heritage Sites? India has them. Want amazing food? India has it. Want deep cultural experiences? India has them. Want yoga and meditation retreats? India has them. Want to immerse yourself in nature? India offers you that. There is actually little that you cannot experience here, meaning that if you have enough time, you can potentially cover two or three of these in a single trip. In our four weeks, we saw the marvel that is the Taj Mahal, explored Mughal India monuments, went on a whirlwind tour of Rajasthan’s palaces, and enjoyed the clear air and skies of Mussorie and Landour.
To some, this may be trivial, but to a sunset/sunrise junkie like me, I cannot help but marvel every time I see this miracle perform itself in front of us every day. The sunsets in India are unlike any I’ve seen in any other country. The sun looks absolutely humungous in the sky – bigger than I’ve ever seen it before – and every evening when I caught it it was nothing short of phenomenal.
While I’m no stranger to Indian food, I was looking forward to finally sampling it within the country in which it originated from. And I can confirm that if you’ve never tried Indian food in India you’ve yet to experience just how good it can get. Over the last four weeks I’ve indulged in all my favourites: various chaats, meat curries, vegetable curries, sweets, as well as some dishes I had never tried before: kulfi falooda, puris, vegetarian koftas, paneer bhurji. And I know I’ve merely touched upon what other delights are out there. Each region of India offers its own specialities, so you can have infinite amounts of food experiences in just one country.
The people of any given place are what can make or break your trip. Throughout our journey in India, I’ve been touched by the kindness of the people that I’ve encountered along the way. The old ladies were my favourite group of people, though – if you shoot a smile at one, 99.9 per cent of the time you’re guaranteed to get the warmest smile right back at you. They’re also the most likely to stare at you in genuine curiosity with a small grin on their faces.
You’ve probably read about various Europeans who’ve come to India and have been swamped by locals wanting to have their pictures taken with them. I had this very experience so many times and not only did it give me a taster of what it’s like to be a celebrity (I could get used to the attention!), it also touched me in a way that I cannot quite put into words. Their enthusiasm is infectious…
The cultural traditions
You don’t need to visit India to know that it’s a country that has a rich legacy of myriad cultural traditions – again, ones that vary from region to region. Being here to witness some of them first hand has been special; my first Diwali in India is something I won’t be forgetting any time soon. And I’m sure you will have all seen pictures of Indian weddings at some point – the colour, the flowers, the lights! Unfortunately I didn’t get the opportunity to go to a wedding this time round, but I drove past numerous wedding halls dripping in lights, guests arriving in sparkly saris. It looked every bit as over the top as I imagined it to be.
Then you have the folk dances, like the Rajasthani ones we witnessed during our trip in Udaipur. Look at the colour!
Driving through some Indian towns can be somewhat depressing at times; the less than clean streets, the pollution that hangs in the air, the deteriorating buildings. But there’s always colour – everywhere. Women’s brightly coloured saris, marigolds adorning the temples, lights draped over every other building. Everywhere you look there’s a picture just waiting to be taken.
And reasons why you shouldn’t…
I won’t lie; there have been plenty of times that India has shocked me. Like the time when I saw a man dragging himself across the floor because he could not walk. Or the times I saw children working the streets, trying to make a few rupees by halfheartedly cleaning cars and selling various things. And then there’s the problem of men urinating everywhere, the trash that’s a fixture in pretty much every town, the maddening traffic, the lack of customer service, the difficulty of getting from A to B…
If you’re unable to overlook any of this, then it’s probably wise that you don’t visit.
However, what I recommend is this: in order to visit India (and enjoy it), you need to let go of any preconceived ideas you may have of what a country should look and run like. You really need to allow yourself to just go with it; take in the poverty, but don’t judge it. Take in the lack of customer service and roll with it. Take in the traffic and ignore it. Accept that you cannot shape your trip here – India will shape it for you. And if you’re able to let go for just long enough to do that, I can guarantee you you will not be disappointed.