India | Nothing Makes Sense in India

First of all, there is no need to dread India. I heard all kinds of horror stories before I made it there and found very few horrors myself. It is definitely unlike any place I’ve ever been, and the commotion and general lack of personal space can be a bit daunting. The people have a collective personality that completely baffles me (people will openly stare at you for blocks, no one stops for anyone, there is always a horn honking, almost no one wears shorts even though it’s a hundred and ten outside, and many people stick their fingers through the holes in my ears), but once I got used to it, I found it to be one of the most fascinating places I went.

I spent most of my time in the south and central regions, eventually making it as far north as Delhi for a couple of days before I flew out. For planning a trip to India, I can give you some general rules. First of all, if you plan on traveling by train, especially for any long distance train, you need to book way ahead of time, possibly even before you make it into the country if you have a set plan on where you need to get by when. Where I went in India was very much influenced by trains selling out. My intent was actually to make it way further north to Darjeeling, but couldn’t find any way to get out there in the time I had, and I had a lot of time. And you should definitely ride the trains, as the bus transport is pretty shady for the most part and can get packed beyond any idea you currently have of a full bus. From what I’ve seen, most buses in Asia don’t leave, scheduled or otherwise, until they are packed full, and this is definitely true in India. The trains have all kinds of different classes, from really luxurious air-conditioned rooms to sleepers (which are not nearly as exotic as they sound), to 2nd class (the cheapest – sometimes literally cents – and most adventurous/life-threatening; this is where people are spilling out of the train as it’s in motion and at every stop, the ones hanging outside have to hop off onto the concourse to get a little respite before jumping back on). There are people everywhere selling food, chai, and coffee and there is always a loud conversation somewhere. It’s pretty exciting to be in the middle of it.

Drink a lot of chai. It’s crazy how many chai stands there are. It’s delicious and, if I recall correctly, costs about 7 cents. Eventually, I was drinking it three, four times a day. The food is amazing and cheaper than anywhere I’ve ever been. Being vegetarian, it was nice to get to a country that actually caters to vegetarians. Almost every restaurant will designate veg or non-veg on its sign. I heard a lot of travelers complain about stomach issues in India, something I never faced, possibly because I wasn’t eating meat. So, if you do eat meat, you may want to steer clear of some of the street stuff, or just wing it and see what happens. Try paneer, cheese curd that is used as a great meat replacement.

Accommodation is plentiful and can be really cheap, but there are also some surprisingly nice places that are affordable as well. Depending on your budget, you can find yourself in some of the worst places in Asia or some of the nicest – for a very small difference in price. A lot of rooms have TVs where you can watch fifty channels of Bollywood movies and sweet music videos, with a few English stations mixed in. Bathrooms are a different story though, at least in the deep south. Many places I stayed just had a hole in the floor, but the farther north I got, the more actual toilets I saw. You will definitely get hassled every day by people asking for money or people trying to take you somewhere for a tip. I even had a guy walk next to me while crossing a street and try to get money for safely navigating me. Some tell you they have a great guesthouse or restaurant, the best in town, and that you should follow them. Sometimes, this works out well and they take you to a great place, but other times they drag you all over the city to a dump. I would not recommend blindly giving money to anyone, especially kids, because I’ve seen people do this and then get flocked by twenty people expecting money. Go see movies. There are cinemas everywhere and you can see a great Bollywood movie for next to nothing. Some are sub-titled, some have this strange combination of Hindi/Tamil/Marathi/Keralan mixed with just enough English for it to make sense, and some you won’t understand at all, but just listening to the music and watching the elaborate dance performances is worth it.

I never felt unsafe, but it’s a bit different for women. I’ve heard from women traveling alone that the men can be a bit crude. There’s a weird cultural identity where most of the women never reveal much skin other than parts of their arms, and men rarely show even the slightest affection to them in public, suggesting a very sexually conservative society, but then you go see a movie and at the slightest showing of skin or sexual innuendo, the entire crowd starts whooping and hollering. There are really beautiful temples all over the country, all very colorful and ornate, and I recommend going to as many as you can. Almost everyone speaks some English. I met someone who told me there are well over one hundred different languages in India, not including rural dialects. It’s a great place, as long as you take it calmly and know that things are going to be quite different and many things that people do are going to seem wholly ridiculous. By the time we left the country, Nate and I had a very simple mantra for it: “Nothing makes sense in India.” It seemed like every time we thought we had any aspect of the country, the transportation system, the people, or the money figured out, we soon found out we were totally wrong. It’s the cheapest country I went to by far, nearly half the daily cost as any other country in SE Asia, but also the hottest and surely the most paradoxical.

You’ll love it.

-B.

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