I’d dreamed of going to India all my life.
I’d always wake up from fitful sleep on flights to Asia whilst flying over the subcontinent. Not once, or twice—but every single time.
When I took time off work to travel last year, the only country I knew I absolutely had to go to was India. Yet seven months after going there, I still haven’t really written about the experience. I’m not really sure why, other than that perhaps something that I hold to be so dear to me has seemed daunting—or even impossible—to put into words.
The sub-continent to me stood for a land of energy, mystery, spirituality, colour and love. I fantasised about riding around on trains and smelling the heat and energy of the place. Of seeing elephants and tigers, colourful saris, prayer ceremonies on the banks of the ganges, chaotic streets blocked by slow moving cows and so much more.
Above: Visitors at Agra fort.
But beyond that, India has just always held an inexplicable draw for me. It has tugged at my heart strings.
It’s the part of my trip from last year that people ask most about and I tell most about. It seems for so many of us travellers that India is the ultimate land of curiosity.
So, seven months on, it’s time to share some of my experiences and learnings from my first time in India, in the hope that they will be of benefit to those out there who share the longing to make their first foray into Incredible India.
Boarding the flight from Delhi to Bangkok, I posted on my Facebook page “Ready for India… I think” one of my friends wrote back “You are never ready for India. But the good thing is, India is always ready for you!”. I can’t think of anything more true. Nothing prepares you for the reality of India. It really is like no other place on earth.
Leave your expectations on the plane. Expect the unexpected. Etc. It’s one thing to read about India in books and see pictures. It’s another to be there. Prime example: the Taj Mahal (a must for any visitor to the mother land). No matter how many pictures of the Taj Mahal we’ve all seen, there is nothing that prepares you for the actual beauty of this place. Glistening white in the morning sunshine, rising from the misty river banks behind. Just like the Taj, first time India is an experience best enjoyed without expectations and pre-judgements. If you were to arrive preparing to be scammed out of everything you have, you might just meet some of the kindest people ever instead.
Above: Jama Masjid, Old Delhi.
India will teach you patience. This is one of the few things you can be a hundred percent certain of. Getting frustrated when things don’t go to plan or you discovered you’ve been ripped off in some transaction will not serve you. Understanding up front that ‘staring’ is not considered rude locally, and as such you will be stared at throughout most of your trip will help keep your patience in tact too. In short—in a country where the lateness of trains is measured not by hours late but by quarter, half or full day late—adapting an open, go with the flow attitude will make your time there a lot more enjoyable. Which brings me to my next point…
You have not experienced India until you’ve taken a train. Despite the recent growth in domestic airlines in India, 90% of India’s population travel from place to place by train. Passenger trains extend for up to half a kilometre long, run distances such as Mumbai to Kolkata (2,000 Kilometres, taking 1.5 days) and Indian Railways is the largest employers in the world. With such long travelling (and sometimes waiting) times all of Indian life unfolds at train stations and on trains. I will never forget arriving in Allahabad at midnight after waiting six hours for our delayed train. The station was overflowing with people sitting and sleeping on station platforms so that picking our way off the train and along the platforms was a challenge, combined with the stench of the heat, humidity, mass of bodies, and human waste from the train tracks.
The rosier side of train travel is the relative comfort of the sleeper carriages (for less ‘hassle’ go for 3 tier AC as opposed to the non AC option) and above all the opportunity to meet and talk to people—you’ll find that many Indians are happy to have an opportunity to practise their English and are curious to know more about you and chat. Trains can fill up quickly so advance booking is recommended and booking can be a challenge—if you’re tight on time and need to get to specific places on a schedule it is well worth looking into using a travel agent to book trains for you since online booking is not possible. The ever helpful man in seat 61 has tips on this.
Above: Bandhavgarh National Park (where we were lucky enough to see a tiger)
Not everyone gets sick in India. For first time India, I’d just assumed I would get an upset stomach in India, and so was amazed that I managed a month there without incident. As did many of the other travellers I was with. My best tip—go vegetarian. India has such amazing food and a rich variety of dishes and menus catering to vegetarians that going veggie is a breeze. Filtered water is plentiful, fine to drink and usually available free of charge (take your re-usable water bottle with you to reduce plastic waste). That said, swim in the Ganges at your peril…
You don’t have to go it alone. India is not always the easiest place for solo female travellers, but there are plenty of alternatives – from meeting up with other travellers in major tourist hubs in India, to joining an organised tour. I used Intrepid for my trip and had an amazing experience—our trains were pre-booked, cutting hassle, we benefited from having a great local guide, and got to see places that were off the beaten path. As a female traveller, covering up makes a huge difference to how you may be approached: always cover shoulders and knees, and investing in Indian dress (not a saree, which is not usually appropriate for non-Indian women to wear, but a tunic or salwar kameez is) can help you to blend in a little more.
Above: Me at the beautiful Taj Mahal.
“The Indians are the Italians of Asia. It can be said, certainly, with equal justice, that the Italians are the Indians of Europe, but you do understand me, I think. There is so much Italian in the Indians, and so much Indians in the Italians. They are both people of the Madonna – they demand a goddess, even if the religion does not provide one. Every man in both countries is a singer when he is happy, and every woman is a dancer when she walks to the shop at the corner. For them, food is music inside the body, and music is food inside the heart. The Language of India and the language of Italy, they make every man a poet, and make something beautiful from every banalite. They are nations where love – amore, pyaar – makes a cavalier of a Borsalino on a street corner, and makes a princess of a peasant girl, if only for the second that her eyes meet yours.” ~ Shantaram, Gregory David Roberts.
Have you been to India or are thinking about planning your first trip there? What do you think? Let me know in the comments below!