I had once heard that if you travel through India, you can travel anywhere. When we planned a five week itinerary through India, we did not exactly know what we were getting ourselves into. During my research I read about people traveling through India for one month, three months, even six months at a time. Surely our family of four could handle just a mere five weeks in India?!!
We wanted to see the Taj Mahal, ride a camel, eat lots of Indian food, and learn about and soak up the culture of this amazing country. At the start of our five weeks we were clean, fresh, and relatively naïve. By the time our five weeks was over, all four of us were much different people. Visiting India was a life changing experience. Here is what we learned about India, and ourselves.
“Surviving India”…Our Experience
India is Difficult
Prior to traveling to India, when we told fellow travelers that we were spending five weeks in India, many of them asked us why we were staying for so long. They warned us to be careful of the water, be careful of the food, be careful of the roads…what were we really getting ourselves into?
As we peered across the border from Bhutan into India, from calm, quiet Bhutan into loud, chaotic India, we instantly realized what people were talking about. India can be beautiful and frustrating at the same time.
We were always very careful about what we drank, avoiding tap water like it was poison, which meant no ice and only bottled water to brush our teeth. After hearing peoples’ horror stories with getting sick from the food we were also extremely careful with what we ate. Fortunately, we never really had a problem. “Delhi Belly” struck occasionally but was more of an annoyance than a major problem.
In India, we were constantly haggling, trying to avoid scams (not always so successfully), trying not to get run over when crossing the road, all why trying to enjoy the sights. Being in India is total sensory overload, with strange smells, strange sights, constant noise, and very flavorful food. India is overwhelming. We never totally adjusted to the constant chaos, we just learned to go with the flow.
India is Filled with Amazing Sites
This we already knew, which was why we planned on spending five weeks here. The list of amazing sites to visit in India are endless…Old Delhi, the holy city of Varanasi, Mumbai, the pink city of Jaipur, the blue city of Jodhpur, the Rajasthan deserts, the temples of Khajuraho, and, of course, the Taj Mahal. The four of us hopped from city to city, taking in new sites, trying new foods, meeting new people. Our family made incredible memories while in India, memories that we will be talking about for the rest of our lives. The Taj Mahal was our favorite, but Varanasi was a close second, just for its cultural and religious significance to India.
Inside Ranakpur Temple
The People are very friendly
In our experience, the people of India are some of the friendliest in the world. People would smile and say hello to us as we would pass on the street. If we looked lost someone would point us in the right direction. And everyone loved to see Tyler and Kara.
With our fair skin and blond hair (all but one of us), we definitely did not blend in here. In fact, we were exotic creatures, always stared at, always being photographed. This is probably the closest we will ever get to knowing what life is like for celebrities. The constant attention gets old fast, and towards the end of five weeks in India we tried to avoid this attention as much as possible.
The People Can Also be Very Frustrating
Touts, rickshaw drivers, and “guides” are always in your face. It was impossible to visit a site, like the Taj Mahal or the Red Fort, without first shooing away ten guides. Also, Indians are very bad at waiting in line and have no qualms about pushing their way in front of you while waiting in line. This happened quite frequently and was one of the things that really got on our nerves here.
Now I know what “clean for India” means
When booking hotels and reading literally hundreds of hotel reviews, many people would write that “it’s clean for India.” I never really understood what that meant until we stayed in our first few hotels.
India’s standards of cleanliness are much different than what we are accustomed to. “Clean” in India means “not very dirty.” White sheets and towels are more of a dingy gray with stains and it isn’t unusual for bathrooms to be mildewed and cruddy. Even though we were on a budget we still stayed in relatively decent hotels, which for us were 3 star hotels and homestays. It wasn’t until we couldn’t take it anymore and spent one night in a 5 star hotel that we finally had white towels again. Apparently, white towels and sheets in India are a luxury.
Bargaining is a Way of Life in India
We bargained for everything here…rickshaws, food, hotel rooms, souvenirs, our camel safari, everything! In India, things can be bargained down to 25% of the first asking price. At first, we felt almost kind of bad, bargaining prices down so much, especially in a country where some people have so little. But bargaining is expected, and by accepting too high of a price you actually look like a fool to the people here. Now, bargaining is like second nature to us.
India is so much dirtier than we were expecting
Yes, we were expecting India to be hot, crowded, and dirty, with cows in the street and people everywhere. We were ready for the slums and poverty, and to some degree, we were ready for the bargaining and scams. What we weren’t prepared for was how filthy India really is.
Watching children playing in a piles of trash because there was no where else to go, watching cows choke down trash because there was no green grass for them in the cities, stepping over piles of cow dung as we walked through the streets, watching as people bathed and did their laundry in the polluted water of the Ganges River, was all very distressing to us. What made it most distressing is that all of this is the result of the people’s behavior here. People would blatantly throw trash on the ground like it was the most natural thing in the world. The longer we stayed in India the more frustrating this was for us. We could not imagine how people could live in these conditions day after day.
Transportation is Cheap and Easy
In India, we got around by car, train, airplane, rickshaw, bus, and even camels and elephants. It was incredibly easy to find rickshaws and taxis in cities, and many times we could get the rickshaw drivers to try to outbid one another. The tuk-tuk was our primary mode of transportation in the cities, which Tyler and Kara really enjoyed.
For a white-knuckle experience, travel by car or bus
I swear the taxi and bus drivers in India have a death wish, not to mention a hearing problem. Our first taxi ride, from the border of Bhutan to Siliguri, our taxi driver drove straight down the center of the road, played chicken with oncoming drivers, never releasing the horn.
Taxi drivers almost completely disregard streetlights, and on more than one occasion our drivers came very close to taking out pedestrians. Buses are not any safer. Bus drivers also like to play chicken with oncoming traffic, swerving back into their lane at the very last possible second. I would try to ignore what was going on and just hope for the best.
Traveling on the roads in India is extremely dangerous with numerous reports of fatal car and bus accidents. To get between cities, we usually traveled by train or airplane.
We loved traveling by overnight train
This came as a complete surprise to me, but the one time we traveled by overnight train from Jaisalmer to Jaipur was one of the coolest things we did in India. We stayed in a first class car and the four of us shared one berth. The cots were relatively clean and comfortable (for India!), and sleeping while being rocked back and forth by the train was awesome.
India is #1 when it comes to scams
After a few weeks in India, we got to the point where we felt we could not trust anyone anymore. If someone comes up to you, wanting to practice their English, it is a scam. Taxi drivers will tell you that your hotel is closed, trying to take you to a different hotel where they will score a commission. People would walk with us down the road, strike up a conversation with us, acting like they’re our best friends, and then try to get us to visit their uncle’s rug shop.
The scams are endless and some people are very, very good here. We fell for a few of them and as a result have learned to always be on our guard. We are now so jaded that as soon as anyone approaches us, we automatically assume that they have something up their sleeve. It’s a shame because now we trust no one, and there are some truly friendly people that we turn away from because we don’t know whom to trust anymore.
How Did India Change us?
We now see India and the world differently now. Even though it wasn’t entirely pleasant, spending five weeks in India was a very eye opening experience for our family.
The main thing our family learned is how fortunate we are to have the things we do. From India, the United States looks extremely rich, peaceful, and almost sterile. We now have a much greater appreciation for the things we took for granted while living in the US…clean sheets, clean water, fresh food, and peace and quiet.
We have changed in smaller ways, as well. Bargaining has become natural for us, and even Tyler and Kara bargain for the things they want to buy (and they’re really good at it!). No longer does the dreaded squat potty look so intimidating. I now know what most things are on an Indian menu. We all know a lot more about Hinduism, and I now carry around Ganesh in my camera bag.
I would be lying if I said that we all really enjoyed our five weeks in India. Five weeks was a long time for us, probably too long. The longer we were here, the more annoying the trash, dirt, and constant noise became.
India had the biggest effect on Kara. She had a hard time here and she actually counted down the days until we exited India. On November 28, all four of us were honestly very excited to be leaving India.
I did not intend this post to be a complaining session about India. Travel can be very personal and affect people in different ways. Our experience in India was not always positive. By writing this post, I am not trying to steer people away from visiting India. What I am trying to do is to give an honest account of our time in this crazy, beautiful, eye-opening, amazing country. There were things we did in India that we all really enjoyed, like the camel safari and seeing the Taj Mahal. But I can tell you that we will not be rushing back to India anytime soon.
Even though I am glad that it is over, I am also glad that we visited India. India is now a part of us and our five weeks here has probably changed us more than any other country we will visit this year.
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