Kara Rivenbark

Surviving India…What We Really Thought

Julie India 17 Comments

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

Tyler Agra India

India is Difficult

India GatePrior 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.

Kara Rivenbark snake charmer

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.

Photo session

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.

Jaisalmer Street

Now I know what “clean for India” means

Bathroom IndiaWhen 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 Street Food

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.

Pigs eating trash

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.

Tuk tuk

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.

Executive Chair Car

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.

Overnight train India

 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.

Indian sunset

How Did India Change us?

Tyler RivenbarkWe 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.

Kids on a tuk tuk

In Conclusion

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.

Chandni Chowk

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.

Keep Reading:

What India is really like

Comments 17

  1. Great article. I love how you gave a balanced view, spoke about the problems/unpleasant things about India while acknowledging the positive aspects. India is definitely not for everyone, it can be really tough, especially coming from western more developed countries. I experienced many of the same things when I visited a few years back. I can definitely say that in India there is less courtesy among people- such as people blatantly budging you in line etc. Or perhaps I am just a spoiled Canadian lol. I tired not to get annoyed, I told myself its not that people are bad, its just the reality of living in an overpopulated place where you have to struggle/fight to survive. With regards to cleanliness, I found that if you pay abit more and stay in nicer/more reputable accommodations, the rooms etc. are quite clean and decent. But of course, everyone’s experience is different.

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      It has been several years since our visit to India, I find myself looking forward to another visit here. Now, I know what to expect, and I think I will see India with “wiser eyes.” India is an amazing country, and it would have been better if we took it in small doses, at least at first. But now I can’t wait to return again. Thanks for commenting! Cheers, Julie

  2. Julie,

    Although we had somewhat similar experiences, I am actually arranging to move to India. I am an American Hindu, so I went to Kumbha Mela in Ujjain in 2016, which was teeming with tens of millions of people on a given weekend in a small city that normally has 500,000 people living it in. That was an experience I’ll never forget.

    I was at a guru’s Pīṭham for 2 weeks. I was supposed to be there for 6 weeks, but things happened, and I got sick 4 times during those two weeks. I was told that the next time I got sick (runs), I had to be sent home. Something else happened, so I didn’t have to stick around to find out if I was going to get sick again.

    I left there for a hotel and a bus ride the next day to Dillī to stay with my friends for the rest of the time. Anyhow, I cleaned up after 2+ weeks without a bath. Showers at the pīṭham were container trailers with drains running right onto the ground, highly septic because of a partially separated toe nail.

    It was at that time that I realized that I was going around the bend which almost no one from pītham went around, because they either showed up on the first day, and turned right around and flew home, soured on the image of living conditions in India, or they stayed, putting up with the difficult conditions there. I choose to get out while I still had my health and go to Dillī to see some of my friends and recover.

    The very next day, I got on the bus around 3 45 PM with another escapee who was from Australia. We met at the bus stop, and we shared horror stories. We both had sleeper berths, which I will not do again in the future. My berth was so cold that I was freeing to death, while her berth was not very cool, so I traded with her. It was a LONG 17-hour ride from Ujjain to Dillī. I had decided based on my health that this spicy meal was the last one until I arrived at the end of this journey. I brought snacks with me and two bottles of water with hydration powders. I only ate a small handful and drank a small sip of water at a time, only when I absolutely had to, as there was no bathroom on this bus. I had plenty of times when I holding, holding, holdiiiinnnnnggg, and finally they stopped at these nice dhabas to void and eat something, but I wouldn’t eat because, you know… However, there was one time when we stopped at a tax office for the driver to pay his road tax. We had to go out in the field to potty… I fly from now on.

    After I arrived in Dillī, I had to take Kumāryāsava plus two other pills, as I had lost weight and was white as a sheet when I got off the bus. I was really sick by then. My friends made my food no-spicy, and then gradually increased the heat. I didn’t know this until the end of my trip! LOL!

    It is unfortunate that you have this perspective of India in general. You just have to find the areas where people with more money live. There are good areas that are much cleaner and with facilities that you are used to, comparable to Europe.

    Do not let the relative cleanliness, ordered infrastructure, relatively calm traffic, filing of slaves into their cubicles, relatively clean streets, nice neighborhoods, etc. of your country fool you. You may or may not have noticed it in India, but beyond or underneath that teeming energy of busyness, there is an unexplainable feeling that comes from the people. They are alive. They have that access to the energy that is dharma, or right-thinking-right action. It may not be completely there like in thousands of years ago, but you can’t miss it, even if you don’t know what it is you’re sensing in the streets and in people’s homes. THAT is what is missing in countries like America. Here, it is dull, settled, DEAD. Now that many people have achieved some or much of the material goals of their lives, now what? Is that all there is to life? It is dead… Here, life is externally focused, even among Christians, because they don’t know to turn in and learn about the Self that lives in the body. They don’t know what it is or that it’s even there. When you know this, then it comes alive, and you realize that no new car, no new house will make that feeling come alive.

    That is why I’m moving to India.

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      Thank you for sharing this, Stephanie. I understand what you are saying. Now that it has been several years since our visit to India, I can’t wait to visit again. It is a country that I found very difficult but it also changed my perspective of the world like no other. It just took some time and distance for me to realize that. Cheers, Julie

  3. India is best country for long holiday trip. There is a lot of place in India which is worth watching and roaming. For ex. Taj Mahal, Kutub Minaar, Mumbai Get way etc. I read your blog and i get the some valuable information on this blog. Thanks a lot for this beauty Enjoying article with me. I appreciate it very much!

  4. Julie, It saddens that me you had a rough time in India. I would suggest you skip the cities next time and see the more quieter and serene places in India. You could consider visiting, the more relaxed Kerala, Puduchery, Goa, Andaman, Himachal Pradesh and the North East of India. You might still encounter the same problems you faced, however the sights and scenery will outweigh the issues you face.

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      Since coming home, my thoughts on India have changed a lot. I would love to return and dream of visiting the Himachal Pradesh someday. Thanks for the suggestions! Cheers, Julie

  5. Hi Julie,

    I have been following your blog for some travel tips. We just finished our family trip to Norway over the summer. I followed your itinerary and we had an amazing trip. Thank you for all the details.
    I am an Indian living in California. When you travel from US the difference is drastic. I totally agree with your statement about how people throw trash around assuming it is their right to do so.
    Anyways for your next trip please do plan to visit the state of Kerala which is the southern most state in India. I came across few blogs which have good post on this


    1. Post

      Hello Asha. Thank you for the information! Yes, we want to return to India someday. Kerala and Goa are on the list, as is Himachal Pradesh. India was hard for us, but changed our view of the world, in a good way. Thank you for reaching out to us! Cheers, Julie

  6. Ur blog is really good the way u write down ur experience of wat u like in india & wat u dont is really nice. Many lines u wrote are really wrong i felt about india. I too travel all around the world for work related tours. If u say slum & poverty its all around world even in US. Have u seen slum of US (united states) its so large so much dirtiness over there allover & on other hand US is very nice clean & attractive place to visit. Same here in india u had visited few places only and mostly which are still not upgraded like dharavi as its well known biggest slum all knows about it & u come in mumbai & go to dharavi and u say its full of dirt & stinky place and many things. Its slum it will be like this only & i have few pics of US slum its more horrible. Have u visit mumbai marine lines(queen neckales), bandstand, peddar road, kemps corner, walkeshwar & many more. As thousand of americans visits mumbai every years but as u said u stayed at grant road its not suitable for u we mumbaikars will also not choose such cheap hotel its ur budget problm there are 4* 5* to 7* hotels in mumbai. If u want to see more of india ur places u choosed are wrong go visit GOA land of beaches where lacs of american visit india every year if u visit goa on december u will feel ur in out of india boz people from allover world travels there no one will take ur photo boz 70 to 80% travellers are from outside india. I visited udaipur jaipur whole rajathan many times but enjoyed it boz we stayed in best standard hotel all 4* to 5* & the name u said of hotel is so cheap one & u put washroom pics & say this is cleaniess for india. Its totally wrong my dear. Frankly ur way to see india is wrong ur planning was wrong spots choosing was wrong. Visit india’s goa, himachal , jammu kashmir, darjeeling, kerala, ootay and many more list of awsome places we had in india. Dont take me wrong its my country & we are proud of it ( – & + ) both stays together over here & u saw only ( – ) as i saw in ur blog. Explore more with good budget u will know more about india & sorry if hurt u thru my comments. Tc


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      Hello Rakesh,

      Thank you for your comments. Yes, we had a hard time in India. I understand that most other countries in the world have poverty, dirty cities, and unclean bathrooms, the USA included. We just have not seen anything like India, and we have been to a lot of places. This article just discusses our impressions of India after spending five weeks here. I am sorry that some of it seems harsh, I was just trying to give an honest account of our experience here. I appreciate your comments and yes, we would like to see other parts of India such as Himachal Pradesh and Kerala.

      Thank you, Julie

    2. Rakesh, With all due respect I have to disagree with you when you say the United States has slums “worse “than those in India. That is not true, there is nowhere in The US that is that bad, our worst neighborhoods are certainly very rough and dangerous and dirty but not even remotely close to as filthy as what I have seen in India. I love India ,it is an amazing place and I am comfortable with the way it is there personally, it is all part of the experiance, but I do not know what you are talking about when you say the United states has worse slums . I would like to see pictures of this place you speak of, I think you have been misinformed and you have seen pictures of somewhere that is not the US.you guys have miles upon miles of slums, people living in cardoard, open sewers running down the gutters into the rivers and storm drains, garbage everywhere ,sick animals everywhere,it is the most filthy place I have ever been in my life.

  7. I guess more than you, I’m disappointed that you didn’t really enjoy your stay in India. I myself hated my country for all the wrong reasons (can’t avoid the current scenario), until I started travelling. India also has very beautiful beaches and hill stations, completely unexplored and with great cultural values to look up to. The mainstream destinations have been so well promoted that people don’t really get to see how beautiful and clean the rest of India is. You would love to breathe the fresh air in the hills of Himachal Pradesh, Kashmir, Uttarakhand, Kerala and the North-East part of the country. Sounds like an irony but India also has the cleanest village in Asia, (Mawlynnong) which is in the state of Meghalaya. I believe Kara would love to see the other side of India. 🙂

    If anyone is ever planning a trip to India, make sure to collect some information from the local people through travel portals as they might be able to suggest you better. Else, they will show you the places a typical tourist would want to see.
    I totally agree the dirty environment our nation has and is giving a wrong image to it’s visitors but trust me, it’s only one side of India.

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      Thank you, Nalini. I appreciate your suggestions on other places to visit in India and your advice on talking with the local people. We would like to return to India again, and I would love to see Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir. -Julie

  8. Wow, Julie. I really loved reading this post and how honest you were about your visit to India. I can imagine it would be life-changing in so many ways. You are giving your children (and yourselves!) such a gift! I know you said Kara was counting down the days, but I have to say that one of my favorite pictures you posted was of Kara and Tyler waving from the tuk tuk! Their expressions are so sweet.

    Looking forward to reading about Myanmar! Safe travels! 🙂

  9. Julie, my name is Peggy Cronyn, a friend of your Mom. Hi Kathy! As a former Peace Corps Volunteer in India in the late 60’s and return traveller in 2006, your posts about India show the contrasts of that wondrous country. I love India but also found it immensely frustrating as well. Traveling in India is not for the faint of heart — you have made some fantastic family memories and laughs for a lifetime. I look forward to reading about your adventures. Stay healthy!

  10. As a fellow Marylander, I have been following your adventures closely and enjoying your posts. My brother is the deputy director for the State Dept. in Myanmar so please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or concerns. He is a great tour guide having taken me around Africa, Itly and the Galapagos Islands and hopefully Myanmar one of these days!

    Have fun!!!

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