I started our trip writing on the way to the airport about how I was feeling about our upcoming travels, so it seems fitting to spend the journey home capturing some of my impressions of the country we’ve just spent the last 17 days in. This will (hopefully) be one of a number of blog posts which will go into much more detail about what we did, along with tips for first time travellers to India.
We went to India for a wedding, and this was without a doubt the highlight of our trip. Indian weddings are on a whole different scale to the UK (during COVID they were restricted to 200 guests – we were allowed eight in attendance at our marriage!) and it was really wonderful to be part of some of the rituals and our friend’s marriage. When we arrived in India, some of the other guests we knew were coming to the end of their travels rather than starting them like us, and I couldn’t understand how they’d claimed to have had a really good time but were also desperate to get home. Now I do.
I have never before been on holiday and wished I was back at home. I’ve also never got to the end of a holiday and been excited about returning home. Usually I want to extend my stay longer, or am already planning my next trip, but not this time. Despite what this might sound like, I’ve had a good time. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the things I’ve done and I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to do them. But I’m also really looking forward to my own home and a couple of weeks without too much planned.
India is a lot
This is a phrase we both uttered numerous times in the time that we were away – “it’s a lot”. It’s quite difficult to describe what is meant by this. Most people said India can be overwhelming, and we were expecting this but found it easier in our first few days than we thought we might, but there’s something about the place that is just a bit too intense at times. It’s always on the move (if you stand still for longer than 20 seconds you will be approached by someone) and I found myself craving peace and quiet. I only ever use a hotel room for sleeping usually, but we found we needed to punctuate our days with a break back in our room for an hour or so just to decompress. The best way I can describe it is like taking a big breath each time you leave your sanctuary, and not releasing it till you return without realising that that’s what you’re doing. We travelled in a different way to usual, but needed to because India is a lot.
Indian roads are unlike anywhere else
Again, I’d read that it was best to get a driver rather than to drive, and that Indian roads can be quite chaotic, but I wasn’t quite prepared for just how chaotic. There’s a continual noise of horns beeping, because the only rule everyone seems to follow is that you honk your horn to let other people know you are there. So that means it’s used when you’re overtaking, merging, changing lane, going the wrong way up a road or to tell someone to get out of the way (and probably a number of other things too). There will be three lanes on a road, but somehow there are five or six lanes of traffic moving down that road. It’s not unusual to go the wrong way down a road or round a roundabout if it’ll get you to your destination quicker. And it’s particularly concerning when a substantial number of cars don’t have working seatbelts.
As a pedestrian, trying to cross one of these roads looks impossible. You either need to find another group and cross together as part of a larger group, or you basically just need to walk and hope for the best. Whilst traffic won’t stop for you, miraculously it won’t hit you – just keep walking forwards. We cheated a couple of times by making use of the metro system in Delhi as an underground tunnel to get from one side to another.
Indian toilets aren’t that bad
One of the things I was most worried about was the toilets. I think I’d heard too many horror stories. Obviously it depends on where you are, but everywhere we stayed had a western style toilet. In fact there was only one time I had to use a squat toilet, and it had soap by the basin which is more than I can say for a lot of public toilets in the UK. We did try to largely avoid public toilets and made use of amenities in hotels and restaurants or at different sites, but overall they were fine. It is worth carrying some toilet roll around with you though. Every toilet will have a way for you to clean yourself, but not necessarily to dry off!
It’s true everything is spicy, but it’s manageable
As someone who has always struggled with spicy food, I was worried about what we were going to eat. We packed a lot of cereal bars to take with us just in case I was really stuck anywhere. I had tried to build up my spice tolerance gradually before I left which I think helped, and most places are happy to tell you what is less spicy. I tried to go for the less spicy options each time, but generally would compare an Indian mild to a UK medium. We also found that the couple of times we had something other than curry to eat, it would still have a heat you weren’t expecting from a Margherita pizza or a lasagne.
You’ll become obsessed with your bowel movements
Again, largely due to the horror stories you hear, every traveller finds themselves on high alert for Delhi belly. We’ve probably had more conversations about poo in the last two weeks than in the whole time we’ve been together. It was also a common topic of conversation whilst with our friends at the beginning of the trip. Everyone wanted to know who had been ill, how bad, what was normal / not. We were really careful about what we ate and drank but found it really useful to have some immodium with us – a must pack item!
The pollution and litter are terrible
We’d heard that the pollution in Delhi was bad, but it’s nothing until you experience it yourself. It’s the only place I’ve ever blown my nose and found that it’s come out black. I also got a cough a bit like a smokers cough. It might be coincidence, but it largely cleared up once we headed out to more rural Ranthambore, which makes me think it was brought on by the pollution. I’ve also never been anywhere with so much litter. It was actually really sad as there were beautiful places that were spoiled by the huge amount of litter around. It also made me feel guilty – as we were only drinking bottled water we got through a huge number of plastic bottles in the time we were away so could only be contributing to the problem.
Everyone is very keen to help and get to know you
Indian people are very hospitable. We experienced this at our friend’s wedding, through the welcome and guidance we got from his family and friends. We experienced this at our hotels and from the guides we used at different attractions. But you’ll also experience this on the street which then becomes more difficult to discern if someone is genuinely trying to help you, or if there’s something more sinister going on. Auto rickshaw drivers will be really keen to tell you the places you should be visiting – helpful, but also infuriating when you have to tell them for the sixth time that no you just want to go to the place you told them originally. You’ll also find everyone has lots of questions – where you’re from, where you’re going, how old you are, what you do for work, why you’re here. I’ve never had so many random conversations with strangers.
You could become an unexpected celebrity
One thing neither of us was prepared for were the number of photos that people would want with us, presumably because we looked different. Initially this was confusing – the first people who asked we took a photo for them instead of standing in the picture with them. Then it became funny – it felt a little bit like being a celebrity for a moment. But it soon became quite annoying, and we learned that if you said yes to one person or group then you were expected to for everyone. However if you said no, people wouldn’t press the matter and would leave you alone albeit seeming disappointed. We were also very popular at the Holi celebration we attended, presumably for the same reasons. I don’t know how many people’s Instagram story I’ve appeared in over the course of the trip!
There are peaceful places to be found
Despite everything I’ve said, there are places of peace to be found and I’d really recommend seeking them out. In Delhi we loved the Lodi Gardens, and even though they are a popular spot it was a lovely space to spend the afternoon and escape from the incessant traffic and the people who were keen to sell us things all the time. I was also really pleased that we’d opted to spend a couple of nights in Ranthambore National Park as we were much closer to nature and we did notice the silence at night compared to the big cities.
India is a huge and very varied country and whilst we travelled between a few different places whilst we were away, we’ve only really started to scratch the surface of the country. It’s been fascinating to see a different culture, different way of life, and learn more about religions and history that we barely scratch the surface of in the UK (despite our interconnected past). Would I go back? Ask me in a few years. I’m not in a rush to return, but if I did return I know where I would aim to visit. I also think it’s a country that is changing fast and so will look very different in ten, twenty or thirty years time.
Have you been to India? How did you find it?