India varies greatly between its 29 states. Yet there are some things you’ll discover no matter where you are or how long you stay in the vast Subcontinent. If you’ve been to India at least once, you’ll relate to a few of these lessons we’ve learned over the years...
For 50 cents you can fill up on any number of delectable dishes, from masala dosa (rice pancake with chutney and daal) to pav bhaji (veg curry in a soft bread roll), to simple snacks like samosas and chana chaat (spicy chickpeas). You’ll never tire of what’s on offer. If you miss out on street food, you’re missing half the fun of coming here.
This is true anywhere in the world, but is especially evident in India. Sure, some of the people you meet will be trying to pull a fast one, but others will go unexpectedly far out of their way to help you. Total strangers will share their meals with you on a train, give you their seat and make sure you get off at the right stop, or show you all the way to the front door of your tucked-away guest house. Go with your gut, and be prepared to get it wrong – everyone does at some point.
Thick, milky, spicy and sweet, the ubiquitous chai (Indian tea) is usually served in a small cup for about 10 cents. It’s reviving, comforting and delicious. You’ll find it on trains, in bus stations and on street corners – they don’t make it this good anywhere else on Earth.
Religion permeates the very core of Indian life, and as such the country is home to some of the world’s most spectacular and awe-inspiring temples.Whether Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, Christian or Jain, places of worship are a great place to cool off and gain some tranquillity. Often placed at the top of hills with magnificent views, the buildings range from humble shrines to palatial marble structures with glittering spires and swirling fairy-tale-like towers.
…but don't quibble over 10 rupees. Whether it’s for a room, a trek, a rickshaw ride or yet another pair of Ali Baba pants, keep it jovial. Walking away usually brings the price down, and it’s a good idea to know what you’re willing to pay for something before you start haggling.
The Hindu calendar is jam-packed with festivals. Getting involved in the major ones such as the colourful paint-throwing revelries of Holi is a great way to immerse yourself in Indian culture. However, there’s no need to fret if you miss the big hitters, as smaller local festivals take place all the time in communities throughout the country. When you hear loud drumming, be sure to follow that sound – you’ll likely discover a parade of fantastically decorated elephants and people dressed up as mythical creatures and deities.
Seeing cows merrily wandering anywhere they please can take some getting used to. Stopping traffic in the street, lying casually on the beach, nosing their way into people’s front doors… they are all over the place. Fortunately, Indian cows aren’t fussy eaters – most of the time they’re munching on anything they can find, from food waste to paper bags.
What is your salary? How many girl/boyfriends have you had? Are you married? Why don’t you have any children? What is your father’s salary? What is your religion? Such questions are perfectly normal in polite conversation among strangers in India, and asking them does not appear negatively intrusive, as it would at home. It’s not worth getting offended – you’ll soon tire yourself out with the effort. All the same, you may want to invent a few white lies to make life easier.
Joining another long queue? Prepare to be continually pushed from all angles and uncomfortably squashed between the people behind and in front of you. Standing on a train? Don’t even think about being able to move your limbs or work out an exit route. You’re going to know what your neighbours ate for breakfast, and nobody is going to give two hoots that everyone’s all up in your grill. Personal space is a luxury most Indians can’t afford.
Walking around in anonymity and gaining a fly-on-the-wall experience in India is simple never going to happen. Everywhere you go people greet you, stare intently at you, chat to you and even take photos of and with you. Travellers are intriguing and endlessly entertaining to many of the local people. You may as well enjoy the attention while it lasts.
You will probably scorn it at first, thinking Western toilet habits superior. But you’ll come around soon enough. Using a jet of water that shoots out of a hose means you don’t have to worry if you forgot to bring toilet paper, you don’t have to go anywhere near the disgusting overflowing waste bin, you’re saving the trees and you come away feeling much cleaner… if a little damp. Bum hoses win, hands down.
Even those who only eat in the classiest restaurants and don’t let a drop of tap water ever come near their toothbrush still often get sick. Taking probiotics can help strengthen your weak foreign stomach, but you should still always be prepared for the worst, and check in to somewhere decent when it happens.
Somewhere between a nod and a shake of the head lies the Indian head wobble, a side-to-side tilting that means “yes”, “I get it”, or acts as a sign of acknowledgement and encouragement. You’ll definitely look silly trying it, but you’ll always get a positive response.
Want to post a parcel but didn’t bring two passport photos, three copies of your passport, seventeen copies of your visa and numerous identical forms filled out with a heinous amount of unnecessary information? And you didn’t leave three hours to spare? The British brought some good things to India; bureaucracy was not one of them.
India is one of the most bizarre, crazy, hectic, magical and sensational places on earth. You literally never know what’s going to happen next, but it’s one of the most exciting places to travel. Find out where you should start your adventure in India.
Explore India with the Rough Guide to India. Compare flights, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.