This is going to come off as a #humblebrag, but I consider myself relatively well-traveled and capable of integrating comfortably in most countries. (I was able to live on my own for more than half a year in Vietnam after all!) So when I recently had the opportunity to travel to India to celebrate a wedding, I thought it would be a fairly straightforward trip and I planned it much like any other. Unfortunately, I was woefully unprepared for the roughness ahead… Here I’ll attempt to set the right expectations for others heading into this beautiful yet extremely challenging country.
Caveats: my experiences are only reflecting a two-week period in November 2019 across Delhi, Hyderabad, and Goa; staying in budget accommodations and sticking to mostly local eateries. I hear Punjab may be very different, but I haven’t been there.
Foodborne illness is inevitable
I thought I knew how to prevent food poisoning from my time in Vietnam. The keys I learned were to:
- Always ensure vegetables are boiled before eating
- Never drink anything with ice
Unfortunately the sanitation in India appears to be so poor that further precautions are required:
- Only drink bottled water
- Also only use bottled water when brushing your teeth
Even though I stuck to these best practices, I still managed to get sick – twice! Food preparation, even with the most upscale restaurants or caterers, simply cannot be trusted. I would have assumed major fast food chains like McDonalds would be a safer bet, but I know of at least one person getting sick from a drink there as well…
Bottom line: you will experience diarrhea, almost guaranteed. Bring sufficient medicine from your local doctor or travel clinic – fortunately azithromycin is super effective!
Side note: this isn’t something that only affects tourists – it’s clearly a problem locals also experience often based on my many trips to public restrooms… #DelhiBelly
Air quality will be disastrous
If you think the air quality in China is bad, you haven’t seen the numbers for India. The worst days in Beijing are essentially the average for Delhi. Even more outrageous is that the weather service often calls it “fog” and shifts their danger rating scale to make these levels look less severe for the public.
The result is that the general population is quite complacent about the pollution and you rarely see people with face masks on – despite the clear and present danger! If you try braving the streets without a mask, you’ll likely experience nausea, difficulty breathing, and a shocking amount of black soot stuck in your nose at the end of the day.
To be fair, this was during the worst season for Delhi, as explained here:
Transportation will be infuriating
You’ll have many options for getting around, most of them terrible.
- Taxi / ride-share / cars: Because of their limited maneuverability, cars often have issues getting through the narrow, poorly designed streets in most of the cities. You’ll probably wait more than a half hour for a car to come to you, and then the actual ride will take twice as long as originally estimated due to the incessant traffic. (Plus Uber is terrible for other reasons, so just… don’t.)
- Rickshaw / bike / motorbike: While more nimble than cars and cheaper to boot, these expose you to the toxic air as mentioned above. Fun for the first 10 minutes, then nauseating.
- Metro: Actually not too bad! Trains come frequently and the carriages are relatively clean, since most of the metros are quite new. The challenge is in getting a ticket or card in the first place, which will involve jostling for the attention of a cashier that doesn’t care to help you.
- Regional rail: Imagine you took the rail system of the United States and didn’t do any maintenance work for 30 years – that’s what it’s like to ride the inter-city rail lines. Definitely do not try the overnight trains.
Peddlers will be unrelenting
One of the most irritating aspects of India as a tourist has to be the non-stop parade of people trying to take advantage of you. From the minute you step outside of the airport, to every interaction with hotel staff, to the vultures swarming every single tourist attraction – the myriad of ways you can be coerced to part ways with your money surprised even me. Some of the more memorable ones:
- Being physically shoved and turned around from the direction I was walking in, away from my hotel
- Someone offering to be a tour guide at a monument “for free”, then getting extremely upset when we declined
- Our driver getting upset upon noticing I had purchased a souvenir at a place not recommended by him, and insisting he drive us to another shop that he likely had a commission at
- Getting help to take photos in front of the Taj Mahal only to be “charged” 100 rupees afterwards
To be fair, such people exist in every country that has tourists, but I have never encountered this level of aggression and borderline violence before.
The extremely pushy culture seems to extend to everyday interactions as well – illustrated by crowds of people jostling to be served at ticket counters or even an instance where someone came up behind us and cancelled our transaction at a ticket machine to start his own.
Mismanagement and inefficiency
One of the more frustrating aspects of India I didn’t expect had to do with how institutions were run. Time and time again, I witnessed insane levels of excess bureaucracy, inefficiency, or just plain old corruption.
Buying time: Imagine it taking almost two hours to buy train tickets in an office as a foreigner. Despite almost no one else being present, the staff requires you to take a ticket (like at the DMV) and fill out a multi-page form declaring your intent to purchase a ticket. Then one staff member uses your form to do a query on availability for you, subsequently sending you to another staff member to actually do the purchase of the ticket using a text-only terminal from the 1970s.
Getting the runaround: Imagine the only entrance gate to a tourist attraction is literally a 10 minute walk from the only ticket counter, so you have to walk back-and-forth 20 minutes before you’re ready to enter.
Left stranded: When I tried checking into my hotel on the first night in Hyderabad, I was told it didn’t have the legal right to house foreigners and that I’d have to find other accommodation – leaving me to wander in the slums at 1am in the morning! Turns out this is actually a common occurrence with Oyo-branded hotels as covered in this exposé.
There were plenty of other occurrences that left me wondering how a relatively wealthy and populous country could operate like this. From the two hour disruption of air traffic just for a holiday to the unbelievable injustice faced by victims of rape – my takeaway is that it’s just difficult to live in India.
The bright side
I know this all sounds very disappointing and may discourage you from visiting India, but I do want to note that there were plenty of highlights during my time there. There was plenty of beauty in the country, culture, history, and people that made the trip overall worthwhile – and if you are willing to spend more to stay in the wealthier areas, you may be able to avoid the worst of it.
Hopefully this has helped you become better prepared for India. And if you’re going for a wedding, I would recommend sticking with your party for the most comfortable experience. 🙂