A few things you should know about India
Before I visited India myself, I hadn’t really talked to anyone personally about their experience. Sure, I had friends of friends that had been, but that’s about it. I’m thankful that we used a travel company that specializes in India, and I know their service made the trip phenomenal. But after spending 10 days in India, there were things I’d wish I’d known about India and visiting there before I left.
1) Spicy in India is a whole other thing. When a waitress asks you if you like it spicy, say no. It’s still gonna have kick to it. Our trusty guide Vikram was laughing during our lunch when I said medium spicy food and I had steam coming out of my ears while my nose and eyes were watering. But don’t worry, lots of continental food is available. When I got tired of sauces and Indian spices, most menus had other options. After decades of British rule, it’s easy to find fish and chips too.
2)There are palaces and forts EVERYWHERE! I had no idea that when the British left India in 1947 there were over 500 different “states” each with their own royal family. They consolidated and whittled it down to a more manageable number, around 36. But that means that you can’t go very far in India without seeing another city palace or fort. We saw the city palace in both Jaipur and Udaipur as well as forts in New Delhi and Jaipur. By the time our trip ended, I did not want to visit another city palace or fort. So, I’d do some research, and pick one or two that you want to see, and skip the rest. Hopefully, you’ll leave remembering the ones you saw with fondness instead of them all blending together.
3) Prepare for the hawkers. I have no problem saying no and turning a blind eye to hawkers. I’m not big on shopping anyway, so turning a blind eye to any offerings is not hard for me. Not so, with my friend Gabi. She would look at anything anyone put in front of her just out of curiosity, not because she was thinking about buying anything. The hawkers took that as an opportunity and it was hard to get them to back away after that. Thank goodness our guides would step in with a few quick words in Hindi and they would finally trail away. No one told us how crazy that could be, and I think it’s better to be prepared and have a game plan, or at least know what’s coming.
4) Respect the culture. There were many little things about the Indian culture that surprised me. At the first shop that offered us Chai Tea while we were shopping, I immediately said no. I felt like it was a ploy to get me to spend money and not leave. In America, that might be true, but in India it was almost insulting if we didn’t partake. We enjoyed tea several places that we did not purchase anything. Another example was that Gabi had to learn a few lessons about personal space. She leaned in close to our guides several times in order to hear them in a crowded space, and each time, they stepped back. It was funny to watch. She’s also a hugger by nature, but quickly learned our guides and drivers appreciated a “thank you” or “namaste” and a polite bow as a greeting.
5) The role of women in India seems to be evolving. The strict traditional values that women belong in the home are alive and well in India. Asking our male guides or shopkeepers, they would estimate that 95% of Indian women work IN the home. But when enjoying our cooking class, our female instructor would put that number at about 50%. I don’t know who’s right, but it was interesting to ask people about it. Our cooking instructor, also mentioned she noticed another trend for Indian women. Smaller families. She was one of 7 children, while she only had one grown child, by choice. She also mentioned that her daughter and friends didn’t enjoy traditional Indian cooking, so she saw those traditions changing the home and women’s roles in the home too. It kind of makes me think of American housewives of the 1950’s that began to relish in convenience foods. Hmmmm.
6) India has a growing Muslim population and much of their history is steeped in Islam. I foolishly thought that India’s history was all Hindu. How wrong I was! The Mughal Empire began around 1556 and remained until 1857 when the British began ruling India. These Mughal emperors married both Islamic and Hindus to continue their royal lineage over the years. Many of the oldest tombs (i.e. Taj Mahal), forts and mosques were originally built by these Islamic Mughal emperors. It is fascinating how the Hindu and Islamic religions have co-existed in India for thousands of years.
7) The people are so sincere and genuine. There are places I’ve visited that tourism is such an industry that nothing feels special anymore. In India, I truly felt like the people were excited that you were visiting their country. They’d answer any question and go out of their way to make your experience wonderful. It was the one country that I truly wished I had brought some little gifts from the US to give away to some of the people. It reminds me of Ticos in Costa Rica. It’s kind of an intangible thing, but something I definitely noticed.
8) Constantly blowing car horns is normal. This phenomenon drives some people crazy. I got used to the horn blowing pretty quickly because it’s like another language. The car horns are a small cute noise to begin with. One or two quick beeps, just means, “Hi, I’m next to you, how ya doing?” It’s answered back in the same manner. Any short with long beep on a car horn is a warning, like “You’re veering in my lane, or let me in next.” A whole lot of long car horns means that someone is really mad. I started to tune out the short beeps all together. Drivers know that Americans are bothered by this custom and try to cut down on the car horn a little, but I think it’s part of the experience, so just roll with it.
9) Ethical treatment of animals is still a new concept in India. Before you book any animal experience in India, make sure you do your research. I was surprised that our tour company offered for us to ride an elephant up to the Amber Fort in Jaipur. The elephants are mistreated (as discovered by an Indian government study) and any bench seat on an elephant will cause damage to their skin. I talked a little more about this controversy here. We also saw monkeys on leashes being used for photos to earn tips for their “owners”. And that was at a toll booth stop on the highway. Ugh. In contrast, there are street cows everywhere that are considered sacred. They are fed by family homes and shopkeepers alike. While I knew about the elephants before our trip, some of the other things took me by surprise. If you are a vegan animal lover, you should prepare yourself.
These are just a few of the things I wish someone had told me about traveling in India before I left the United States. My itinerary might have been a little different, but for the most part, the Indian people helped us get through any of the rough spots. Well done.