India: Expectations Vs. Reality and a Quick Overview

It’s been just over a month since our India trip came to an end, and since then I’ve had time to sit back and reflect on the two weeks that we spent train hopping, traffic dodging, and discovering our way around the subcontinent. I’ve written about  the cities we visited and shared stories from each, but I thought it would be nice to unwind and reflect on the trip as a whole, and some of the expectations that I went into the trip with and what I discovered.

Prior to even purchasing the tickets to go to India, I had really only known a handful of friends and family that had ever traveled there. My Dad, who went frequently for work and for two-week intervals each time, didn’t have too many positive things to say about his time there. Often times, he would describe only how dirty it was everywhere he went, and how right outside the walls of his lavish hotel were the cardboard homes and run down slums. Most of the time he visited Mysore in the south, but he passed through Delhi and Agra on a couple of his trips. In between all the descriptions of the filth, he always took time to mention that the people there were fantastic, and were the kindness people he’s had the pleasure of encountering on all of his travels, which seemed to be the one positive that was taken out of his many trips there.

Another friend of mine Jason, who has an extensive travel resume and has been all over the world, said India was the dirtiest place he had ever been to, and that he even bought a flight a day earlier than his scheduled flight just so he could get out of there faster. His only piece of advice to me, which he scrawled on the inside cover of the journal I was bringing, was to, “Bring two pairs of diapers, per day…because you’re going to poo yourself.” That’s a direct quote.  I think his descriptions of India are what initially concerned me the most, since he was such an experienced traveler that India must have been an entirely different experience for him to have such a disdain for his time there. Although, he did say it was an adventure, and that it was something I just had to experience it for myself.

Despite the fact that I’ve traveled my fair share around the world and have my fair share of adventures, I’m always plagued by anxiety and sleepless nights prior to any trip. I think it’s a combination of worrying that I haven’t done enough planning, the fear of the unexpected, or the worry that I’ll just eventually find myself in a situation where I literally just have to throw my hands up and say, “I have no idea how to fix this.” Often times, I calm myself down by reminding myself that people have traveled there before with no issues, that there’s no way I won’t be able to figure out a situation and everything will be fine, but there’s still always that creeping thought. Now, in this situation, Mollie and I had literally done the bare minimum of planning. We sat down one evening and mapped out the best route we could take with the time we have, and figured out distances between cities, but that was about it. We had booked our hostel in Delhi in advance, and that was all. So, I was really having anxiety about whether or not we were prepared enough. As the days slowly passed and we got closer and closer to our departure date, the more I began to think about what my Dad and Jason had told me, and once or twice I flirted with the idea of skipping our connector flight in Amsterdam and backpacking around Europe as a reasonable idea.

Of course, all of my previous anxieties quickly dispelled as soon as we arrived in India.

In regards to the filth and uncleanliness that I had heard about, I think that had we just stayed in Delhi for the entire two weeks I would have thought the same as everyone else, but once we escaped the big city for the refuge of smaller cities it became much more bearable. Delhi itself just has so many people, and with such a large population in a still developing modern city it’s no surprise that sanitation and infrastructure is still taking time to catch up. There were cars everywhere in a constant traffic jam, people living all on top of one another, and trash and dirt littering the streets with people constantly moving and shuffling on top of it all. As I said before, if you had dropped me off in Delhi and just told me to figure it out I think I would have just sat down and waited until it was time to fly home. Delhi was very overwhelming, to all of the senses and especially to your comfort level if you’re not accustomed to that many people. The one piece of advice I received from a former colleague before coming to India was to stay in Delhi for two or three days, and then get out of there, and I think that was the most accurate advice I received.  However, Delhi had that type of Indian charm that once you stepped off the metro station in Old Delhi you felt like you were really in India among the smells and sounds and people constantly on the move. I still agree with my colleagues advice, try out Delhi for a couple of days and experience and see what there is to see, but then move on to the smaller, more relaxed cities to unwind.

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Overall, once you left Delhi, it was a lot nicer and more pleasant, and the filth level fell off dramatically once we reached Jodhpur and over to Pushkar. After having lived in Tanzania for 6 months I was already accustomed to third world travel and living, so it really wasn’t too surprising for me to witness people dumping their trash into the gutters, or stray animals eating garbage out of a vacant lot. If anything, Tanzania took the cake when it comes to smells, as people there burn their trash outside and so there is always the constant smell of burning garbage wherever you went. So, India was a lot more calm in that regard. Of course, I did relish the shower after a long day of walking throughout the city, but that was also in part to the heat that was a constant companion throughout our journey.

I’ll keep this part brief, but in regards to Jason’s comments about bring the diapers, it really wasn’t that bad. When traveling abroad to third world countries you need to be as vigilant as possible when it comes to your drinking water and what you eat, so the best practice to avoid an upset stomach is just to pay attention to what you’re consuming. Only drink filtered or bottled water, but also make sure that the bottled water that you’re buying hasn’t been tampered with and the cap glued back on (Yes, the scene from Slum Dog Millionaire is accurate). When it comes to vegetables and fruits, never eat anything that you can’t peel off, as most of the time they are washed in the local sink and the water will contaminate the food. When you drink chai make sure that it’s hot when you drink it and it has been boiled. Of course, there were some upset stomachs and issues, but not to the extremes that I imagined we would be experiencing. Even Mollie, when she had her train ride with Delhi Belly, quickly recovered after a day or two of taking it easy and drinking plenty of water. The issue with traveling with such a small window of time available is that if you do get sick it could end up taking a large portion of your trip away, which is why you need to be even more careful with what you eat and drink along the way. One of the best pieces of advice I heard was that if you are ever unsure about what to eat, trust the street food. Street food is cooked right in front of you, it’s boiled in grease most of the time (I don’t care to know if that was actually grease so keep that yourselves), and you actually see how they prepare it. Nine times out of 10, when someone got sick, it was from eating at a restaurant where you didn’t get to see how the food was prepared. And, always remember, never get ice in your drink. That has been the downfall of many a traveler, and an often overlooked danger.

One of the biggest surprises when we arrived in India was just how easy it was to get around from city to city. I had attempted (and failed) to book train travel before our arrival, and I’ll write a blog post about that later, but once we arrived in India it was surprisingly easy and efficient. The biggest struggle in booking train travel from back home was that you needed a local Indian number to create an account, which I was able to do after a couple of email exchanges with the train company, but the website was still difficult to navigate. So, Mollie and I arrived with no idea how we would be getting from city to city, hence why we didn’t book any hostels in advance. Once we arrived though, we used my favorite resource to use when traveling: Asking the hostel employees for help. I have found in every hostel I’ve stayed in that the employees are the most helpful people when it comes to planning day trips, sites to see, and transportation from city to city. The day before we left each hostel we simply told the front desk worker where it was we were going and they would quickly pull up the website and read us off the departure times and we would tell them which train class we would like. From there, they booked it and we paid them and it was as easy as that. Same to arranging the driver from Pushkar to Jaipur, we just told the hostel employee, aptly named “Mr. Awesome,” what our plan was and he helped arrange it. Navigating the train stations and finding our car was just as easy, as each station had English signs telling you which train was which, and which city their final destination was. The ability to get from city to city with ease was my biggest concern prior to arrival, but it honestly was so easy that I wish I had not lost sleep over it the weeks leading up to our trip.

Once we arrived though, we used my favorite resource to use when traveling: Asking the hostel employees for help.

Now, I won’t say this was the biggest surprise from the entire trip, but it definitely was the aspect that I am still blown away by and tell people constantly about was just how nice and generous everyone was in India. The people of India absolutely made the trip as memorable as it was. It just seemed that everyone we met was just so kind and helpful and willing to help answer any questions that this skinny, blond haired and mustached traveler had. I felt like every city we visited we were constantly encountering people who just blew our expectations away of what to expect in regards to level of kindness. From the people in the Delhi metro ushering me to the front of the line because I didn’t have a backpack and offering me their seat so I could sit next to my friend, to the lady who spoke perfect English on the train to Ajmer having her brother help us find our bus to Pushkar. My favorite experience will forever be the kind police officer who invited Mollie and I back to his place to meet his family and enjoy chai and dressing us in the formal Indian clothing. That will forever be one of my favorite and most random travel stories, but I think it really helps to sum up the level of kindness and generosity that the Indian people exhibited throughout our entire two weeks there. They were just always so helpful and willing to help you with anything that I just always felt at ease knowing that if I couldn’t figure something out, there would be someone there to help. If anyone is ever on the fence about visiting India for the same reason I had apprehensions before going I’ll tell them to ignore that and visit for the people, because the people will absolutely make the journey an incredible one.

The cost for two weeks in India was right in line with what I expected, if not a little cheaper than I had budgeted for. I’ll provide a breakdown in a separate post, but overall for two weeks in India, including train travel, airfare, visas, hostels, and food I spent just around $1,300. I only exchanged $360 at the airport when we first arrived, and I left India with just about $4 remaining. For $1,300 dollars you can just about cover the cost of a condo on the beach in Florida for the weekend, not including gas and food, so all in all I would say that we got more bang for our buck and a life time of experiences and memories. Now, we could have gone cheaper by not eating out as much, buying less souvenirs, and staying in the 10 person hostel rooms versus the private rooms, but still, that’s not bad at all. The only thing that I would have paid more money for was a good cup of coffee, that in itself was impossible to come by so if anyone has recommendations on where to find good coffee in India I will definitely search for it on my next trip there.

If anyone is ever on the fence about visiting India for the same reason I had apprehensions before going I’ll tell them to ignore that and visit for the people, because the people will absolutely make the journey an incredible one.

The food was delicious, which is to be expected and one of the main reasons a lot of people visit India, but it was also heavy. Granted, I was not as familiar with Indian cuisine before arriving as I should have been, so I generally ordered at restaurants the heavier gravy type dishes like tikka masala with paneer and rice. Combine that with a day of walking around in scorching heat and you have yourself a recipe for an upset stomach. So, despite eating Indian food as much as possible, it was still important to take a break and have a lighter meal from time to time. Coincidentally, the version over there of a lighter meal was to get pizza, which was delicious in its own right, but still funny that this is a light meal. The street food was absolutely fantastic though, and I probably could have survived the entire trip only eating that for each meal. If anything, go to India and experience the street food.

Lastly, safety in India. I know I saw a number of news reports before traveling over there that raised some eye brows in regards to just being safe while traveling, but all in all it seemed very safe to me. Granted, I am traveling as a male, and I know traveling as a solo female is a much different experience, but overall I felt completely safe wherever we went. I always say the same thing to people looking to go abroad who ask about safety and I tell them, “Don’t do anything that you wouldn’t do back home and you’ll be fine.” Would you go to New York City after having never been there before and proceed to get black out drunk in a random part of town? No, so don’t do it abroad either. Just avoid putting yourself in sketchy situations and always listen to your gut and you’ll be fine. I think one of my favorite things I heard while in Delhi was from Valerie, an Austrian backpacker, who as we walked through the Delhi train station with the sun setting behind us and growing darker by the minute said, “I feel safe here in this crowd, because I know for every one person that might want to harm me, there’s another 100 who would stop them from doing anything.” Not only did I find it reassuring based on the kindness we had experienced, but it rang true to the old safety in numbers mantra. India is safe, just be aware of your surroundings and be smart.

All in all, it was a remarkable two weeks. It feels strange and sort of amateurish writing about it so much from only a two-week perspective, but it is what it is. I’ve gone on trips that lasted for months and I’ve gone on trips that were only a couple of weeks, but what’s important is that you take the time you can to experience as much as you can. I know India has much more to offer and with a 10 year Visa I will definitely be back to experience more. I’m thinking next time I’ll visit the south, or maybe further north in the mountains.

“I feel safe here in this crowd, because I know for every one person that might want to harm me, there’s another 100 who would stop them from doing anything.”

Stay tuned for a break down on price, how to book a hostel, get a Visa, and in general plan a trip to India (no matter how long you’re going for)!

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