Many dream of exotic destinations, but aren’t fully prepared for the realities they face. When Kayla Torgerson first went to northern India, she experienced the requisite culture shock but soon learned to adapt to her environment. If you’re looking to experience life outside the first world, Kayla’s tips can ease your transition.
Most of the things you hear about India are true. It’s packed with people, it’s colorful, the cities are polluted, the cars honk incessantly, and the sidewalks often double as toilets. As wild and crazy as India is though, it is an extraordinary travel destination if you are up for the challenge.If this is your first time traveling to India, keep these tips in mind to ensure your enjoyment and safety.
Be ready for a bumpy ride: Whether you are bouncing through pothole-filled streets in a rickshaw or gripping the saddle of a jostling elephant, transit in India is not typically a relaxing experience, but if you know what to expect it can be a thrill. For example, locals in New Delhi follow only three traffic rules: good brakes, good horn, and good luck.
You will frequently see large trucks swerving in and out of traffic, rickshaws driving towards oncoming cars, and motorcycles doubling as family minivans – topped with a man, woman, and two small children. For a less stressful, yet cost-effective mode of transportation, then hiring a driver for the day may be the best choice for you.
Practice patience: Patience is key in India. Ticket lines generally take the form of massive crowds, hotels sometimes over book their rooms, and the power goes out multiple times a day. You must be willing to expect the unexpected and enjoy India’s charm despite its dysfunctional infrastructure and disorganized nature.
Understand and respect the spirituality of Indian people: India is an incredibly spiritual place. It seems that everything Indians do has a deep, sacred meaning. In order to avoid standing out, women should wear skirts or pants below the knee and cover their shoulders. Men will blend in best wearing pants and a well-groomed shirt. Be prepared to remove your shoes, cover your head, or be asked to follow other observances when entering temples and places of worship.
Prepare well: When journeying to a place like India there is nothing more important than preparedness. Read about India, study Indian history and culture, and learn from anyone willing you talk to you about their experiences in India. Even then, after weeks of research you will never be fully prepared for India’s smells, sights, and sounds because they are so profoundly unique.
Watch what you eat: Tap water is generally not safe for Westerners to drink. Use bottled water, even when brushing your teeth, to avoid getting sick. In addition, unless
you are sure your stomach can handle it, it is not a good idea to eat street food. Sometimes food can sit outside in the heat for hours without being refrigerated, allowing ample time for it to spoil before it is served. As a rule of thumb, if the restaurant or stand is busy it is probably safe, if not, look for a different place to dine.
Brush up on your Hindi and speak slow, clear English: Although English is the national language in India, it is important to try your hand at a few Hindi words. It can be difficult to communicate with rickshaw drivers, food servers, and shop owners if English is your only language. Furthermore, when you speak to the locales in English, make sure you use short, simple sentences. In my experience, Indians find American accents and pronunciation especially difficult to understand. So speak slowly, be patient, and try to insert a Hindi word or phrase whenever possible.
Always carry tissues: Using public bathrooms in India is not always a pleasant
experience. They can be smelly, they rarely have toilet paper, and usually they are nothing more than a hole in the ground. I recommend you carry toilet paper and hand sanitizer wherever you go. Before you step into a bathroom in India remember these things and your experience will not be as daunting.
Don’t be alarmed by the animals: Stray dogs and cows line the streets. They cross the road when they want to, they lay outside of shops, and they walk directly in your path. Don’t be alarmed by these creatures; if you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you. Other animals you are likely to see on your trip include: elephants, monkeys, donkeys, and pigs. India can be a zoo, but if you’re ready for it you’ll be thrilled the first time you see a herd of long-horned cows stop traffic on a busy road.
How do you handle culture shock? Sound off in the comments about your India travel experiences.
For more information on India, check out:
- The Off the Brochure Travel Guide to Bombay/Mumbai
- Cultural Travel: Riding Elephants in Cochin India
- Off the Brochure New Delhi
- our India archives
Text and Photos by Kayla Torgerson for Peter Greenberg.com