We heard all kinds of tales and horror stories before traveling to India, but the country was still full of surprises upon our arrival! Here are 10 things nobody told me about traveling in India, from the unexpected to the uncomfortable.
From declarations of love to horror stories, people told us all kinds of things about India before we arrived. Whether you love or hate India—no one ever seems to be in-between—there are some subtleties of travel in India that are useful to know before you arrive. A little preparation never hurt!
10 things nobody told me about traveling in India
1. You’ll never know if people are saying “yes” or “no”.
I’d heard about the famous Indian head wiggle, but had no idea how confusing it could be in practice. A wiggle can mean “yes”, but it can also mean “no”, “maybe”, “hello”, “I like you”, “okay”, “oh dear god why”, and many, many more things.
The key? When in doubt, wiggle it out. You’d be surprised how quickly Indians can figure out your awkwardly wiggly intentions, even when you don’t even know what they are.
2. It’s a sausage fest.
The male/female ratio in India is super skewed thanks to a lot of female infanticide and a preference for male heirs. There are only 9.33 girls for every 10 boys, and it shows. The fact that many women are expected to spend most of their time at home exacerbates things. It’s not quite as bad as places like Afghanistan, but there’s still plenty of work to be done on the feminist front in India.
In the meantime, prepare to be surrounded by wolf packs of dudes wherever you go. Some are creepers, most are harmless, and in the end you can’t help but feel pity for this off-kilter generation.
3. Traveling from place to place isn’t that hard.
There’s usually a million ways you can get from point A to B, from air conditioned train to rickety public bus to a DIY road trip to puttering rickshaw. Plus, you’ll always end up finding someone on the street that either speaks English or is willing to help out a lost foreigner in need. Never fear!
4. You can drink the water!
No, no, I don’t mean straight from the tap—that’d be suicidal for many a belly.
But you can drink the water found in pitchers on restaurant tables. Water purification systems are common in India (except in poor rural areas), and the majority of the water you see people drinking is purified. If other people in the restaurant are drinking from the pitcher, you might as well give it a go. Don’t forget to pack a reusable water bottle!
5. There is coffee after all!
India is famous for its chai (tea); there are tea plantations galore, it is the standard introduction to Indian hospitality, and chai shops can be found on every street corner and train platform. It’s a tea lover’s dream, but what about those of us addicted to the hard caffeine?
Actually, southern India is all about the coffee. It’s just as popular as tea—perhaps even more so—and a place to buy some ground coffee beans is never too far away in south India. Coffee lovers, rejoice! (I know I did.)
6. Working wifi is rarer and more magical than unicorns.
Okay, okay, this might’ve reached my ears before I reached India. But, I naively optimistically reasoned, how can an I.T. powerhouse country have crap wifi?
… well, it does. Workable wifi is easy to find in I.T. hubs like Bangalore, but once you’re out of the (really) big cities you can kiss your workable wifi goodbye. If internet is one of your basic daily needs, you’ll need to shell out for a local sim card with data, or a nicer hostel with a half decent connection.
7. Things can get expensive real fast.
I expected to roll into India and spend mere pennies a day. After all, it’s the cheapest country in the world to live in, and has been a haven for budget backpackers for decades.
Though dirt-cheap options can be found, it’s equally as easy to go over budget. Alcohol is more expensive in India than in many European countries, hostel beds can be outrageously priced (who came up with “boutique hostels” anyway?), and the rising middle class is pushing prices up in cities. There’s also a massive market catered to luxury travel in India, far more than one would expect if your only notion of India as a land of poverty and strife.
Let’s just say: pickpockets aren’t the only things your wallet should be afraid of.
8. English is everywhere.
There are approximately one bajillion languages spoken in India (447 living languages to be precise). Hindi is the most well known, but even Hindi doesn’t reach everywhere as a second language—the people of Tamil Nadu, for example, purposefully avoid speaking Hindi in favor of their native Tamil.
One language that you will see everywhere? English! It’s on the signs. It’s on the television. It’s in the books. Sometimes it’s thrown into conversation so often you wonder why they don’t just speak English outright.
There’s still plenty of signage in the local languages, and most people still speak the local language(s) on the streets, but communication and navigation might be easier than you expect.
9. A hotel is not always a hotel
You’re tired, your backpack is too heavy, and it’s too damned hot. You just need to find a freaking hotel already so you can dump everything, stop sweating for a hot second, and have your third cold shower of the day. You spot a “HOTEL” sign and semi-gleefully dash towards it, only to find… it’s a restaurant. Huh?
If you’re looking for a hotel in India, you’re better off looking for “rooms”. Or “guesthouse”. Or “residency”. Or “lodge”. Or anything-not-labeled-hotel, really. Much of the time, “Hotel” simply means a kind of eatery, not a place to sleep. There are some rogue exceptions, of course.
10. Indians have the most brilliant smiles
Girls are warned against smiling too flippantly at men in India, and the result is a foreign fear of smiling too much in India. Though girls should indeed be wary of smiling at young men (they can get carried away sometimes), the limit ends there—smiles are one of the most fantastic parts of India!
From the old aunties to the young schoolboys, if you smile at an Indian, expect an absolutely brilliant smile in return. Do try this at home.