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8 Things Nobody Told Me About India
For better or for worse, my native little Britain has a special relationship with India. Our ties are deeply entangled and our destinies duly entwined calling back from the colonial era and prevailing until the modern day. We infiltrated their history and influenced their culture and in turn, they gave us a national cuisine and introduced pretty much every single esoteric or hippy idea into the British collective consciousness.
I, therefore, thought that I knew quite a lot about India and that I would be well and truly prepared for it before I first visited last year. However, I turned out to be quite mistaken and soon realised that there was a hell of a lot I didn’t know about India and I was going to be in for some real surprises. Here are my top 8 things that nobody told me about India…
On my first day in Mumbai I jumped onto a metro train, calmly took my seat, looked around and promptly realised that I was the focal point for all 50 other passengers in the carriage. And I don’t mean that the guys had a quick glance my way, I mean I was full on, relentlessly and unapologetically stared at by every guy on the train for the full 15 minutes of the journey.
This rarely lets up, staring at foreigners is just an integral part of Indian culture. At first it is incredibly unnerving but I soon realised that it is not intended in any way rudely or aggressively; its simply that Indians have no concept of personal space and that foreigners are considered interesting beings to look at!
There are cows in the road!
The cow is a sacred animal in Hindu culture which means they have more or less complete freedom of the earth. The animals live wildly and freely wandering round whether the hell they please. This usually means that they block up entire footpaths, let themselves into cafes and all too often decide to stop in the middle of the road for a sleep.
It is not acceptable to hurt or scare the animals and all frustrated drivers can do is politely try to usher them away. A hand clap and shout of “Cello, cello” (move, move) usually does the trick.
Aside from cows there are also thieving monkeys everywhere, packs of friendly street dogs and the occasional cobra in one’s bedroom…
Trash is everywhere
India is a developing country with a lot of socio-economic problems and for me, this is one of the biggest. Whether for lack of infrastructure or just education, India is the dirtiest country I have ever visited and streets are filled with discarded litter and feces of every kind. It honestly seems that there is no simply concept of trash and simply tossing ones garbage aside is seemingly the natural thing to do in India.
It is rare to see a dustbin, rubbish fires are common and even sacred rivers and holy mountain are generally swimming thick with sewage or piled high with litter. It is very important for visitors not to succumb to the local way of doing things here and to set an example by taking your garbage with you and disposing of it as responsibly as you can.
The Wi-Fi sucks
The chances are that your internet provider is based in India and whenever you have a problem with your 4G or fiber optic connection speed, you will be put through to a well mannered Bangalrori graduate who insist he is called Harry in an Indian offshore call centre. India right now is churning out new apps, software and tech innovations at a frantic rate and so you would be forgiven for thinking that they must surely have the very best Wi-fi on earth right?
Well you’d be wrong. Internet in India is the worst I have ever come across. Many guesthouses and restaurants still don’t have any internet at all and in those that do, connection speeds are woeful and complete cut-outs all too frequent. This is even the case in many high-end places. It made my job as a travel blogger painfully difficulty where I couldn’t upload a single image to my site but for non-bloggers, this offers a perfect and rare opportunity to get a Digital detox and connect with your surroundings instead of connecting to a virtual world. And the surroundings in India are well worth connecting with.
In case you really, really do need some Wi-Fi, then shop around for a hotel that offers it and also be sure to properly compare hotel room rates.
They speak 500 languages!
India was first unified in 1947 following independence from the British. Prior to this, the country was a deep and complex collection of warring states, sultanates and miniature empires encompassing 5000 years of history. These different cultures & provinces had their own food, religions, dress standards and yep, their own languages.
Many of these languages are still widely spoken in their province of origin. In order to ensure that Indians can communicate with one another, the nation elected two official languages; Hindi & er, English. The prominence of the latter makes backpacking India incredibly accessible.
You will actually gain weight
The stereotypical backpacker returns from 6 months travelling India having lost half of their weight from shitting liquid into Indian squat toilets. According to urban legend, Gandhi’s revenge or Delhi belly has robbed many a foreign tourist of a few belt sizes right?
But you know what? That image is now somewhat of date. Sanitation standards in India are slowly improving across the country and have risen sharply in the areas regularly frequented by foreigners. Also, traveller education has increased so that we all now travel with hand wash and never-ever trust roadside pakoras. Therefore, rather than losing weight as in days of old, these days visitors to India are liable to pile some weight on by over-indulging on India’s delightful cuisines.
Indian food is varied and delicious. Its also packed with ghee & sugar and is so insanely cheap that you can & will afford that second or third portion that goes straight to your hips.
Alcohol is pricey…. and illegal!
Backpacking India is cheap. Transport is cheap, rooms are cheap and the food is delightfully cheap. Alcohol, however, is not and you will regularly find yourself paying twice the price of your meal for a sub-standard beer. In Hampi, one place was charging 300 rps for a 660ml bottle whereas in a British supermarket, that amount will almost buy you 4! This outrageous price hiking is the result of excessive government & state taxes as well as a pious, faux-religious attempt to shame and punish heathen drinkers. On all of my trips to India, I spent around 40% of my budget on booze.
This was one was something of a mind fuck. Whilst I was stunned to find that alcohol is, in fact, available throughout Pakistan (to foreigners) this is not the case in India! There are dry states and dry towns and on several occasions, a poor waiter had to break the bad news to me that I would be unable to get a beer with my meal because I was in a holy city! Other areas are merely feeling the strain of unbribable police chiefs who are breaking with years of lackadaisical tradition and are actually enforcing the proper licensing laws!
The notable exception is Goa where alcohol is kept very cheap in order to help the Russian tourists keep on crashing scooters. Ironically for me, by the time I got to Goa I had quite lost the taste for hooch as the legendary Goa trance parties don’t really suit drunkenness!
Everybody has a business idea
Indians are very industrious people. Whilst it may sometimes seem that these are industries seem to be entirely directed at cheating foreigners out of petty amounts of cash, this is a jaundiced view.
During my last trip to India, I encountered an absolute plethora of young, educated and energised Indians who were spilling over with ideas for business’, start-ups and innovations. I met Indians starting web design companies, cancer charities, food trucks and Ayurvedic smartphone apps.
The future could be very bright for India and I can’t wait to make go back and see how it’s getting on. In fact, I may even take a look at making a flight booking right now!