What Not to Do in India

india market

I recently spent two months in India. In over seven years of on-again off-again travelling it was my most difficult trip by some distance. 

The point of this article is largely to apportion blame to myself. But it must surely be objectively admitted that India is not an easy place to travel, unless (perhaps, though not necessarily) you’ve already spent plenty there or somewhere comparable. 

It’s enormous, loud, dirty, polluted, and busy. Stand out as a tourist, and you’ll be harassed constantly in certain cities. Transportation leaves late or doesn’t come at all. You’re constantly extorted for anything you buy without a sticker price (which is most things). Hotels on Google and Booking are flooded with fake reviews making it almost impossible to tell good accommodation from bad. 

Etcetera and so on. There are plenty of places online where you can watch or read about how hard it is to travel in India and further denigration is not my objective. 

A country doesn’t exist for tourists, but as a home for its citizens. It could certainly be argued that the Indian government is failing in this basic responsibility, between rampant corruption and cronyism, massive inequalities between northern states like Uttar Pradesh and their southern counterparts like Kerala, and so on, but all that’s beyond the remit of this article. 

India is simply India. If you’re heading over, the first thing I’d urge you to do is disregard any romantic notions you might have gained from glossy television shows or movies usually involving rich Westerners discovering that it’s ‘not so bad over there’ after all. Discard your preconceptions altogether, in fact, and simply accept the country for what it is, good and bad, not what it’s portrayed to be on screen or in print. 

That said, I can almost guarantee that you’ll find it quite overwhelming and uncomfortable, if it’s your first or – in my case – even your second visit. There are steps you can take, however, to ease your struggles. Based on my own steep learning curve, here are five things not to do in India.


1) Cheap Out

Just because a country can be done on the cheap, doesn’t mean you should do so. India is a case in point. 

You can effectively spend as little money as you like there. Set a daily budget of five dollars, euros, or pounds for your accommodation, and you’d still be able to get a private room most places. Go to any relatively regular, local restaurant and you’ll literally struggle to spend money. Order a lassi, big bottle of water, main course, paratha, and side dish and your bill will usually still come to around £3-4. Again, you could set a budget of £1-2 per meal, if you really wanted to, and still leave a restaurant feeling full. Tickets for trains and buses, for journeys lasting six, eight, 10 or more hours, can all be bought for £5 or less. 

All told, you could genuinely budget around £10-15 per day in India and you’d get away with it. 

But you’d be miserable. Trust me. 

Don’t save money for the sake of it. Instead, spend what you normally would and simply take the opportunity to see that money go far further. 

If your normal nightly budget for accommodation is £50, you could save a significant amount of money and get a room for £10. But based on my own experience, that room could genuinely be the worst you’ve ever stayed in. Your £50, which might get you a middling (or worse) room in most Western European countries, would net a 5* hotel in India. 

Likewise with transportation. You could spend £5 for an all-day journey on a bus with everyone around you watching loud TV shows on their phones, throwing rubbish on the floor, hawkers clambering aboard to ask you five times whether you want to buy the same thing even when you keep telling them you don’t. Or you could spend £25 to take a 1-2 hour flight instead. 

Likewise, taxis over tuk-tuks, tour guides over going around the sites which usually have next-to-no information boards alone, and so on. 

In fact, the only area in which money doesn’t seem to matter is the food. Perhaps it’s anecdotal, but I’ve never got food poisoning from a cheap, local place in Asia; every single time it’s been from a nicely-decorated foreigner-focused restaurant. 

The cheaper restaurants in India certainly look more basic, but – behind the scenes – don’t seem to be any riskier. And there’s no difference whatsoever in the quality of the food. In fact, as in most countries, the places aimed squarely at locals tend to be not only much cheaper but far nicer than those catering to tourists. 

In summary, don’t make India any harder on yourself. It’s almost always worth spending a little extra. 


2) Stick to Cities

Normally when travelling you’re free and able to distinguish between being a City Person or a Nature Person. In the former case you stick to the main metropolises. In the latter the smaller towns plus villages and stays out in the sticks are all fair game. 

If you haven’t visited India or somewhere like it before you will find the cities immediately and immensely overwhelming. The level of noise, busyness, and sheer volume of stuff happening everywhere you look is all at another level to anything in the West. The busiest street in London or New York is nothing compared to an average road in a mid-sized Indian city. 

To an extent you grow accustomed to this after an initial adjustment period. But it’s still never pleasant to be in these cities, and as with those roads even the ‘quieter’ ones will be far madder than what you’re used to. 

Are there interesting things to see, at least? I’ve been to 7 of the 10 most populated Indian cities now. Of those my least favourite was Delhi. Unfortunately, it’s also the one with the most interesting historical sights, by far. 

I’m not denigrating the others ‘as cities’, i.e. as places to live. But as places to simply visit, I didn’t find any of them to be worth either the effort of getting there (everywhere is a long way from everywhere else, and anything except flying is relatively uncomfortable), or the constant barrage of noise, traffic, hawkers, and all the rest of it after arriving, or the difficulty of actually navigating once you’re in the city. 

Sticking to cities (or large, also extremely busy towns) was perhaps the biggest of my many mistakes on this second trip. In retrospect I should have learnt from my first journey. This began in Delhi (which was, indeed, overwhelming), then moved northwest and immediately became much more peaceful and enjoyable. Both nature and peace can be found in India. You just need to put the effort into finding them and travelling there. The already challenging transportation system can make this tricky, but it’s worth it. 

You might feel in this case that you’re missing out. You’re not, as noted, but feel free to stay in at least one city to at least get the flavour of urban India for yourself. Then, get out to quieter places. In doing so you’ll not only be sparing your sanity, ears, lungs, and throat, but arguably getting closer to The Real India anyway; while the percentage is declining, the vast majority of the Indian population (around ⅔) still lives rurally. 


3) Stay Too Long

I read somewhere that a week in India is equivalent to a month in other countries. That might be conservative. 

This is a draining country in so many ways. 

Physically, it’s generally hot in most places and extremely hot in others. Pollution racks all the major cities. Even on ‘luxury’ buses or in the higher classes on trains journeys of six to 12 hours certainly take their toll. The occasional bout of food poisoning is a simple fact of life. 

Mentally, it’s an even bigger challenge. Relaxation is very difficult when you’re forever being approached for sales or selfies. Issues over accommodation and transportation are constant. Problems of all sorts are encountered constantly, and you simply need to roll with them. All of this, as noted, can feel overwhelming initially. 

Then you begin to adapt. You merely roll your eyes at the latest setback instead of treating it as an unmitigated disaster. You expect and pay little heed to the hawkers or selfie seekers. 

Unfortunately that second period doesn’t last. It gives way to a weariness which becomes first grating, then gradually overwhelming, until the thought of even leaving the bubble of your hotel seems exhausting. This has happened to me on both trips at around the one month mark. The first time I simply left the country, and was glad to do so. The second time I rode it out, which was a mistake (one of many, you’ll have noticed). 

The trick is to time this right. There’s little point in simply going to India for a few days. Not only due to the cost of doing so, nor the distance between places you’d likely want to see, but also because you’re giving yourself no time for that inevitable adjustment period. Stay too long though and you’ll wish you hadn’t, to the extent that you’re largely wasting time and money since it’s unlikely you’ll enjoy anything you’re experiencing anyway. 

To put a number on it: Anything under two weeks would seem pretty pointless. A month would be perfect. It gives you 7-10 days in a couple of big cities, plenty more time to spend in smaller nicer places, and affords ample opportunity to undertake/recover from long journeys, hide in your accommodation from the madness outside, and so on. 


4) Expect to Be Understood

It seems to be simply assumed that Indian people will speak English, perhaps because even first generation immigrants invariably do so fluently abroad. 

There are two points here. 

Firstly, learning English is indeed compulsory in India. But the actual efficacy of that teaching and the foreign language capabilities of each student will still vary wildly. You probably spent 3-5 years learning a foreign language at school. But if a native speaker came up to you now and started speaking in their own accent and at full speed you’d be in big trouble. 

Secondly, an Indian person might well ‘know English’ to an extremely high level… and still not have a clue what you’re saying.

Native speakers are sought and prized as foreign language teachers around the world for good reason. Students aren’t just learning the language, but how to speak and understand it on a native level. 

In any country, if a local learns a foreign language purely from another local, they’ll only learn a heavily accented version. As soon as they hear that language spoken by a native speaker, they’ll struggle. So it proves in India, usually unless the person either learnt from or has interacted with a native speaker or speakers. 

Two Indian people from different states, lacking a common language, will often speak English. This is particularly common in university towns or areas of towns. The English will be completely fluent, and – even if it’s obviously accented – you’ll understand every word. Try speaking to them in your own accent, and they likely won’t have a clue what you’re saying. 

None of this is unique to India. I highlight it merely because the assumption is that ‘Indians speak English’. The truth is that A) many don’t, at least not to a conversational level; and B) many who do still won’t understand your non-Indian English. 


5) Go Alone

I’ve done plenty of solo travel in my time. Generally speaking, I’m a big advocate of it. 

Not so in India. This is the only place I’ve been where I would unequivocally advise against going alone. 

Things will always go wrong when you travel – usually involving transportation or accommodation. In turn, these are always easier to deal with when someone else is with you – not necessarily easier logistically, but emotionally. What would seem a disaster alone is easily batted aside with a travel partner. 

Solo travel isn’t for everyone since you do need to deal with all of this yourself. Some find that challenge rewarding. Others simply find it unpleasantly stressful. I generally fall into the former camp, but India frequently proved too much even for me. Both the volume and severity of the issues you face there are on another level to any other location I’ve visited. 

With a travel partner they’d remain especially challenging, but the mountains would seem a little more like molehills. Alone, they seem like the Himalayas themselves. 

Don’t go completely alone. If you can find someone to go with you (not always easy, thanks to India’s reputation) then take them. If not, join a tour. These have their own obvious downsides, but are still preferable to going and struggling alone. 


Final Thoughts

I’d never say as a blanket rule ‘don’t go to India’, just as I’d never say to anyone ‘you have to go to India’. If you’ve always thought that you wanted to travel there – as I did – then go for it. Some people, apparently, really do love it, even if most visitors I’ve met certainly didn’t. 

But you should definitely, unequivocally not treat this as a regular travel destination. If you’ve found other places ‘difficult’, this will be at another level entirely. Don’t make the mistakes I did. Don’t make what will almost certainly be a challenging trip any more difficult. 

Spend the money, prioritise quieter destinations, keep your trip to a month or less, prepare for a language barrier, and don’t go alone. Failure to abide by any of these rules will only make things harder. Failure to abide by all of them will pull you down to the same low level as this idiot, and you certainly don’t want that. 

My new novel – What Money Can’t Buy – is out now on Amazon. It’s available in both eBook and paperback formats, and you can find it here in the UK, here in the US, or on your own local Amazon site.

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