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We’re still traveling in India, so this post is a flashback to earlier trips. [image credit: all photos unless otherwise noted are (c) Janine Smith and Jayalakshmy Ayyer, 2020]

How not to travel in India (part 104).

Whenever I put up a blog post about our travels in India, I get comments that seem to fall into two categories.

  • First there are the ones who ask if they can come next time. To you, I have to apologize and explain our travel companion criteria: you have to have seen me in my underwear 40+ years ago.

    If you were there with these three college roommates, you’re welcome on our next trip!

  • Second are those who say they could never travel to India because it’s too… Too dirty/dangerous/big/crowded/scary/much. To you, I’d say you’re probably right not to come.

But for everyone in between who is considering the trip of a lifetime, I have a few suggestions about things we’ve learned to take in our stride over the past five years of travels around India. Here are my top ten that come to mind (today anyway):

  1. Distance: Distances are fluid. If you ask for directions, you will get them cheerfully and often clearly. What you won’t get is any idea of how long they’ll take because each comes with a breezy promise that it’s “just a little distant” [translation: “prepare to walk for blocks in blazing full sun”], or “quite close Madam” [“It’s probably multiple kilometers away, possibly in another city”], or “just along this thing...” [“I have no idea but it must be out there somewhere”].

    Directions: after a passionate consult, your new friend points in one direction. Then comes more impassioned discussion, frequently followed by pointing in the exact opposite direction.

  2. Ours is not to reason why: This is actually a corollary to #1.

    Indians will absolutely go out of their way to tell you how to get somewhere, but will somehow never mention that it’s closed/on strike/still in the planning stages/burned to the ground years ago/cancelled.

  3. Plenty of time. It doesn’t start until five minutes ago…

    Time: IST (India Standard Time):  If it’s time for whatever you’ve scheduled to start, that only means you could stop for chai tea, take a few selfies, check your messages, and you’ll still probably wait for things to begin.

  4. Plan: Planner or pantser? Actually, it doesn’t matter. You can plan for every aspect of your trip, and India will be closed/under construction/offline that day. You can navigate by the seat of your pants, and India will confuse/ confound/ countermand you. This has two predictable results.
    1. You conclude that your own home is better in every way and your only hope is to hole up in a McDonalds (not, of course, eating actual hamburgers but their veggie burgers are to die for) until it’s time for your flight home.
    2. OR you regard this as A Very Good Thing—often leading to one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that India provides on a regular basis.

      Our jeep safari through the Periyar Tiger Reserve was cancelled, so we took a boat ride instead. Result? Baby wild elephant!

  5. Yes or no?

    The Indian Head Shake: could mean “Yes.” Or “No.” Or “You’re making no sense whatsoever, but I’m WAY too polite to tell you that.” [Image credit: Pinterest

  6. Smells: Both the worst and the best you’ve ever encountered.
  7. Noise: See #6
  8. Incredibly cheap. And oddly expensive:

    You can live on next to nothing there. But with all India has to offer, you won’t want to. And in between, be prepared as a foreigner to pay around ten-times the price of Indian nationals when buying tickets for almost anything. (If the cost difference bothers you, then think about the taxes Indians pay to support these incredible sights when there is so much need all around. Maybe you’ll want to throw in a bit more!)

  9. Selfies: Indians of all ages love them. I’ve seen a temple guide wearing only a dhoti whip out a mobile and snap a selfie. (And yes—that phone was stored exactly where you think it was…)

    Often you can barely get through the throngs taking their own pictures, almost always blocking out and frequently facing away from the treasures on display. The poor guards’ whistles sound nonstop as they attempt to keep selfie-takers from hanging off or climbing the sculptures for a better view of themselves.
    But apparently the only thing that can distract them is the one missing piece for their digitized composition: women in western dress. “Selfie Madam?” is the incessant refrain that follows us. Over the past years visits to India, we’ve gotten used to this plea and have now developed a rule: we only pose with children. But…India has a LOT of adorable children…

  10. Kindness of Indian Strangers: Most Indians LOVE to help you, and will go out of their way to do so. They will invite you into their homes, press gifts on you, and honestly seem to be thrilled by your very presence. Warning: this will almost always involve food, often enough to feed small armies. No matter how you try, you won’t be able to eat enough to escape a nagging suspicion that your hosts will burst into tears if you refuse anything. And it’s all soooooooo good!

    Homemade chaat in Bangalore. (I’m still dreaming about it…)

So…should you go to India? Why wouldn’t you?

Marajah’s Lake, Jaisalmer Rajasthan