For years India had been on the top of my wish list: from the shiny Taj Mahal, to the culture with its thousands of gods and from the delicious food, to the beautiful nature and ancient temples. For the past ten years I had dreamed about a trip to India. But I didn’t go. Why not? To be honest, I was a bit scared. Everything you see in Western media about the country is really negative (the smog crisis, the gang rapes, the poverty in slums). So unconsciously that image slowly crept into my brain, and painted my view of India.
I thought that traveling through India would not only be overwhelming, but also scary and disgusting. I thought I’d be assaulted as a woman. Maybe even robbed. And stared at, at the very least. I thought the country might be dirty, and that getting sick was an inescapable fact. That traveling would be a succession of frustrations, delayed transport, and impossible and unnecessary stumbling blocks. And besides, no one wanted to come with me. Everyone saw the country as difficult, dirty and perhaps a bit scary.
But when I received an invitation last year for the wedding of my Indian friend, I took the opportunity to finally go. If I didn’t go now, then when would I ever? Meanwhile, Joris had opened up to the idea of visiting the country, and he decided that if it is my dream to go to India, then we would. So I booked a ticket, and there we went. Eventually I traveled through India for a month, in three very different areas, and can finally answer the question: is traveling through India scary, disgusting and difficult?
Statement: India is scary
Let me first give you the most important answer: no, I did not find traveling in India scary. In fact, I didn’t feel unsafe for one moment.
Now, I will say that I am not a backpacker. The first part of the trip we had booked a luxury tour, where we had a driver, tour guides and hotels. The second part of the trip, in Mumbai and Goa, we traveled independently. But we skipped the public transport, and preferred traveling via Uber. In terms of hotels, we certainly stayed at more luxurious hotels, and not in cheap hostels, or anything like that. So that may make a difference in your experience in India. When I hear experiences from backpackers, they seem more intense than what I experienced. I also did not travel solo, so I can’t tell you how these two factors accounted towards my feeling safe. Something to keep in mind when planning your trip, perhaps.
But nevertheless we regularly walked alone through the streets, and temples and the like. And yet I haven’t felt unsafe for one second. I have not been inappropriately touched, harassed, or anything else in that category. Yes, both me and Joris received a lot of attention and stares. And how you dress doesn’t matter in that case (I always dress very conservatively abroad).
Staring is something you will have to get used to. Whereas staring in our culture is seen as rude, this is not the case in India. If you want to look, then you look, and there is nothing weird about that. There is also a huge photo culture in India. I have no idea how many photos Joris and I needed to pose for. But I did have a rule where I only took pictures with families or women and children. Not with men alone. And most men accepted that too, and said “no problem” when I kindly declined their photo request. Occasionally there were also the types that would you still take a photo anyway, or even take a selfie where you happen to be in the background. Annoying. But I realized that I am a guest in this country, so I took it for granted.
Then the people: I really liked the people in India. So far my impression of people in South-East Asia is that they are very sweet and friendly, but also a bit closed and introverted. Indian people are not like that at all. They’ve got character! They approach you and ask where you come from and what you think of India. And the children are really cheeky (in a good way). They all want to take a photo with you, or all want a high five when you walk by. I loved that vibrant energy. We also met a lot of helpful people who helped us when we got lost, or and stuff like that. Without expecting anything in return. I think Indians are really nice people, and have always had the idea that if something were to happen, there was someone who would come to help me.
Statement: Is India dirty?
But is India dirty then? That is the image sketched on TV. Take a look at a random travel program, they usually show you the dirty side of India. Cows peeing in the middle of the street, the mountains of plastic on the streets or someone randomly pooping in public (yes, I really saw that on TV!).
Whether India is clean is entirely up to your reference frame. The Indian streets are not very clean, no. Plastic and other junk is everywhere, especially in poor suburbs or outside the city. Joris found it pretty intense. If you compare it with the Western world, then India is not clean. But if you are used to some other countries such as Egypt, where plastic is literally everywhere, you will find it’s not that bad. Although I do think the amount was sometimes a bit shocking. That said: it is of course more important how India is indoors (where you sleep and eat), and I can assure you: in that respect, I found India just as clean as any other country. A lot of things are older, and they may therefore look a little dirty. But that does not mean that it is not clean, because it is.
Statement: You WILL get ill in India
Anyone who goes to India becomes ill. At least that’s what I thought, because I don’t know anybody who has been there and who did not get sick. But I haven’t really gotten ill, and Joris has only been ill for one night in a full month in the country. My intestines have certainly been rumbling a few days, but honestly I blame that more on the difference in cuisine. The Indian curries have a lot of herbs and cream, and the naan sometimes drips with oil and garlic. The only time I really had trouble with my bowels was after I had something super spicy the night before. And to be honest, I often have these kinds of problems in southern Europe too, or somewhere else where the kitchen uses a lot of oil. Be careful, however, that you do not drink tap water. I have avoided street food for the most part, in favor of restaurants. Better safe than sorry.
Statement: traveling in India is overwhelming
As someone who is highly sensitive, and experiences impulses intensely, I found the prospect of traveling India very daunting. Wouldn’t it all be too much? And yes, sometimes India was pretty tough. What I found the worst was the noise pollution, with the constant honking everywhere. The fact that the traffic does not stop for anyone, and therefore drives by at full speed LOUDLY honking at you when you are only at a one meter distance. I sometimes felt physically assaulted by SOUNDS. That’s why it was so nice that we had a tour for the first two weeks. We could just hop into a car with air conditioning that would bring us to our next destination, not having to think about anything. I think I would have found India much more intense if I had not taken a tour. Especially in the beginning, when we were not yet used to it.
Statement: India is all just poverty
As I said earlier in this article: the Western world really has a fascination with India’s poverty, it seems. There is not one TV programme that does not extensively film the slums of Mumbai. There is even an Oscar-winning film about it: Slumdog Millionaire. I therefore expected poverty when I went to India. And yes, poverty is certainly there. And that is sometimes pretty confronting. But most slums actually function as regular neighborhoods: people go to work, there are shops, and there is a relatively normal life going on despite the fact that poverty here is greater than in other parts of the city. They do not sit around feeling sorry for themselves.
We have certainly seen some beggars, but really only in places that rely on tourism. Children are often used in begging as a way to make money for families. These people choose to keep their children on the street, while public school in India is free to attend. It’s more profitable for them in the short run to let their children beg. And by giving these children money, you keep adding to this cycle.
So: I did expect poverty, and it was there. In the countryside there are plenty of villages without basic services, although the government is working hard to solve that. But what actually amazed me most was the wealth in India. Yes, there is poverty in India, but on the other hand there is also a very large group of people who live a middle class life, or even those who are filthy rich. A city like Mumbai is full of beautiful skyscrapers in which living would not be attainable for me. If you thought that everything in India would be cheap, you’ll be disappointed. Starbucks is full of local people talking on their iPhone, typing on their Macbook and drinking their €4 frappuccino. Expensive hotels are full of Indian travellers. There is a large group of people who have as much money to spend as I do, if not more. And I did not expect that, which -looking back- was very naive of me.
That was actually my biggest eye-opener. In how many things India doesn’t really differ from other countries. Of course, things look different. Instead of cyclists, you may have to avoid cows on the road in India. While honking loudly, of course. Instead of a sandwich, they eat curry for breakfast. And they prefer to sit on the floor rather than sit on a couch. But otherwise everything is actually the same: people work regular jobs. There are accountants, dentists and marketing employees. People also go on holiday just like we do, also abroad. And they also go to concerts, movies and sporting events, although these may be local artists, Bollywood films and cricket matches.
This may sound very stupid to you, but I wanted to say it anyway, because the media really portraits India as a caricature, as an otherworldly place. As a poor, dirty and unsafe country. And that is just not doing the country justice.
I recently read an article about how eight naughty donkeys were put in jail for four days in India because they were eating the neighbor’s crops, and the owner refused to do anything about it. Funny, of course. But while reading that, remember that three hours south, in New Delhi, people on rooftop bars are drinking expensive cocktails. And that new cool companies are emerging all over the country, and Indians are working in top positions all over the world. India is not outdated. India is, in my opinion, the most fascinating country there is. It will not be long before it becomes a really big player in the world.
India is a fascinating country of opposites. And that’s exactly what I like. It is not the easiest country for traveling. But it is an addictive country. Addictive because of the beautiful nature, the beautiful temples, fascinating history, the lovely people, the delicious food, and the fact that everything sometimes feels so different, while other things are the same as at home. If you find traveling in India a bit scary, then I can 100% recommend booking a tour with driver and guide. For me it was the perfect way to get to know the country before we spent two weeks alone. And now that I know the country, I can not wait to go back. I fell in love with India.