I’m often asked what the most shocking places I’ve visited are. All are surprising on some level but if there is one place that took me 48 hours to really adjust to, I’d have to say it was India. (The second being Egypt but not for all the same reasons.) Something of a jarring experience, India quickly became one of my favorite countries, one I’ve returned to three times after my first trip.
Many seasoned travelers I’ve spoken with also found India as initially challenging as it was ultimately rewarding. Being aware of these aspects that tend to disorient many first-time India travelers can help you adjust before arrival.
Air Pollution, Garbage, And Street Poop
Behind the United States and China, India is the world’s third largest producer of greenhouse gases. Air pollution is estimated to caused 620,000 premature deaths in India annually – yes, per year – where 13 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are located. Garbage service is grossly inconsistent [PDF]; as a result many people end up burning their trash, another contributor to the omnipresent smog.
With 78 million homeless people (plus free roaming animals) without an effective public sanitation system, it’s not shocking that feces is a common sight in many parts of India. The air may smell of urine and excrement but one’s nose adjusts. Your feet should too – watch your step and don’t forget – your crap doesn’t exactly smell like flowers.
It’s Raining Men, Women, And Kids
When you first exit any airport in India, it’s like walking into a swirling human hurricane, with sounds, bodies, and shoulders occasionally knocking into you. In a country with an average of 385 inhabitants per square kilometer [PDF] and a population of 1.21 billion, personal space isn’t a practical feature for the culture. What appears as chaotic movement of human beings is actually a deceptively orderly process. Standing in frustration in the middle of it, like many tourists do initially, is pretty much being a blood clot in an already clogged artery. Unless you want every other human blood cell slamming into you, take note of the locals and maneuver around obstacles gracefully. Cows, auto-rickshaws, everyone and their mother, brother, plus four cousins will be in your way – simply walk around them and don’t get upset at the occasional shoulder fender bender.
Letting a bump or strolling in crowds upset you will only transport you to temporary insanity as you miss half of the peculiar sights along the way.
Try Not To Think About How Your Plate Was Handled
Indian food is as varied as its geography but doesn’t usually include hygiene as an ingredient. Plates are generally cleaned with tap water, a supply that contains a number of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. It’s unlikely anyone, from the cook to the waiter, will have washed their hands with soap most of the day.
You’ll probably be fine during most of your trip to India but diarrhea is likely to accompany you for part of it. Generally speaking, eat at only places frequented by locals, don’t consume any dish you’re uncertain of, and head to the recommended places to dine (here are some of my own). But don’t think too much about what happened to your food before it got to your table. Doing so may only make you sick.
Stick With It
If all I’ve done is terrified you from visiting India, you’re stuck in the first 48 hours. Since our brains store first impressions in context, with negative attitudes being more profound [PDF], allowing them to overwhelm us only conceals the other side of the things I’ve mentioned. How resourceful those under such constraints can be or countless people who enjoy sharing their colorful stories with visitors. And palak paneer – a dish no amount of bacteria can keep me away from for long.