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.
Hi Anil, I agree! Though it sounds a little -ve initially but it is all true and you are so right that one is stuck for the first 2 days, he would love India. I really enjoyed the post.. and actually went on a virtual tour through Indian gullys.. 😀
Thank you and hope you had a great tour!
Welcome to India !
I feel sorry for your first impression about India.
However, there are some places worth watching and some experiences you will find only in India.
No need to apologize, I really enjoy visiting India and have been 4 times despite my initial 48 hour shock!
India intrigues and intimidates me in equal measure. I will definitely visit one day, mainly because my love of Indian food won’t be able to keep me away!
Sounds so cliche but it really does taste better in India… 🙂
mmmm street poop
No too hard to get some in your food if you enjoy that kind of thing 😛
I really want to visit India next year but I have been told of the madness and craziness of landing in Mumbai! My friend walked off the plane and straight into a scam 100% – had to leave 3 hotels due to scams.. Disaster… Such is India!
It’s a challenging place but with your online connections I would certainly recommend getting advice on specific places to stay (here’s my list: http://www.foxnomad.com/countries/india-travel-information/) and brushing up on the most common scams before you go. Let me know if I can be of any help before your trip – India’s as rewarding as it can be difficult 🙂
I’ve heard so much about travelers’ diarrhea in India but wow I don’t know If I can handle street poop!
You get used to it quickly – at least your nose does 🙂
Haha, nice pictures. As far as street poop goes, I guess you can see that anywhere. Still dying to visit India, however!
Well, maybe not human street poop…
Love the image of “a blood clot in an already clogged artery”! I’ll bear all of this in mind when I go next year. Still can’t wait.
Good sidewalk heart attack prevention 🙂
I’m going to have to bite the bullet and go to India someday. Thanks for the warnings!
India sounds intriguing to say the least. Not sure my stomach will be up for the challenge but I definitely want to give it a try! Thank for sharing you welcomed advice.
That’s a good attitude to have!
haha good post man. I had a friend head there for his first trip outside of Australia.. ever.. let’s just say it was a bit of a shock for him, still he’s now been travelling for almost a year so I guess it wasn’t too shocking.. Maybe also something to watch in India are safety concerns for women. Lot’s of bad publicity in the media about it of late. I have several Indian female friends who say it’s no more of an issue than other places but still, it’s something to take into account while there.
Certainly, it is, but it’s hard to make broad comparisons. India is challenging and women have to be generally more alert there, but with experience the lines of safety become clear and easier to navigate.
My coworker who is married to an Indian man tells me that 1 week is enough to hate India… 2 weeks are enough to love it.
I hope she is right, as it is at the top of my list.
Great post Anil.
Absolutely a perfect way to put it! Great quote about India, thanks for that 🙂
This post made me chuckle 🙂 You’re absolutely right about India- it is overwhelming, an assault to the senses. I’ve always felt one needs patience and time to like/love India – the heterogeneity is mind-numbing, but ultimately enjoyable
Lots of challenge but lots of reward, I absolutely agree!
Great post, India seems absolutely mental when you first land, however after the initial shock I fell in love with the country…starting in the south of India and working your way up to the north could also be a good way to combat the culture shock as it is less populated and definitely a lot less intense. 🙂
That’s a good point and glad you mentioned it – the south is certainly more laid back (for Indian standards) and a good introduction to the hectic north.
Regarding food.. more than “eat where locals eat” I would recommend “eat where locals eat, but if this is street food we’re talking about, stick to vegetarian and things that do not involve water”. Water is the main issue – so keep it safe!
Greetings from New Delhi! 😉
Good advice and I agree – even when it comes to eating at local restaurants/cafes, it’s often the food on plates (washed with only water – not soap) that can get the best of you if you’re not careful.
I needed this info mate! I am headed their in October. I need to get my mind, and stomach in the right mindset.
I’ll be there for a few weeks as well, perhaps we’ll cross paths, let’s keep in touch.
My partner and I will be spending some time in India on travels next year. I’m both over-excited and terrified by the prospect! We were going to start off in India but, on the advice of more seasoned travels, have decided to shift our route to not jump straight in the deep end! I’ll definitely remember this advice when we get there!
India takes patience as well as incorporating decompression time into your day and overall trip. Even a short break can do wonders on the most trying of days.
We’re heading to India next year for the first time so it’s good to get some advice on how to prepare and deal with it! I think it will be incredible…once we adjust to it!
You’ll appreciate how incredible that much more too after overcoming the initial set of challenges!
Hmmm.. Its amazing post. Enjoy the diversity and difference of culture. This post is also applicable on nearby country Pakistan.
A country on my short list of places to visit!
Long Wheat fields, diverse cultures and world highest mountains in Pakistan are saying you welcome. Welcome anytime
Great post! Completely describes my initial shock when I arrived in India but I went on to fall in love with the country and its people.
Thank you – and happy to hear the shock was worth the India experiences in the end for you as well 🙂
While I definitely want to go there, I have to admit that India is one of the few places that scares the crap out of me-and this is from someone who’s about to move to Saudi Arabia. Great advice!
Been there, done that. To avoid a risk of diarrhea the best practice is to skip meat dishes. I know some people would say that they can’t live with out a meat, but eating tasty Indian vegetarian dishes have not killed anyone!
In India it’s pretty easy to do, although any food can get you sick if it’s got bacteria or gone bad.
I’ve been to India last year. Went to a wedding in Assam. It was quite a ride. One thing that I can say is that my experiance is completely opposite than most I’ve heard. It was special because I lived with my friend in his house, visited his family and friends in their houses. We went on a trip in the mountains, been to different caves, temples …
The thing I couldn’t understand was how can they be so clean in their homes, and when they step outside is completely different thing. I’m speaking general. Even in temples they throw paper and rubbish around, even if there is a bin. My friends behave completely different and they don’t have explanation for that.
I didn’t have any problems with diarea which was suprizing, but I always had bottled water, washed my hands with dezinfection gel before and after eating, well using that a lot of times. Drinking lots of assam tea helped I suppose. Some take some kind of alchocol (like whiskey) – a bit in the morning as desinfection and they say it helps.
My biggest challenge was toalet, toalet paper and shower. But after you get used to it, no worries at all.