To Visit Or Not To Visit India, That Is The Question
Deciding to visit India can sometimes be a difficult choice to make indeed, given all the contradictory information we receive through the media and otherwise. On the one hand, you will find those who will tell you that YOU MUST VISIT INDIA because it’s wonderful, impressive and so different from anything else you have experienced; but on the other, there will always be those that are very critical of this country and will tell you that it’s dirty, ugly and undeveloped, that all these will shock you, and that you might be unpleasantly surprised by the culture there.
Now, dear reader, can you tell me to which side you tend to listen to and believe? It’s really difficult to find an objective opinion, I know, but I’ve been there once before, to wonderful India, and what I can do is share my side of the story so that you can draw your own conclusions.
“Incredible India!” the British couldn’t stop exclaiming when they first got there. This little exclamation came naturally to many travelers since then and it is now the official name of India’s international tourism campaign. And it’s really not just a mere marketing slogan: India IS an incredible land full of surprises, wonderful places and beauty.
The visitors have only two alternatives: to fall hopelessly in love with India and come back to it again and again, or to dislike it and never set foot on it’s land again.
For you to fall in love with it, an easy transition after landing will be the first step.
India is a huge country with different and diverse inhabitants and the culture will easily change from east to west and from south to north; It's also very different from Europe and it's culture. One thing to be understood and accepted is that the time flows differently in India and being on time is really a relative thing: if you’ll wait for the trains to pull into stations at the expected time or for your taxi driver to know the shortest way to the airport, think again! For that, you can go visit Switzerland.
There are also other things to take into consideration when it comes to India and what to expect from it. For example, the food: the only kind of food known to Indians is spicy. No matter what you order, don’t expect it to be non spicy; and if, by any chance, you decide to delve into extreme experiences and test the level of spiciness – well, look no further for you will find plenty of options and occasions to burn from the inside. However, and I can completely vouch for it, besides being spicy, the food is absolutely delicious and you will find both vegetarian and non-vegetarian alternatives.
If you find yourself craving for beef based foods, you will find options in the international food chains; you can also indulge in chicken, lamb or fish based foods but menus based on pork will be harder to find.
When it comes to drinks, you will find that they are expensive when imported and that local beers and wines are a decent and much cheaper option.
I already knew that Indians were super friendly people, since I used to have an Indian manager when working in London and even at my current job in the Netherlands, many of my colleagues are Indians. This opinion has been reinforced during my visit there when I was, once again, pleasantly surprised.
And now, let me touch on some of the more unpleasant aspects. First and foremost, the dirty and unhygienic atmosphere. Yes, it’s true, you will not let your kid pick up the candy he dropped on the floor and eat it, to say the least. Once, I ate some street food and it was delicious but waaaay too spicy for me; I ended up drinking gallons of water just to put out the fire inside, and so ended up visiting the most unhygienic toilet I have ever witnessed in my entire life (I even have a very credible witness to testify how bad it was!)!
How did I protect myself from germs during my visit, you might wonder. Honestly, I didn’t go out of my way to do it: I didn’t drink tap water (but as a tourist you are offered bottled water all the time by the hotel staff) and I also tried to wash my hands as often as possible but those were really all the precautions I took during my stay there.
Also, on transportation: a regular thing you can do in any of the big cities, is to just raise your hand and a tuk-tuk will be there in seconds. Although they look similar, the Indian tuk-tuks are actually taxicabs and are not to be mistaken with the Thai tuk-tuks: if you are to wave your hand and scream “tuk-tuk!”after it, not only will they not stop, but the people around you may be amused. Now, I’m definitely not saying that it happened to me.
The amount of money the cab drivers will try to negotiate with you is absurd, so just look for a driver that is willing to turn on the meter and ask for a fair price. If you chose to visit a place less explored by tourists, you might also happen to notice that your driver has no idea where your destination is located, but fret no more! They will simply stop in the middle of the road and ask others. Remember what I said earlier about the time? Don’t forget, time here passes differently.
The streets in the big cities are really animated and crowded: oxcarts, motorcycles, donkeys, big cars, normal cars, tuk-tuk, everything that moves, Indians will use it as a transportation means. Add to that the stray dogs, buffaloes, goats and cows that will just take a casual stroll on the roads as if it’s the most normal thing in the world. The pedestrians will also walk on the streets, through all this animation, as there aren't many sidewalks.
India is mainly a cash-based country, but in big cities it will be easy to pay by card in restaurants, hotels, mall stores and even in the bazaars. For those of you who do not wish to put in the energy and are willing to pay for the luxury and relaxation of using the card, it is important to understand that you will get a rather bad exchange rate (at the bank or by a card operator). For those who want to optimize their cash flow, my recommendation is to bring USD or EUR banknotes with you, in big bills and negotiate with the 'money changers' on the streets. Indian values will be quite flexible at the course so if you negotiate firmly with them and know what the course is (see Bloomberg) you can get better rates than at local banks or hotels. Do not forget to count the money very rigorously so as to avoid unpleasant surprises! You can pay directly in foreign currency if you visit jewelry, carpet or silk stores.
India's tourist attractions have a fairly standard entry fee: locals 10 rupees, tourists 250 rupees. I really didn’t understand this price discrimination, especially since some of the objectives are ancient temples that smell really badly and you are forced to take your shoes off out of respect for the Gods. I heard them mentioning the economic power of Europe, and I can understand that, but still, I find it a bit discriminatory. That does not mean that you have nothing to see! There are monuments of a gorgeous and highly decorated architecture that will definitely fascinate you (they might also make you wonder about how these people succeeded in building such wonderful things and are now living in their own mess). Although everyone goes to India to see the Taj Mahal (16 EUR for foreigners and 50 cents for Indians), the Hindu temples from Khajuraho, Hampi and the caves of Ajanta and Elora tell more about their culture and are less crowded. (at least this is what I’ve heard as my own trip to Pune wasn’t very “Indian”from this point of view, since I spent most of my time in an office).
But I can’t wait for this end of the month to experience a different area of India and get more insights from a cultural perspective. If you have any suggestions or advice for me, I am all ears!