Before we traveled to India, we already had a lot of ideas about what it would be like.
We’ve found that this attitude is common among some travelers – we often hear people talking about places they’ve never visited with just a little too much confidence that they have it all figured out.
We were definitely guilty of this. A year ago, India was often brought up in our conversations – usually when we were discussing the countries we didn’t want to visit. In fact, our no-go list was summed up like this: India and active war zones.
So we can’t really remember how we eventually talked ourselves into this trip, but less than a year later we had applied for our visas, booked out flights, and we were on our way.
And what we found was a beautiful, chaotic, at times overwhelming, at times breathtaking, endlessly complex culture that we could never fully understand after just a two week trip – its laughable that we thought we could make judgements about it before we had even arrived.
We had so many preconceived ideas, and most didn’t line up with reality.
What we thought India would be like all the time.
Here are a few beliefs that we had, and maybe you’ve had similar thoughts:
(Keep in mind that we were only there for two weeks, so we are not an authority on this culture – not even close! These just reflect our experiences.)
What we thought: Transportation in India will be torture! The buses will be smelly, bumpy and painfully slow.
How it actually was: Well, for starters, we never even took a bus – though we were thoroughly convinced that buses would be the only affordable option, as they have been in many other Asian countries.
In reality, India was a breeze to travel through. The train system runs through most of the country. First class tickets are dirt cheap, and you’ll get an air conditioned cabin with comfortable seats and seemingly endless food – I think we were served at least once every hour.
The train rides weren’t too long – we thought we’d have an all-day ride from New Delhi to the Taj Mahal, but it was only 2 hours. When a train ride did seem too long, there was always another interesting place on the way to break up the journey.
While we took trains from city to city, there were many transportation options available when exploring locally. These include the famous green and yellow rickshaws, taxis, sometimes a subway system, and even Uber.
The final verdict: Getting around was 1000% better than we thought. As a couple who abhors nearly every transit option, these trains were like a gift.
These trains made India travel borderline delightful.
What we thought: The people will be horrible, rude and the service will suck.
How it actually was: We definitely encountered some pushy men selling souvenirs or hired cars, but majority of the encounters we had with the locals were pleasant.
It seemed that hotels and restaurants took pride in their customer service. We were impressed by those who went out of their way to help us. We also enjoyed taking a lot of selfies with locals, who often approached us and asked for a quick picture – eventually we started asking if we could get one too. Now we think of how many pictures of us are on the phones and cameras of locals around New Delhi and Rajasthan.
And when you’re trying to avoid those pushy drivers and salesmen? Look confident and keep your gaze steady and uninterested. When we were feeling a bit lost, we’d suddenly find ourselves surrounded by men offering us a ride, asking if we wanted to see the local fort, and telling us they could take us to a great restaurant. If we made eye contact with someone selling t-shirts, they’d suddenly be chasing after us, asking our size and how much we’d be willing to pay. But confidence and determination generally kept us free from this annoyance.
The final verdict: Very wrong! The Indian people we met were great, apart from the odd arsehole, but what country doesn’t have those?
The locals were great.
What we thought: India is just chaos – it runs at a thousand miles an hour.
How it actually was: Well, yes, all of the above. But, honestly, we loved it. I really don’t think anything can prepare you for how crazy and fast paced it is. If you’ve experienced Asia before, that might take away 1 percent of the shock.
It was like no other place we’ve been, and we’ve done a fair few Asian countries. The traffic is horrible, with everyone driving in any direction they please with seemingly no road rules. There are huge, sluggish cows strolling down the middle of the busiest streets. There are endless items being sold on the side of the road, laid out on blankets, along with people sleeping, eating, or even washing off their kids in a large bucket. Sometimes you feel paralyzed on the streets – incapable of moving and not knowing where it’s best to step next.
The final verdict: Spot on! This thought was a correct one! It is just crackers.
Cows just wandering the streets.
What we thought: The food is horrible and we will end up with the shits all the time.
How it actually was: Yes, we ended up with the runs, stomach cramps and poo smells that could pollute a small conglomeration. But! It was kind of worth it because the food was amazing.
The curries and side dishes were just so good. Even McDonalds and Subways had so many unfamiliar options, with new spices and unique twists. For vegetarians like Kristin, there were endless options everywhere we went.
But, from our experience, it was simply impossible to keep perfect digestive health. After the first few days, our stomachs felt a bit off, and it was a roller coaster ride from there – some days were better than others, but we never felt completely normal.
You just have to have a sense of humor about it, but don’t miss out on the local food. Sometimes this is just part of traveling.
Our one word of advice is to look for restaurants that look a bit cleaner and nicer. They might be more expensive, but not so much that you need to completely readjust your budget. Paying more is worth it to ensure you’re getting food that won’t make you too ill.
The final verdict: We were half right and half wrong. Yes, the shits were unavoidable, but it wasn’t as bad as we imagined – and pretty much everything we ate was delicious.
Think about where you decide to eat a little bit.
What we thought: The hotels will be dirty and inhabitable.
How it actually was: We found places that were very affordable but still nice (or nice enough), but we usually skipped the bottom-of-the-barrel cheapest option. We believe that you usually get what you pay for. If you always pick the cheapest available, you might find yourself miserable in some horrid accommodations.
When we arrived in Jodhpur, we had not booked a room yet. It was the end of our trip, so we were getting a little looser with our plans. Exhausted and trying to stretch our dwindling budget, we were willing to give a cheap option a shot. Within a few minutes of trying to get settled into our smelly room with an overflowing toilet, we realized that we simply had to get out immediately.
For just a little more money, we were able to stay somewhere much nicer. If you want to be comfortable, it is definitely possible.
The final verdict: You get what you pay for. Just figure out your priorities before you go. Want to save every penny possible? Be ready for questionable bathrooms and rooms without air conditioning. Want a little more comfort? Work it into your budget – honestly, these accommodations will still be cheaper than most others in the world.
Paying a tiny bit more gets you a lot more in India.
Here are a few other things we got completely wrong:
Domestic flights will be way too expensive – we got a super cheap flight from Jodhpur to Delhi that saved us a full day on the train at the end of our trip
After seeing the Taj Mahal in so many pictures, the real thing will probably be a let down – Wrong! It was still stunning and surreal.
The Taj Mahal was stunning.
After living in Thailand, we can handle any heat – We’ve never been anywhere hotter than India. Carry around the biggest water bottle you can (finding new water bottles to buy was sometimes a challenge) and don’t plan to be out in the middle of the day for too long. Mornings are best if you are sensitive to heat.
And here’s a couple we were right about:
The air in big cities will be polluted and breathing will be a problem – Yes, this was the case, especially in Delhi.
Those rickshaws will be kind of scary – They were! Some went way too fast, weaving around traffic, pedestrians, and bikes. Some even went the wrong way down busy streets.
They were a bit insane.
Many things can put you off travelling somewhere new. You can always come up with an excuse to stay home or choose somewhere “safe.”
We learnt an important lesson with India: You always need to see a place for yourself before you make up your mind, Don’t rule something out based on what other people say (or a guidebook or the internet). You might think you know what it’s going to be like, but odds are that you have no idea. When it came to our assumptions about India, more were wrong than right. Even when we were right, it wasn’t that bad – sometimes we even loved the things we thought we’d hate.
Have you ever been put off somewhere because of what you thought it would be like? Have you ever been completely surprised by how different a country or city was? We’d love to hear your experiences.