Traveling to India?
Here are a few vital things to know when planning a trip to India.
India is a mesmerizing country. Its history, culture, people, landscape and traditions make it a fascinating must-see.
It’s not the easiest place to travel, but it’s so worth the effort!
There are a few things I wish I had been told before I embarked on my journey, a few vital things to be aware of.
I remember when I decided to travel India alone, people said I was crazy, that I didn’t know what I was doing. They said I was going to be kidnapped, raped or some other horrible thing would happen to me.
But I just replied, “C’mon! I come from Brazil! Do you really think I can be that easily scared?” Besides, I had a lot of friends who had already been to India (including my mom 3 times) and who had told me about their experiences, so I really believed I knew everything I needed to know about it.
Wishful thinking. All the psychological preparation I thought I had was not enough. India surprised me in many ways. Most of the times positively, as a fascinating, colorful, culturally rich country. But unfortunately sometimes negatively too.
So here are 10 things I wish people had told me about India.
1 – Indian Food
India is mostly a vegetarian country. The cow is considered sacred to Hindus and should not be eaten. In fact, in some states people who are found to have eaten beef can face death penalties, which obviously causes big friction with the followers of other religions, such as muslims.
If you like eating meat and can’t live without it, you can find chicken in most restaurants, as well as fish in the south. Pork might be a bit harder, but you can find it too.
If you’re a vegetarian, welcome to paradise! I am and I just loved having 90% of all menus fit for me. There were so many delicious options! Each region has their typical dishes and specialties. Indian food can be pretty oily and spicy, but in many places you can also savor some delicious natural or Ayurvedic dishes, with lots of sprouts and legumes.
If you’re a vegan, you might find it a little bit hard to eat in India, since much of its cuisine is based on milk and dairy products. But it shouldn’t be harder than in any other western country.
Another thing worth mentioning is that most indians eat with their hands. They use a chapati (flat bread) to kind of scoop the food, which is usually liquid. If you don’t feel comfortable eating with your hands, most places also provide cutlery. I found it an interesting experience, which made me more aware of what and how I was eating.
Drinking Alcohol and Coffee in India
Hindus generally don’t drink alcohol and it’s rare to see them drinking coffee.
I must have had a coffee or beer twice during the whole period I was in India. I didn’t really miss it, because my aim was to study Yoga and kind of ‘detox’, so I was happy enough to replace it with a traditional, delicious chai. But if you’re the kind of person who needs a caffeine fix or a beer, you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding it.
Food Poisoning and Avoiding Delhi Belly
I’ve heard some horror stories of people who had really bad food poisoning in India. One friend of mine even had to leave the country due to serious dehydration. I had also heard about the ashram runs (do I need to explain the term?) and was a bit concerned about it. But I didn’t have anything at all in the whole period I stayed in India.
It was probably a combination of luck and caution from my part. I only ate street food from places that were personally recommended. Maybe my tummy was already used to weird foreign food too (from Brazil, Morocco, Bolivia and so on). But always take some activated charcoal and other preventative medicine just in case.
2 – How to Dress in India
In India, the old saying “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” is particularly important when it comes to dress code. Mainly for women, I’d recommend wearing indian-looking clothes. Not necessarily a sari (that long cloth that they wrap around themselves), but a Salwar Kameez, which consists of a tunic top and loose trousers narrow at the ankle, or just normal legging pants.
It’s not only better for your own safety (you’ll be less noticed and will expose less of your body), but they also appreciate it very much. Many people thanked me for respecting their culture and dressing like an Indian in their country.
Yes, it is warm and you’ll feel like going out in singlets and shorts. And I saw some girls walking like that in Delhi and Mumbai. Although I’d love to be in their clothes, I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes (by the looks and whistles they were getting).
3 – Languages in India
According to the last census, India has 122 major languages and 1600 other minor ones. The most spoken language by far is Hindi, with about half the population using it as their first language. English is up until now very much used and is for many Indians their first language. Many schools and most universities teach in English.
Then you have many languages which are spoken in the different states as the first language. It’s not hard to meet an Indian whose first language is their state language (for example Marathi in the state of Maharashtra), followed by Hindi, English and maybe even a fourth language.
You’ll be able to get around India speaking English, but I always think it’s nice to learn some basic words of the native language.
Useful words in Hindi
- Hi – Namaste
- Bye – Phir Milenge or simply bye
- Yes – Haan
- No – Nahi
- Please – Kripya
- Thank you – Dhanyavad
- Sorry – Kshama or Maaf kijiye
4 – Gender Roles in India
There is still a big gender inequity in India, with many men believing they have a greater say than their partner in important decisions, forcing their partners to have sex, as well as determining what they can wear and do. Men are also considered closer to attaining spiritual liberation than women.
I talked to many men who just couldn’t understand why western women wanted to work and have financial independence. They believed the man is supposed to provide for the family and the woman should be respectful and grateful for that and stay at home raising the family. (I don’t have anything against a stay-at-home mom, if that’s what she wants to do. I just don’t agree with forcing the woman to stay at home and forbidding her from having a job). Some guys talked about it in a sweet way though. They could barely wait to have a wife and be able to pamper her and do everything for her. As you may have noticed, gender equality is another controversial topic.
However, I also met girls who studied and had jobs and were in a happy relationship with their partners. So there is some change happening too, towards decreasing the gender gap.
It is common to see men holding hands in the street, but not so often to see women doing it. Men do it as a sign of friendly affection rather than loving. As a matter of fact, homossexuality is still a major taboo and not so many people come out publicly. I didn’t see any homossexual public display of affection and I’ve heard that most homossexuals remain undercover even after they got married (to someone of the other sex).
One thing worth mentioning is the Hijras or transgender women (originally born men). They are considered by some as good luck and by others as a curse. You may see them asking for money in trains and often in weddings, in exchange for blessings.
5 – Arranged Marriage in India
This is another very controversial topic. I was surprised to see that in India there are still a lot of arranged marriages and that in many cases the young people agree with it. I assumed they would rebel and refuse to get married to someone chosen by their parents. But I talked to many young people who told me “who can be better than our parents, who have known us all our lives, to choose the best person for us?” Apart from that, the arranged marriages are based on caste, astrology and other family business in some cases.
Some arranged marriages work
I met a girl who lived in Delhi, went to University and wore modern, western clothes, which just made me believe she would be against it. Surprisingly, she invited me to her wedding, which had been arranged by her family and was supposed to happen a few months from then. She had met the groom once and was really excited about it. Recently, I’ve seen photos of them online and saw that they just had a baby. They seem to be really happy and in love. Many times it does work out.
Sometimes it doesn’t work at all
However, I met another Indian girl in Mumbai who had run away from her husband because he cloistered and hit her. She told me that after she left him she decided to become an air hostess and on her free time she traveled around the world. She also told me that her ex-husband said that if he sees her again he might kill her.
There are love marriages too
I also met people who looked much more traditional (at least in the way they dressed and behaved), but they had had a love-marriage, which was accepted by their families.
And secret weddings
Last but not least, I met young people who had partners but still hadn’t told their parents, because they knew they wouldn’t accept it. I met this guy in Mumbai who was together with a swiss girl and they were planning to get married in Switzerland. He told me he’d only tell his family after the wedding.
Unless you’re in a beach in Goa, you don’t really see explicit public demonstrations of affection in India, like people kissing or hooking up in public. So if you go with your partner, I’d say it’s okay to walk holding hands and quickly kiss, but leave the long, wet kisses for the hotel room.
I didn’t see many dating couples either and met many people my age who had never kissed or had sex.
6 – Dirtiness
Unfortunately most of the big cities in India are very dirty. There is waste in the street, everywhere. I got tired of seeing people finishing their snacks on the train and just throwing the package out of the window. And when everyone does that, it is hard to enforce the contrary.
I also saw people defecating alongside the train tracks and dead animals being eaten up by vultures on the sidewalk. I think the situation is slowly changing for the better, but if you’re planning a trip to India, it’s better to be prepared for some filthiness.
7 – Traffic in India
If there are really 330 million gods in India, I’m pretty sure one of them takes care of the traffic.
Traffic in India is insane. Nothing in this world could have prepared me for that. When I first arrived at the Mumbai International Airport and got on a rickshaw, I thought I was going to die every 20 seconds. Literally.
After 2 months, that rate had lowered to once every 2 minutes. I don’t know how they can do it, but they do it. They manage to drive in narrow streets and share the lanes with thousands of rickshaws, cars, motorcycles, bikes and of course animals. Mostly cows, which are not to be disturbed, even if they are obstructing the road. But I also saw elephants, camels, goats, pigs, monkeys, dogs, and chicken.
Traffic jams are a major problem in big cities. I had the chance to experience staying stuck for 4 hours (you read that right, FOUR hours) on the same street in Delhi. That made my 2-hour-stuck-in-traffic-in-Sao-Paulo experiences seem like a piece of cake.
Public Transport in India
I should also mention that the public transportation in big cities can be a mission during rush hours. It’s almost impossible to understand how those hundreds of people waiting in the station will manage to hop on a train that is already packed. But they do. Thankfully they also have women-only wagons and I felt much safer being squeezed by them rather than by men. I know that women-only wagons are a mere palliative measure and that people should focus on changing the way women are treated in society. But until that happens, I was really thankful for the pink wagons.
8 – Being different in India
Be prepared to have a lot of people staring at you. In most of the cases it happens just because you’re different and it shouldn’t be a reason for getting concerned. I traveled in trains and had men and women staring at me for hours, literally nonstop. Sometimes I really got distressed but there was not much I could do. I realized that if I yelled at them, I’d probably get a bigger crowd of spectators. So I just tried to focus on my book and forget that they were there.
People asking for photos
Many people will ask to take a picture with you. The more different from them you look like (physically and also the way you dress), the more they’ll ask. You decide how often you will want to do that and with whom. If it was a group of guys, I generally didn’t accept (sometimes they took a picture of me anyway). If it was a woman with her kids, I generally did.
On one occasion, a boy (probably aged around 12) asked my friend and I to take a picture with him. We agreed and in the middle of the selfie he tried to touch our breasts. We told him to get the hell out of there and laughed about the situation. But it could have been worse (imagine a bigger group of older men).
Anyway, if you want to avoid any risk, I’d say the best thing to do is to smile nicely and say “I’m sorry but no”.
9 – Religion in India
The most predominant religion in India is Hinduism, with around 80% of the population. Nevertheless when you talk to Hindus they claim it is not their religion but rather their way of living.
Whether they have 33 or 330 million gods, is rather a philosophical question. But the basic philosophy of Hinduism advocates that rivers, rocks, animals and humans are ultimately all divine.
You’ll probably see lots of hindu temples across the country destined for the different gods. Many people also have a god of their preference, who is sometimes the patron of the family. It is also common (and very interesting) to see the performance of pujas (worshiping rituals). I had the chance to experience them individually in a family home, in a temple or together with other millions of people in the Ganges river in Rishikesh for example.
The second most common religion in India is Islam. Muslims can be found mainly in the far north (close to the Pakistani border), and northeastern states. Hindus and Muslims cohabit mostly in peace with few exceptions, like when it comes to eating beef.
Christianity and other religions
There is a 2.3% share of Christians in India but I didn’t meet a single indian Christian during my trip. 0.7% of the population are Buddhists and they can be found mostly close to Nepal. India is also the home to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in Exile. They live in Dharamsala, a city marked by Tibetan Buddhism. India also has 0.4% of its population declared as Jainists. They can be found mostly in the northwestern part of the country.
Some 1.7% of the Indian population are Sikhs and they are predominant in the state of Punjab. That’s where they have their holiest place of worship: the Golden Temple, in Amritsar.
Sikhism is based on the spiritual teachings of Guru Nanak, which are found in the sacred scripture Guru Granth Sahib. The book is nowadays regarded as their final, sovereign and eternal living guru and is worshiped in the temples. The original one is kept in the Golden Temple and is taken care of as a person, being cleaned and ‘put to sleep’ daily.
One remarkable sign of Sikhs is the turban. For many people it’s their dearest item. My couchsurfing host in Chandigarh had dozens of them, on all different colours and fabrics.
He took great care of them and spent 1 hour every day putting it on his head, meticulously turning that long cloth around his hair and adjusting the folds correctly. A decent-looking turban is very well regarded socially! Many of them have never cut their hair or beards as a symbol of respect for the perfection of God’s creation.
10 – Castes
Caste is a form of social stratification and is still very present in Indian society. It is characterized as the hereditary transmission of a lifestyle, distinguished by relative degrees of social status and ritual purity or pollution.
The system is very intricate and hard to understand for a foreigner. Even though it is becoming less relevant, I still met many guys who told me really proudly that they were Brahmins, or the top of the caste system. Conversely, I read about several cases of Dalits (the lowest level of the Hindu caste system) who had gone as far as phd degrees and then killed themselves. They were not able to bear the daily prejudice and segregation.
11 – Climate in India
I guess most of us think India is always hot and humid, but that’s not true.
Alright, Mumbai was the muggiest experience of my life, where I barely stepped out in the street and instantly the sweat started dripping.
But India can be really cold too. If you’re planning to visit the North (like the Ladakh region) in the winter, prepare for cold and snow. There are several winter holiday destinations in the Himalayan area and some of the access roads can get blocked after heavy snowfalls.
The South is known for having more mild temperatures, with humid tropical regions supporting rainforests in the southwest and drier tropical weather in the southeast. The west part of the country (mostly Rajasthan) is characterized by arid desert.
The monsoons happen from June to September and slowly sweep across the country, bringing heavy precipitation mainly in the central region. It’s not advisable to visit India during the monsoon, unless you’re willing to visit everywhere under heavy summer storms.
12 – Shopping
Shopping is really cheap in India and you can find pretty much anything – clothes, jewelry and precious stones, fabrics and shawls, tapestry, silver, religious stuff and so much more. I have some friends who paid their whole trips to India by selling things back at home. It’s something to consider.
Always bargain. They’ll always tell you a much higher price and will lower it down according to your bargaining power, appearance and background. That’s right. I think in many occasions being a Brazilian brunette, dressed as an Indian helped me get a better price than say a blond German dressed in western clothes.
The currency in India is the rupee and it orbits around 0.014 and 0.02 of a dollar. You can get a lot with little money and the luxury you want to have in your travels depends on how much you’re willing to invest. I did couchsurfing in many places, stayed in relatively cheap ashrams and ate from simple restaurants. But you can also indulge in beautiful resorts and fine dining restaurants, go on organized tours and travel with a lot more luxury. India offers endless possibilities, for all tastes and budgets.
This list is not intended to be taken as a general rule, because India is such a diverse, ever-changing, dynamic country. But those were some points that I think are worth taking into consideration before traveling to this incredible country.
Hope they will help with planning your trip to India and make your travels easier and more enjoyable!
During this amazing trip, I had the most revealing insights in my life, and realized what I love doing the most. I wrote a book about finding love, happiness, self-knowledge and empowerment. You can read more about it here:
Follow my Instagram for pictures of the current places I’m exploring:
Click on the Instagram item on the sidebar or search for @worldbyterra
Thanks for liking, commenting and sharing!