India. The crazy, colorful, spiritual country with a population of over one billion that overcrowd maze-like, sprawling cities, and demonstrate devotion across the tallest mountains down to the Arabian sea.
I never imagined India would be the first country stamped in my fresh, blank-paged passport, but in the summer of 2012 I landed in New Delhi scared, excited, and ready for a whirlwind of adventure. When you tell friends, family, or even strangers that you have booked a one-way ticket to go backpacking India, they will give you that crazy, “What the hell are you going there for” look and tell you how the trash piles high on every street, and how bad it will smell, and how unsafe it is [especially as a female] and you’ll find yourself nodding along and ask “oh, have you been?” And of course they haven’t, but they’ve “heard,” and you will walk off daydreaming of endless deserts and sparkling saris.
I started my trip with an intense five-week yoga teacher training course, living in a Hindu ashram in a holy city on the banks of Mother Ganges that sat along the foothills of the Himalayas. In two flights, my world as I knew it felt lightyears away, and all I could do was take a deep breath and dive in. My new normal became chanting sanskrit, drinking chai with 104 year old monks, chasing monkeys out of my bedroom, and being treated like a celebrity. It took me about two weeks to finally feel settled and comfortable in my new surroundings. Some travelers only have two weeks for backpacking India, which is why I believe by following my next few tips, you will be sure to enjoy almost every second you spend on the vast subcontinent.
Accept that you are no longer in your country with your customs. You are backpacking India, one of the oldest countries with one-sixth of the world’s population. You are not going to change their thoughts, beliefs, or minds on a short visit. I quickly learned it is best to observe their views and most importantly RESPECT their traditions. The traffic can be insane, the buses will break down, the internet won’t connect, and this can all make you crazy, but in all honesty what can you do? Complain? Sure, but in the end you are just stressing yourself out, making others upset, and the problem will likely sort itself out in time. Which brings me to my next tip.
Trains will be late, lines will be long, but what can you do but wait. Upsetting yourself won’t help. Take this time to explore the place you are in for a little bit longer, or buy a chai for a local and have a conversation, practice hindi with the kids, read more of your book, use the time to write about the experience, etc. My favorite memory of India is sitting on the streets with the locals as they chatted away into the night along friends, and enjoyed their fresh cup of chai tea. Alone or with friends I’d sit watching the people walk by and try to imagine their daily life. People watching in India might be some of the best in the entire world. Street vendors shouting out their latest dish, old men holding hands as their wives catch up behind them, children running barefoot playing cricket down the alleyway, cows mooing as they walk by, and all you can do is smile. It’s busy, crazy, intense, and here you sit comfortable with your chai and think holy hell, “I’m backpacking India.”
A lot. Indians stare. At each other and especially at the white, Westerner in front of them. If you take it offensively, you won’t enjoy your time in India. My best advice? Stare back. They’ll eventually look away. Or smile at them. Or just ignore it. Personal space doesn’t exist much in India and eventually someone will ask you to take a photo with them and in two second you’re holding their newborn child while the entire family gathers around you for the shot. Some will just pull out their camera phone and snap a pic of you regardless if you object or not. I believe it’s best to embrace your new celebrity status. “This must be what Angelina Jolie feels like,” I’d laugh as a baby screamed for his Ma in my arms.
As a female, I knew I’d be dressing much different than I would back home. Western men can get away with wearing whatever they choose, but women need to cover their shoulders, avoid low-cut anything, and wearing knee-length bottoms. Now I’m not saying you need to follow this everyday, but if you are entering a temple, visiting a holy city [Varanasi, Rishikesh, Pushkar are just a few to name], or a smaller village, I’d recommend it. The more you show, the more people will stare. India is changing and these traditional norms are fading away with the younger generations growing up in Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, but my advice is save your short shorts and tank tops for Goa.
If you dislike the attention, wrap a scarf around your head and keep your sunglasses on hoping to “blend” in. The best thing about India is everything is affordable and you’ll want to indulge in their super light, brightly-colored fabrics that feel like pajamas. What’s not to love. One of my favorite days was buying saris. The shop assistants had fabric twisting around us as we selected patterns after patterns and left the store with more than planned. With bindis [a jeweled sticker placed on your third eye] and our beautiful new saris, we swayed through the streets loving our new dress. It took a ladyboy to show us how to properly wrap them, but they were worth every single rupee, which brings me to my next point.
If you want to buy something, you will need to haggle the price. As a foreigner they will try to charge you double the price. Your goal is to half the first offer and my best advice is to BE CONFIDENT. If they say sorry I can’t go any lower, than walk away. Almost every time, they will shout back with a lower number. And make it fun. Make them laugh with you, it takes the pressure of the bargaining away and makes the experience more fun.
This goes for any person in any country. Be aware of your surroundings. Be aware of your belongings. If you feel uncomfortable, leave the situation. Even if it’s just a gut feeling and you think you could be over-exaggerating, follow it. There are bad people everywhere. Scams happen all over India, you can’t avoid them. But keep your important things close to you and use your head.
Indian is a veggie’s dream come true, but meat is still available. The only problem is that India lacks refrigeration and meat sits out in the hot sun for who knows long before being cooked. By staying veggie you will avoid “delhi belly” and getting sick too many times to count. Take it from some of the friends I met while traveling who got stuck in their rooms for days, too weak to make it to the pharmacy, and who unfortunately soiled themselves more than once.
On that note, get to India. An endless country of intoxicating spirituality, mesmerizing mountains, desert paradises, and an experience unlike anything you’ve seen in the past. Eat with your hands, rent a motorbike, hang your body out of a train, and jump in when there is a parade dancing down the street celebrating Ganesh’s birthday. You will love it one day, hate it the next, but leave only dreaming of more.
If you have any questions, concerns, or want more advice on India, I’m more than happy to share. I spent five months exploring from the border of Tibet to the backwaters of Kerala on the southwest coast and I still dream of my return.
Post originally appeared on Viktoria Wanders The World
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