India is constantly lauded as the ultimate travel adventure and lambasted as the ultimate travel nightmare, often in the same breath, so what is the reality of travelling in India really like? Is it really such a harsh, unforgiving place for backpackers? This article will delve into the reality of travelling through India and give you the honest truth.
India really is one of the worlds true travel adventures that nothing can really prepare you for. It is a remarkable and astounding country, bemusing and bewildering in its diversity and ability to surprise you.
Nothing can compare to the amusement of sharing the street with a dozen cows, experiencing the sheer joy of the Holi festival in Rishikesh or seeing one of the worlds modern wonders.
But it is also a country where you will be confronted by extreme poverty, by beauracracy gone wild and a claustrophobia like you have never known simply by the sheer crush of people. India is huge, and it is packed! India is not an easy place to travel. The crowds can be absolutely overwhelming at times, and that goes for anyone.
India is so different from the west in many ways that many travellers struggle to come to terms with being there simply because it takes time to understand those differences. It’s a much steeper learning curve for backpackers than many other destinations.
There are no barriers in India, no safety net to fall back on. Culture shock will hit you like a baseball bat to the face and it will not give you time to recover before it kicks you in the gut.
Yet at the same time, for those travellers who survive that initial bombardment and can see a way through it, India is a country that will get under your skin and deep inside your soul and change you forever. India is a place that you will fall in love with, if you can get past the initial hate.
It is this dichotomy that so many travellers struggle with I think. India is not an easy place to get to know, and it certainly isn’t for everyone. It is not an easy part of the banana pancake trail for first time backpackers in the same way Thailand is, it is not an easy resort with all the comforts of home.
Yet independent travel or backpacking, is not supposed to be about creature comforts. It is supposed to be about the sheer adventure of travel, about getting far out of your comfort zone and experiencing new cultures in their entirety.
Those travellers who embrace that spirit of adventure, who are open minded and willing to take it all in, do well in India. Those that aren’t used to being outside of their comfort zones often struggle. That is why it’s not always recommended as the first stop on any gap year itinerary.
That isn’t to say that experienced travellers won’t find it hard sometimes too.
When I first landed in Mumbai I absolutely hated it. I was an experienced traveller at this point, having travelled through a large part of southeast Asia, Europe and a few other countries, but I hated it with a passion and thought that this would be the case for the rest of my trip. I wasn’t exactly in a good frame of mind at the time, so I probably wasn’t at my most open or accepting anyway, but Mumbai rubbed me the wrong way instantly. I hated the crush of people, the culture shock hit me hard and I began to get annoyed at the slightest thing. This was my first big travel disappointment. But once I got out of Mumbai and began exploring Rajasthan and further afield, when I slowed down and cleared my mind, I began to warm to India. She began to let me in a little.
‘All life is in India.’
For me India gave me the true escape from Western civilization that I needed back then and healed me in such a profound way that I didn’t even realise the full extent of it at the time. I’m not talking about some hippy ‘Eat Pray Love’ sentimentality about doing too much yoga, I’m not talking about some deep spiritual awakening. India allowed me the time and perspective to heal myself. It showed me that all aspects of life was right here in front of me, spiritual and secular, good and bad. It just existed and was ambivalent to my presence. I could exist here like everything else, good or bad, and I could accept it and be at peace, or I couldn’t.
I chose to accept it.
As much as I hated parts of India, I loved other parts of India with just as much passion, and it is these extremes that define India for me.
India is such a deeply conservative place, yet it is still the country that gave us the Kama Sutra and celebrates eroticism through ancient carvings at the temples of Khajuraho. It is a country that has a glittering new shopping mall right next door to a slum where people live in extreme poverty. It is a place where on one train journey I could have a conversation with some IT and business students who busted out their laptops and watched downloads of the latest Hollywood movies with me (not that I encourage that of course, but it was an awesome way to pass the time), and on the next journey I could have a conversation with a Muslim, a Catholic priest and a nun! And no, that is not the start of a bad joke.
As much as I found all the staring strange at first, as much as I initially thought so many people were uncaring or dispassionate, and hard to get to know because all I seemed to be doing was arguing about tuk tuk fares or getting into trouble with crowds on Delhi train stations, I met many wonderful, warm and open people in India too. I learned to largely ignore the stares and answer the millions of questions with as much grace as I could muster. I accepted that this was simply a way to appease honest curiosity and not take offence at what would be considered rude and too personal by many Western standards. I found that once I got used to it, the constant requests for photos and attention were actually quite fun, and a way to really connect with locals on a level I never could have otherwise.
Where else would a young girl and her family walk up to you out of the blue and wrap a scarf around your head because the sun is too strong?
Once I began to leave my mind open, to simply exist and observe, that is when India began to open up to me. I fell in love with the adventure of being in India, with the real spirit of exploration and the connection with it’s ancient and more recent colonial past. I fell in love not just with India, but with travel in a much deeper way than I ever had done before.
That is what India can give to travellers, a real experience of travel. This isn’t about hanging out in a cushy hostel surrounded by other backpackers, this is about experiencing a whole new world as a real traveller.
And you have to be ready for that.
The media stereotypes of travelling through India don’t do travellers any favours either, especially for women.
Read any mainstream media and you’ll come across scaremongering stories about rape culture or mass misogynistic attitudes, you will hear of women travellers stating that they felt unnerved at all the stares, that they felt that they could be attacked at any minute.
None of this is true, at least not to the extent the ridiculous sensationalist media would have you believe. India is a huge place, with well over a billion people crammed into it. Yes bad things do happen and yes there are places and situations that you should be careful of just as there is at home, but on the whole the majority of people are friendly and welcoming. On the whole you may get some people who want to do you harm, but you will also get huge numbers of people who live in a community based society and wil go out of their way to help if something goes wrong.
Be safe, be sensible and protect yourself by reducing any risk as much as possible, and you will travel safely through India.
So yes, India can be a hard place for travellers, but if you have the right attitude, if you embrace the adventure and are truly open minded, then you will not only learn to love India as a backpacker, you will thrive in it.
I encourage anyone to visit India. If it is your first gap year or you have never been backpacking before, maybe think about heading to a few other places first so you can expand your comfort zone a little, and definitely think about leaving enough time to give yourself a few days of rest and decompression every so often, but never let negative stereotypes or media scaremongering put you off visiting what is an amazing country and a true travel experience.
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