Travel Talk|2019/10/02

Five things I learned about India

It’s a whole new world for a seasoned Canadian traveller visiting the orchestrated chaos, cultures and colours of India.

By Stéphanie Bishop

When I told friends and family I was going to India on holiday, they definitely fell into two camps.  Camp one: “Really? What about the poverty? The crowds? The food?”

Camp two: “I envy you! India is at the top of my bucket list – I can’t wait to go!”

And me? Like many first-time travellers to the country, I fell exactly between the two camps, excited about the discovery yet apprehensive about the unfamiliar. Happy and anxious at the same time.

Here’s what I learned on my first, but certainly not my last, trip to India:

1) It’s a huge country, so be prepared to be overwhelmed. And don’t be overly ambitious: India’s impossible to see in a couple of weeks so it’s wise to see one bit at a time. I chose a Golden Triangle Tour with Globus – it’s a popular itinerary for first-timers taking in Delhi, the “Pink City” of Jaipur, plus Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. If possible, arrive a couple of days before your tour starts so you can adjust to the time difference and get over some of the inevitable culture shock.

2) Don’t try it on your own. Of course, you can travel independently here, but if time is of the essence and you want someone to help you unravel the mysteries, go for a guided tour. Certified guides will be your interpreters, and not just for language (though I was surprised to learn how widely English is spoken) but for do’s and don’ts, where it is safe to eat, shopping ideas and how to best interact with locals. Our guide was brilliant in arranging for us to visit the Taj Mahal early in the morning.

3) Enjoy the food. Indian food is so much more than curry and I experienced some delicious, surprising meals. North American food is widely available, especially in upscale hotels, but it would be a shame not to try some local specialities. Be careful of the spices though! A meal in a private home, arranged by my guide, was a definite highlight.

4) Read up ahead on local customs. You may be expected to remove your shoes when visiting temples. Ladies may be expected to have their heads or legs covered. It’s so important to show respect.

5) Attitude is all. India is not Canada and there may be mysterious, inexplicable delays in service. Traffic is horrendous, yet fascinating, and will make rush hour at home look like a dawdle. Your personal space may be invaded, and you are guaranteed to witness things you’d never see at home, from piteous beggars and cow dung patty sellers to sidewalk dentistry.

Next time I go to India, when people ask why, I’ll be tell them it’s because it’s a beautiful, confusing, alive and captivating country, and I can’t wait to go back!