Just when you begin to think you can sum up India, it surprises you, offers you something unique, or throws a new curveball at you. But don’t be intimidated.
India, with its rich cultural history, exceptional diversity, and wonderfully delectable food is a place not to be visited, but experienced.
And if you go in with an open mind, it won’t be one you’ll easily forget.
The Sanskrit phrase “athithi devo bhava” literally translates to, “A guest is equivalent to God,” which might explain why Indians take hospitality seriously.
They will invite you into their homes, insist you attend their daughter’s wedding, give you the last piece of chicken, and have you ingesting so much chai you’ll wonder how you survived so long without it.
Let’s just get this out of the way then, shall we? You’re not going to be able to walk ten meters in any direction without hitting a tea stall, someone drinking tea, or someone delivering it. Indians love their tea, but not the herbal kind or the one that’s concocted together in a cup. No, chai is strong, milky, and sweet, and served up at any opportunity.
Expect to drink a lot of it, even if just to be polite.
You’ve heard the advice about not eating on the street and drinking only bottled water, yes? The advice about the bottled water is correct. Listen to it. But street food? You don’t need to avoid all of it. The trick with food in India, especially the food on the street, is to think about how it’s cooked.
Potatoes fried in hot oil (aloo chat—a must have!) is a go. The chicken marinating out in the open in the 35-degree heat? Probably best to give that one a miss.
A sweet shop is always around the corner in India and the Haldirams chain, with its huge selection of sweets and snacks, is the perfect place to stop for a break during a long hot day.
However long you think your journey will take, it will take double the time. You will be stuck in traffic for hours. There will inevitably be an argument. You will arrive at your destination hours later than expected.
But not to worry—that’s okay and completely acceptable. Most Indians function by “Indian Standard Time” which often translates to the actual time plus a minimum of thirty minutes.
Bargain. Negotiate. Counter-offer. In India, you’ll often be charged more than the value of the product or the service, especially as a foreigner, unless you learn to haggle like the best of them.
The street markets, which are worth a wander on their own merit, are also where you’ll get to witness some of these mad haggling skills. Our advice? India’s a fantastic place to shop for fine textiles, eye-catching jewelry, and mementos to take home, but remember to negotiate like an Indian when you do so.
One of the things you’ll learn really quickly about India is that Indians are a fairly friendly bunch. If you find yourself lost on the street, unable to understand the language or simply in need of a helping hand, you’ll often find several people ready and willing to come to your rescue.
Don’t be shy about asking for help or an invitation. Crash a wedding, attend a dance party or go to a new friend’s house for homemade food. You’ll get tons of invitations from locals to become a part of their lives and routines. Accept them! You’ll get to see the sides of India that most tourists almost never do.
No matter whether you arrive in spring or summer, autumn or winter, there is a festival waiting to happen on your trip to this country. India has the highest number of bank holidays per year in the world and Indians do love to celebrate.
You might come in the spring and find yourself drenched in colored water, dancing in the middle of the street. Or you might land just in time for Diwali, the festival of lights and the biggest celebration of the year. No matter when you arrive, there’s always a festival waiting to happen and you’re always guaranteed a good time.
You’re not going to see all of India in one go. It’s simply not possible. So pick a few places and get to know them well. If it’s your first time in the country, prepare to be challenged. India can often test even the strongest of resolves.
Even so, many who hate India when they arrive love it by the time they leave.
Be open to letting it show you its different sides—and there are many—and you’ll be in for a wild ride.
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