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10 Things You NEED to know before going to India

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I have been piecing together a number of blog posts that will cover the time I spent travelling in India late last year. One of the biggest problems that I have faced is how to put into words the shear enormity of the experiences I had there. Of all the countries I have been to, India is the one that surprised me the most. So to put my trip into context, I wanted to share a few things that you may not read in the guide books, before I tell you my stories of incredible India. So here are 10 things that you probably didn't know to begin with...

1.       You will never be alone.
This might seem logical given the population of India, but in the whole time I was there, with the exception of having my own hotel room, I was never alone. There are people everywhere!! All day and all night you will be completely surrounded by people. It is loud and boisterous and you can hear the constant sound of horns beeping all night. From the moment I stepped on the plane at Heathrow I knew that this was going to be a hectic trip!

2.       Hotel Standards
Even in the nicest of hotels the level of cleanliness will not be up to the standard you’re used to. This means stained bed sheets, grubby towels and grimey bathrooms. But you just have to go with it. I suggest bringing your own towel and a sleeping bag liner for the more “itchy” beds and you’ll be fine!
As well as this you may find that your hotel/hostel does not have hot water or indeed you may find that hot water comes from the cold tap!

3.       You have to look EVERYWHERE
      When walking on the street in India you have to look in ALL directions. Left and right to avoid traffic, down to be careful of the uneven footpaths, up to avoid low swinging monkeys! Even though I had no experience of pick-pocketing, eyes in the back of your head in the busy tourist areas would also be helpful! This is a skill that is not easy to master when you are too busy being completely enchanted by the magical temples and opulent forts and your every other sense has been hijacked by the scents of fresh spices and flowers.

4.       Tipping Culture
There is a big tipping culture in India and besides restaurants and hotels, you will be expected to tip everyone from taxi drivers, to bathroom attendants. It is so ingrained in the culture that waiters will come back to you and remind you that there is no service charge if you haven’t left a tip. Try to keep small notes and coins handy to avoid both embarrassment and given too large a tip!

5.       Shopping is somewhat different
In India you will find some of the most amazing souvenirs you could ever imagine. But shopping for them is not what we would be used to! In Europe and the US, we expect to walk into a shop, see what you like and then buy it! Not in India. You tell the salesman what you are looking for and they proceed to show you everything in the shop in order of the poorest quality right up to the highest. This can be very overwhelming and leave you wanting everything in the shop, so you need to be firm about what you had come to buy. If you are looking to buy something in particular, it’s best to purchase it close to where it is produced, for example Pashminas in Varanasi, Saris in Jaipur. But if you can’t get close to the area, remember to haggle! Shop owners can be pushy, but always very respectful. One man saying “Please M’am, it would be my humble pleasure to show you my goods so you can find something beautiful for your Mother”
Shopping for Flowers in Jaipur

6.       Expect Delays
If you are travelling by train, remember to leave plenty of time. Trains are often delayed and I don’t mean by minutes, I mean by HOURS. Our overnight train from Jhansi to Varanasi was delayed by 4 hours because another train derailed after it hit a cow (seriously!). We were told that the train the day before was delayed by 7 hours, so if you are using a train to catch a flight, it is probably best to leave the day before, just to be on the safe side. I also recommend that you bring lots of food!

7.       Dogs and Monkeys and Cows, Oh My!
You may be aware that the cow is a sacred animal in India. What you may not know, is that they are EVERYWHERE. They walk through the streets paying little attention to humans, they eat from bins and sometimes from food stalls, I even had one stand beside me as I waited for a train at the station. Since Hindus believe that harming a cow leads to the ultimate bad Karma, they are very much left to their own devices and you will have to step out of their way if they want to pass. I would certainly say that there are more cows roaming free in India, than people in Ireland! As well as cows, you will also find an abundance of monkeys and stray dogs wandering the streets.
Monkey Overhead!

8.       Food in India vs Indian food.
If you like your chicken Balti or a good Tikka Masala, you will probably be quite surprised. Many of the dishes we have come to know as Indian were actually anglicized versions of the cuisine. That is not to say that you won’t be absolutely blown away by the amazing flavours and spices and the love that is poured into every Indian dish. Try the big chunky samosas, delicious butter chicken and the cottage cheese with spinach, accompany these with an Indian sweet lime soda or a creamy lassi,  you won’t be sorry! You will also be surprised at the distinct lack of meat in many places as many Hindus follow a vegan diet. You will certainly not find beef easily anywhere in India, so a visit to McDonalds is also quite interesting. Be careful of street food, in many parts of south east Asia, this is a go- to, but I met a group of young travellers who had all been shot down with food poisoning! Food in India is delicious and pretty cheap so find a good place and go nuts!
Typical Rajastani Food 

9.       The people are amazing!
The people I met in India were the friendliest and most kind hearted people I have ever met. Every person was so happy to talk, practice their English and listen to where I came from and what it was like there. I was also very honoured to be invited into a wedding party and be treated like a guest of honour, dancing, eating and talking to the family. I also had a few funny experiences of people asking if they could have their photos taken with me or handing me their babies!
Local women in Alipura

While begging is a problem in the larger cities, in the smaller villages, the children have not been exposed to this. They are happy to play with you and ask you to take their photo. You hear choruses of excited children shouting “Excuse me Miss, One photo please!” I was also blown away by the respect paid by the people towards people of other religions. Communities of Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Buddhist people live side by side, respecting each other’s beliefs and traditions.

10.   It will change your perceptions
Anyone who travels to India will tell you that it will change the way you think. Visiting a Hindu temple and taking part in their rituals has to have an effect on you and challenge your own beliefs and perceptions.
Making a wish to Ganesha in Galta Ji Temple

India dispelled the myths that it was a dangerous place, unsafe for female travellers. It wasn’t a dirty, smelly place over run with rats.  I wanted to disbelieve that a Hindu Guru could predict my future, but somehow I believed. I didn’t get “Delhi belly”. I unlearned all of the perceptions I had about the country and learned so many wonderful new things about it and myself.
Going Solo in Delhi!

Over the coming weeks I will be writing about my time spent in India, the people I have met and experiences that I will cherish forever. If, by the end of the series of posts, you do not want to book a flight, then I won’t have done the country justice and you should see it for yourself! 

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