Any guidebook that calls itself a guidebook features the same tips and advice when it comes to India: don’t drink the tap water, don’t take food from strangers, dress appropriately, stay alert in crowds etc, etc. They’re all super useful points (seriously, don’t drink the tap water!) and the Indian Tourism government board thing even gives you a cute little pocket-sized orange booklet with a religious child on the front on arrival with all the basics stuffed in. Or they did give them out anyway – I got one on my last visit in April but this time they neglected to hand it out. But the Customs official also put the wrong date in my passport sooo.
Anyway, here are a few of the less obvious things everyone should know before going to India, and some super obvious ones to mix things up a little bit.
Breakfast is a big deal
Seriously, it’s unreal how much India loves breakfast. People have got really, really mad – like, actual red in the face type anger- at me for skipping breakfast. But to me, breakfast is maybe a bowl of Cheerios or a croissant and a juice, perhaps something more exciting (hello pancakes!) on a Sunday, whereas over here (specifically talking about Kerala) breakfast is a bloody big hot meal almost always featuring some kind of curry. Curry for breakfast. Idli, appam, dosa, they’re all traditionally eaten for breakfast over here and man, that stuff is heavy. You don’t skip breakfast if you’re in India, you just don’t.
It’s an unbelievably diverse country
India is made up of 20 States and 7 Union territories, and these figures actually change on the regular. It’s the 7th largest country in the world by area, and with a population of almost 1.3 billion it’s the 2nd most populous. So it’s safe to say that not all of India is what you see in that Coldplay music video. In fact while we’re on the subject, none of India is what you see in that Coldplay video. I’ve already written a rambling post about what India is and isn’t so I’m not going to go on and on about it again, but I will say India is absolutely a country of contrasts. The landscape, religion, culture, language, people, attitude, laws, weather – it all differs from state to state. Like any country, India can’t be defined by the few stereotypical ideas you’ve formed because of what you saw on TV or what you learnt in Year 4 Geography (for me that lesson was that all Indians work in paddy fields…). Visiting India is like visiting Europe – you get a whole new experience, a whole new vibe, with each and every border you cross.
Pavements are a luxury
Unless you’re wandering around the main streets of one of the major cities like Mumbai, don’t expect pavements. You’ll just have to make do with strolling along the side of the busy highway trying to simultaneously avoid the crazy traffic and not fall into a ditch.
Eggs are not vegetarian
But mayo is. I know, I don’t get it either.
For whatever reason, I’m not considered a vegetarian by many Indians because I eat eggs. I’ve had many many debates about this with the guys I used to work with back in the restaurant in UK when they’d give me grief about eating the staff egg curry because that’s not vegetarian. So if you’re looking for omelette on the menu, do yourself a favour and skip the Veg page because it ain’t gonna be there.
Religion is extremely important
It would seriously surprise me if there was one single road in the whole of India that didn’t have some sort of religious place of worship on it. According to the most reliable source in the world, Wikipedia, 79.8% of India’s population are Hindu, 14.2% Muslim, 2.3% Christian, 1.7% Sikh, 0.7% Buddhist, 0.4% Jain and 0.9% Other. I can only assume that Agnostic and Atheist fall under the Other category, meaning that less than 1% of the population believe nothing.
When I meet someone new without fail the same four questions are fired at me in the same order: What is your name? Which country? Are you married? Are you Catholic?
Religion is everywhere, belief is everywhere and it’s so, so important.
You can hear electricity
This is another one of those that looks so stupid sentences, but I swear you can hear electricity everywhere. There’s a constant buzz, like the one you hear if you stand too close to an electric fence (don’t stand next to electric fences), and to be honest it makes me feel like Beetee and Wiress from Hunger Games. I find it most prominent when I plug my charger into the wall but don’t plug my phone into the charger, and the bonus here is that if you touch the end of the charger while it’s plugged in you’ll get a nice little shock.
Spice has a whole new meaning
I like spicy. I eat jalapeños straight out the jar. At Indian restaurants back home I’ll more than often order a ‘hot’ curry, and depending on the locale sometimes might even ask them to make it that cheeky bit extra spicy. But here in india? I can just about manage a ‘medium-spicy’ and quite often in restaurants and cafes not geared towards tourists (which is basically everywhere I eat right now because I’m starting to think I’m the only foreign tourist to ever come to this town outside of festival season) I have to ask them for ‘no spicy’. And even then the no spicy is just about sufferable by my palate. Seriously, if you like your vindaloo back home, you’d be best off sticking to a butter masala over here.
Road safety doesn’t exist
Or rather, it does exist but nobody could give two hoots about rules, regulations and *gasp* actual laws. There are speed limits in place but nobody sticks to them. You’d be hard-pressed to find a 3-lane road with anything less than 5 lanes. Driving licenses are easier to get your hands on than a public bus with AC. Traffic lights are just for decoration, much like Zebra crossings. Helmets aren’t obligatory for any motorcycle passengers. And speaking of motorbikes, it’s not uncommon (in fact it’s very very very common) to see a family of 4 or more all squashed together on one bike, babies and toddlers included. Forget paying attention to the road in India – texts and phone calls are much more important. Basically, life as a pedestrian here is like a constant game of Chicken. I’ve seen more RTAs in the past month than the rest of my life put together, and I know I’m normally Queen of Exaggeration but I’m being 100% honest here.
Motorists just don’t care, and it’s because there’s little to no ramifications if the worst happens. This past weekend I asked a friend what happens if, as a driver in India, he were to fatally hit somebody. His answer? A fine of “maybe 2000 rupees or something” and “maybe 14 days in prison“. So there you have it; the value of someone’s life on the road is £24 and, in the most severe cases, 2 weeks in prison. Absolute madness.
Good WiFi is a myth
Before leaving the UK I jokingly asked a friend “does Kerala have Internet?” and he didn’t detect the humour so replied quite haughtily (this is a direct quote) “Of course it does! India is one of the most up and coming technological superpowers in the world“. That was me told. But for an up and coming technological superpower, the WiFi really is shit.
You will be seen as a bunch of dollar signs, not a person
Obviously, this isn’t a blanket statement applicable to every single person in India, because it’s not. But in the more tourist-oriented areas (Agra, Jaipur, Kochi, etc.,) drivers, shop owners and basically anyone offering something you want will just see you as a bag of money. Irrespective of whether or not you’ve maxed out your overdraft and are wearing rags, they will jump to the conclusion that seeing as you’re Western, you have money, and as such you won’t blink an eye at paying 1000 rupees for a shawl that actually costs 250 or 300 rupees for a 50 rupee journey. It’s their country, their right to take advantage apparently. And they will fight you for this right. They will follow you, they will push their wares on you and some will even try to guilt trip you.
When I was in Mumbai I was buying a shirt at one of the market stalls and a man came up to me with one of those really crappy Etch-a-Sketch things that normally come as a free gift with Peppa Pig magazines. He told me it was magic, I told him it most certainly was not. He told me it would only cost me 100 rupees, I told him I didn’t want it even for 20 rupees. He followed me almost the whole way through the market, begging and pleading with me to buy this piece of tat. He lowered his price to 50 rupees, and when I firmly told him in no uncertain terms that I did not want it and if he didn’t stop following me I would call the police, he told me “Come on Madam, 50 rupees for you is nothing. 50 rupees for me is everything“. And he was right. 50 rupees to me is nothing, but that doesn’t mean I should feel forced into parting with 50 rupees to buy something from a man who was rude, borderline aggressive and made me feel uncomfortable.
Male-female friendship is still hard to grasp for a lot of people
The whole reason I came to India was to visit friends – male friends. And oh my days, I’m starting to think that they are just not worth the effort! Last time I was here back in April/May we were driving somewhere, five of us in a car with me being the only girl. The police stopped us because the police stop everyone, and the first thing he asked was who’s wife was I. Um, nobody’s mate. So-called friends and relatives of the guys I’m visiting have wasted no time in whispering about how I must be the secret girlfriend of one of them because why else would I be here. It’s mostly the slightly older generation, but there’s also an annoying amount of girls in their late teens/early twenties giggling uncontrollably if they see me out and about alone with one of the guys. Seriously India?!
Everything is made of rice
On paper that statement just looks really, really stupid but seriously, everything is made of rice. Rice (obviously) is made of rice, and then they have rice flour which is made of rice, which is then used to make all sorts of baked goods (including donuts, which taste yuck) and then there’s noodles made of rice, and I’m pretty sure some clothes are even made of rice. And if you’re down south and something isn’t made of rice, there’s a good chance it has something to do with coconuts instead.
Westerners can’t walk
When you first arrive in the country as a foreigner, be it by land or air, the first thing that happens is the immigration or customs official nails a huge, flashing neon sign to your head that reads “Ask me if I need a taxi”. The sign is about 2 metres high and 1 metre across. There’s a catch, though. You don’t know the sign is there. It’s invisible, and the only people who have the power to actually see it are those who drive tuk-tuks, taxis or camels. It sounds farfetched, I know, but I hand on heart promise you it’s definitely true. I mean, there’s no other explanation as to why drivers always seem to know I need a taxi, even when I don’t. It’s either that or they just really care about me and don’t want me to over exert myself walking that 100 metres to the shop to buy a packet of biscuits. Thanks Indian taxi drivers, you truly are a bunch of absolute gems.
In case it’s not evident *some* but not all of this post is pretty tongue-in-cheek (e.g. they don’t actually nail an invisible sign to your head, duh) so if you feel offended or put out or whatever, don’t.
And if anyone else has any useful little things to remember when hopping over to the land of spices, please do feel free to share because sharing is caring after all.