We have written before about the challenges travelers face when it comes to getting advice from friends, relatives, and complete strangers before heading out on any adventure.
Traveling in India is no exception.
Because I am a yoga student and teacher, many of our friends and acquaintances have travelled in India. So we have had no end of people offering advice before we flew from Rome to Chennai. Some of it was sage advice from seasoned travelers.
Some of it was just idiotic.
I recently had a phone call with an experienced India traveler/trip organizer who warned me in no uncertain terms that I couldn’t comprehend what India was like. I would not understand or be welcomed into the culture. And there was absolutely no way we could travel on our small budget in India. She told us:
“It’s not the Walmart of the world, despite what people think.”
Um, OK. Like I ever said it was…
Others have warned us to be wary of pickpockets (which in my experience is a good suggestion wherever you are), that people will try to rip us off at every opportunity, we’ll be ostracized unless we wear traditional Indian clothes, the traffic is terrifying, noisy and insane, the language is impossible and – from almost everyone – we have “never experienced anything like it”.
In my head, I kept thinking, “Yeah, but…”
…Jane and I rode our bikes through China for four months.
…Nothing can be as busy as Jakarta.
…We never got food poisoning in Malaysia and Indonesia (OK, maybe once).
…We have been to villages in China where NO ONE in town spoke one word of English and had never seen a foreigner before.
…People told us the same things about Syria, and China, and Cambodia, and… they were never right.
“That’s exactly why we are going”.
But then there was another part of my brain. An anxious part in the back of my mind saying:
“Yeah, but… you’ve never been to India before. Maybe this time, the warnings will all be true.”
We have, admittedly, only been traveling India for 60 hours so far, and we haven’t left Chennai yet, but India is already surprising us in so many ways.
Here are 9 ways India might surprise you, too.
9 Ways Traveling In India Will Surprise You
Surprise 1: We Can Communicate
Every single person we have met while traveling in India speaks some English – most of them are completely fluent. If they don’t understand something we say, a friend close by does. This is definitely not something we were expecting.
Shopkeepers can tell us exactly how to wear the unfamiliar fashions we want to buy and it is such a luxury to negotiate with autorickshaw drivers in English.
We remark all the time how fortunate we are to speak English as a first language. It makes our life as travelers so much easier.
Surprise 2: Reading the Signs
Almost every sign is in English (as well as Tamil, the local language). This makes getting around, understanding menus, finding shops, services and hotels just as easy as it is at home.
Surprise 3: Dressing Up, Dressing Down
Except for some older men, most men wear slacks and checked shirts all the time. It’s pretty much the same outfits we see at a Wilco concert. They also wear jeans and t-shirts. Most women wear saris, yes, but plenty of younger women wear shirts and jeans – slightly less revealing, but not at all unlike the clothes back home.
Yes, we draw attention wherever we go, but it’s not because of our clothes. Jane is a head taller than most women here and her red hair and blue eyes stand out a mile away; nobody is looking at her outfit.
Surprise 4: Where’s the Hard Sell?
Lots of people have stopped to talk to us. Not one of them has been trying to scam us, sell us anything, or take advantage of us in any way. They just want to say hello and welcome us to Tamil Nadu.
This includes stall holders in the busy Pondy Bazaar market, who could easily have tried to sell us something, but they were too busy being curious to bother. We have also already been invited out for tea and over to a woman’s home for conversation.
Surprise 5: Hotel, No-Tell
Accommodation is far worse than what we saw in much of what we saw in Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos. Whether you pay 10 or 65 USD per night, your guest house is probably run down, dirty, and a little bit less comfy than you’d like.
(We think this might have to do with the crippling accommodation tax in Tamil Nadu or the fact that men are in charge of hotels – sorry guys, buy you just don’t know how to provide home comforts like women do.)
Luckily, staff tend to make up for this lack of facilities by being super-friendly and helpful. Which brings us to number six…
Surprise 6: People Helping People
Customer service here is AMAZING. (They certainly didn’t learn this from the British.)
Staff are plentiful, super helpful, and friendly. People have gone above and beyond for us when we needed help. When we don’t, a friendly smile and a “just looking” is all it takes to be left to nose around the stores on our own. (While the shop girls giggle and whisper about us behind our backs.)
Surprise 7: Honesty is the Best Policy
People have been very honest with us in taxis, at the market, and in stores. We have never yet felt someone was trying to rip us off.
We’ve taken about ten autorickshaws so far, and each time I was able to bargain to a good price quickly and easily (and I’m not even a good bargainer). The drivers have taken us to our doorstep ever single time. And when we pay, they thank us, smile broadly and send us on our way. This is a far cry from the way drivers act in many (most) other countries we’ve visited.
Surprise 8: Glorious Food
It’s been simple to find clean, busy, local places to eat delicious food for a couple of dollars each. We thought we’d have a tough time finding places with an “acceptable” level of hygiene. The plethora of vegetarian options helps a lot, too.
So far, so good on the food poisoning front.
Surprise 9: India is Like Somewhere Else
Chennai is really not so different from other places we’ve been.
The biggest difference is that there are sometimes cows wandering around the streets instead of cats. Oh, and it’s easier to get vegetarian food than it is to eat meat.
So I guess we really weren’t prepared for India. We weren’t prepared for how welcoming, friendly, honest, and straightforward everything has been. We weren’t prepared to find it so similar to so many other parts of the world.
Yes, it’s not Los Angeles, it’s not London, and it’s not Vancouver. And this isn’t to say that we now know all about India and nothing challenging will ever happen here.
We know that India is a huge place, and Chennai is not Delhi or Mumbai. We know that we’ve landed in the most laid back, least touristy part of the country.
But we also know that there’s no substitute for experiencing a place yourself. There’s no way other people’s impressions will ever paint the picture of your own experiences. So don’t trust us when we tell you what Tamil Nadu is like.
Get out there see for yourself.
♥ Happy adventures, Stephen & Jane