I’m very fortunate to have been able to travel to India twice so far, with my third trip coming up in December 2023 for my wedding. My incredible fiancé was born and raised in Vadodara, Gujarat, India and I’ve had the pleasure of spending time in both his hometown and his childhood home during my recent trips. While I may not initially seem like an expert on all-things India as I’ve only been there twice, it’s important to note that I’ve been exposed significantly to this beautiful culture for the entire duration of our relationship of almost 4 years. I’m even learning to speak Hindi as my soon-to-be husband, Monish, and I will make many, many more trips back to India in the coming years.
As much as I love India, it’s not for everyone. I’m not just saying this – Indians have told me this (specifically my fiancé and his family) as a forewarning to prepare me for my first trip which occurred in March 2022. The sights, the sounds, the smells, the people – ALL of these aspects differ greatly from those of the United States, the environment that I was born and raised in. Monish’s sister actually told me that she’s had friends come visit her in India from different parts of the world, and that some of them are just overwhelmed by everything this incredible country has to offer. Understanding this, Monish began preparing me for my first trip to India back when we first started dating, which happened to begin right before the 2020 pandemic lockdown occurred. Great timing! What else was there to do back then besides watch a million Bollywood movies and dream about traveling to India?
It’s important to note that while life in India is completely different from life in the United States, none of it is wrong! There is no “right or wrong” way to live life, and by choosing to travel the world and expose yourself to new cultures, you will be better equipped to fully understand this.
Additionally, I want to mention that I am pointing out aspects about India that differ greatly from my culture as an American. My intention is to help inform Americans and other foreigners interested in traveling to India about what to expect, the “do’s” and “don’ts” and things to consider before booking a flight. Please know that I truly respect all that is Indian culture, and that I am not at all intending to be offensive, but I am simply laying out cultural differences that my fiancé and I have noticed.
India is a heavily populated country with over 1.4 billion people living in it, with a population density of roughly 1200 people per square mile (for comparison, the United States has roughly 93 people per square mile). That said, you can expect the majority of this country to be loud, especially if you’re visiting the urban areas. Throughout all hours of the day, you’ll likely hear the honking of car horns, the loud chatter of people, music, cows mooing and an array of other sounds that you might not be able to recognize. If you, like me, sometimes struggle with auditory overload, I suggest packing a pair of noise canceling headphones to help drown out the excess sound when your ears need a break.
While India is absolutely beautiful, it doesn’t always smell great. An overpopulated country with a high poverty rate combined with wildlife running free everywhere can sometimes cook up some unpleasant smells. Some examples would be cow dung, sewage, garbage… You get the picture. But you’ll also find some incredible smells as well, especially if someone near by is cooking some food! The smell of spices, onion and garlic tend to linger in the air, sometimes mixed with unpleasant smells which could potentially send your nose into overdrive. While there’s nothing you can do about it, it’s important to be aware and avoid making faces when an unpleasant smell hits your nostrils. What might be an unpleasant smell for you may be something that the locals are used to and don’t even notice anymore.
The sights, the smells, the sounds – all of it can be a bit overwhelming, especially if you don’t live in a metropolitan city. And if you do live in a metropolitan city, be prepared for the usual city chaos that you might expect to be on steroids. As a reminder, the more people you have in one specific area, the more chaotic it may seem and as we discussed earlier, India has a lot of people and not a lot of extra space to go around. In terms of population, let’s compare the population of a few of the largest cities in the United States versus the largest cities in India to help paint a better picture. **Vadodara is where my fiancé is from, and this is just an average city in India (not a tourist destination).
All of this is to say that if you’re planning to visit one of the major cities in India, be prepared for lots of stimulation. While I, personally, can sometimes become overstimulated, I truly love all the hustle-and-bustle that embodies the large Indian cities! I just make sure to carve out time for myself and have my noise cancelation headphones ready in the event I need a “stimulation break”.
Cultural Differences to be aware of:
If you grew up in the United States like me, you were probably taught not to stare at people because “staring is rude”. Well, in India, this unwritten rule does not exist! Be prepared to get stared at all the time for no reason at all. I like to have fun with this and stare right back at whoever I catch staring at me. ?
People “Cutting the Line”
If you’re from the U.S., you’re likely used to standing in line and waiting your turn – this is something that we’re all taught to do from a young age. When you’re in India, you cannot expect this whatsoever. Per my fiancé who was born in the Indian state of Gujarat, “waiting your turn” is not a widely-used concept. Sure, some places will have lines and people will stand in them, but don’t be surprised if someone (or multiple people) cut in front of you while acting like they did nothing wrong. This has happened to me in many different places – while waiting for a stall in the restroom, in the airport security line, when waiting to purchase something at a store. If it happens to you, don’t get offended! But if it happens continuously when in the same line and you’re not getting any closer to your destination…learn to do as the Indians do! It’s like what they say, “when in Rome…“
People Driving Like “Road Rules” Don’t Exist
If you’re traveling to India and have already started your research, you may have found videos online showcasing the driving and frenzy that is expected when riding in a car in India (such as the video below). While it may seem chaotic, it’s actually much safer than you’d think! Let’s dive into this.
Firstly, let me clarify that there are laws and traffic rules that can be enforced and fines or jail time can be the consequence, although this is rarely the case. Here’s why: “When it comes to law enforcement, traffic police only make up three per cent of the total police force as per data from the Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPRD)“, says an article titled Indians flout traffic rules because ‘everyone does it’. Road safety should be a public good written by AnirudhTagat and Akshaya Balaji on ThePrint.in.
What this means is that because of the overpopulation, lack of traffic police force and disinterest in following the rules because “everyone breaks them”, you’ll often see drivers and motorcyclists driving in ways that would be considered illegal. For example, you’ll see people running street lights, motorcyclists riding on sidewalks or in between vehicles, multiple people crammed onto one motorcycle (sometimes as many as 5 people) or a vehicle full of people with children squished onto the laps of adults. Vehicles will sometimes drive on the shoulder, pretending that it’s a lane. Besides all this, you’ll see pedestrians walk in front of moving vehicles, cows blocking the roads and people driving on the wrong side of the street.
While this many seem scary, it’s really not as bad as it seems (this coming from someone who has major PTSD from past car wrecks). How could that be, you ask? First off, it’s important to note that drivers aren’t moving very fast, especially when driving in crowded streets. Secondly, there’s sort of a culturally-accepted norm to look out for one another, especially when on the road. That said, if someone were to pull out in front of your driver, your driver is likely to let them through no-harm-done. Drivers will even do the same for pedestrians and especially for stray cows, although often not without a honk or two involved. I found this to be fascinating because I live in Houston, TX – a city plagued with road-rage and vengeful drivers.
All in all, expect the roads to be much different than anywhere you’ve seen before, but trust your driver and know that you’ll get to your destination safely. In the words of my father-in-law (mere naye pita), Maulesh, “India is God’s country – that’s why we can drive like we do with minimal causalities involved“.
Eating with Hands – Cutlery is Not Always Used
If you’ve not have the pleasure of consuming a flavorful Indian dish, you’re missing out! I actually didn’t try Indian food until February 2020 and fully regret not not giving it a try sooner. ? That said, I quickly learned many Indian dishes don’t require the use of cutlery (silverware), an aspect that I truly appreciate most days! Sure, dishes such as lentils and paani puri require a spoon, but there are many, many dishes that are eaten only with your hands. I know what you’re thinking, “we have foods in the U.S. that you eat with your hands.. What’s the big deal?” And you are absolutely correct! Pizza, hot dogs, hamburgers and tacos, to name a few, are all dishes Americans enjoy and eat using the hands. The difference is that many of the “finger foods” found in Indian cuisine can often be a bit messy. Curries, certain puris, paneer dishes, rotis with vegetables and some rice dishes are a few examples of foods that can and will often be eaten with the hands.
Just a friendly reminder, humans “have been eating with their hands since the beginning of time, and in many regions, it is still the preferred method. Eating utensils are a relatively new invention. Forks didn’t become a thing until around the 1500s in Europe, though according to Scientific American, they existed as early as the 11th century.” (read more via the article The Rules For Eating With Your Hands In India, Africa And The Middle East)
Additionally, be aware that some restaurants do not offer cutlery. For example, Monish and I ate at an incredible restaurant located inside the ITC Mughal Hotel, a 5-star hotel located in Agra, Uttar Pradesh. Upon being seated, our server informed us that they do not provide cutlery for use, then asked if we were okay with that. We were more than okay with it, although I’m sure they’ve had plenty of foreigners chose to leave when presented with this question.
Personal Space Does Not Exist
What happens to a culture that lives in an overpopulated environment? I’ll tell you what doesn’t happen – the birth of the concept of “personal space”! But there’s actually more to it than that. “[The Indian] identity is based on community and factions, which is why most of us seem to treat the other like our own. In most families personal space is non-existent, and we do the same in public spaces“, writes author, Nandita Potnis, in her article, Personal Space, A Lost Concept In India? found on BingeDaily.in. She goes on to say, “In the midst of all the overcrowding in the country, population-wise, it can get suffocating and tiring to be stared at and to have constant physical contact with strangers. Even when we sit alone at a park, with empty benches all around us, we somehow still find ourselves surrounded by people on the same bench as us. Maybe its just the lack of understanding of personal space because we have never been taught to practice it.“
Well said, Nandita! She perfectly described everyday situations that you could potentially experience while traveling through India. That said, don’t take it personally if someone sits down directly next to you or stands too closely while waiting in line to order food.
Openly Passing Gas in Public is Considered Normal
We all know that passing gas is a natural part of life, although those of us who grew up in the U.S. were taught to say things such as “excuse me” or to feel that it’s embarrassing to get caught passing gas in public. In India, everyone is aware that this is a natural part of life, and you’ll hear burps and farts that aren’t followed by “excuse me” nor will you hear anyone get embarrassed about it. That said, if Indian people aren’t making a big deal of it, you shouldn’t either! Remember, you’re in their home country now and it’s important to respect their cultural norms, just as you’d likely prefer the same from foreigners visiting your home country.
Things You Should Avoid (As a Westerner):
Drinking Tap Water
This is listed first because you should take this recommendation seriously! The reason is because “India is notorious among travelers for sickness – waterborne diseases are common due to bacterial contamination in public water, including E. coli and typhoid“, as stated on IntrepidTraveler.com.
Besides drinking tap water, there are a number of additional food and beverage items you should avoid. They are as follows:
- Ice in beverages or frozen beverages, such as smoothies or blended icy drinks (learn from my mistake on this one! I drank a smoothie on my first full day in India and regretted it later).
- Salads and raw fruits/vegetables without peels, such as berries, tomatoes, etc.
You should also keep the following in mind:
- Avoid brushing your teeth with tap water. Instead, used bottled water.
- Avoid opening your mouth in the shower
- Drink fresh coconut water whenever possible – it is naturally hydrating
- Bring hydration pills or tablets, such as Nuun tablets, to help rehydrate you in the event you end up with diarrhea
- Avoid buying bottles of water from people on the streets. Sometimes, these people will collect empty water bottles, refill them with tap water then try to sell them to make money.
If you’re staying in a hotel, you can clarify with the front desk whether or not water purifiers are part of the water system in the hotel. If you’re in a high-tourist area, this might be the case, but you’re still placing yourself at risk when using tap water. When in doubt, just stick with bottled water whose seal has not been broken to avoid nasty stomach pains later.
Eating from Street Food Carts and “Shack Restaurants”
If you Google, “can westerners eat street food in India?”, you’ll find a bunch of articles telling you how you can safely eat street food. Coming from someone who was blindly given street food that destroyed my stomach (and from my loving, Indian-born fiancé, at that!), I recommend playing it safe and just avoiding street foods at all costs. Here’s why: most street vendors and shack restaurants (i.e. street vendors who upgraded their cart to a stall connected to other stalls) do not have proper sanitation procedures, use reheated oils and/or don’t have proper refrigeration to store foods that can spoil. They’ll also use tap water and often not wash their fruits/vegetables before preparing food. This makes for a risky venture for those westerners who dare to try the delicious-looking snacks.
The better option? Find a sit-down restaurant that carries street food snacks. Street food snacks include pani puri, samosas, dahi puri, papri chaat, sev puri and many others. A great option would be to check out Kailash Parbat – a large chain restaurant that carries a huge variety of street food options. Review their locations to see if there’s one in the area you’re staying at. And if you’re in Mumbai, Maharashtra, be sure to head over to Shiv Sagar – another safe restaurant that serves street food options. If neither of these restaurants are located in the area where you are at, ask a local for a healthy “chaat” sit-down restaurant. You can also reference Shiv Sagar or Kailash Parbat and ask if there are any similar restaurants in the area.
Taking Selfies with Strangers
This one might seem strange, and is definitely a bit odd for me to explain, but if you are traveling around India and the color of your skin happens to be white, don’t be surprised if strangers approach you and ask to take a photo with you. I’m dead serious – my fiancé told me that when he was a kid, he took photos with random white people that he saw while visiting the Taj Mahal in Agra. While this may initally have you feeling like a celebrity, you should think twice before saying “yes” to the selfie. Here’s why: once one person sees people taking photos with you, a line can quickly form. And due to the innate curiosity of Indian people, this line will often form a crowd that could potentially become unruly, which could then place you in danger.
Also, remember our little chat about the lack of awareness of personal space throughout India? When taking a photo with you, not only are people likely to get uncomfortably close, but stray hands and lips are something you’d have to watch out for…
I’m sure you’re wondering why Indian people would even want to take a photo with a random white person, and you’re right to question that! The reason being is that most of these people, like you, are on vacation visiting the touristy areas of India, although those wanting a selfie with you are likely from a small Indian town or village that doesn’t get foreign travelers. You’re likely the first white person they’ve ever seen in real life, and taking home a photo with you is a great story to show off to their friends back home.
India is a beautiful country, filled with wonder and surprises around every corner! If you find yourself here, slow down and soak it all in. Talk to the locals, try new foods, explore more than just the tourist attractions and immerse yourself into the rich culture. I hope that you, like me, will find that Incredible India has stolen a piece of your heart. ??