Plenty of blogs, books, and other resources document the basics of travel in India, things that everyone should be aware of before taking the plunge into any country: visa requirements, water safety, sanitation conditions, vaccinations, etc. You know, the basics. For travel in India, Sharell Cook writes about it at about.com and The Lost Girls have a helpful piece here. Then there’s a whole new set of lessons you learn while “on the ground” in India.
Travel in India is not easy. Moreover, travel in India has changed a lot since the backpacking heyday of the 1960s and 70s. Some of what was true then has changed (some for the better, some not so much). If we’d known these travel trends ahead of arrival (maybe even before deciding to spend a full three months in the subcontinent), we might have had a bit more patience, and gone a little less crazy at times.
Hopefully this list gives future India-bound travelers some helpful insight, and gives travel in Indian vets a commiserating chuckle.
Disclaimer: When we use the word “Indian” or “Indians” below, we are referring to auto-rickshaw drivers, guest house owners, shop keepers, and other other ragtag “professions” who make up the majority of tourist interaction while traveling through a country, and India in particular.
Travel in India
1. Booking Train Tickets Yourself is…Complicated
Theoretically, there are three ways to book a train ticket: online, at the train station, or through a tout. The easiest way SHOULD be online. Like it is everywhere else on the planet. Websites like cleartrip.com, makemytrip.com, and yatra.com make it easy, right? Wrong. Oh so wrong. It’s not the websites’ fault; blame goes to the federal government’s anti-touristic ticket booking requirements. First, you need an Indian mobile number. Fine, that’s easy enough for most long-term travelers. We had one. Second, you need an Indian credit card. How in the hell does a tourist get an Indian credit card? We’ can’t. That’s the point. You can sidestep the above by registering your passport with the IRCTC (Indian Railway). But that’s its own unnecessarily complicated process with a long turnaround time to boot.
On to option two: schlep to the train station and book a ticket in person. If you’re willing to push, shove, scratch, and arm wrestle your way to the ticket counter, this is the choice for you. Oh, and good luck finding the designated tourist counter. There’s a chance it’s not even in the train station.
The fastest, most convenient, and, shockingly, least annoying way to book a ticket is through a tout (sorry, “travel agent”). It takes two things to be a travel agent in India: an Indian phone number and an Indian credit card. Now you’re sitting at an internet cafe, paying a 20-year-old guy to use the website that you would use to purchase the tickets you would purchase if you could. Depending on the day and this kid’s spending habits, the charge for this service runs between 100 and 500 rupees. It’s a load of crap. But in India, a load of crap beats a load of guesswork.
2. Trains aren’t as magical as they say (but sleeper class isn’t all that bad)
A lot’s been said (and an entire movies have been made) about the magic of train travel in India. We hate to burst the bubble on this one, but we didn’t find it that great. No matter the class or AC or non-AC, it’s the same old train. Bathrooms universally suck and onboard food is pretty horrific. Quality does vary between different trains on the same on route. Some are absolutely better than others, but not by much. After taking a few AC trains (2AC and 3AC) we gave 3rd class non-AC (known as Sleeper Class) a whirl. The money we saved far outweighed the comfort we lost (it wasn’t much to begin with).
To be fair, we traveled during India’s mildest months, and didn’t experience insanely hot and humid India. But we found having the windows open and being able to see, smell, and connect with the passing landscapes more rewarding than the sealed off air conditioned alternative.
The only two downsides to Sleeper Class are that 1) during the day (until 10 pm) anyone can jump on the train and cram into the bench/bunk you bought a ticket for, and 2) bedding and food are not included.
Tip: If you want to claim your Sleeper Class bed before 10 pm, book a top bunk. It’s easy to claim top bunk territory and ward off the masses.
3. Buses aren’t the plague, they’re a good, “speedy” train-alternative
Taking a bus in India is a breeze. Not compared to buses in South America, or South East Asia, and probably not in comparison to your bus system at home. But by Indian standards, long distance buses are about as efficient as things get.
There are plenty of private bus companies and each state has its own system. Buses are generally on time, clean(ish), and comfortable(ish). Like train tickets, bus prices vary widely. Sometimes they are as expensive as trains and sometimes they’re cheaper. Unlike train tickets, you can book buses yourself, online or directly from the bus company. Nine times out of ten they are as fast as, or faster than the train. Generally speaking, an AC semi-sleeper bus costs about as much as a Sleeper Class non-AC train to the same destination. How is a bus faster than a train? Most trains make many stops on any given route. While a private bus only stops a few times, mostly to offer passengers pits stops at decently clean rest stops.
Unlike trains, there is a huge difference in quality between AC and non-AC buses. Same goes for the quality of rest stops they frequent.
By the end of our time traveling in India, we’d taken a good number of non-AC and government buses for trips under 8 hours, as well. They are much more basic but after you’ve developed your patina of grime and apathy, it doesn’t really matter.
Tip: Do not take a front of the bus seat on a bus in the Himalayas. You will spend the night peeing your pants with fear of going over the edge.
Culture in India
4. Cows might be holy, but they get no respect
Being born an animal in India is horrible karmic retribution for what must have been an incredibly sinister past life. Hannibal bad karma. OJ Simpson will be reincarnated as an Indian Brahman cow.
It’s mind blowing that a culture that reveres cows as a deity treats animals with such neglect. On a good day, India’s attitude towards animals is apathetic, on its worse days, it’s abusive.
Full Stop India dubs this the “hypocrisy between religion and life“. In Hinduism, every part of the cow is considered holy. Beef is such a taboo that even McDonald’s refrains from serving it. Yet these same “sacred” animals are left to wander the payment and graze on garbage. And they’re not alone. Cow, pig, goat, it sucks to be a domestic animal in India. Especially an animal in an urban environment. Their diets consist of trash, plastic, electrical cords, and other things no living being should have to consider food.
Street animals have it even worse. See a stray dog crossing the street, kick it as hard as you can. Accidentally runover a cow at a rest stop, leave it paralyzed and starving to death in front of the women’s bathroom. It’s too holy to put out of its misery after all.
Seeing how Indians treat, feed, and interact with animals was the most difficult part of our travel in India. It is not OK. To say this kind of urban animal abuse is unique to India might be unfair, but it’s by far the worst we’ve ever seen.
Tip: Wish we had one. Let us know if you’ve found a way to help.
5. Eating with your left hand won’t ruin everyone’s meal
This is the granddaddy of India travel myths. There’s an entire chapter of Shantaram dedicated to it. “Never eat with your left hand—it’s used for cleaning your bottom and you’ll be laughed from the table!” That might have been true in decades past, but today it just isn’t so. Use whatever hand you like. I’m left-handed and stuffed myself silly south-paw style without anyone saying anything or even scoffing in my general direction. If eating with your hands scares you regardless, most restaurants offer cutlery with no hassle.
Tip: No matter what which hand you eat with, season it with a healthy does of hand sanitizer.
6. It’s 2012, dudes wearing shorts is A-OK
Again, shorts might have been an issue back in the day. But today, guys (including this guy) wear shorts sightseeing and walking around town, and it’s all good. Indian men do it too. If you’re going to a club, bar, or nice restaurant, wearing shorts and sandals is obviously a no-no. But elsewhere shorts are accepted as a necessity to keep from sweating your—ahem—face off.
This rule is not for the ladies. It’s unlikely that anyone would say anything directly related to your fashion choice, but wearing shorts guarantees you’ll hear from India’s roving gangs of young males. And that’s a fate worth sweating to avoid.
Tip: In the south, you can go even shorter and airier with a sarong.
7. Indians say yes, even when the answer is no
This point has actually been covered by a few travel bloggers, including us. It’s one of the most puzzling and frustrating Indian quirks we’ve come across. Indians have a serious aversion to saying no. It’s as if lying to your face to say something is possible is somehow better than saying no initially. Kwintessential, a translation company that focuses on cultural etiquette training explains:
“This behavior should not be considered dishonest. An Indian would be considered terribly rude if he did not attempt to give a person what had been asked. Since they do not like to give negative answers, Indians may give an affirmative answer but be deliberately vague about any specific details. This will require you to look for non-verbal cues, such as a reluctance to commit to an actual time for a meeting or an enthusiastic response.”
Ok, it’s not “dishonest”. But it’s still annoying.
Tip: Never confuse a verbal agreement as a real confirmation. Always have a plan B, C, and D.
8. Indians are always in a hurry to get nowhere fast
It took us a while to accept that Indians are a little nutty about lines, traffic, and being first or next for everything.You learn pretty quickly that lines, lanes, and any other type of orderly conduct do not exist in India.
Doing whatever it takes to be the next person served is the only “rule”. This is true in ever aspect of Indian life. Even when there is plenty of time and space for everyone to be served, enter a train, or get through a traffic light, Indians rush forward like they are escaping the end of time.
Imagine yourself in an empty white room. Just you and one other person. You’ve patiently waited your turn, and you know you’re next. The person in front of you starts to wrap up his transaction. You think, “Great, I’m next”. Suddenly you’re staring at the back of another persons head. Maybe you’ve been donkey punched. Maybe by a donkey. The cashier you’ve been making eye contact with for the last 10 minutes doesn’t even look up, he just goes on serving the next customer. That’s the game. You’re next or you’re not. That’s all there is to it.
Tip: For things like boarding the Delhi metro, stand aside and let Indians duke it out. Their will be whole minutes left for you to get on without getting a bloody lip. For things like trying to buy a ticket, may God be with you.
Haggling in India
9. Never admit it’s your first rodeo
The first question anyone trying to sell you anything (and that’s everyone) will ask is, “First time India?”. Essentially it’s a quick way to size you up. Make like the foreigner you are, and get comfortable saying no.
Be proactive about it. We often told auto-rickshaw drivers, “It’s not our first time taking this route, we know how much it costs”. Bullshit negotiations end, driver gives a grunt and a head bobble, we jump in. At the end of day, you’re going to pay more than what a local would pay. But you can take solace in a better deal than a novice traveler.
Tip: Just say “no”. You’ll get used to it.
10. Walk away
One of the most important tools in any barter economy is the willingness to walk away. In India, it’s a skill you’ll use every day until it become an automatic reaction. It’s almost as if you won’t be taken seriously unless you’ve made it drastically clear that you won’t be pushed around. There is no way to make that more clear than walking away mid-negotiation. It’s quite annoying and wearing over time, almost as exhausting being treated like a walking ATM.
You learn to be cold, short, and rude, because it’s the fastest way to get from point A to B for a remotely fair deal. We’ve been told by locals that at the sight of your foreign face, the price automatically doubles. Even when you can point at a sign that clearly states what the price actually is, you’ll be quoted something entirely different. Until you walk away.
Tip: Talk to the hand, cause the face don’t understand.