India: 10 things I wish I knew before travelling
On all my travels, India remains to this date the destination where I experienced the biggest culture shock I ever thought possible. I've visited India over the course of 2,5 weeks back in March 2017. My whole time there, I kept counting the days until I could go back home and felt the biggest sense of relief when I finally boarded my plane out. Never had a country and its people caused me so much anger and disgust. It's taken me over a year to process all that happened there and to finally be able to put it into words.
Now, I'm a veteran traveller and solo explorer. I have been travelling on my own since I was ten and about 70-80% of my travels are done by my lonesome self. I'd like to think that I know how to behave in unfamiliar environments. Just the year before, I had been solo travelling around Thailand and had the best time imaginable. Thailand was my first foray into Asia and I was way more apprehensive about it than going into India. My Thaï experience was nothing but welcoming and fun and most of all respectful.
Now, India was never really on my radar as a "must-see" destination. The only reason why I went was because Bae was there for 2 months on his spiritual quest/journey and me not being able to miss him for that long, I decided to tag along for a couple of weeks. So having done Thailand by myself, I thought how hard can it be to do India accompanied? Right? Right?
As a woman, I have never felt more unsafe, targeted, disrespected, harassed, plainly objectified and made to feel like I was worth less than the rubbish the streets and rivers were lined with.
The lowest came on a night bus ride from Varanasi to Agra. With it being a long journey and the bus not being close to full, I made the mistake of moving a couple of seats behind the ones I was sharing with Bae so as to have more space to stretch and sleep. Barely did I move that one of the crew/drivers came and positioned himself in the seats across the aisles from me, whipped out his flaccid sad excuse of a dick and started playing with himself while fixating me. 🤮
I had to wait there and look the other way until he finally tired and left to resume his position at the front of the bus before I quickly made my way back to sit with Bae. I didn't say anything until we arrived at our destination and left the bus, upon which said driver REQUESTED a tip before handing us our luggage. The AUDACITY! I was fuming as this was a culmination of smaller such aggressions I had had to endure over the entirety of the trip up to that point.
Now if you wonder why I didn't speak up while on the bus, in the middle of nowhere and in the middle of the night? Well imagine this, we were the only foreigners on the bus and I was the only woman as well.
I'm sure we've all heard the horror stories of girls getting raped by gangs of men on buses while their boyfriends are pinned down and made to watch, and that was not about to my faith, no mam'. The fact that I couldn't speak up straight away, of course, added fuel to the fiery pit of anger that was already blazing inside me.
Here I was in a country, where despite being accompanied by my boyfriend, who to a stranger can seem quite like an intimidating person, I didn't feel safe at any moment. I was ignored all the time, except when I was being blatantly objectified. I would ask for one thing and be met by people (read men) with what THEY thought I needed, completely ignoring my requests. The word NO seemed to not exist in their vocabulary or, as I presume, they willfully chose to ignore it when it came from my mouth.
And that's not even to speak of all the levels of pollution going on. Air pollution, noise pollution, rubbish pollution. At one point in the holy city of Varanasi, the place where Hindus prefer to go and die so as to escape the cycle of reincarnation, I could literally feel myself slowly dying and my soul leaving my body with every polluted breath I took. To say I was suffocating is a euphemism.
I left India with a very very bitter taste in my mouth and a desire never to return again. The first couple of months after my return, I couldn't recount my experience to anyone who asked. All I could do when enquired about my stay was gag and shudder at the mere thought of what I had experienced.
Despite all the bitterness, there were moments I did enjoy and moments that I cherish of Bae and I, as well as some truly wonderful sights the country had to offer.
Eating fresh seafood by the beach in Goa while watching the sun set in the Indian Ocean. Waking up early to explore Agra and it's surroundings, and seeing the true marvel that is the Taj Mahal. Witnessing the evening ritual on the Ganges in Varanasi. Buying the most luxurious silk fabrics and clothing at bargain prices from very hospitable merchants. India definitely had its moments but sadly for me, these were too far and few in between the overall horror that was my experience.
With a year hindsight, I am now able to focus more and more on the rare good moments I've had and I'm ready to start considering giving India a second chance... in a very distant future. The country is massive after all and from what I have learned over the past year, customs and the culture can vastly differ from north to south and east to west. Also Bae plans on returning every year so... 🙄.
Would I recommend India as a destination to travel to? If you had asked me a year ago my answer would have been a categorical NO and an even harder NO if you were a girl going solo. Now I would say, yes but with a lot of caution and preparation. India should come with a big warning sign and this are the things I wish I knew before making my way there.
1. Leave as much as possible of your western way of thinking and mindset at the door before entering. It really won't serve you to keep comparing how things are done there to how you are accustomed to it everywhere else around the world. Spare yourself the frustration.
2. India will give you what it wants when it wants. It can give you a lot but it will require a lot of energy as payment. I guess Bae with his spiritual mindset and quest made peace with this fact more and sooner than I.
3. Do not trust anyone’s recommendations, not even if they are dressed in formal uniforms. No one knows anything for sure. When does the bus/train leave? What time does it leave? Where does it leave from? Who knows, you'll find once you've spend 12hours waiting and missed it because you were told to wait in the wrong place.
4. For my fellow black girls, leave your Indian hair weaves at home. I've lost count of the number of time people would walk up to me, try to touch my hair and ask in a threatening tone if it was my real hair or Indian hair extensions. Luckily I was wearing synthetic hair braids so I could honestly say no, but I did feel it may not have gone well for me if I wasn't. This part of Chris Rock's documentary on good hair will explain why the animosity. You can watch the full documentary here
5. You will be stared at, a lot, ALL.THE.TIME... For me, a lot of it felt like harassment because it often came from men who were trying to invade my space and who would be making very rude movements and facial expressions towards me.
6. The car/tuk-tuk/motorcycle horns mean everything, all at the same time. "Move over, I am behind you, I am in front of you, I had paneer for lunch today, Mother wants you home at 3pm and no later, No those shoes don't fit you." I'm not sure how long you would have to live there before you get used to it and your ears stop bleeding. In my case, I didn't get used to it and my ears kept bleeding.
7. As a tourist, you will be solicited bordering on harassment. This is true to different extents for any destination you travel to as a tourist, but it felt so so much more intrusive in India. To the point where I even feared coming out altogether. I love to spend when I travel. I am the person that buys all the mugs, the coasters, the keychains, every cheesy thing with a name or 'I ❤' printed on it. I am a sucker for souvenirs, seriously you should see my flat. But in India, I was so scarred by the level of harassment that I couldn't for the life of me spend my coins there. Learn to stand your ground, negotiate, haggle and however sad they may look do not give money to beggars or better be prepared to get assaulted by a mob for more.
8. Unless you are ready to actually die or are already dead maybe avoid spending too much time in Varanasi. That's, of course, a very personal opinion here. I really, really, really did NOT like Varanasi. AT.ALL. Go and see it because the sights around the Ganges are surreal but once you've done that, get out before your nose starts bleeding and you develop a rash all over your body from the polluted air and start coughing black goo. 😷
9. Quiet time is not a thing. If it’s something you value, cherish it when you find it but don’t expect to have much of it
So there you have it. My personal experience in India may not have been great altogether, but I do know of plenty of people, Bae included, who've had a much better time and can't stop raving about it. There are strong adjustments that need to be done before diving into India and sadly I wasn't aware of them. Goes to show that even as an experienced traveller you can still encounter destinations that will throw you massive curve balls and you better hope you're equipped to deal with them.
And as I said earlier, I'm not completely writing of India just yet. I may not venture there is the nearest of futures, but if our path were to cross again at least I know I'll be better prepared.
Let me know what destination you've travelled to which most disappointed you for whatever reason.