I’ve got to admit, when I arrived in India, I wasn’t smitten like I am by so many other countries. The smoggy skies, soundtrack of screeching of horns, trash-strewn streets and the smells (oh, the smells!) of New Delhi welcomed me, and I wondered what the hell I’d gotten myself into.
Before we traveled to India, other travelers tried to describe this country to us, but they always came short of words.
“India can’t be explained,” each of them would say. “It can only be felt. You just have to go and experience it yourself to understand.”
It was as if all people who had traveled to India were in some sort of secret club, and their answers were maddening. But now, after spending a month and a half in this country, I get it. Ben and I have become members of the secret club, and I understand what each of these people was trying to say.
It’s true: India can’t easily be described, but I am going to do my best.
This may sound made up, but I don’t think I ever really experienced culture shock until India. Not when I ventured overseas for the first time and made the cobblestoned streets of Florence my home for my semester abroad. Not when I strapped on my backpack and headed on a 3-month trip to South America. Not even when Ben and I moved to South Korea for one year to teach English.
In all those situations, I had expectations and I was well prepared.
In truth, I had no idea what to expect going into India. And I was more overwhelmed at the prospect of traveling this gigantic country than I was prepared for it.
My first moments in India were spent absorbing the sights from a taxi window. Cattle weaving through traffic, enjoying their holy status. Grown adults using the street as a bathroom. Garbage strewn about liberally as if a trash can had never been invented.
I was immediately reminded of a part in the book Eat, Pray, Love when the author was advised, “Don’t touch anything in India but yourself.” From the get-go, I made that my rule. Though it’s harder than you may think.
After just an hour in India, a word to describe this country came to mind: Messy. And at the time, I meant that in a negative way. Dirty, unclean.
We had just come from Myanmar, a country where the people seriously charmed us. And when we arrived in India, we felt, well, not all that welcomed.
It’s not that we didn’t meet nice people, but overall, the people we met those first few days weren’t nearly as friendly as the rest of those we encountered in Southeast Asia. Unless they were trying to sell us something, of course.
And then were are the stares. I’ve been stared at a lot in the last couple years. Being a gringo in South America will bring some curious looks, and giggling teenagers (and adults) stared at us shyly everywhere we went in South Korea.
But for some reason, the stares in India felt different. When I smiled at the onlooker, I wasn’t always met with a smile in return, and the stares often continued, unashamedly, even after locking eyes with them.
Recently, I had a conversation with a friend who absolutely adores India, and travels there on every occasion she gets. I was surprised to learn that the stares still bother her. She has come to expect them, yes, but I suppose it’s not something you can easily get used to.
Our first time in India was a lot of things – chaotic, noisy, beautiful, hot, colorful, uncomfortable, exciting, unique. But if I’m honest, we weren’t quite sure if we wanted to return.
A couple weeks after leaving India, we were trekking in the Himalayas of Nepal and had a long conversation about India with a lovely Spanish couple we’d met earlier in the day. The wood stove crackled behind us as we spoke of our experiences in the country to our south.
Although India is right next door, the hot chaos felt a million miles away with snow-capped mountains as our backdrop.
They talked about how the treatment of women in India made them uncomfortable, and how there were some cities where they constantly felt like people were trying to scam them. They talked of being sick for weeks because of something they ate. And we nodded along. Somehow they put into words what we had been feeling about our experience.
But then they told us of some beautiful people they’d met, and some places they visited that just couldn’t be explained in words. We knew it then that we weren’t finished with India.
I may not be selling India very well at the moment, but keep reading. Stick with me. I stuck with India. In fact, Ben and I decided to return for a second time because we felt like we were being pulled back because there was just still so much left to experience and so many people to meet. Traveling to the south of India is really calling our names.
And now, after spending 3 more weeks in India (6 weeks total), I still think “messy” is a fitting word to describe this nation. Though now I mean it differently. Like when a child makes a finger painting and hands it to you, still dripping with paint.
Messy, yes, but charming and colorful too. Full of unique beauty, and while it may not have the perfectly straight lines of the framed paintings on your walls, it may just be one of your favorite pieces of art.
To be honest though, India isn’t an ideal travel destination for everyone. There are some places in this world that I think everyone would love. The Philippines, for example. Or Italy… yes Italy! I may be biased because I studied abroad in Florence, but I truly think there is a city for every person in that country.
But I’m not sure about India.
If you’re not okay being uncomfortable and patiently peeling back the layers of a place and a culture, then I don’t think you could appreciate India.
If you’re not interested in learning and getting out of your comfort zone, then India is not the holiday for you.
If you are traveling to find comfort and cocktails on the beach, I don’t think India would be a great vacation choice. (Sure, there’s Goa, but if you’re not willing to venture past the tourist resorts what’s the point? You won’t be experiencing the real India.)
But, for those of you who are seeking a transformational experience and are willing and excited to jump headfirst into a realm that is unlike anything you’ve ever experienced, then India may just be the perfect destination for you.
It may just teach you more than any other place in the world. It may become your favorite piece of art.
India is unapologetically dirty. One has to look past the flies, the garbage piles, the people using the streets as a bathroom… If you can stick with it (and your perpetually dirty feet), you’ll see some of the most exquisite temples and palaces in the world. You’ll eat food that will have you question why you ever mess with Indian restaurants at home.
And you will experience a culture that can’t be described in words – only felt. You can explore ancient cities that look as if they came straight out of a bedtime story, and observe a level of spirituality that can’t be matched anywhere in the world. India is certainly a special place.
A smelly, colorful, crowded, vibrant, hectic, crazy place.
India is kind of like that tattooed, foul-mouthed friend that, once you can get past their rough exterior, you are mesmerized by them and can’t get enough. And I’ve met plenty of people who are absolutely infatuated with this place. Those who never really leave.
The travelers you meet in India are looking for something different than those you meet in the Thai islands. They know travel here is not easy, and not only are they up for the challenge, but that’s what draws them here. India isn’t a place you go to sit on the beach with a bucket of rum, after all. (Well, Goa may be one exception.)
I get how people are mesmerized – India is bright and vivid, with a culture unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. The chaos, while maddening at times, can be enthralling too.
I like India, and I am oh so curious about its people and culture. But my relationship with this country is not one that’s effortless. It requires work. I don’t think India will ever enrapture me like the Philippines. I don’t think it’ll charm me like Colombia, or make me fall madly in love like Italy.
There are those who will disagree with me, but isn’t that a beautiful thing? If we all gravitated toward the same places, there’d be no point in traveling – for we’d always be surrounded by the same people.
India, you have challenged me more than any country has before. I’ve had a couple horror stories here (see #5), but I’ve also had some moments that make my heart smile. You have introduced me to some beautiful people and shown me glimpses into a complex culture.
India, you have taught me that my expectation of comfort is quite a bit higher than I thought. I enjoy air conditioning (in 100ºF / 38ºC degree heat!), trash bins, and cute coffee shops more than I ever realized.
And while I didn’t always find traveling easy while I was in your colorful and hectic embrace, I find myself craving more.
India, you have opened up a whole world I never knew existed, and there is so much still to explore. I can’t wait to return to you, India, and experience more of your wild and addicting beauty.
We want to hear from you!
Have you ever visited India? Are you from India? What are your thoughts? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
Comments (36) on “India is Not for Everyone”
Superb blog expressing it bfully. Yes India is not for everyone, I mean deciphering the culture, the people is not easy, but believe me we Indians are the most generous, kind people on this planet that you will experience. We have our own problems and we have our own glories and we are learning to correct the problems. We are marching ahead confidently and a making a positive impression in this world. You wont find a single country in this world which speaks more than 27 languages, more than 1000 dialects, has seas, rugged mountains, snow capped mountains, lush verdant forests, deserts. We are a combination of modern and traditional. I have a small complaint though with westerners, that they will always show the bad side of my country, the filth, cattle on the roads, slums, beggars etc.. but you will very seldom showcase the beauty of this land. I am not denying the wrongs that we have, but that’s not what all India is. I don’t know if you have visited the North of India especially places like simla, Dalhousie, nainital, binsar, Uttarakhand, Kashmir.. the beauty will take your breath away. To the west is the land of Kings Rajasthan with magnificent palaces, forts oozing with opulence, the rugged landscape. Konkan region of Maharashtra with its b’ful seas, and breath taking scenery, amazing food. South you will find bful temples and of course the Gods own country Kerala with verdant landscape, b’ful backwaters. The Silicon valley of India, Bengaluru and much more.. North east is again b’ful with snow capped mountains, lush greenery etc. When it comes to food we hv so many different varieties which can satiate your hunger and your tastes buds. In a nutshell you will need lots of time to explore this mystic land of ours, and you are welcome.
Came across this piece of work today 🙂 I am enthralled to see India from a viewpoint of a person who isn’t from here, I always think of India as a country which takes too much from you with great intensity and give you well too much with even greater intensity. I wish you will be messing with this messy all over again.
Your article is pretty good and I understand what you’re saying. Yes, India is not a touristy place. If you want to “experience India”, one trip of 6 weeks is not enough. You have to have a one time long stay or few trips of short stays. A little heads up before travelling to India.
Check out/ research the weather before planning a trip to India. Not everyone can tolerate the heat or rain here. (Weather differs a lot from place to place)
It’s better if you know a local person in India. That would be helpful. A few tips from an Indian you know would be good. ( you can also ask an Indian at your place. They might know well)
As much as tasty Indian food is, not everyone can have it. There are good restaurants, cafes, food outlets, etc. where you can have authentic Indian food.
For transport, there’s Ola, Uber etc. you can use them for places that you’re unsure of or if you feel scammed or stuff. Having a local person to help you will be very beneficial.
India is known for its spirituality. You should definitely experience it.
Gordon Ramsay travelled india. But it’s a food trip. You will get a pretty good idea (he travelled north east, south and north)
Generally, people who travel to India for the first time, expect “ touristy stuff and places” but it’s more than that.
It’s a trip to experience life. A part of life that a person doesn’t think he/she will ever experience.
Very nice article and you are absolutely spot on with your observations when you call traveling in India a transformational experience unlike any other.Or when you say it is like peeling off layers and feeling something deeper .Being a civilization in itself, there could be a sense of not seeking validation from outside. It is hard to see someone (or even some idea/culture) imposing what could be normative in other parts of the world onto India ,without Indians bending it to their own inclinations. And what is true at the macro level as a society’s response to the visiting traveller is visible in equal measure in micro-responses at the individual level- in their receptiveness to new ideas/norms/values . India seeks to engage with the world outside, on its own terms from past experiences .The socialisation of different groups makes responses vary across urban/rural areas or among those who are part of global economic/educational linkages and those who have never been part of such cross-cultural connections .Falling back on perceptions of historical wrongs centered around colonialism, at best could be an invitation to some self indulgent navel gazing or at worst may be a reason for reflexive suspicion/curiousity/hostility towards outsiders (seen in some of the comments below) . But there are equally perceptive Indians who understand the world for what it is and what you mean.
India is a tough country to fall in love with. There are layers upon layers of facades and hypocrisy .But there are also sublime truths and philosophy waiting to be discovered . People enamoured by India do not come only for the sights (there are the Himalayas ,Kerala, the Northeast, the history), but also for a meaning to life. It is hard to plan a trip halfway across the world to just meet people nor can there ever be a guru who can teach the meaning of life whether in India or elsewhere. Maybe it is to be lived and experienced .
Hey hi…I’m from Pune Maharashtra India…whatever experience u hv fine with that… It’s not easy to understand the culture…
Bt I’m damn sure that if u understand it deeply very very deeply this country will be your final destination of traveling…Bcoz tons of different culture exist in India nd u never find anywhere else on the planet…So its warm request to you please come to India nd be a family member permanently…Namaste?
Hahaha yeah.. India is a total assault on all senses, all at the same time, and it’s a force few people can withstand. As a local, I’m completely in agreement with your post. India has enough and more of problems that they often dispense with niceties and manners. Though culturally, the North+West parts, the East part and the South part are vastly different from each other, and even Indians face culture shock when they move from one part to another. Generally speaking, the East and the South are easier for people to acclimatise themselves to, culturally. The stares are fewer, the smiles get mellower, the dirt is lesser. All relative, though 🙂
I have been 3 times to India – twice with my 2 adult children. It is a culture shock in many ways. I organised our own travel and places to stay. I did my research, took my own water and never ate street food. As a blonde Australian I was stared at constantly. A smile usually determined friend from other. Other just needed more watching. They were not necessarily bad. But I was always vigilant in India. The atmosphere was exciting, busy but earnest. People work very hard there. Social cues are very different and you can find yourself irritated by people who just cannot understand. This is not language barriers – this is cultural barriers. There is modern and uneducated India – and the gap could not be wider. I love Indians and their beautiful country. The filth is bad but I can live with that. I hate the extreme poverty and the immense wealth. Poor people dying in the street while Bollywood movies play on the really good internet. India is a country of extremes. It’ll take you higher than you’ve ever been and break your heart at the same time. When you visit India you know that you are alive. That’s the addictive part.
As a 50 something middle class Australian woman who has been to India 3 times and about to go for her 4th time – I think you are spot on with your blog.
You guys are totally lacking any self awareness, if I may say so. The pictures that you have posted, and are making money off, did you take the permission of those people, or is it not required because they are poor? Or are you sharing the earnings off of them?
The part about colonialism by the other guy is absolutely spot on, though.
I think you should explore South….!!!!
We would love to Raj! And that’s exactly where we’re going when we go to India next 🙂
Guys, I didn’t read till the end but I am sure you’ll try to tie it up in a little nice bow that India is an "interesting" place. Save it. I think India as a destination is not for you. Either you like it or not. India is not a country which depends much or used to tourism for their GDP. So they need not be kind and can be apologetic. You would need to adjust and see the beauty yourself. No one can show you.
Reading this makes me really excited and really nervous about my upcoming trip to India… Planning a two month house-sit in Chennai and then leaving the opening for staying as long as the country will allow me. I’ve heard it’s smelly and difficult to travel, but I want to be a part of that secret club and learn about that "piece of art" that isn’t beautiful to everyone but my favorite. Great writing!
India is unlike anywhere else in this world! We loved it and are wanting to go back to explore the south. Happy Travels!
Kettie and Ben ,
A realty of some part but this is really hard to digest what you guys wrote about India .. I appreciate you wrote what you experienced but I guess you have been to 1% part of India as India is very huge country, It takes months to explore it. You have not seen and experienced the beauty of India ..It not only India many countries have their own dark sides as you shown in picture all dirty etc. The whole India Is not like that you have not been to beautiful beached we have, the mesmerizing Kashmir,Leh Ladhak, munnar, croog,dharmshala, Adman Nicobar, pondicherry , and many more. Breath taking hill stations in south, mountain ranges in Himalayas, the historical palaces and beautiful cities in Rajasthan and across other part of India. You will experience beautiful people as well with kind heart. As we have different cultures smiling under one roof. You have experienced the negative part of the place …If you truly want to experience India you must visit these places as well ,there are amazing places in each state of India and I am sure you will fall in love with India too in spite of having messy country .
Hi there, thanks for the comment. However, if you would take the time to read the article you would see that we absolutely did fall for India. This post is more of a journal entry of sorts and it goes through how our perception of the country changed during our visit.
We think it is important to be honest and not to just speak of our positive experiences. But if you read this entire article we say how we met some of the kindest people and experienced a deep and rich culture and saw some incredibly beautiful places.
And I disagree — I think we have some beautiful pictures of India. I don’t think they depict it as a dirty place; but perhaps you see them differently. Everyone has their own opinion, which is a beautiful thing.
Thank you again for your comment. And I would encourage you to read this article in its entirety if you have the time 🙂 Then you will understand that we really did fall hard for India and can’t wait to get back. As you said, we have only experienced a small "taste".
Please have a look at the above article. It does not really mean that you have met some bad people and that is the end of India. It simply means that you are at the wrong place inside India.
We 100% agree that traveling in India is a life-changing experience. And if you would have taken the time to read the article we wrote, you’d realize we never said we met bad people. Or that this is the end of India. In fact, we said the opposite. There’s a whole section in this article about how we want to return to India. We fell in love with India (and its people) hard. Just differently and perhaps slower than we did in some other countries.
And I’d argue that we were not in the wrong places in India. We truly loved the towns and cities we visited over the course of a month and a half. They pushed us and challenged us in a way that many other travel destinations hadn’t before.
This article is so much more than the somewhat controversial title. It was more of a memoir or essay to express our experiences and feelings. Not meant for judgement or to be skimmed over.
Thanks for taking this into consideration 🙂
Here from Kara and Nate’s recommendation, a well authored abstract about India, it is certainly not for everyone. Sorry about my fellow countryman above who lives in denial about his own country. Places that you have been visiting is a strict no-no for us, btw but i am happy that you were there to visit such harsh realities. Hopefully future travelers would take precaution and not go to such areas. May i please recommend Goa and Dharamshala as two places to visit when visiting next time. Anyways happy travelling and good luck. Love from India
Hi Vanika, we enjoy going to off-the-beaten-path locations around the world, but we agree some of the places we traveled in India we would not recommend to other travelers to go to. It was a great experience and we really want to return to India some day. We have heard the best things about Goa and the southern part of India. Glad to hear you recommend it.
The kind of neutrality shown in this log is sometimes hard to digest for us Indians. We grew up in this country and all this is kinda normal for us. But India is huge..and I mean it..HUGE.
A country so full of people, various regions, metropolitan cities, towns, villages etc. Sometime it become incomprehensible, how and why all this can even be called one country.
The culture changes every 50-100 kms. Urban establishments are completely different from Rural settings. There are some breathtaking places full of shockingly simple people. Then there are more famous tourist places, full of filth.
In this sea of humanity, all sorts of people can be found. Sometimes the mob mentality takes over, especially among the young crowd. Which results in the behavior like what happens with you during Holi. I’ll not defend this behavior, but exposure of people like these towards the opposite sexes and color is primeval, which many-a-times results in clashes.
Anyways its better to travel armed with proper research and local guidance. Preferably along with a local acquaintance who knows his part and role in the travel.
India is enigmatic, enthralling and sometimes overwhelming. Please do visit, write about it with the same honesty as you have shown, and help us also to think about our conduct in general and with visitors like you in particular.
Thank you Saurabh Sharda for your honest and well thought out comment. One of the biggest take aways from this article for us is that we liked India (not exactly every moment, but overall) and do want to return. Thank you for you words of encouragement and someday we will travel back to India.
Too late for a comment, but you are spot on about India. It takes time to sink in but better late than never. There are many negative things about this country but as you said in the comments below, the positive things just outweigh them.
You just started your journey from the bad part of the country. Next time go for South India or the North East States which are also called as 7 Sisters of India, it will give you a completely new perspective about India, especially South India. The people over there are completely different than the ones you experienced in Delhi.
There are many things to say about India but as you said in your blog, ONE HAVE TO COME HERE TO FEEL IT. Happy and Safe Travels and keep posting lovely pictures on Instagram. Love You guys.
Thanks Amey for your comments. We definitely want to go back to India and explore other parts, especially the south. It is such a huge country that you simply can’t see it all in one trip. Looking forward to some day being back 🙂
Lol, stop deleting my comment. Scared of the truth much? Typical !
Hi there Abhijeet. To be honest, I feel like you have not read this article in its entirety and are judging based on a title alone. If you would read the post, you’ll see that we truly fell in love with India and can’t wait to return and explore more. We are only sharing opinions and experiences, as anyone does when they have a new experience.
We rarely delete comments on our website – even negative comments – as we feel like everyone should have the right to speak their honest opinions. However, we don’t feel like this is the place to call us names and make assumptions about who we are or who our ancestors were. This is harassment.
If you’d like to continue this conversation, we’d love to talk further in depth about our (positive) experience in India. You can send us a message at the "contact" link on our site or at firstname.lastname@example.org
We wish you the best, Abhijeet.
Never called you names. All I said that India is what it is due to 200 years of robbery by the empire. Is that false?
Anyways, your site is otherwise really nice and I follow it. Just thought you were too critical about India without acknowledging why. Anyways, you site is otherwise very positive. I’d request you to kindly delete this thread now, since it just not matching with the rest of the theme of your wonderful site. Wish you well as well.
Sorry , but i felt u are just trying too hard to like India ! which is not necessary and from the pics you have posted , i think you were roaming in slums most of the time .. India is much much more than being dirty only. and Yes you have to be prepared to travel India ..It is not the cup of tea for everyone ..
I wished to hear atleast 1-2 heart warming stories or the beautiful people you have written about in your post .., Its a culture and an emotion .
India is Dirty and we are trying hard to work through it but this travel post seems mostly concentrated on only this perspective ..
Hi there, I appreciate your feedback. Just like every article on this travel website, it is 100% honest and based on my opinion. This was the most genuine and real way I could express how I felt about my time in India, and if you read all the way through you’ll understand that I did in fact have many good experiences. I do want to get back and explore more of the country because I think even though I spent a month and a half there, I have only scraped the surface. Thanks again for your candid comment.
First off, we are sorry for what happened to you during Holi, it really is disgusting how some people behave.
You are spot on when you say India is not for everyone and that the culture is complex. We are a couple from India, the guy from the southern part and the girl from the northern, and we still marvel at the vast cultural differences and similarities that exist at the same time. And yes, you still have the southern part to explore. Do check out Madurai, Alleppey, Hampi and Bora caves. If you still do need help regarding the places to visit, do mail us.
Hey Tanushree and Yaswanth, thanks for your thoughtful comment. We met so many lovely people in India, and our negative experiences (like parts of Holi) are vastly outweighed by good things. We are already planning out all the places we want to visit in the south of the country (and places in the north we want to get back to and others that we missed). Thanks for the tips on the south – those will definitely go on our list 🙂
Thanks for putting my feelings about India into words. You are absolutely right, India is messy but indescribable.
Hi mariana, It’s fun to hear when people can relate 🙂 India is one of the only places I’ve had a really hard time putting my surroundings and my feelings about it into words haha! I think it is also a place that continues to grow on you and pull you after you’re gone. I hope to return again someday to explore the southern part of the country!
Wonderfully portrayed! The thing is that each 100 kms in India takes you to a different culture, food, sights and people….each person will have his own India
SO true! We spent a month and a half in India and feel like we just barely scraped the surface! We both agree that it is the most culturally interesting and complex country that we’ve ever visited (and probably every will!). We can’t wait to get back there someday to explore the south – I think it will feel like an entirely different world than the north.
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