How To Survive (and Maybe Even Thrive) In India

How To Survive India

India. To aspiring travellers, the mere whisper of it’s name inspires images of ancient palaces, Bollywood glamour and stirring spiritual festivals. To us who have actually been there though, it also drags up images of dysentery, thieving monkeys and frustration at every turn.

Yes, the reality is that whilst India can be the most magical place on earth, it can also be the most maddening. Traveling in India is challenging and not for the faint-hearted; you will be harassed & scammed, you will get sick and you will get very, very annoyed. India will assault your sanitation and your sanity alike, indeed, I often say that after holidaying in India, one needs a holiday…

However, please don’t be deterred from visiting because, after all, proper traveling isn’t supposed to be too easy and besides that there are abundant wonders in store for those who do persevere. If you are still not sure, then worry not for help is now at hand thanks to the Freeborn Aiden guide on How To Survive India!

  • Mind The Traffic

Indian’s drive on the correct (ie, British) side of the road but that is where any adherence to the laws of the road as we know them ends. Driving licenses are more a suggestion than an obligation in India and this is quite evident; I mean, they allowed me to drive a Tuk-Tuk after only 15 minutes instruction. Roads are constantly jammed with cars, bikes, Tuk-Tuk’s and cows and the infernal cacophony of papping horns hardly lets up even in the dead of night.

There are few traffic lights and even when you find them don’t expect drivers to pay them any attention. To cross the road your best bet is to follow a local across as they seem to have worked out how to do it. You can also learn a lot by observing the cow’s who precariously saunter in and out of even Delhi’s rush hour traffic with seemingly omnipotent invincibility.

customs of indian people

  • Stop Making Sense

My pet name for India is “Absurdistan”. When I was last in Delhi it was monsoon and every day my guest house’s roof terrace collected at least 10 cm of rain and yet despite this the city was in the midst of a drought. Indian bureaucracy is pure Kafka-esque, slapstick and whilst my Indian Visa’ began on a Friday, the embassy didn’t actually issue the stamp until the following Monday so I could not physically travel and meaning I had to make a further, pointless return embassy visit. There are 1001 little things about India that just fly in the face of all logic.

This is undoubtedly infuriating and the only way to retain your sanity here is to imagine you are in a Lewis Carrollian wonderland or collecting material for a sit-com you are going to write. I’m sorry I can’t offer you any better advice than that.

  • Don’t Stare

On my first day in India, I boarded an inner city train in Mumbai (Bombay to locals) to find myself been stared at by the 100 other passengers in the (male only) carriage. This wasn’t subtle staring either, it was blatant, shameless, watching an animal in a zoo starring that did not let up after I returned the stares, for the whole 30-minute duration of the ride or in fact for the entire 2 months that I was in India. Staring at foreigners is something of a national pastime and you will just have to deal with it. It is not meant in any way maliciously or salaciously, it’s just not a social taboo to stare in India and so they do it. Yeah, some of the customs Indianian people are what we would call unusual…

If it bothers you then try wearing sunglasses and stick your nose into a book. If you want to have some real fun with it then stick your tongue out or make ridiculous faces.

  • Don’t Stand So Close To Me!

Personal space is a western construct for which there is just no room in Indian society; the country is severely crowded and people quite literally live on top of one another.

Indian’s can be very touchy-feely and (perfectly hetero-sexual guys) loved to feel my tattoo’s and pectorals (admittedly, both are very impressive). You will also see straight guys walking down the street holding hands or with their arms across one another’s shoulders.

It may feel strange at first but just relax and get used to it. Girls, this does not really apply to you and if somebody does get touchy with you then shoot them both barrels of your wrath.

  • Feel The Popularity

Every time you walk down the street in India (as well as being stared at) you will be approached (and sometimes accosted) by Indian’s peddling all manner of wares and services. You will be offered Tuk-Tuk’s (even if you have quite clearly just arrived back at your hotel), shopkeepers will tempt and sometimes chase you, drug pushers will whisper in your ear and holy men and beggars will plead for donations.

The perception is that as a foreigner you have money to spend and these people all want a piece of it. It can get annoying declining the offers of 10 parked up Tuk-Tuk’s in a row but try to remain polite as these are just people trying to make a living. If you feel you’re getting out of breath by saying “No” too much then simply don’t respond at all.

Beggars can be relentless and will regularly follow you down the street and pull at your sleeves. Whether you choose to give to them is between you and your conscience, just be mindful that if you are seen giving to one then you can expect several more to suddenly appear as if sensing the scent of the opened wallet.

There is nothing you can do to stop all of this. Whether you dress like a tourist or in traditional Indian gear, whether you speak only English or perfect Hindi, the fact is that as a foreigner you are a bright beacon for everybody.

customs of indian people
Beggar Boy on a bus.
  • And Smile For The Cameras!

Indian’s love to take pictures of foreigners and you will be asked to pose, often with people you have just met most days. Again, this is not meant with any malevolence and my advice is to enjoy the celebrity status. Women are generally asked more than men. If it does start to bother you then you can always try asking for a few hundred rupees per picture; I know a few travelers who turned this into a nice a little earner!13166916_126371127769573_149015421_n

  • Squat

Indian toilets are non-existent at worst and rancid at best. First up, forget sitting on the throne because “Western Style” carzy’s can be few and far between in many parts of India so you are gonna have to learn to love the squat toilet sooner or later. Medically speaking though, these are actually better for your flow motion and in no time you will be squat-shitting like a pro.

The real challenge with Indian toilets is the cleanliness of them. Even if you do find a Western-style one expect it to perhaps never to have been cleaned and to be alive with flies, cockroaches and God knows what else. There will never be any toilet roll (so bring your own) and also bring hand-wash as a lot of time there will be no water to wash with either. Finally, flushing functionality is poor so expect most toilets to have a “backlog” where you will be left facing the previous occupant’s contribution.

You can to some extent avoid these issues by sticking to nicer, “tourist” places but there is no fun in that now is there?!

How To Survive India
If you really don’t fancy the toilet you can always just use the street…
  • Do Not Feed The Animals

From monkeys to dogs to cows to insects to rats, animals are absolutely everywhere in India. Baboons are as common as pigeons and you will find packs of them at every turn living in train stations, parks, ruined fortresses and most probably at your guesthouse. Whilst they are kind-of cute and amusing, they are also a pest regularly stealing fruit from market stalls and cell phones from careless hands. They even once stole a pair of underpants from my washing line. Why would they even do this?

Cows are also omnipresent and live amongst society almost as equal members (indeed, they seem to have more rights than many Indian people do). They will wander up and down alleyways, sleep in roads and sometimes for some reason choose to hang out in public toilets. They are mostly very placid but on one occasion I was headbutted by one who nearly broke my wrist. At the time I had been vegetarian for 4 months but that night marked the assault by feasting on a mixed grill in carnivorous, gluttonous vengeance.

Be sure to get a rabies shot before you go, watch those monkeys and bring a pretty strong mosquito repellent!

How To Survive India
Cow-headed to the German Bakery.
  • Shh! Be Quiet!

There is clearly no concept of noise pollution in India and the soundtrack to your travels (especially in the cities) will be an unending racket of buzzing old engines, piercing car horns, thrice daily calls to prayer and shouts of “Rick-saw!”.

This can sometimes be a bit overwhelming and if you are sensitive to noise you may find your anxiety levels rising. I used to drown out this infernal, satanic din by blasting some soothing music into my earphones (Metallica should do it). Also be sure to make the most of quiet spaces such as parks and temples by diving in for 5 minutes of serenity now and then.

  • Trashbat

India is unbelievably dirty. There are litter and feces everywhere and nobody ever seems to clean it up. This is because there is no concept of trash and poor environmental hygiene infrastructure. People throw litter from their houses and from the windows of cars, buses, and trains. Sadly even mountain trails along the Himalayas are punctuated by trash piles and the sacred Ganges is positively toxic.

The current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has set out some reforms to countenance this but he has generations of bad habits to undo so change will be slow.

Here is your chance to set a shining example simply by not joining in. Whenever you board a train or bus, take a carrier bag for your waste and do not let anybody “helpfully” throw it out of the window for you. Rather, explain that you are perfectly able to throw your own litter through the open window but are choosing not to as a mark of respect to this beautiful country.

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I was so surprised to see this bin that I actually photographed it.
  • Why Are You Not Married?

Prepare yourself to repeatedly be asked some fairly direct and personal questions. Indian’s are very curious about foreigners and love to know what you do for a living (and what it pays), how many siblings you have, whether you are married and if not, then why not?!

At first, I found the obsession with marriage strange. Indian society is still very conservative; people get married young, arranged marriage is still common and in many cases, this will be the couple’s first intimate experience. The way to simply and tactfully answer this is to say that in your culture it is commonplace nowadays for people to get married later in life and after they have finished traveling. Female travelers may wish to invent a fictitious husband or fiance.

Oh, you may be often also be asked questions about the other foreigners in the vicinity even if you are seated well away from them and speaking a totally different language to them; the perception often seems to be that all foreigners know each other.

  • Trust Your Own Mistrust

Corruption and cheating is a way of life in India and unfortunately, as a traveler you will be the target of far more than your fair share of this. I cannot possibly list them all here but common scams include taxi and Tuk-Tuk drivers telling you your hotel/guesthouse is closed and taking you to another (where they get a commission) and even people intercepting you at train stations (masquerading as officials) to sell you marked-up tickets.

It can also seem that these networks run pretty deep and it can sometimes even feel that absolutely everybody is in on them. The reality is that at some point you are going to get cheated at least a bit. The best advice I can give you is to take nothing at face value, view everybody with a grain of suspicion and learn to listen to and trust your own gut instinct.

Barber's regularly try to pull a fast one on tourists.
Barber’s regularly try to pull a fast one on tourists.
  • Slow Down Your Watch

Time takes its own sweet time in India. One phrase you will hear a lot is “Shanti, Shanti” which can mean “relax”, “take it easy”, “don’t worry”, “slow down” or even “why bother doing anything?!” Many Indian’s do not share our sense of urgency and this can mean that things take longer than you might like, if they happen at all.

A bus that is supposed to show up at 18:00 may turn up at 18:10 or it may show up at 17:59 the next day. Ask at the station desk and the response will be “the bus come after some time” which is technically not incorrect. I will say though that local buses are far worse than private buses for this and the trains were usually very punctual.

Aside from transport, expect your laundry to seldom be ready by the agreed collection time, restaurant service to suit your waiter rather than your stomach and any scheduled meeting to habitually begin late.

  • Fairer Sex

As a self confessed horny bastard, one of the very first things I noticed in India (after the heat, the smell & the cows) was that there is a distinct lack of visible women.

India is a man’s world and expects to walk streets, eat in diners and ride long distance busses populated almost entirely by men. With small pockets of exception, Indian society is very traditional in that a woman’s place is considered to be in the home. This is especially true of young, unmarried women who are seen as being at risk of corruption by going outside so if you plan on finding yourself a nice Indian girlfriend then think again.

Married, middle-aged women are more visible and can be found working in shops and traipsing around the streets but they do have a tendency to be quite surly & blunt. Oh, as you may know, the cow is considered a sacred animal in Hindu culture and this may explain why when women reach 40 they seem to turn into them; stubbornly sauntering down streets at a slow pace and blocking the entire thoroughfare with their bovine proportioned backsides just like the neighborhood cows do.

  • Get Offline

Wi-Fi in India is the worst I have ever encountered anywhere in the world. As a full-time travel blogger, this was particularly frustrating for me. What I find especially ironic about this is that every internet provider in Europe and America has their support functions based in India so you would be forgiven for thinking that the country had the best internet in the world.

I don’t know why this problem exists, it may just be that 1 billion people all trying to get online is too much even for 4g…

This is, however, a great opportunity to kick your decadent addiction to the internet and rediscover the joys of simply being in the moment. For when you do need to get online, Internet cafes that have computers and good old plugin connections are pretty reliable and I often based myself in them for the day to get my work done. You can also buy a pocket Wi-Fi device which whilst still not especially fast, will come in useful for emergencies.

My favourite internet cafe built into an ancient fortress.
My favorite internet cafe built into an ancient fortress.

How To Survive India

A friend once said to me (describing a very famous film) “There is a whole lotta Shawshank before you see any Redemption” and so it can sometimes seem with India. Yes there are daily frustrations but there are also daily rewards. The key is to try and take it all in good humor and see it as character building.

If the sound of all of this has put you off then you are probably not the kind of traveler who is suited to India anyway! If however, you are still up for the challenge then good for you. Once you surmount the (many) challenges you encounter you will surely find that it was all so very worth it with stunning mountains, mystical desserts and tropical paradises all waiting for you!

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Himachal Pradesh. Well worth the bus ride.
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9 Comments

  • Aidan, although I enjoyed your post, I have to say that I found it pretty negative. You state as a fact that one will get sick in India, but I can happily state, that in the month I backpacked through the country, I never got sick! Of course I didn’t eat from street vendors, but I went to restaurantsand never had a problem.
    I also have to inteject that I found mostly sit down toilets. Sure they may be rare, but not on the tourist trail, which is where people reading this article will find themselves.
    I just don’t want people to be deterred from visiting this enchanted place.

    • Hi Ruby. Firstly, it actually took me until well into my 2nd month to get sick so maybe the many germs and virus’ in India give us all a 4 week grace period?! As for the toilets, yes you are correct that there are sit downs but (1) everybody has to squat at least some of the time and (2) as I said, the bigger issue with the toilets is that even the sit down ones are often filthy. I don’t consider the article negative, yes it does draw attention to the many challenges of India but does so I feel in a humurous way. Like black comedy. Thanks for commenting.

  • Aiden, firstly thanks for visiting India. I am in Indian but I have worked in many different countries.. Well i agree with most of the things you may have written but as Ruby said you have written more on the negative side.. you missed on the greener Kerala state in south, Beautiful Ladakh in North, Entire North East of India,.. historical monuments of India..neither party beaches of Goa… what seems to be written is more on Delhi and NCR Region.. i visit India atleast 3 times in a year and all the hotels have great rooms and toilets, i understand you may have stayed in a cheaper guest house considering your longer duration, but believe me we have such a diverse culture unlike any other country that i myself encounter new things every time i visit.. all i am trying to say is one cannot write down entire India and its habits in couple of paragraphs..at the same time i am not denying the facts you have mentioned..

    • Hi Abraham. Thanks for taking the time to comment. The whole point of my article was to show the side of India that guidebooks and holiday broaches don’t tell. If you want to call that side “negative” then that is your choice of terminology. I didn’t mention the beautiful green of Kerala or the party beaches of Goa because I have never seen them, because they are well outside of the scope of this article and because any old guidebook will tell you all about them. It seems to me that people get offended when I point out the “negative” side of India and yet nobody is able to deny the reality of it. In summary I do love India, I can’t wait to return to India but there is a lot about it that I find very trying and it is therefore only right to tell this truth; the trick is to take it with good humour which is exactly what I did in the article.

  • Hi, I loved your post especially the sarcastically true language that you used to describe the reality of this country. Well, I don’t like this country but there are some things that are not as quite as you said they are.
    1) Actually, IT IS possible to get an Indian girlfriend in India. Yes, it was right that Indian women were not allowed to go outside of their houses, but that was like a few decades ago. Now women are free to go anywhere and pursue any career of their choice. This has changed the overall Indian mentality of arranged marriage. Today many women date men they like and get married later (or not) aka LOVE MARRIAGE. Women are free to choose their partner, date, flirt or just be single. Want proof? Come to Mumbai and activate your tinder account haha. What you said is valid only in rural places in India where ”woman education” is not a thing yet. 40yr old Indian woman and cows ..well I am fine with that comparison but you might have just infuriated many Indian women who might be reading this article. I mean yeah fitness is not really an INDIAN thing. No one cares about fitness here. But I don’t think that should bother you unless you want to date 40 yr, old woman.
    2) You can always choose to live in places where they have western toilets if you don’t like squatting. Many people in India use western toilets. Trust me, western toilet is not a new concept here. Remember, Indian was once ruled by the British.
    3) I am sorry you have been asked personal questions. But Indians have this weird curiosity to bug in everyone’s life so yeah, I hate that too. ”Minding your own business” is a phrase most Indians don’t understand. I think it gives them a weird kind of happiness by knowing what’s happening in your life. My strategy to deal with these idiots is to use reverse psychology. The moment they start asking you about yourself is the same time you should stop and start asking about their life. Trust me, it works every time.

    But in the end I just want to say – I love your blogs and keep it up.

    • Hey Buddy!

      Thanks so much for commenting!

      You know, in later trips to India I did indeed have a few more encounters with Indian women and what you say is broadly correct amongst urban, middle-class young Indians although the “hook up” culture is (thankfully) still nowhere near what it is elsewhere in the world.

      As for toilets, you are right that there are western style ones but sooner or later, everybody gotta take a squat!

      Aiden

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