As I'm writing these lines, we're spending our last few hours in India and I wanted to share with our readers a few thoughts on our trip to this country that's most often described with superlatives.
In the nearly 1 month we've spent in India, we've been able to discover a country and people with an incredible history, that is home to a few of the most magnificent structures humans have ever built and with food that makes your taste buds go wild (and sometimes your stomach but that's another story...) .
We've shared our best pictures from India on our Facebook page, showing some of the wonderful things we've been able to experience in this country. There's another, much less appealing, side of our trip that can't really be depicted with pictures. India has been challenging to us for many reasons and we're leaving the country with somewhat of a bittersweet feeling.
We haven't visited the entire country and our trip has been focused on more touristy locations (Goa, Delhi, Agra, Varanasi, Jaipur and our favorite Jaisalmer) so our perceptions could be a bit skewed.
India is noisy
I can't emphasize this more... the amount of noise caused by car and motorcycle horns in the streets of every single Indian city we've visited is nothing less than excruciating. We've visited other countries where the horn is used extensively - Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, etc. - but here it's simply at another level of madness.
In larger cities, there's a constant BEEP BEEEEEEEP BEEP background noise - it never really stops. Indians are the most impatient drivers we've seen and they honk at any possible opportunity. They honk to let other drivers know they're around, they honk to push others to move forward 2cm just because, they honk to make the cows or dogs - or humans - move away from their way, they honk at every street corner in case someone else drives in the other direction, they honk 3 seconds before the traffic lights turn green to make sure everyone in front of them will start moving exactly when the light turns green, etc. etc.
To make things worse, there seems to be some sort of competition on who gets the loudest and meanest sounding horn possible. Cars and motorcycles are also often in a very bad shape so they generally make more noise than they should. Traffic is most of the times heavy and dense, multiplying the ambient noise.
All of this makes being a pedestrian in India an absolute nightmare. Since we try to move around cities by foot as much as we can, all this noise has been nothing but maddening.
India is an open air junkyard and toilet
This statement may seem harsh but it's sadly true and easily underestimated by travellers, I think - I certainly underestimated that fact before actually experiencing it in person.
Walking in the streets of cities is an olfactory experience like no other: one step you smell the amazing odours of local spices simmering to delicious curries or freshly baked Indian sweets, the next step (ok, probably the next TEN steps) you smell junk, decomposing food, human and animals feces and many other hard to identify and disgusting odours.
Walking in the streets also requires the utmost attention to where you put your feet: cows roam freely in the streets of India (except in larger urban areas), and cows are not particularly weary of where and when they defecate. This generally means that many streets are literally COVERED with cow excrement and walking around becomes a sport by itself.
Junk is everywhere; in the streets, in the parks, in the alleys, on the side of railways, etc. Nobody really seems to bother using trash bins; the entire exterior is the trash bin. It's very common to see people just throw their trash behind them without any shame. Piles of trash accumulate (and decompose) in street corners, leaving not only a bad sight but also some very unwelcoming smells.
Men, women and children (but mostly men it seems) don't seem to feel any shame at using the ground - any ground - for natural relief. It is disturbingly common to see people squatting on the side of streets relieving themselves in plain sight. Toilets everywhere are terrible, the worse we've seen. Not sure how they do it but Indians are pros at completely ruining their toilets. In Delhi airport, they put one or two full time employees in each toilet continuously cleaning after the mess of people.
India is heavy on tourists
When visiting India, especially the more touristy areas, you constantly get approached by "friendly" locals and the conversation generally goes like this:
Where you from? - Canada
Ah! Canada! Vancouver, Toronto. - No, Montreal.
Ah! Montreal, French! - Yeah we speak French and English!
How long in India? - 3 weeks
You like India? - Yeah!!
Looking for cheap room? Want to buy cheap clothes? - No, thank you.
Just have a look, no buy!! - No, thank you.
Cheap price - No, thank you.
Come! Come! Just a look, no buy! - ...
This usually continues for a few more rounds of respectful refusal until you start losing your patience and raise the tone. And then you start having these "friendly" conversations at every single street corner, again and again. This adds up to multiple dozens of times a day. We tried many strategies to keep these guys away from us when walking around but none has proven to be particularly effective. It's just a battle we can't seem to win.
Rickshaw (a.k.a. tuk-tuk) drivers will also often approach you while you're walking in the streets asking where you're from and where you're going in an attempt to discover ways of offering you some unusually cheap transportation. This is always an attempt at bringing you to places where they get a commission just by bringing you in.
Even when you're in a seemingly legitimate rickshaw ride, the driver will often start to make conversation only to end up offering you to go to a restaurant or some other marble shop to get a commission in fuel vouchers. They'll say your hotel is closed, they'll say your hotel has moved, attempting to lure you away from your original destination to profit from you.
Not to mention the many beggars, women with their child or children, asking for money or food.
This constant solicitation makes travelling here quite exhausting and sometimes frustrating. We've travelled to countries with similar problems but it seems India has been worse and heavier than everywhere else. We certainly know they are trying to make a living one way or another, but in doing so they are nurturing a very bad reputation for themselves.
As tourists we don't always get to interact much with the locals due to the language barriers. When most of the interactions we get end up being attempts to use you for personal profit or subtly steal from you, it just leaves an overall bad taste.
It's also a bit difficult for women to travel in India, especially in poorer areas or smaller towns. On many occasions Michele was the only woman in the place: in the restaurants at lunch, in the metro wagon, in the bus, etc. And many men were often staring at her.
India is polluted to the extreme
Ever since we arrived in the North of the country, I have had some heavy trouble breathing. I have been coughing like a life-long cigarette smoker for about 10 days now and yesterday night the coughing reached an unprecedented level.
At first I thought I was battling an infection or something but then it really felt like some sort of asthma, which is something I've never had in my life. Doing some more research, I found out that last night the amount of small particulate matter in the air (one of the big indicators of air quality) peaked in Delhi to a hazardous level right at the moment I had a coughing "crisis".
In most cities we've been, we haven't been able to see a proper sunset... the air is so polluted that there is a constant haze in the sky (smog) which makes the sky look like it's constantly cloudy.
It's probably not as worse as other famously polluted cities like Beijing but still enough to make many moments very uncomfortable.
Should you go to India?
If you're intrigued and are in it for a serious culture shock, then I believe you should go... it's an eye-opening experience that makes you learn more about yourself and your limits, and we've met people along the way who were quite literally in love with the country so it's certainly possible to experience India differently than we did! We knew that India would be challenging, but we didn't know just how challenging it would be for us. India constantly pushes you to your limits. It is not for everybody and although we don't have any regret visiting it, we can confidently say that we would not go back.