Have you ever traveled to a place where you thought you knew what to expect? It’s kind of like when you’re thinking about a trip to the Caribbean. You expect to see sunshine, palm trees and warm ocean water. Well my trip to India wasn’t exactly what I had expected – in a good way! As a girl from the U.S., I was in for a treat! As I booked my travel arrangements, got vaccinated and packed for my travel to India, I researched as much as I could. (I’m a researcher at heart….anyone else?)
But what I didn’t know or expect, turned out to be delightful, eye-opening and sometimes fearful experiences. And that’s one of the many reasons why I love to travel. Traveling opens the mind, helps you gain new perspective, meet new people and discover amazing new places. India, specifically Bangalore and Mysore, were great examples of that!
Let’s get to it: here are 10 things about the culture in India that nobody tells you.
Please note: I’m publishing the content below based on my own experiences. I asked a lot of questions to locals in southern India. Here’s what I found out to be true.
Truths about travel to India: let’s start with food!
1. Not everything is spicy!
Coming from the U.S., and especially the Midwest, my experience with Indian dishes hasn’t exactly been broad (hello chicken tikka masala). Based on research, I expected spicy, light-your-throat-on-fire foods as a common dish in India. But what I found is that there’s a big variety of spice levels. Better yet, when you go to restaurants they’ll usually ask you how much spice you want, which is a great way to avoid spicy foods (if that’s your goal).
The seasonings are different than the Americanized version of the Indian food I’ve eaten in the U.S. In India, you’ll find a lot of cumin, curry, coriander, turmeric, mustard seed, nutmeg and ginger in the local foods. Compared to the U.S. where traditional mild ‘American’ foods are seasoned with garlic, onion, salts, parsley, basil, and so on. So if you’re traveling to India from the U.S., your palate is likely to be surprised and challenged.
Another fantastic surprise: everywhere I ate in India, the food was incredibly fresh. It’s like you can taste every single ingredient. And of course you’ll find plenty of fresh fruit since the climate has multiple growing seasons per year, making it very easy to get fresh fruit. If you’re a fan of coconut, it’s plentiful in India! It’s probably the food I saw most often sold on the street. (We’ll get to street food later…)
2. Be prepared to eat vegetarian
Many people in India are vegetarian, so many of the dishes are without meat, or ‘veg’ as they say. From Palak Paneer, to Chole and Masoor Daal and many more, I enjoyed trying a large variety of vegetarian options.
Of course, many Indians still do eat meat, so you can find a lot of chicken options, some fish, lamb and pork, too. But don’t expect to see beef in very many places. If you haven’t eaten a lot of Indian food, my suggestion would be to venture outside of your comfort zone and just keep trying new foods to find the ones you’ll fall in love with.
Oh, and friend, you’re going to fall in love with naan during your travel to India. It doesn’t even compare with naan in the U.S. Same story with ice cream. It was absolutely delicious!
(See more tips on what to eat and what to avoid later in the article)
Travel to India: the truths about people and traffic
3. The people of India are kind and fantastic
I met some of the nicest people on the planet, I’m just sure of it. Almost every single person I encountered during my travel to India was kind, thoughtful and genuinely helpful. I mean, they were the kind of people that open their home to you after you’ve just met.
As a traveler, I’ve been many places where the locals treat tourists like a paycheck (like at restaurants) or they simply look the other way. But the people I met in southern India were absolutely the kindest of any place I’ve ever been. This may have been attributed to the fact that there weren’t many tourists, but I think it’s simply part of their culture.
4. Everyone speaks English
Ok, I’m sure there’s someone in the country that doesn’t…but you get my point. English is an official language in each state in India, so you’ll see English on building signs, menus, tourist destinations, street signs and pretty much everywhere else. You may also see other languages, but most everything is in English, too. This makes travel to India as a westerner very easy because you can understand where you’re going and talk with anyone.
5. Fun cultural mannerisms
In the U.S., when someone sneezes, it’s customary to say ‘bless you.’ In India that’s not really a thing! In fact when someone sneezes it’s seen more as a mistake. The sneezer typically apologizes with a ‘so sorry’ after each sneeze. If it happens when riding in a vehicle, they’ll open the window to allow the sneeze to leave the car.
I also loved the head waggle. Different than a head nod, or a head shake. It’s when a person moves their head in a tilting motion back and forth, so the ear moves toward the shoulder and away again. My interpretation of a head waggle means the person is reluctantly agreeing with you, or that they’re unsure or uncomfortable and doesn’t want to answer.
Being able to understand cultural mannerisms like these are helpful to not feel completely out of place when traveling to India. But let’s face it, sometimes when you’re in a totally new place and trying to experience all that a country has to offer, you’re likely to feel like a tourist at some point!
6. There’s a LOT of people
With 1.3 billion people living in India, there’s pretty much people everywhere, all the time. Compare it to 330 million people in the U.S., with a larger geographical footprint to get an idea of how busy it is in India. If you’re looking to travel to India for a nice, relaxing vacation, where you can enjoy some peace and quiet, a big city like Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad may not be the place for you.
7. Traffic is crazy
Crazy is definitely an understatement! (Refer back to my fearful comment made at the beginning of the article!) If you’re coming from the U.S., just know that you truly won’t believe the traffic until you see it for yourself. Traffic rules really aren’t followed. And in Bangalore and Mysore in southern India, it’s relatively rare to see a stop light so drivers just slow down and wait for traffic, and when they’re tired of that they’ll just honk their horn and start driving into turning traffic to make their way down the road. As a foreigner, it seems chaotic. But for the most part it felt like drivers were respectful and patient as they navigated their route to the destination.
At pretty much any point in time, whether stopped or driving, you can reach your hand outside the car and touch another vehicle, tuk-tuk or scooter because people drive super close together. Surprisingly, the drivers are very safe because they’re extremely aware of their surroundings and because the traffic is so dense, they’re not going super fast.
And pedestrians pretty much cross the street whenever and wherever is convenient! Yes, even six-lane highways aren’t off limits for wandering pedestrians.
Because traffic is so crazy, I’d recommend to hire a driver and car to get you where you need to be. You can hire a driver for a trip, a day or even a week at a time. I found my driver to be extremely helpful, taking me to places that were safe and well sought after. My driver kind of acted like a mini tour guide also, telling stories of his home country and culture as I asked. (And I asked a lot of questions!)
Always wanted to see the Grand Canyon? Ready to marvel at the Taj Mahal? Wanting to hit the cobblestone streets of Italy? Whether they’re trips with your significant other, family vacations, girls weekends away, trips with friends, or anything in between, those places that come to mind right away go on your travel bucket list first.
Travel to India: unique culture unlike any other
8. Cows roam the streets
Growing up in the middle of the United States, I’ve seen my fair share of cows. But I’ve never seen them dressed up. Or walking down the street like they’ve got some place to be. Or walking up the steps of a bakery begging for food (true story!) In India, cows are regarded very highly. They’re celebrated and respected, which is truly a sight to see. A busy highway will come to a dead stop to let a cow cross the road.
Cows roam freely in southern India. Most of them have homes and will venture out during the day and return to their home at night. But I personally found it delightful and entertaining to see cows in the street.
9. You may get asked to take a selfie
As a female from the U.S. who also happens to be Caucasian, I was asked to be in photos and selfies several times. This happened mostly with teenage boys, but I guess it comes with the territory! I didn’t see a lot of tourists in southern India, so I suppose it’s fun for them to grab a selfie. I didn’t ever feel obligated but I definitely agreed to many selfies!
10. Public bathrooms aren’t a fun place to be
I’ll just put this out there – as a female from the U.S., it’s a pretty different experience to use a public bathroom in southern India, especially in remote areas. I won’t tell you the things that I saw (and smelled) while using restrooms that weren’t maintained well, but you can use your imagination.
I’d recommend to throw a small roll of toilet paper in your purse if you’re exploring you think you’ll need to use a public bathroom. Just in case! And look for some reputable and newer restaurants and shopping centers, you’ll probably have the most luck with clean bathrooms there.
More tips for travel to India
What to wear in India
As a female traveling to India, I researched quite a bit before packing my suitcase. I found a bazillion articles online about what to wear in India, and what not to wear. I’ll summarize it for you here, based on what I saw locals wearing, from more traditional parts of southern India, and areas with lots of millennials and young professionals.
- Cover your shoulders and your legs, even in hot weather. Short sleeves are okay but no tank tops or shorts. Everyone was more conservatively dressed than what’s socially acceptable in the U.S., even the men didn’t wear shorts.
- Avoid overly tight clothing. Even tight jeans can show more curves than what’s culturally accepted. Just keep a good balance in mind or wear flowy shirts and dresses.
- Wear something comfortable. Although you’ll likely have to take a car most places, you’re bound to do some walking while sight-seeing.
- Sandals are perfect. Sandals are definitely the shoe of choice in India. Just make sure to grab a pair of socks you can put on if you’re touring temples and palaces as you’ll have to remove your shoes.
Simply put, you don’t want to become a target, especially if you’re a solo female traveling to India. (Although I will say there was never a time that I felt unsafe during my travel to India.) Just respect the culture and bring clothing that’s socially acceptable. You could also purchase clothing when you get there if you really want to have the full experience of India. Women wear traditional Indian dresses and sarees, which are absolutely stunning!
What to eat in India and what to avoid
If you’re traveling from the U.S., you should use precautions when eating and drinking in India to avoid sickness (as I was told by my doctor).
- Only drink purified and bottled water. (Even when brushing your teeth!)
- Avoid fruits that aren’t peeled or you haven’t washed yourself with purified water. I relied on bananas and melons, which were super fresh and mighty delicious.
- Same goes for vegetables: unless they’re cooked or you wash them yourself with purified water, just avoid.
- Eat at established restaurants and avoid street food.
Vomiting and diarrhea is very common for foreigners, so really pay attention to what you eat and drink. Make sure to pack some anti-diarrhea and antacids for the trip, too.
Get vaccinations for India
You’ll want to check your previous vaccinations with your doctor at least 30 days before you go. Hepatitis A & B and typhoid are common vaccinations for travel to India. My doctor also subscribed malaria medication to take over the duration of the time there and a week after returning home. Your doctor may even send medications with you if you contract illness once in India.
Travel to India – it’s worth the trip!
Well friend, I truly hope you are considering travel to India and this article has helped you make your decision! The flights can be long (depending where you’re coming from) but it’s absolutely worth it!
And if you’ve booked your flights and are getting ready for your trip, the fun has just begun!
So tell me, what’s the one thing that you would find the most interesting or exciting during a trip to India? Comment below 🙂