The common saying goes like this, “People either love India, or they hate it.” More precisely, Lonely Planet’s most recent guide to India states, “Love it or loathe it – and most travelers tend to seesaw between the two, to embrace India’s unpredictability is to embrace her soul.” We’ve definitely experienced this oscillation between hope and despair, but for me, it’s not the county’s unpredictability that gets to me. I know that anything can happen here and am willing to accept that and embrace it. Rather, it’s the countless ways that we’ve shared in India’s misfortune that have caused my distaste for this country to grow. What follows here are my thoughts, as plainly and objectively as I can lay them out, about why (sorry, all you India lovers out there) I hate India.
First, the country is the dirtiest place I’ve ever been. The air pollution here is beyond the pale, with the visibility in Delhi reduced to less than 100 yards and the country’s jewel, the Taj Mahal, barely visible most of the day. In some places, just breathing is difficult. The waste scattered on every open inch of ground makes even the most egregiously littered places (Myanmar and Cambodia come to mind) seem rather tidy in contrast. A Columbian man we stayed with at a homestay in Jaipur observed that, “the worst, most disgusting places in Columbia are just average for India.” Cows, considered holy in this place, wander the streets, clogging up traffic, but also sift through the waste, expelling their resulting diarrheal incontinence all over so that one can barely take a step without being in it. It’s not only the animals that make the streets their outhouses. Humans too, mostly men, urinate on every wall, under every bridge, and in every corner, with the reek of ammonia ever wafting. Not that it makes much difference where one ‘goes’¹; since the majority of the country lacks underground sewers, human waste flows freely from homes, to gutters, along the streets, and into the rivers. Every time you pass over a bridge, make sure to hold your breath, and if you dare look over the edge, be prepared to peer down into the blackest, oiliest, most trash ridden water you could possibly imagine. And nearly all the men chew, buying small, single serving dips and, having discarded the package on the ground, spit randomly out of windows of moving vehicles, on interior walls, or on the sidewalk amongst the feces, urine, rubbish, and mud. The mud resulting from people throwing out water in front of their homes and shops (like that’s going to clean something) turning the streets into literal cesspools. Ask my parents, I’m no clean freak, and even I had a problem with India.
Unique and striking natural beauty or a fascinating history or exotic cultures are usually what draw me to a place, but when all’s said and done, it’s a country’s people and their kindness that define it for me. Although we’ve met a handful of very nice people here, overall, India’s people are some of the most dishonest, pushy, and callous I’ve ever come across. I usually don’t mind haggling, but this whole place is one big hustle – everyone is trying to use everyone else. No one ever offers you a fair price, meaning everything has to be negotiated. Some of the time, the starting price is ten times the actual price. And it’s not like saying “No, thank you” with a smile and walking away does the trick – people will follow you, for minutes at a time, sometimes hours, sometimes grabbing onto you, shouting at you, guilting you, insulting you, and claiming to have blessed you, all in an ill-fated attempt to extract some bit of money from you. Karma, the supposed overriding cultural and spiritual golden rule here, is bullshit. It’s their way – the culture’s, the institutions’ – of putting the onus on the masses to aid the masses, that way, who’s ever in charge doesn’t have to. Government corruption at its absolute finest is on show all over India as it shirks its responsibility to its most vulnerable. The poverty here is so pervasive and the population so astronomical I would wager (stats aside) India has more homeless on the streets than any other country, each with an outstretched, open hand asking, pleading, guilting you to help them. And for as many people that pester us into vexation, there are others that flat out refuse to provide services to us because we’re foreigners. We’ve been shut out of at least 20 different hotels that claimed to be full (but were quite apparently not); and many an open autorickshaw taxi going in our direction has simply refused to stop for us, presumably for the same reason. Obviously, not everyone is as cutthroat or nefarious or destitute or xenophobic as this, but the majority of people were. Some exceptions included the wonderful people with whom we volunteered in Chennai, some of the service people at places we ate or stayed, and the few people who warned us not to get ripped off or told us that we just had been ripped off.
For as diverse as this place is said to be, from a traveler’s perspective, the sites tend to become quite monotonous. Aside from a few exceptions, every city on the northern plains of India has a fort, a market, a temple, and for the most part, they’re all very much the same. How many forts, markets, and temples can you see in consecutive days until you’re fortemplemarketed out? Even for me, a lover of culture and history and architecture (“Ozymandias” is an all time favorite), I can only take so much of the same thing day after day before I’m bored. Maybe my vision of what is noteworthy has been jaded – an unfortunate consequence of unbridled curiosity – but I’ve found that there aren’t that many remarkable things in the country. To go along with the aforementioned forts and markets, of which every town boasts, the north of India has the Taj, the charming and pretty lakeside area in Udaipur, the camels and dunes in the far west near Jaisalmer (which we didn’t bother seeing because we had just been to Oman), and a handful of other interesting temples (Khajuraho, Delwara, Ellora, Ajanta, to name just a few). Varanasi, the supposed spiritual epicenter of the subcontinent, is an absolute dump – everything there, from the sewage in the streets running down into the holy Ganges, to the most relentless of touts, to the complete lack of reverence paid to those being cremated on the banks of the sacred river amidst the shit and piss and rubbish, lacks for sanctity. Moving south, nothing in Chennai is worth visiting. Although we didn’t visit Bangalore’s palace, the only thing we found of note in the city was a vibrant flower market that stretched for the entirety of a city block, but certainly not something that would warrant our eight hour journey to get there. Goa’s famous beaches, although a nice respite from the bustle and grime of the rest of India, just can’t hold a candle to the glassy waters of the Pacific or Caribbean or the stunning coastlines of Halong Bay or Krabi or Hawaii. They are just your average beaches, which, for India, I guess makes them extraordinary. Of the parts of southern India we scouted², Hampi is an exception, with a number of ruins/temples explorable independently on foot or bicycle and a rolling countryside carved out by an ambling river and beautifully studded with massive boulders and granite domes. Unfortunately, it’s a nine hour bus or train ride into the Darkness from anywhere. The other saying in India goes, “It would take a lifetime to see everything in India.” This may be true based on how pathetic the transportation system is, but I would argue that there are only a handful of things truly worth seeing here in the first place (outside of the Himalaya, which looks absolutely glorious and is the sole thing that could lure me back) and the soul crushing hassle of getting from place to place makes seeing these worthwhile things just marginally so.
About the transportation in India: it blows…literally. Sometimes, trains leave early; we’re not the only ones to have been left stranded. Other times, there is no train; it’s so late that the entire journey is cancelled. One time, our train was delayed four hours in arriving and then delayed again because of an all too common derailment ahead (injuring 60 people as multiple rail cars fell off a bridge. Thank God we weren’t on that one!), causing our train to be delayed a total of 16 hours, with us being on the train for a total of 24 hours and the door to door journey taking 30. We arrived late at night and struggled to find a hotel to take us in, settling for a total dump with jizz on the blankets. And that last train story is actually an example of us getting lucky. Usually, trains are not available because they are booked up way in advance, pushing us into the uncomfortable arms of government buses, which are basically like sitting on an overcrowded 1960’s school bus, with hard plank seats and seat backs that are unkind to say the least. Theses buses usually take 30-50% longer to arrive at the destination than trains, are often crammed with too many other passengers leaving no place to put our luggage (50 lbs on our laps!), and you can never be assured when or even if they’ll arrive to pick you up in the first place. And buying a ticket for these decrepit fossils of bygone transportation is about the most inconvenient, time consuming, confusing run around you could possibly imagine. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve waited in a line, sometimes for hours on end, only to be told that we can’t be helped or that we need to move to a different line. Heaven forbid we can pre-book online; hence, entire days are devoted to the getting of tickets on top of the entire days that are devoted to using said tickets. Rounding out the terrestrial transport options, naturally, taxis are annoying af and the streets are filled with more honking (supposedly in the name of ‘safety’) than anywhere I’ve ever been, including New York City and Ho Chi Minh, all for the real purpose of being the most inconsiderate and unsafe drivers as humanly possible. The resulting traffic clusterfucks are one thing, but the honking is seriously off the chain. Drivers lay on the horn with zealous abandon and then refuse to release it, such that one can walk across an entire city and never not hear at least one horn blaring, but usually many, many at once. Try having a conversation or asking for directions in all that madness…impossible. You may be asking, “But how does it literally blow?” Well, let this story be your answer. When we missed our train because it left early, and were forced to take the much longer, more uncomfortable government bus ten hours to Jaipur, the woman sitting in front of Jenna opened the window and tried to vomit out the side of the bus. Tried, being the operative word here, as, with all open windows, the air blew back into the bus, smack in the face of the unfortunate person sitting behind her. In this case, it was my poor fiance. So, yes, it literally blows.
When you ask someone about a place they’ve traveled, they will more often than not say this exact phrase: It was amazing. Given that this term ‘amazing’ has been given an overwhelmingly positive connotation in traveler nomenclature, one may be led to believe that every place on earth is similarly exceptional and worth visiting. I guess it’s human nature to want to remain positive and to abstain from disparaging a place or people or a time in your life on which you’ve likely sacrificed much time and money. In fact, it’s probably psychologically healthy to do so. But having spent over two months here, I have to ask myself, “Were the people who claimed to love India lying to me…or to themselves? Or, am I just an outlier, a freak of the travel scene, who has trouble putting things in the most positive light possible?” Whatever the case, outside of a few fleeting bright spots, India has kinda sucked.
The country’s only truly universal saving grace? The food. Never before have I had such fun or ease ordering food. In Chennai, some of the food was just too spicy for me to really appreciate the tastes (Jenna has a much more tolerating palate and would disagree), but the food everywhere else has been perfectly atuned to my buds. Also, it comes with the added benefit of being almost entirely vegetarian and mostly vegan. Safe and comfortable monotony is usually the mantra for me when ordering food, but here I revel in trying new things with the confidence that no matter what I choose, it will be bangin. And for all the street food we’ve eaten, not once did I get (all that) sick. Some favorites have been the Thali (everywhere really, but especially) in Gujarat, all the meals we ate at Archana Restaurant in Hampi, and the food we helped make at the cooking classes we took in Hampi and Udaipur, especially the various masalas, lassies, and iterations on chapati, as well as the myriad paneer dishes and chais we’ve sampled with delight.
And come to think of it, despite all the deplorable people we’ve encountered in our time here, we have met some really rad people too. Travelling in India isn’t for everyone, but those who can hack it tend to be the chillest of the chill. The couple we met trekking in Nepal were passing through Chennai and we spent some qt with them, their faces beaming from the past month they’d just spent here. Ever positive, Thomasz and Aga state unequivocally that their favorite country is India, and were disappointed that they’d chosen to “waste” their last couple weeks on Sri Lanka. In one of our many India transit epics, we were fortunate to have another cool couple, Tom and Nadine, as our bunk mates on the sleeper train from Varanasi. The fact that our arrival was delayed by 16 hours didn’t seem like that big a deal, since it was so much fun chatting the night and morning and afternoon and following night away with them on the train. The conversations we’ve struck up with fellow travelers on cramped shared taxis or at remote temples fleeing the crowds, have been so revitalizing, particularly given the fact that every personal interaction with almost anyone local seems to be more insufferable than the last. In a country in excess of one billion, exceptions to the rule must exist, and we happened upon a few of them. A couple of Indian chaps on New Year’s Eve, Anuj and Dipesh, helped us laugh off the hoops we had to jump through that night, and were great fun. And I’d be remiss if I failed to mention again all the extraordinary people who took me in over the few weeks I volunteered teaching spoken English in Chennai. Arya and Elamaran were super welcoming, fun to talk to, and generous beyond all expectations.
And when I sift through the ashes that were once our nerves after dealing with all the grime, rudeness, and hassles of India, I can say it truly does have some remarkable things to see, places to go, and adventures to be had. As I stated, the fort circuit can get kind of old and some things just don’t live up to the hype, but the law of averages works in traveling too – India is just too big a country with too long and rich a history to not have anything worth seeing. Although we didn’t get to see the Taj at its finest, what with it mired by air pollution in the morning and onerous crowds in the afternoon, we gazed on it from afar at a rooftop cafe later in the afternoon. And, as the disappointment plaguing us earlier burned off along with the smog and morning mist with the midday sun, we begrudgingly conceded that the Taj was, in fact, probably the most beautiful building in the entire world. In addition to the world’s most famed mausoleum, we were left in awe by the most intricate carvings on the floors, walls, doorways, archways and ceilings in the Jain Temples of Delwara and mindblown by the dedication to task required by thousands of workers with hammer and chisel over hundreds of years to craft temples, dozens upon dozens of them, from cliffsides of solid rock, at the monastic Buddhist and Hindu shrines of Ellora and Ajanta. Although once you’ve seen one Indian fort, you’ve kind of seen them all, the Amber fort and village walls running along the ridgeline of the surrounding hills, was certainly a sight to behold. For that matter, the tourist laden area of Udaipur was relatively clean, and not too unpleasant, with idyllic views of the lake and the illustrious City Palace on its opposite banks; we could think of no place better to relax for a handful of days to gather ourselves before plunging again into the irritation of trying to get to our next destination. Probably our favorite place, Hampi, combined a natural beauty, cultural richness, and high adventure quotient to create an appealing destination, and could be considered bouldering’s Tonsai. Peppered throughout the uncompromising vastness of India are some true wonders of the world.
So, as much as I hate India for the many misfortunes with it we shared, I guess (sorry, all you India haters out there), I love India a little bit too. However, a few caveats notwithstanding, I certainly wouldn’t recommend coming here. It’s simply too dirty, the people too pushy, and the sights, despite the magnificence of some, just too far afield from one another. Unless you enjoy wading through garbage, getting hassled by every person you pass on the street, riding on uncomfortable trains or busses for days on end, and everything else I’ve mention above, don’t come to India. Although these things are commonplace for anyone used to traveling in developing countries, if such suffering were a sunbeam, India would be a massive magnifying glass.
Yet, here I sit, in our final days in country, with a cold drink in my hand, the sand and Goan seas stretching out before me, my love at my side, and the knowledge that we’ll be leaving here soon and coming home eventually. And then it dawns on me, again, as it has at every stage of our journey: We are so lucky. Yes, we’re lucky to be able to have these experiences with one another, for better or worse. But we’re also ever so fortunate to be able to leave this place. The simple truth is that 1.2 billion people can’t just up and leave, nor are many, given the shackles placed on them by birthright, able to make a better life for themselves. I understand the implications in saying all this – I may come across as entitled or condescending. So, I offer this final thought: For as insufferable as some of the Indian touts were, think for a moment about their situation; what motivates their actions? For most, they are driven by a poverty so extreme that they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. They are doing all they can to provide for themselves and their families, in the hopes that, one day, someone from the family may be able to move up in caste. For all the complaining we do back home about politics, or the healthcare system, or the rising inequality we face, or whatever ills plague us, at least we don’t live in India. Compared to most of the world, we are the privileged few. And sure, in some ways, that privilege blinds us to the the realities that exist outside of our sphere of consciousness, but it is that same privilege that allows us to live comfortably and with the opportunity to make of our lives what we will, and for that we should all be eternally grateful.
¹I actually just wandered into a ladies room by mistake and was greeted by only a drain in the corner of the floor. I presume you poop on the floor and then take a bucket of water and wash it against the wall and down the drain. I couldn’t tell where the drain leads.
²We didn’t see Kerala, which I’ve heard is nice but looks like a similarly chill, less than noteworthy southern neighbor to Goa.
If you’ve read any of my prior reflections, you know that India wasn’t our first rodeo, but it turned out to be our roughest. We’re generally accustomed to a bit of grit and grime, a tout or two, an uncomfortable night bus or bongo truck ride, and it’s not like we’ve never walked away from a place underwhelmed. But every step of the way in this country, we tried to temper our expectations and keep an open mind, hoping India would somehow redeem herself. And at nearly every turn, even after adjusting our mindset, we were left disappointed and frustrated. The luck we experienced in India may have been a bit on the bad side (particularly with respect to the demonetization, of which I mentioned here), but just barely. We spoke to others whose fortune was much much worse than our own, so I don’t know that our sentiments are too far afield from the norm. The true norm, that is. Not the norm that we’re fed from people after the fact, once time has muted the voice of suffering and discouragement and disgust that seems to be the true norm in India.
We’ve racked our brains about how so many people are able to claim unconditional love for this place, to the point that they return year after year. It’s been the topic of many a conversation and muse between us, our friends, and fellow travelers. Perhaps some people are pleased no matter where they go; they don’t need to find something incredible, or unique, or untouched. They are just satisfied with seeing something different, no matter its merits. Or maybe, some people have much more time on their hands than we do. When you have a lot of something, it inherently becomes less valuable, making the time lost waiting at train stations to see if there will be tickets available for the next day, or the two-day epic train rides less painful, compared to me, someone who puts a high premium on my time. Or there’s the possibility of our being any one of the following: jaded by our prior travels, fatigued in general, or the victims of unrealistically high expectations. But most who travel to India from the West carry with them these same expectations.
We’ve all been led to believe that India is a vibrant place. Our experience revealed it to be as downtrodden a place as any we’ve seen. We’ve all been sold the story that India is awash in salt of the earth, friendly people, operating on golden karma, when it is in fact brimming with people more likely to push you than smile at you, reflexively aiming to scheme and use you. We’re told to embrace India’s mystery, if we’re to embrace its soul. The mystery of India, we’ve found, lies in its contradictions. It is at once irreverent and spiritual, depressed but guarding glimmers of hope, and beset by corruption without the wherewithal to rise up against it. The contradiction that is India is at times enchanting, at others mystifying, and at others still, confounding, but for many, that’s part of its appeal.
If you’re lucky, well-prepared, or carefree enough, or if you have Indian contacts/friends on the ground, or if you come armed with the understanding that with the glories of this enigmatic place come with more than their share of pitfalls, you may be able to tip the scales of India’s misfortune in your favor. Perhaps.
Or, perhaps I’ve left you unconvinced – you must see for yourself, smell for yourself, feel for yourself the country I describe in honest but largely pejorative ways above, here’s a bit of advice:
- Stick to only a few main destinations.
- Our favorites have been Hampi, Udaipur, and Goa. I know, they are some of the most touristic, and therefore least authentically ‘India’, but they were also the most pleasant. They are also not locationally convenient to one another.
- It’s quite difficult to suggest an itinerary as most places are so far apart and don’t conveniently form a loop or straight line. Most everyone who comes will want to see the Taj Mahal in Agra, which puts you on a collision course with The Golden Triangle of Hell (Delhi – Agra – Jaipur), from which it’s fairly easy to diverge out to Johdpur > Jaisalmer or Ajmer > Udaipur. Udaipur and Jaisalmer are both pretty far from anything else, so taking a flight from there to Goa is probably your best bet. After spending a few nights in Goa, take a KSRTC night bus (9 hours) to Hampi for a handful of days and then go right back. Fly out from Goa or Mumbai.
- We also liked the Ellora and Ajanta caves outside of Aurangabad and the Amber fort near Jaipur, but those two cities are rather unpleasant and Aurangabad is quite far out of the way, unless you’re already going to Mumbai.
- I’ve heard good things about the Himalaya (Ladahk and Sikkim) but because we were here in winter, and we’d just spent five weeks in the Nepalese Himalaya, we saved it for another time. (We also elected to skip any tiger safaris because we’d be traveling to Africa after India and the rates of tiger spotting are fairly low to begin with.)
- Make the getting of your transportation as hassle free as possible.
- Hire a driver.
- Pay a tour company to pre-book all of your trains.
- Since most trains are booked well in advance, try to book your outbound tickets upon arrival at the railway station. Foreigner quota tickets can only be purchased by foreigners themselves at the railway station. Tatkal tickets are a bit more expensive and go on sale at 10am or 11am the day before trains leave (or sometimes two days before) and are often the only tickets remaining available less than two weeks out. Alternatively, you can try to sign up for cleartrip.com or makemytrip.com (which will also require you to sign up for IRCTC. If you don’t have an India mobile phone number, email IRCTC stating you are a foreigner, attaching a copy of your passport; this is said to allow one to bypass the “input phone # requirement.”) to book online trains. This is just the short of the trains…it’s all very confusing and convoluted.
- Get an Indian mobile phone or sim and use it to book your tickets electronically. Without a mobile phone number, you will not be able to receive the many OTP (one time passwords) that will come your way with online booking or trying to get things like wifi, etc.
- Accept the reality of Indian accommodations.
- Most don’t accept non-Indians, so just stick to the ones recommended in guide books, emailing them in advance to assure yourself a room. Just showing up and shopping around in a lot of towns will be painfully fruitless and frustrating.
- Or, just book something online via Agoda.com or Booking.com.
- Tips from my gal:
- Currency is a f’ing pain in the ass. Many business still don’t accept credit cards. Take out enough cash from home or be prepared to go to ATM’s that are either not available (like in Hampi), empty (like everywhere), withdrawal limits (like 2000 rupees ~ $30 USD), or charge extra fees (like 200 rupees ~ $3.50). Like, sorry.
- Get your haggling game face on. Be prepared to get ripped off.
- Ignoring touts, auto rickshaw drivers, hotel touts, etc. is the best way to not go crazy. Don’t look if you’re not prepared to buy, as that pisses people off.
- Carry toilet paper and an extra large bottle of hand sanitizer.
- Pro-tips (based on our 1-month + 1-week travel itinerary. We volunteered in Chennai an additional month.):
- Chennai: Don’t bother. If you have a layover, Kapaleeswarar temple is the best the city has to offer and is just over 1km from the beach.
- Bangalore: Don’t bother. If you have a layover, the City Market and Tippu’s Fort are nice enough to walk around.
- Hampi: Really cool. Renting a push bike is a great way to see the temples scattered around Hampi. Sunrise and sunset were the most magical times. The best sunset spot we found was a ridge on the Hampi island side of the river, just north of Goan Corner. Climbing gear can be rented from a nice gentleman or a couple of jerk offs, you can decide.
- Varanasi: Don’t bother. Please, please…please, skip Varanasi. I know you may want to see it for yourself. But believe me, you’ll be disappointed. It was our least favorite place in our least favorite country. There’s nothing of note there aside from burning corpses.
- Agra: Temper your expectations. If you must see the Taj, the winter mornings are very foggy and visibility is close to zero. The afternoons are very crowded. Pick your poison. Many rooftops have nice views from afar. We didn’t see the fort as we would be seeing one in Jaipur but heard it was cool.
- Fatepur Sikri: A worthy day trip from Agra if you have an extra day, but definitely skipable if you don’t. You don’t need to pay to enter to main mosque area, which looked more impressive than the main palace (500 rupees).
- Jaipur: Do Amber only. We found the rooms and service at Atithi Guest House in Jaipur to be very good and can recommend it with confidence. The walls running along the mountaintops surrounding Amber fort are a great place to view the fort and sunrise or sunset. A stairway leads up from the main parking area for Amber fort. The rest of Jaipur is rather underwhelming.
- Udaipur: Nice and relaxing. The nicest views are from across the bridge, looking back toward the City Palace. We stayed at Dream Heaven (another LP rec) and were very pleased with our 400 rupee/night room and the rooftop was among the best in the city. The cultural performance in Bagore-ki-Haveli is also quite worth the 150 rupees and hour long wait. Que up at 6:15 to get a seat for 7:00 pm shows.
- Mt Abu: Don’t bother. A hill station in name only, this place was one of our least favorite. The Delwara temple featured the most intricate carvings I’d ever seen, but you can’t even bring a camera in there (or even a mobile phone), hence the absence of pics.
- Ahmedabad: Not much more than a transfer hub (at least for us), try a Gujarati thali (the best in the country) before catching your connection to somewhere else. If you have a layover, there is also a museum at Gandhi’s first ashram featuring inspirational quotes from the mahatma.Downtown Ahmedabad
- Aurangabad: The jumping off point for the caves of Ellora and Ajanta (the former is the more impressive in terms of scale and carving but in rainy season the jungle surrounding Ajanta comes alive, making it probably the more spectacular of the two at that time), the city also features a fake Taj Mahal that looks almost identical to the original but is made of mostly lime mortar instead of solid white marble.
- Goa: A well-earned resting place. The nicest beach we found in southern Goa was the northernmost of the Cola beaches (north of Agonda). Many other beaches are accessible by motorbike and some can be found with few to no other people. We also found Bogmalo beach nice (enough) to pass the time awaiting our flight near the airport in Vasco de Gama.
- Delhi: The markets in Delhi didn’t live up to the hype, but the best of the lot is the touristic street market between RK Ashram and New Delhi metro stations in Pharangi. The Lotus Temple was aesthetically striking and spiritually unique, if crowded, and we were herded around a bit too much. The metro is very “efficient” so be prepared to push your way on – it’s really the best (cheapest, cleanest, fastest) way to get around.