14 Things I Wish I Knew Before Travelling to India

Things that baffled my 'open mind' when traveling to India

A few weeks ago my friend Bronwyn said to me: "Random question: do you want to go to India with me?"
And I replied: "Hmmm, probably shouldn't", but then I did anyway. 
Not only did I not give too much thought to whether or not I should go to India but by the time I was on an Ethiopian Airways flight three weeks later, I didn't really consider what I would be going to either. 

I really had no idea what to expect. Eat, Pray, Love is the only memoir I’ve read on the subject but I was not going to an ashram. People always glamorise their travel Instagrams so social media is not an accurate representation. I had watched a lot of Bollywood movies (I even wrote my honours thesis on the subject in university) but they tend to glamorise things too (especially on the rare occasion that they are actually set in India) and they saturate the colours more than any filter I've ever used. And then there’s Slum Dog Millionaire!   

I tried to take an open mind but inevitably India contradicted a lot of the preconceived ideas I didn’t know I had. If you’re contemplating a visit, here’s a couple of things that surprised me on my trip to the ‘Golden Triangle’ (Delhi, Agra and Jaipur):

What I didn’t expect from India:

1. The first surprising thing to me was the time zone. 

I’ve mostly travelled west, never east. I didn’t know time zone changes even happened in 30-minute increments until I was 3.5 hours ahead. Just when I thought I had gotten used to frequently changing my clock on cruise ships, this really frazzled my brain. 

2. I expected it to be more touristy.

In Europe when you go visit a landmark, you spend a significant amount of time in a line waiting to get in. That’s just how it works. In the cities we visited, there were no lines anywhere, especially for foreigners. When there were crowds, there seemed to be a lot more local tourists than foreign ones. 

Galta Ji, Jaipur - Temples
Galta Ji, Jaipur

3. I didn’t realise there was so much to see.

The cities we visited are obviously steeped in history. Between temples, mosques, palaces, forts, ruins, monuments, mausoleums, museums and other places of interest, we were very busy. Considering the short or nonexistent lines and the availability of cheap tuctucs or underpriced Ubers, I was quite amazed at how much we managed to see and do in our time there and how much more we could do if we had more time. 

4. There’s so much old and new all in one place.

In South Africa, if a building is more than a hundred years old it is a national monument. Normally, older buildings are found in older areas and newer buildings in newer ones. In Delhi especially, there are stadiums built right next to the 14th-century forts and the Haaz Khas ruins which are sandwiched between a popular park and a shopping area with great nightlife. 

Royal Gaitor, Jaipur
Royal Gaitor, Jaipur (completely devoid of tourists)

5. Maps are quite unreliable.

Some of the most interesting things we saw weren't on any tourist map …or even Google maps. The massive Feroz Shah Kotla Fort from the 14th century is one of those things. Agrasen ki Baoli is another. (It's like an ancient-looking well.) When we went to these places we had them mostly to ourselves.

Feroz Shah Kotla Fort, Delhi
Feroz Shah Kotla Fort

According to the locals, every old site you stumble upon is "haunted". Maybe that's part of their strategy to avoid 'over-tourism' if deleting attractions from maps doesn't work?

Agrasen ki Boali, Delhi
Agrasen ki Baoli

Even if these places were on the map, the tuctuc drivers wouldn't read them anyway. They believe in maps as much as they believe in traffic lanes and those are purely decorative. In a city big enough to accommodate around 24 million people, they just drive in the general direction of something and ask other tuctuc drivers for directions along the way. They're usually close enough to touch each other so they don’t even have to raise their voices that much to ask. 

Delhi traffic
Delhi traffic (It moves faster than you would think)

6. I was so so wrong about forts.

I never said "If you've seen one fort you've seen them all", but I did say "If you've seen about four forts you've seen them all” (based on my experience of the Americas and Europe). In my time in India, I saw four: The Red Fort, Feroz Shah Kotla Fort, the Agra Fort and the Amber Palace (that was definitely in a fort). India takes forts to a whole other level.
Red Fort, Delhi
The Red Fort, Delhi

Agra Fort
Agra Fort, Agra

The Amber Fort / The Amer Palace
The Amber/Amer Fort/Palace

7. I didn't expect to have to leave Rodrigo behind.

We've been to mosques, Hindu, Bahai and Hare Krishna temples, and Rodrigo was only rejected by the Hare Krishnas - or at least their security. All religious establishments seem to be very guarded in this city. It's nice that they're generally so welcoming of travel toys though. (And honestly, I try to be a respectful human being and not photograph the inside of religious buildings no matter how touristy they are, while Rodrigo is concealed in my bag.)

Travel toy at Jama Masjid
Jama Masjid

He was also rejected from the Taj Mahal, along with pens and sharp objects of any sort. I didn’t even try to bring his legs!
(This is probably the least helpful piece of advice I’ve given in a blog ever, but if you’re thinking of getting a travel mascot, a plushie will be allowed more access to famous landmarks than a hard piece of plastic.) 

Taj Mahal and no travel toy
Pens, selfie sticks, sharp objects, lawn ornaments,
these are just a few things not allowed. 

8. I didn't expect the Krishna Temple (ISKON) to ever have a "robot show". 

Despite the remaining signage, it has sadly been discontinued. My travel partner who sometimes speaks on radio shows and TED talks about things like AI, transhumanism and robot rights, was possibly even more disappointed than me. They've replaced it with what I believe is a mannequin and laser light show explaining the Gita. (And yet they discriminate against lawn flamingos.)

9. I didn't expect such special treatment. 

When I was in my late teens / early twenties I dreamed of nothing else but becoming a white Bollywood film star. I failed to achieve that dream, but apparently, India doesn't know that. Despite all that this city has to offer, foreigners are actually quite rare. We were bombarded with requests for selfies with the locals from the moment we left the airport. I felt a bit like a Kardashian. I'm always happy to oblige my fans though. It's nice to finally be in a country that gives me the appreciation I deserve. 

Tourist selfies - India

10. White female tourists (apart from Bronwyn and I) cannot go to India without treating it like a Bollywood dress-up party. 

None of the other white female tourists we encountered (under the age of 40 anyway) seemed to be aware of the fact that it is actually possible to dress respectfully in India in western clothes. I would have thought that that sort of 'cultural appropriation' would be offensive in this day and age, but then I also didn't expect my race to turn me into a celebrity. 

11. I was warned that the Taj Mahal is overrated. It’s not.  

Everyone thinks I'm strange for being interested in cemeteries and for finding crypts, tombs and gravestones fascinating. Then you get to Agra and suddenly everyone wants to visit a mausoleum! It is quite a magnificent piece of architecture. I think that being funnelled through any landmark like cattle can sometimes destroy a place’s ambience, but I didn’t feel overwhelmed by tourists here and I thought the Taj Mahal was quite special and awe-inspiring. I'm so grateful for the experience.

The Taj Mahal
(And to think the most a guy has ever done for me is buy me dinner)

12. ‘The pink city’ (Jaipur) is actually terracotta. 

And there's nothing amber about the Amber Palace either! (Apparently, the name has nothing to do with the fossilised tree resin or its colour.) 

City Palace, Jaipur
City Palace, Jaipur

13. Delhi doesn't smell like poop. Expectations = totally violated. 

Everyone tells you the stench hits you in the face as you exit the airplane. It is quite polluted but nope, no faecal scent, just diesel fumes.

14. And finally, I didn't get the squirts!

Everybody, and I mean everybody, told me to take anti-diahoreal meds as ‘Delhi Belly’ is all part of the experience. They also told us to only drink bottled water and not eat street food. We followed all their advice and I think the last two points eliminated the need for the first. There was no need for the Imodium.

Taj Mahal at sunset

You haven’t been to India until:

It is said that you haven’t been to India until you have been to an Indian wedding. (I mentioned that in a previous post about international wedding crashing in September. That was before I had any intention of going to India.)  And yes, I did try to gatecrash a wedding at one of the hotels where we stayed. Obviously. Even though I have not succeeded in attending an Indian wedding, I have still definitely experienced India. I have decided to compile a list of some equally valid alternatives to this expression.

You haven’t been to India until:

  • You have driven headfirst into oncoming traffic in a tuctuc. 
  • You have seen a six-legged cow. (That image still haunts my dreams.)
  • Someone has tried to take you to their padlocked underground (dungeon) "temple".
  • You’ve crossed a busy Delhi street and lived. (It still counts if you had to ask a little old lady to help you.)
  • Or you’ve survived an attempted mugging by a temple monkey.

You should still go.

 When you return, feel free to add to this list in the comment section below.


    1. Great Post. I am so interested in visiting India but I would not like to go alone. Your post makes it look very interesting and accessible.

      1. Thanks so much. Normally my philosophy is rather do things alone or not at all, but in this case I'm so glad I found a travel partner.

      2. Looks amazing, love the architecture, great information my parents visited India a few years ago for a family wedding and loved it


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