I can’t say that our experience in India was all bad by any means.
We met some nice people, saw some of the most beautiful buildings we’ve ever seen and ate some delicious curries. We took an incredible tiger safari, explored ancient forts and visited some fantastic museums. It’s probably one of the most photogenic countries we’ve visited – I have hundreds of pictures waiting to be edited and tens of drafts sat in instagram waiting to be published.
But after a week travelling in India, we found ourselves wanting out. We’d paid a ton of money for a two month visa, finally managed to get into a country without an onward plane ticket and had planned to spend at least 3 weeks, but probably 4 or more exploring the north of the country (avoiding the monsoon in the South).
I wanted to write this post as an honest reflection of our experiences. Everyone knows India isn’t always the easiest place to travel, especially if you’re backpacking and on a tight budget, but if you looked at our Instagram I’d forgive you for thinking we had the most perfect travel experience going.
I thought I was pretty well prepared for our India trip.
I’d done plenty of research, bookmarked many blogs and practically devoured Shantaram before our arrival. I was expecting to have to hustle, to avoid scams, to dress conservatively so as not to offend. I knew we’d see poverty and that it wouldn’t be one of the cleanest countries we’ve visited. Still though, I wasn’t anticipating how overwhelmed and exhausted we’d feel after such a short period of time.
Here’s why we left India earlier than planned – an honest write up of our experiences, the good and the bad. Settle in, as I’m afraid it’s a bit of an essay!
Safety & Dealing With Hassle
The first and most significant reason we cut our trip short was the constant, morning til night, hassle and scamming we were subjected to.
You can pretty much guarantee if you visit a market in Asia you’re going to need to get your hustle on, and if you risk taking a taxi you’d better have your best haggling skills ready. We’ve travelled all over Asia and beyond in the last year and never have we experienced anything as bad as India.
You can’t walk down the street without people trying to pull you into shops, take you to a local special bazaar that no one else knows about and goodness knows what else. Your taxi driver will tell you your hotel is closed, local touts will insist ticket offices have burnt down. Literally anything to try and get money from you.
Tuk tuk drivers will literally scream at you as you walk down the street if you refuse the insanely high price they’ve quoted and decide to try and find some one more reasonable to negotiate with. Honestly, it’s endless.
The lies as well – even pointless ones when it would be easier to just hold your hands up and say ‘I don’t know’. We booked some train tickets through our hostel in hope we’d escape the absolute faff that is trying to buy tickets at the station where we invariably ending up queuing multiple times at different desks before locating the right place to purchase. (Incidentally I do think this is more our incompetence than India’s problem.)
Duly the hostel manager bought the tickets, emailed us the confirmation, said he’d print the reservation (which is different from the confirmation), and we paid up. This was followed by two days of chasing for the print out – first the printer was broken, next we were told they’d print them at a local shop, then when we walked in from sightseeing the following day we were assured a friend was printing them in the next half an hour.
They didn’t materialise.
Finally the night before our 6am train, Rob made a small scene and the tickets were printed straight off for us… from the ‘broken printer’.
It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but after a week or so of this sort of thing happening constantly it’s just exhausting. I would love to see more of India, but for as long as 90% of people in the tourism industry are out to completely fleece you, I’m out. It makes the whole experience tiring, annoying and unenjoyable.
The Worst Of It…
The worst of it is that it leaves you with your barriers up and it stops you from being as open to meeting locals and having spontaneous trips. We ended up feeling like every time someone stopped us to say hi or started a conversation they would have an ulterior motive, which isn’t the nicest attitude to have while travelling in a new country that you want to learn more about.
It’s not just financial hassle either.
Never have I been so aggressively leered and stared at while walking down the street. My experience as a female traveller in India was worse on the whole than other negative experiences in Egypt and Morocco as it was just so frequent. The clicking, hissing and staring were ongoing, pretty much everywhere we went. I was groped twice, just walking down the street – in broad daylight.
— And just to clarify (not that it should matter), I didn’t wear anything remotely revealing the entire time we were there. Trousers, jumpsuits, long skirts, arm covering t Shirts and scarves – the whole time. I even moved a ring onto my wedding ring finger based on advice I’d read before visiting. —
Sadly because we were left with so much distrust and suspicion we resorted to carrying our valuables on us at all times. India is the only place I’ve worn a money belt every day – containing our passports, other documents and some spare cash. It’s the only place Rob’s carried a backpack with the laptop and kindles on him every day.
I guess the only good thing on this topic is that we didn’t feel we were at much risk of street crime and theft. The chances were probably as high as in any other country but we felt pretty safe walking around with our stuff on us. Safer than leaving it in the hotel anyway!
Hygiene Issues & Litter
The temples in India are beautiful and many of the museum buildings are works of art in their own right, but the day to day filth on the streets is awful. There is litter pretty much everywhere – plastic bottles, piles of (actual) crap and god knows what else litter the streets. I saw dead pigs in rubbish heaps on the street in Jaipur and what I think was a dead dog in Sawai Madhopur.
Worst of all, you can see how many people don’t care enough to change their own habits for the better. We saw so many people throwing bottles, food wrappers and other rubbish on the ground once they’d finished – even off tourist boats into the ocean in Mumbai.
Young children were littering without a care in the world, and certainly without any repercussions from parents.
Yes – It’s True…
And yes, it’s true – people go to the toilet in the street, and no, I don’t just mean to pee. It was primarily in rural areas that we saw this – but unfortunately for us we witnessed a fair few people squatting at the side of the road with no shame whatsoever. I mean, I guess it’s biodegradable…
This means that, sadly, large parts of the country are really dirty and smell terrible. The heat makes it worse and when it does rain you can almost feel the disease in the air. Again, I’m aware that India isn’t the only place that struggles with litter, poor hygiene and disease, but it was more pronounced here than we’ve seen elsewhere.
We’ve watched a lot of documentaries and read books on climate change as we’ve traveled and our interest in the subject has increased. Many figures in there have defended India’s attitudes towards pollution and global warming and I believe that there are big efforts taking place to improve the situation. It was shocking though to see how far there is to go and to imagine the scale of the uphill battle to educate and increase awareness and understanding.
The Poverty is Heartbreaking
Probably the most upsetting part of our experience was the poverty that you see on a day to day basis when travelling the country. We saw slums and desperate poverty in the cities and terrible rural poverty in the countryside.
Families with babies and young children, skinny and wearing filthy clothing, living together in tiny lean tos in the street, sleeping together on a sheet at night.
The elderly with awful disabilities and wounds, wrapped in paper and duct tape, sitting on pavements and covered with flies.
I knew that there was poverty in India, of course I did, but to be confronted with it so painfully often was beyond my comfort levels in every way.
Groups of young children, with dirty clothes and faces, would surround us, begging for rupees. One girl who couldn’t have been older than about 6 grabbed the straps of my backpack, crying, and refused to let go as we walked down the street, apologising hopelessly that we couldn’t give her anything. Even when faced with this, you’re conditioned to think it’s a scam, to wonder what you’d be faced with if you did give 100 rupees with so many others in the same situation.
I know that all societies have their faults, their inequalities, that all capitalist countries are built on some being rich and some being poor, but this is on another level altogether. The poverty we saw in India is just beyond belief and I’m sure we only scratched the surface. I don’t know how the problem can be solved – the population in India is enormous and growing all the time.
Relatively speaking I appreciate I am ignorant of India’s problems and successes, their challenges and hardships and what they are doing to improve. I don’t necessarily have a right to judge and all I can speak about is our experience. Personally though, I know that spending another few weeks travelling and seeing even more poverty wouldn’t have been an enjoyable experience.
It’s not all bad… I Promise
I know what I’ve written makes our time in India sound awful, and I can’t lie that parts were really difficult, but it wouldn’t be fair to write this post without including the many things we did enjoy about our travels here.
As I’ve mentioned, the architecture was stunning – from colonial buildings in Mumbai to Forts and Palaces in Jodphur and Jaipur to the Taj Mahal and so much more, there are many beautiful and well preserved buildings. Some of the museums we’ve visited have been world class – the Ghandi Museum in Delhi, the Prince of Wales Museum in Mumbai, to name just a couple. The food (when it hasn’t made us sick) has been delicious – rich and flavoursome curries and all sorts of sweets and sides.
We’ve also met some lovely people.
The people who have helped us with no prompting – like the woman who found our train for us when we were hopelessly lost and confused at Dadar Station, and the man who checked our ticket and came with us to the platform to make sure we boarded the right carriage in Sawai Madhopur. The lovely Indian woman who owned the restaurant we were eating in one night and joined us to talk about our trip and brought us complimentary chai tea and sweets to try. Even the many many children and families who shook our hands at tourist resorts and practised their English asking how we were and where we were from – before shyly asking to take selfies with us.
Not all Indians are full of hustle at all, many are very welcoming and friendly. It’s sad that our exposure to those who did want to rip us off ruined our trust – leaving us sceptical and defensive.
Overall I’m not sure if India is a place that we’d return to. I wouldn’t want to put anyone off visiting either – in spite of the more difficult aspects of our visit I did enjoy a lot of our time there and we saw some amazing places. It’s a really tricky one to balance – I’m sad that even going in with the expectation that it would be overwhelming, difficult and harsh at times it was still so much harder than we expected to adjust to what we were seeing.
Providing a Balanced Perspective
This has been a hard post to write for many reasons. We’re conditioned often as travel bloggers to write about our experiences within a framework that’s considered to be acceptable, open minded, non offensive, aspirational even. But what can be a real challenge is writing honestly about a bad travel experience or a negative perception of a country.
Yes, there are over a billion people in India and it’s a given that they’re not all bad by any means. But actually I don’t feel it would be right to frame the narrative of our experience here in the context of travel cliches. Looking back on the poverty, the harassment and the pollution, I hated much of our time in India.
I can only speak for myself and I know many travellers have had positive experiences travelling in India, but it wasn’t until I read this excellent post by a female solo traveller who wrote honestly about her terrible experiences in India that I researched the country more and decided I would try to write with the same honesty.
It can be so hard to draw the line when it comes to making ethical choices about where we travel to and why. Many won’t visit Saudi Arabia because of their attitude towards women’s rights. Even more refuse to support the political situation in North Korea with tourism.
But so many travellers head to India to ‘find themselves’ and have an ‘inspiring’ travel experience in spite of their appalling record when it comes to sexual violence against women. When 90% of marriages are arranged, many when women are under the age of 18. When there have been over 24,000 dowry related deaths in 3 years. When almost 40% of rape victims in India are girls under the age of 18. When it ranks 127th out of 146 countries according the the UN’s measures of gender equality.
I can’t be too positive about a country where I was groped twice in broad daylight – the only country on our travels where this has happened.
There doesn’t seem to be much judgement about supporting an economy with tourism where reports suggest more people die prematurely as a result of pollution here than in China – potentially up to 3283 deaths per day in 2015 in fact. A place where 13 of the 20 most polluted cities are located. Where the holy river of the Ganges is one of the most polluted rivers worldwide.
I can’t be too positive about a country that I left with a chesty cough and sore throat because I felt like I couldn’t breathe half the time due to the traffic and pollution.
Now I know that all countries have their problems and that no system is perfect. But I wanted to write an honest account of our time in India. There were many parts we enjoyed as you can see in the many blog posts we’ve written sharing positive experiences we had, but feeling like you have to use euphemisms to patch over the negatives in case anyone is offended can be frustrating. This post has been drafted for some time now, and I’m still nervous about how it will be received.
Those statistics can be easily found, alongside many others and our experiences of India were of a country that may have elements of beauty but has a hell of a lot of ugliness that’s not even halfway hidden under the surface.
The truth of it is that the time we spent in India experiencing harassment or seeing devastating poverty or terrible pollution wasn’t enlightening or an awakening, a lot of it was just awful, so we opted out and made our plans to leave.