Eight Reasons Why You Should Visit India
It's now been eight months since I started living in India. Eight months in and counting, it's fair to say have grown steadily fond of this corner of the world, coming to see it as a lovely, incredible and fundamentally misunderstood place. While the majority of its built environment could hardly be described as beautiful – half the buildings in this city of mine are falling apart or incomplete – the surroundings and scenery are utterly arresting, bathed in golden light and I doubt there is anywhere else on earth which has the same ability to render me speechless or send me into fits of laughter quite like India.
So in honour and anticipation of this milestone, I thought I’d post a little guide to my second home, gleaned from my experiences living in a country that is so steeped in culture, religion, history and language.
1. You won't believe it till you've seen it for yourself
India is INSANE. India is home to over 1.2 billion people - the second largest population in the world and, it's only when you’re in the mix of its crowded streets, frentic markets and overpopulated cities, that you realise just how many people that is. Coming from a country with less people than the city I'm currently living in, I found it nearly impossible to imagine that many people all living in one place until I arrived here. Then there's all the colour. Never in my life would I have felt comfortable rocking up to work in bright yellow leggings, but here it's totally normal. Nothing in India is bland when it can be spicy, and so it's common to see an insane amount of bright and beautiful colours on a daily basis. Whether in the form of embroidered saris, marigold chains being sold at the roadside, painted trucks and tractors, and decorated animals. The cows grazing in the middle of the motorway, while the traffic goes in all directions around them (huh? one way street? what on earth is that? no, they don't exist here) The toddler sleeping across his father's lap as he drives the family home; his mother riding side saddle on the back ever so gracefully while a barrage of car horns surround them. It's a mind-blowing place in the best way possible, and it's chaos is one of the things I love (and will miss most) about this country.
pro tip: India can be overwhelming, and when it comes down to it, the best thing to do is to just go with it. Accept this place for all it's quirks and chaos, and I promise you'll end up falling in love.
2. It's so peaceful
Okay, so I know I just described it as a crazy, shambolic sort of place, as it definitely can be - but despite this, I've never felt more relaxed and at peace anywhere in the world quite like I do here. The golden light, the laid back atmosphere and the religious coexistence mean that you get the real sense, here, of being entirely free. For a place teeming with noise, people and animals it's surprising easy to escape it all. See the people sleeping under the shade of the temple, taking their time to browse the markets or the multitudes of ways to get away from it all in minutes. It’s noisy as hell at times, for sure, but it's also incredibly peaceful. If I could bottle this feeling, I would.
pro tip: if ever you find everything getting just a little too much - get out of the sun, find a sugarcane juice stand for a wee pick me up and sit in the shade awhile.
3. The history
When it comes to history, India is unrivalled. Despite having many dark periods and seen many different religions take control, most of the modern world can trace its history back to this place. It's a clandestine jewel tucked in the heart of the history books, often forgotten about as the focus moves on to more recent history. There's just so much to see, that eight months in I've still not seen it all. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of this place. That and the fact that the archaeological finds still taking place fill me with a quiet hope and the feeling that the very best is yet to come. India always strikes me as a secretive country, as a place that keeps its mysteries close. There's just so much to see that it's easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer amount of buildings, secret hideaways and doorways that I will never be able to peek inside – and still, every corner that little bit lovelier than the last, so long as you can find your way, somehow break beneath the country's chaotic covering. India reminds me of the very best love affairs: you’ll fall in love at first sight, sure, but only slowly does it reveal its true secrets, all of its simmering shades. There is comfort in the thought that this ground I'm walking upon is already far older and greater than I will ever be.
pro tip: If you've not booked a guided tour beforehand, don't worry - audio guides are available for lots of the places you'll visit in India. Do be wary of the "guides" offering to show you around - always ask to see their identification.
4. It's romantic
India's romantic, really it is. Despite being a country where PDA is generally frowned upon, nowhere else in the world celebrates love quite as brightly and shouts about it as loudly as India does. I don't just mean the Taj Mahal (half the workers went blind in the process of building it!) because for the most part it's a love that is hidden - your soulmate's name in your mehendi design, the red colours of the wedding saree, the cities full of winding streets, spice-filled markets and stores laden with antiques, where you can hear you own thoughts and quiet nooks to sneak away for a private kiss are everywhere. Love lies in the shadows, with the the crumbling facades and white sheets hanging out to dry just adding to the soft, whimsical atmosphere. It’s a country to fall in love with, and in.
pro tip: although the younger generation are gradually changing this, PDA is still frowned upon in a lot of places in India. Be cautious about showing too much affection in public and in front of strangers.
5. It never really gets cold
Unless you're seeking the cold (head up north), you can always find nice weather in India. Way back in October as the monsoon was ending, I remember arguing with my workmates who were calling it winter despite the 29 degree heat. Trying to explain that in Scotland we'd call that a heatwave was met with laughter, but it's true. Although in the summer months it does get insanely (and occasionally uncomfortably) warm, you can be sure you won't get chilly unless you head for the mountains.
pro tip: don't come in the summer if you can avoid it - the weather is extremely hot and as locals will also be on holiday, trains will sell out much faster and attractions will be much busier. If you can't resist - cooling spray is essential!
6. It's inspiring
I came to India during a dry spell, when the urge to write just wasn't there. I was in India barely an hour before I found myself scribbling away, overcome with inspiration. You get that wild, untethered and wholly wonderful feeling one sometimes gets in a foreign land; of being transplanted into a novel or a play, of being somewhere so at odds with one’s normal everyday existence that you can't help but be inspired. Although some of the things I still "wow" at even eight months in (like the monkeys in the garden) draw laughs from my students for being so commonplace, the truth is I doubt I'll ever run out of inspiration while in India.Every day there is something that makes me want to write and that feeling is the best in the world. Even if you're not a writer, you'll come away from India with more stories than you ever thought you'd be able to tell.
pro tip: bring a journal with you or buy a local one at the market to record all of your adventures and the funny things people say.
Ohh it can be spicy, but you'll soon get used to it (or just start saying "no spice!!") It's also incredible. I'm not saying Delhi Belly is a myth; just that you'll be absolutely fine if you're careful and don't eat irresponsibly. (e.g ice lolly = death on a stick) Eight months in and I've only been sick once! My stomach is definitely stronger now than it was when I arrived anyways, where I can brush my teeth with tap water, eat street food without a second thought and don't worry as much about getting ice in my sugarcane juice, but if you're only coming for a short while, it might be best to stick to bottled water. Vegetarian food is probably the best way to go, but be prepared for insanely large portion sizes and the best naan bread the world has ever known.
pro tip: don't be afraid of trying the street food, if you see it being cooked in front of you you should be absolutely fine.
8. It's cheap
Right now, after the chaos of demonetisation (ughhh) you only get 85 rupees to the british pound, but despite it all, India is still very, very cheap. I've become very good at bargaining and knowing how much things should cost, meaning that a small amount go money can go really far. It sounds silly to be arguing with someone over the equivalent of 20 pence or something, but while I'm living here, I'm quite stern against being overcharged because of the assumption that I'm a foreigner. When my family came they found it hilarious how Indian they thought I had become, but really it's all just the result of experience. That I could take them out for a meal that cost less than 10 pounds for the four of us, when the hotel charged up to fifty quid, is really just testament to how cheap India is if you know where to go. In Goa, the tourist state, I found everything so insanely expensive, because there is an assumption that tourists will pay more. Be aware of foreigner vs indian prices at tourist spots - what might cost fifteen rupees for an indian might be two hundred rupees for a tourist.
pro tip 1: Unless there is a sign saying fixed price barter! With auto-rickshaw drivers and at markets you should haggle for all your worth - they really will take you for a ride otherwise. Normally, go at least a third of what price they say.
pro tip 2: Tipping in India isn't very common. Most restaurants/ hotels will automatically add on the service charge and service vat. However, this is my experience in terms of living like a local- tourists are often expected to tip 10%. It's really your choice whether or not to tip.
So, is India on your bucketlist or have you already visited?
If not, what are you waiting for?