As first time travelers in this wondrous and complicated country, we probably were more attuned to the “messy bits” than we will be next time, so here are a few things that might help other first timers.
Traffic and travel times
Looking at India from afar we found ourselves dreading the traffic in Delhi and other large cities. In fact, the traffic everywhere (except open highway, sometimes, and Khajuraho) is horrible. Many roads are in pretty awful shape or, worse, are in the midst of major repair. Because there are vehicles of various sizes all competing for space, every gap is quickly filled with whatever will fit. Three marked lanes will always have at least four, usually five, vehicles abreast.
There is nothing, nothing, you can do about it. Fortunately estimated travel times from our guides always took traffic into account. Even more fortunately, the people watching, animal watching, and general stuff to see is so absorbing that the time it takes to get from one place to another was, for us, rarely tedious and even then it passed pretty quickly.
So sit back and chill. Look around and be glad you have the swirl of Indian life to entertain you.
Some drivers are extremely aggressive. Some are chill. We didn’t notice much difference in how long it took to get somewhere, but it could be rather scary to focus on all the many (many!) seemingly near misses. While in the US it seems everyone overestimates how big his or her car is, pulling out of parking places at a snail’s pace and leaving half a car length between unmarked parking spaces instead of a foot or so, Indian drivers appear to have a precise, to the inch understanding of where their cars start and end. They can pull around other cars with what to us looks like a mere centimeter, and no more, to spare. We saw exactly one traffic accident and it was on an open highway.
Try not to focus on how close everything seems to be passing your vehicle. Just don’t look, or look and marvel.
Hotel room electrical management
We stayed at upscale hotels–not the highest of the high end, but, for example, the nicest hotel in Khajuraho, a large Sheraton in Delhi, and the like. Every hotel used the room key to turn the power on in the room–you drop your key in a slot by the door and the lights come on. So far, so good. But every room had a confusing, sometimes illogical set of switches to turn things on, and a few had timers on bathroom lights and/or auto-on motion detectors for hall or bathroom. It was incredible to us how difficult it was to figure out how to manage a simple thing like turning off the bathroom light..
Make sure you ask! And pay attention to the instructions. Remember that you cannot leave something to charge all day while you are out and about…because when you leave, the power to your room is off.
We never got sick, but we never had street food though we did have chai tea from a street vendor. It was delicious, btw.
We also ate and drank a lot of yogurt and took probiotic capsules every day. I ate papaya and yogurt every morning for breakfast–yummy and a digestive aid. All in all we were probably simply lucky.
The non-Indian choices in the hotels were so-so. As much as we enjoyed the food we did get weary of it a few times. Do a little research if you are not familiar with Indian food, and do note that almost everything is very spicy for most American palates. The breads, and the yogurt, which were always available, were very helpful in offsetting the intense flavors. Do try the lassis!!!
There was a lot of press about the lack of public toilets, and rightly so. Men pee on the sides of the roads everywhere. Everywhere. The only public urinal we saw was in Old Delhi (we saw only one and it was in steady use).
We also saw women and men defacating in open fields. This is not only very dangerous to everyone’s health but demeaning to the population. Indians and visitors can pray that the government gets this remedied as soon as possible for so many reasons.
It’s best, and easiest on the emotions, to ignore this behavior. Do use hotel and restaurant facilities whenever they avail themselves. Not everywhere has western style toilets, so bring strong thighs. Very few women’s bathrooms had both toilet paper and paper towels or hand dryers. I was super glad I had purchased a travelers roll of TP in a little plastic case and used it often. Get used to drying your hands in the air or on your jeans.
There must be millions of stray dogs. It is extraordinarily sad to see, and of course for India an enormous problem by adding to the mess and at times general commotion, though barking dogs were quite rare. As a dog owner and lover I found it painful. The countervailing aspect is that most Indians love animals and many take time and money to feed them, and in some cases put t-shirts or sweaters on them when it is cold. (We also saw goats in clothing!) I assumed if you saw a dog in clothing it meant it had an owner but I was told by several folks that no, people just did this when it got cold.
In general the dogs seem independent and/or resigned. Though some are very thin, most are on the thin side but not alarmingly so. We saw them sleeping in front of vendors, undisturbed, and we never saw kids or anyone deliberately harassing, injuring or chasing them. So it is awful, but bearable. As I mentioned in another entry we saw monkeys being fed, there were street vendors selling dried corn to feed to birds, and people put out greens in the afternoon for cows and goats. Try to console yourself with these things and not stress about how the public animals don’t have the cosy life of most American pets.