Before flying into New Delhi on my RTW trip, I had never been outside of Europe and the United States. Clearly, some part of me wanted to just rip that band-aid right off. I spent hours reading everything I could about India. It’s not exactly a country highly recommended to solo female travelers, particularly if you’ve never been anywhere else on the Asian continent. But why is that exactly? Why do all the challenges of India make it an unwise destination for inexperienced travelers? Is Delhi somehow really uniquely terrible? I was surprised when I landed and didn’t feel an immediate, strong culture shock. Delhi largely looked as I imagined it, with ruddy dust-filled streets, tangled webs of traffic, and oranges and bananas piled high at road-side stalls. In my first few days, I had to focus on work and much of my ‘travel’ experience was limited to simply taking a walk around the city and maybe going out for lunch. As I wandered and saw the challenges of travel in India first-hand, I realized why I wasn’t reacting to the typical culture shock triggers. I had, in fact, seen them before in other cities – they weren’t unique to Delhi at all. Are you ready for India? See how many of these challenges you know how to handle.
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One of the biggest eye-openers for travelers in the Third World is seeing poverty first-hand. While the number of people you may see on the street is greater in India, it is not the only country with poverty. Even in my hometown – a small, fairly affluent Southern town – I see folks begging with a cardboard sign every day. Seeing extreme poverty in the close quarters of an Indian sidewalk is definitely a new perspective and should awaken your compassion. But if you don’t live with your head in the sand back home, there’s no need to lock yourself in your hotel room weeping crocodile tears over how you never knew people could live with so little. Poverty is not unique to India, and – as many travelers seem to forget – not everyone in India is impoverished! Delhi has just as many bright, educated, travel-loving people as anywhere else you’ve visited.
One of the few moments I had a strong gut reaction to something I saw in Delhi was the moment I witnessed a girl walking in front of me casually toss a food wrapper onto a pile of garbage by the side of the path. But before that moment, the simple presence of huge amounts of litter didn’t trigger the same feeling. Ever been to Athens? The Greek capital is covered in garbage and graffiti – and nobody’s telling travelers they shouldn’t go to the Acropolis because of that. Don’t use litter as an excuse to avoid India. In fact, if you’re an environmentalist, take the opportunity to connect with local activists and try to learn about how travelers can help improve the pollution in Delhi. You’ll see folks working on campaigns at many subway stations around the city.
Litter isn’t the only similarity between Athens and Delhi. Both cities have a number of stray dogs in the street. It can be hard for animal lovers to see dogs relegated to the streets, particularly when they’re visibly unhealthy with sores or missing legs. Generally, if you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you. And if you’ve been to Athens before, seeing lots of stray animals won’t be new to you.
A very common culture shock moment for travelers is seeing the sidewalk treated as a bathroom. Oh, the melodramatic diaries and blogs dedicated to this! Seriously guys? You’ve never been out late at night in any European capital? From London to Rome, every Western city has at least one guy who’s had too much to drink and decides to treat the nearest wall as his personal urinal. Public urination may be more frowned upon in the West, but it does happen. You can avert your eyes in India just as you would anywhere else.
Crossing the Street
Delhi’s traffic is quite chaotic to the untrained eye, and figuring out how to cross the street is a popular ‘rite of passage’ anecdote. For many Westerners, stepping into the stream of moving traffic is counter-intuitive to say the least. Fortunately, I was prepared from the first place I experienced any culture shock: Rome. Cars in Rome don’t stop for pedestrians any more than cars in Delhi. All you can do is suck it up, walk, and pray. Crossing the street in India is certainly intimidating, and I typically only attempted it when I could tag along with a group. As a solo female traveler in particular, I found women in Delhi were always willing to help look out for me, and for that I am immensely grateful. But this is certainly not the only city in the world where you have to battle traffic.
Delhi is often described as an assault on the senses. I didn’t fully appreciate this until after I left. My boyfriend met me in Kathmandu and his first day kept asking questions like ‘What’s that noise?’ or ‘What’s that smell?’ I couldn’t answer him as I genuinely never heard or smelled whatever caught his attention. It was then that I realized being in India had effectively numbed my senses. But in the moment, Delhi didn’t seem that much louder than any other major city. Isn’t New York beloved for being the ‘city that never sleeps’?
So are you ready for India?
The trials travelers can face in India aren’t as unique as you might worry. Chances are you’ve encountered many of these challenges in other destinations, or even back home – even if you’ve only traveled in the West before. The only thing that set Delhi apart was putting all those challenges together at once. Well, and the pollution. There’s literally nothing like the pollution in Delhi… I don’t think India will ever make a list of the easiest places to travel, particularly as a solo female traveler. But where there’s a will, there’s a way. If you have the motivation, you don’t need to worry as much about your skill level. Read everything you can, and think about what you’ve faced in other countries. India is not the big bad wolf and if I can make it through a week unscathed, you can too.
The best advice I received about India was that it is the ‘Italy of Asia.’ And likewise, Italy is the India of Europe! If you’re getting ready for an Indian adventure, Italy is a great destination to test your travel limits. Decide where to go with my Italy itinerary planner.
Where have you faced the most culture shock in your travels? Tell me in the comments!