I’m not sure what surprised me most about my first trip to India. It is exactly as travellers describe it: a captivatingly kaleidoscopic, yet overwhelmingly chaotic, assault on the senses. It is a world of constant, in-your-face contrasts that will both daunt and delight you. It is exciting and enchanting, crowded and chaotic, spiritual and soul changing. India is the very definition of culture shock and I loved every minute of it.
India grabs hold of all five senses at once and hurtles them into complete overdrive with its sights, smells, flavours and seemingly never-ending cacophony of sounds that, somehow, you (almost) get used to.
As you explore narrow walkways and bustling markets, the soothing scent of chai, smoky tendrils from burning incense, and irresistible wafts of spicy curry and fresh-from-the-fire naan are all too often overpowered by the disturbing stench of ever-accumulating garbage and pollution. This is the alarming dichotomy of India.
There are brilliant bursts of colour everywhere you look, from brightly painted houses and overladen street stalls, to the intermittent and unexpected splashes of colour from sari-clad women out in stark, dusty fields. India is a feast and a shock for all senses.
Nothing can truly prepare you for India. It is mind-blowingly overpopulated and teeming with a constant buzz of activity, its urban areas truly never sleep, yet somehow its ancient cultures and time-honoured traditions remain ever-present amidst the beautiful chaos.
Expect confusing contrasts, vibrant colours, enticing flavours and non-stop noise (until you venture off the beaten track and into some of India’s refreshingly remote areas). There will be moments of discomfort paired with moments of absolute awe. And despite the obvious, heart-breaking poverty, India’s people are some of the warmest, friendliest, and happiest people you will ever meet.
Don’t forget the obvious essentials
Recommended packing lists will differ depending on the time of year you are travelling and the region you will be exploring. But whether you are embarking on a journey through India’s crowded cities during the humid summer months, or opting for a blissfully remote snow leopard expedition in the snowy reaches of the mighty Himalayas, you’ll need to do a bit of research and be sure to pack the essentials.
Check the entry requirements for your nationality to ensure you have the required visas and up-to-date vaccinations (if necessary). Double-check the luggage restrictions too, as a hard case with wheels may be convenient for some destinations, while others will require a soft duffel bag. And I’ll let you in on my #1 travel hack: packing cells. They are a game changer when it comes to organising your belongings. I never travel without mine.
Investigate India’s electrical outlets beforehand to ensure you bring the necessary chargers and adaptors to keep your phone, camera and batteries fully charged and poised for each and every photographic moment. It’s also wise to bring extra medication and a few just-in-case antibiotics for the off chance you end up with dreaded ‘Delhi belly’.
Pack the obvious items like a day bag for exploring, hand sanitiser to keep the germophobe in you sane, and small denominations of cash for the local markets and luggage porters. Ladies, take some extra layers, shawls or scarves to respectfully cover up in temples and religious areas. A few extra pairs of secret socks will also come in handy when you are asked to remove your shoes at the entrance to temples, mosques and shrines.
Whether you’re travelling by rickshaw, motorbike or luxury sedan, the driving in India certainly raises the hair of most travellers. India’s constant tangle of traffic is best described as an organised and orderly chaos. More on that later. All I can say, is (try to) enjoy the ride — ideally from the passenger side window and not the front. Just focus on the energetic buzz around you and try not to pay attention to the oncoming traffic, constant hooting and labyrinth of speeding vehicles that seemingly ignore all the rules and road markings.
If you are travelling long distances, a neck pillow always comes in handy, and although some prefer not to be connected (I get you), purchasing a local SIM card will afford you a bit of distraction from the kamikaze driving and can keep you entertained on long, hot train journeys.
Beyond the suitcase
More important than any item on any packing list is the mental preparation. Like I said, nothing can fully prepare you for India. It is a destination like no other and although no amount of research and planning can truly arm you for the assaulting beauty, captivating chaos and widespread poverty, there are certainly some “beyond the suitcase” travel tips that can help.
These five ‘items’ belong on every packing list for India and they will ensure you get the most out of what I guarantee will be a life-changing and eye-opening journey.
1. A sense of humour
Just accept that the temperatures will soar, you cannot escape the pollution and there will be crowds that defy the very notion of personal space. Be patient, have an open mind and accept that it’s all part of the adventure.
Trains will be late, traffic will slow you down, the humidity will make you lethargic, and markets will sidetrack you. Go with the flow, stop watching the clock and just be present. India is one of the best places for people-watching, so if you get delayed, grab yourself some chai and a samosa and watch the world pass you by. A cheerful sense of humour, and a big dollop of patience, go a long way.
As for that tangle of traffic, just accept that Indian drivers drive in a way that you and I are not used to. Chat to your fellow passengers, photograph the hive of activity around you, or close your eyes every now and then if you have to. Relinquish control and accept that you will never understand just how the cars, trucks, rickshaws, people, cows, wagons, vendor stalls, pigs, motorbikes and even the occasional elephant manage to navigate this chaotic gridlock. Somehow it all just flows and you end up at your destination in one piece, so enjoy the ride.
2. A healthy, dietless appetite
This is definitely not the place to be skimping on food. It is irresistible and worth every calorie. Think aromatic rice dishes, feisty curries, warm buttery flatbreads, flavour-filled samosas and crispy pakoras … I could go on.
Whether you’re tucking into the lavish and seemingly never-ending procession of platters at a world-class restaurant, snacking on guilty treats cooked to perfection by a local street vendor or sharing a hearty curry and flame-grilled naan around a blazing fire on a mobile camping journey, the food will have you coming back for seconds.
You may start out exercising restraint (don’t!), but by the end of the adventure, hopefully you’ll have seen the error of your ways and will be unapologetically and enthusiastically tucking into everything.
3. An air of humility
India will shock you with its impossible-to-overlook contrasts. Poverty and opulence (and everything in between) live alongside each other. The urban areas are grossly overpopulated and you will encounter beggars, stray animals, filth and pollution.
A mere stone’s throw from the intricate marbled archways of the world-famous Taj Mahal and the (literally) gold-plated grandeur of the Golden Temple is the heart-rending and ever-present juxtaposition of extreme poverty and the insurmountable scourge of litter.
Travel is an important lesson in humility. It gives us insight into the human condition and engenders a sincere appreciation for what we have. When travelling through India (or anywhere for that matter), always exercise humility, tolerance, compassion and acceptance. Hold no judgement for the way others live or the way other cultures and caste systems operate. We are all human.
4. An artistic eye
India is a photographer’s dream. Bustling bazaars and winding walkways give way to colourful homes, shiny temples, opulent mosques and an endless sea of colourful trinkets and fragrant food stalls. Rickshaws are bedecked with flags, marigold garlands adorn the necks of sacred cows and bold, psychedelic truck art gives new meaning to “pimp my ride.”
Children bathe unashamedly by the side of the road, women crouch effortlessly over sacks upon sacks of blood red chillies and canary yellow spices, and men with unravelled turbans and formidable moustaches gather round makeshift barber stalls.
Everywhere you look, there is a photo to be had. You can spend the whole day capturing all of the eye-catching colours and fascinating interactions that are constantly unravelling before your eyes. Colour, culture, chaos and character abound. Have your camera ready at all times.
5. An extra set of eyes
Perhaps not so relevant for the cities per se, but a decent pair of binoculars are crucial if you are venturing into India’s renowned tiger territory. You may not see a tiger (I didn’t), but with a keen sense of adventure and an extra set of ‘eyes’, you will indeed witness India’s extraordinary beauty.
There really is so much more to an Indian jungle safari than just ticking off that tiger. Here are my five jungle highlights (all enhanced infinitely and undoubtedly with a pair of Swarovski binos).
Sure, India can be daunting. But if you’re mentally prepared and willing to travel with an open mind, adventurous spirit and eagerness to learn, then India will steal your heart. Accept and embrace those character-building moments of discomfort and impatience. Let your guard down and go with the flow. If you do, then I guarantee that India will be vibrant, magical and a journey like no other.