It ain't India unless there's a cow in the middle of the road.
Seriously, every place I've set foot in, cows can be found leisurely crossing the road (and other farm animals, but the cow is the most quintessential), seemingly oblivious to the hurricane of traffic swirling around them. If I had to concisely sum up my experience of India, I would describe it as sensory overload. This feeling mainly applies to my time in the major cities, as Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh are much more remote, peaceful, and pleasing to the senses (or at least to mine). But despite the dense population and chaotic way of life here, things seem to function, even if I can't always see the rhyme or reason as a foreigner.
Choosing homestays and guesthouse accommodations over hotels has never served me wrong, whether in the West, here in India, or throughout Thailand. I would rather give my money directly to families than to a generic hotel chain any day, and you often end up spending much less for these types of accommodations. The bonus is that you stay with locals who are more than happy to host and help you in any way they can, whereas hotel staff can easily be indifferent.
I always enjoy conversing and connecting with people but like to maintain my privacy, meaning I prefer to have a nook of space to myself. I am also not on a hostel budget (usually the cheapest option). I'm sure there are exceptions, but I always associate hostels with the really young, party-going foreigner crowd—not my scene.
In homestays, you will likely have your own bedroom while the common rooms are shared with the host family. In many of the guesthouses I've chosen, I've stayed in the same building as the family, but had a separate apartment (i.e., at least my own bedroom and bathroom). Sometimes there are shared areas with the host and other guests. In all cases, the experience has been awesome.
And if they're cooking for you, better take them up on it. The home-cooked food I have eaten here has been some of the best I've had in my entire life. When I travel, I'm not so rigid about my diet. I will still choose healthy options if they're available, but if the host is cooking, I eat what is served, and I will try to stick with the local cuisine and not resort to Western food. I think being flexible, adaptable, and open-minded leads to great experiences, including eating.
Of course you also have to make do without certain Western amenities and cope with situations you wouldn't normally encounter in the West. Crossing the street, walking on safe, smooth sidewalks (nowhere to be found), hovering over a composting toilet in the dark with an overflowing shit mountain towering underneath you (or a dirty public squat toilet) are not so easy and/or comfortable (but on the bright side, you will have great glutes from all the squatting). For the latter, just tote around your toilet paper roll, mini garbage bag, and hand sanitizer, and you'll be fine, I promise. Or be bold and do as the Romans do (with none of the above).
Yes, it's dirty and smelly in many areas in the big cities, but no, you don't have to roll around in the garbage piles. Just ignore it, hold your breath for a few seconds if needed, and move on. Air pollution and dust from the streets is an issue and adds another element of unpleasantness (I have been sneezing a lot during the latter part of my trip). It's good to wear a mask, scarf, or bandanna around your neck so you can pull it over your face quickly when it gets tough to breathe. Oh, and get used to the incessant honking. It's an integral part of the culture.
If visiting the larger cities, my advice is to embrace the chaos and just go with the flow. It doesn't mean you can't plan or organize your trip, and of course remain vigilant and be aware of your surroundings at all times. It simply means that certain things might not go according to plan or will be beyond your control. I can't say I always do this (e.g., bus ride from hell), but the times I do, I feel joy and amusement in letting go, even a sense of accomplishment. If I was here for a longer period of time, I think the city atmosphere would become more palatable, but living in India would mostly be difficult for me due to the pollution and intense, constant stimulation.
Have fun with bargaining! Admittedly, the bargaining-centered culture here stresses me out a little because I always wonder if I'm being cheated or taken advantage of, but the process can also be fun. Just look around and compare if you want to be on the safe side. Chances are, buddy five stalls down is selling the same stuff. And for small purchases, the extra amount you end up paying is pretty insignificant for a Westerner. I'd rather make someone's day a bit brighter with a few extra rupees in their pocket.
Solo Female Travel
As a woman, I had no problems traveling solo. I never once felt in danger or threatened. Occasionally, a man (and women too) would ask if I was single or how old I was, but it was part of other small talk and didn't seem to be a way of sizing me up for marriage. I think people were most curious about the fact that a woman would travel alone, which is not a normal occurrence in Indian society. Besides, I am much taller than the majority of Indian men, and I think this alone would probably deter any real advances. Fine by me. No fake wedding ring or bogus husband photos needed.
I also dressed rather conservatively (i.e., short or long sleeves, no low-cut tops, and long pants), not only because it was practical and how I felt most comfortable dressing here but also to respect societal norms and not draw unwanted attention to myself (plus it was good protection from the sun and insects). Wearing a hat and sunglasses most of the time also acts as a good barrier for unwanted conversation from touts and the like. You can easily pretend you don't notice them and avoid confrontation altogether.
A few funny comments made to me by curious strangers:
"You're not Indian."
"Everyone is staring at you."
So, be prepared to be subject to curiosity and even treated as a minor celebrity (the degree to which people stare obviously depends on how tourist-trodden the place is). I love visiting far-flung corners of the world, but I don't love feeling like a unicorn or celebrity. Sometimes they go hand in hand. You get used to it.
Although I only focused on a few regions in this country, each was distinctly different in nature and culture. The diversity in people and landscape in this country is massive, and I barely skimmed the surface. This country is rich, vibrant, lively, complex, and fascinating.
I subscribe to the view that traveling is the spice of life, and every country has a different flavor profile. Getting out there and developing your palate leads to a deeper understanding—and appreciation—for the world and its people.
Cover photo credit: Asha Meon