If you're coming to India for the first time, you're probably feeling a bit apprehensive, not knowing what to expect. This is completely understandable and is something that everyone who travels to India experiences.
Here's some information to help you avoid suffering too much India culture shock when you arrive. Also take a look at these common problems to expect in India and etiquette mistakes to avoid in India.
1. Leaving the Airport in India
Stepping out of the airport can be a disorientating experience. You'll probably be struck by two things at the same time -- the heat and the people. Unless you come from a warm, humid country, you'll definitely notice a change in the weather in most places in India. The amount of people in India is what really takes some getting used to though. There are just so many of them! They're everywhere, and you can't help but wonder where they all came from and where they're going.
2. Roads in India
Chaos is the word that best describes Indian roads! A trip in a taxi can be a hair-raising experience, let alone trying to cross a road as a pedestrian. There's a system in place whereby smaller vehicles usually give way to larger vehicles, and the largest vehicles rule the road. Drivers weave all over the road, and overtake from both sides. To actually cross a road, you'll have to brace yourself to walk out in front of oncoming traffic.
However, don't be too concerned as drivers are used to this and will stop. The best thing to do is go with the flow and follow everyone else who's crossing the road at the same time. The roads themselves are in various states of repair. Unsealed roads, roads full of holes, and partially dug up roads are common.
3. Cows in India
Similar to how some people wonder if kangaroos can be found in cities in Australia, they also wonder if cows really roam the streets in India. Actually, it's true about the cows. You'll find these fearless creatures meandering along all over the place, even on the beach. They're huge too, but mostly quite harmless (although there have been reports of cows randomly going berserk and attacking people). Depending on where you travel in India it's likely that cows won't be the only animals you'll see on the roads. Donkeys and bullock carts are also common. If you go to the desert state of Rajasthan, you're almost guaranteed to see camels pulling carts through the cities.
4. Sounds in India
India is not a quiet country. Indians love to use their horns when driving. They'll honk when turning corners, when overtaking, and incessantly when there are vehicles in the way. The constant noise is one of the most draining things about being in India. The Mumbai government once tried to implement a "No Honking Day" but it met with shock and disbelief from many drivers. There are other loud noises to contend with too -- construction noise, street processions, loud speakers and music blaring during festivals, and calls to prayer from mosques.
Even the people are often loud and noisy!
5. Smells in India
The smells of India can be the best and worst things about the country. The stench of garbage and urine is common, but so are the heady rich aromas of spices and incense. Evenings are a wonderful time to explore India's streets as the smell of fresh spices wafts up from the roadside snack stalls, and people light incense to attract Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth and prosperity, into their houses.
6. People in India
Indian society is very close-knit, and personal space and privacy are foreign concepts to most people. However, Indians are warm-hearted and curious people. The down side of this though is that they tend to stare and ask lots of questions, many of them personal in nature. It can be confronting if you don't expect it, but don't be afraid to ask the same questions in return.
You won't cause offense. In fact, people will be happy that you've taken an interest in them. One thing that you'll see a lot is the head wobble or bobble. Here's what it really means.
7. Dirt in India
It's likely that you'll be shocked by the lack of sanitation and the amount of dirt and garbage lying around in India. As far as Indians are concerned, the most important thing is to keep their houses clean. So as long as the garbage isn't in their house, they're not bothered. They're content knowing that someone else will usually come and clean it up. Most things get recycled in India, and picking through trash is one way that the poor people make money.
8. Poverty in India
The glaring poverty and begging in India are the most confronting and hardest things to accept. The contrast between rich and poor is so obvious and you never really get used to it. On one side of the street you may see palatial apartments, while on the other side people live their lives in makeshift houses on the sidewalk.
9. Scenery in India
The great thing about India is that there's a photo opportunity around every corner, so keep your camera handy! The scenery is so stunning and foreign, and full of history, that every photo you take will be interesting.
10. Development in India
The booming economy and flourishing development has made India a lot more traveler friendly in recent years. The influence of the west is being felt across most cities with supermarkets and shopping malls coming up everywhere. India's middle class is growing and has more money to spend. Most people now have cell phones. Many have computers and the Internet. Cities such as Mumbai and Delhi have become quite cosmopolitan, with an increasing number of modern restaurants, bars, and clubs.
11. Day to Day Activities in India
Expect that it will take a lot more time to get things done than what it would back at home. There are inefficient processes to deal with, conflicting information that's given, and closures due to lunch breaks to contend with. Oh, and of course, the crowds of people! It can be a challenge to figure out how and where to get things done. Things that make sense back home don't make sense in India and vice-versa. India's a great country for building (and testing) patience, however if you're persistent it will pay off. There's a saying that anything is possible in India, it just takes time (and a bit of money on the side!). Read about daily life in Mumbai.
12. Pricing in India
As a foreigner in India, do be aware that the price you are quoted for items will usually be much higher (commonly up to three times more) than the price Indians would pay. Hence, it's important to negotiate. Never accept the first price given. Start with these tips for bargaining at markets.
All in all, it does take a while to adjust to being in India but rest assured, most people start feeling more comfortable after a week or so. Before long you'll find yourself falling into a love-hate relationship with the country, its frustrations and its strange appeal.
If you're worried about women's safety in India, definitely have a read of this book.