8 India Essentials to Know Before You Go

More than hotels and itineraries and vaccinations, what you need in India is the right set of expectations.
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A scene from a temple in Chennai. Photo: Pavia Rosati

By Tanvi Chheda for Fathom | More than hotels and itineraries and vaccinations, what you need in India is the right set of expectations. Here's eight things to know before you go.

1. Forget maps.

There's no Streetwise Mumbai or Delhi for a reason, and asking a rickshaw-wallah for directions might yield a comedy of errors. Just rest assured that you will get there.

2. You're never far from the madding crowd.

In a country of one billion-strong-and-growing, you will likely feel disoriented and overwhelmed, but that's part of the experience and fun.

3. Time is relative.

There's a reason locals have dubbed their laissez-faire attitude toward the clock as Indian Standard Time, which means they'll likely show up an hour or two after they said they would. Traffic is a major culprit in the big cities, but, in general, Indians just move at their own pace.

4. Don't expect the Tate Modern.

While there are some spectacularly historic and breathtaking sights in India, many of them, especially museums, are not well maintained. This will be anti-climatic and disappointing, even if you'd rather not admit it. Try to take it all in context and to find a compelling storyteller. One of my favorite childhood memories is of the enthusiastic guide my parents hired at the Jantar Mantar observatory in New Delhi. The sculpture garden of astronomical instruments looked to my tween eyes like cool geometric shapes I could have drawn with a protractor, but when our guide told us about them, I was all ears.

5. Food and family are everything.

Eating together is a sacred ritual in India.

6. Religion, cricket, and Bollywood.

You might hear someone say that these are the three things that make India run. It's true in many ways, but it mainly speaks to the passion of the people. They get passionate about everything: a cheesy dance sequence with a hunky hero and sari-clad beauty; a cricket match (especially when India plays Pakistan); and, of course, praying to Lord Ganesh to surmount an obstacle or to Lakshmi, goddess of wealth and fortune, during Diwali.

7. It's not all Incredible India ads.

Yes, it is as vibrant and colorful as that gorgeous campaign depicts, but it is not all that smooth, especially when traveling within India. Infrastructure still lags behind (read: bumpy, traffic-clogged roads; limited public restrooms) and efficiency is still in its infancy. You would think, given how service-oriented Asian cultures are, that a country like India would be super-efficient at airports and train stations, as well as on highways, in family-owned restaurants, and at retail stores. But you will encounter frustration somewhere along the way. You'll best be able to take away the cultural splendors of the country if you accept these small (and sometimes not-so-small) annoyances.

8. See one place well.

India is huge. There's a reason it's called a sub-continent. It is highly tempting to pack in as much as you can in a two-week trip, like three cities plus a rural or a coastal detour. You'll end up with a action-packed itinerary, and you will be seeing a lot of planes, trains, hotels, and cars. In other words, possibly not the reason you shelled out that $1400 in airfare. A better plan is to focus on one region and get to know one part of the country well rather than trying to check India off your bucket list. This means long after the trip ends, your memories won't be hazy recollections of being shuttled and hassled around, but rather of encounters with locals at a lazy tea shop or in a bustling market.

Tanvi is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor. You can follow her on Twitter at @tanvihc. She travels for the adventure, perspective, and photo-ops with her daughter.