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Culture Shock - Traveling to India for the First Time

Updated on May 9, 2016

Experiencing Culture Shock in India

What is culture shock? It is the impact of traveling from a familiar culture and trying to adjust to an unfamiliar one. India especially is renowned for causing Westerners culture shock and this page is going to show you what is most likely to befuddle and confuse you when traveling to this beautiful but crazy country! I visited India alone and as a solo woman traveler experiencing the sensory overload of India could be a little much at times. I hope that by writing this article about what could give you culture shock in India may help you plan a first trip there.

This article is not trying to put you off visiting India - but rather to show you what is most likely going to make you think "argh! this wasn't in the guide books!"

The diversity of India - Your culture shock may be different to mine!

Take a look at the two photos below....he top one is Ladakh in the North and the below one is Kerala in the South - the same country but very different landscapes. This is a gigantic country and it isn't just the landscapes that are so diverse - the people, cultures and languages are too. So depending on where you go and travel to throughout India, your experience of the culture change could be very different from place to place. I started off in Delhi and traveled in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh before heading to Ladakh. The contrast between each place was very different, Ladakh is like another country compared to Delhi!

My point is, if you travel through this vast country you will experience different levels of culture shock and you will love some places and hate others and that is ok! You do not have to love everywhere you visit!

The differing landscapes in India

Shepherds in Ladakh
Shepherds in Ladakh | Source
Tea estate in Munnar
Tea estate in Munnar | Source

The mass of humanity in India can be overwhelming! - forget personal space in India!

With a population of approximately 1.1 billion in India, you are never far from humanity. If you like your personal space, forget it because you will not be getting any here! You will have to get used to being shoved, pinched and in close proximity to people all day, with people shouting in your face to get in their rickshaw, buy their wares or give them money.

Indian people are extremely friendly and hospitable though and the only time I felt overwhelmed was when people were trying to sell me stuff or beg which can feel extremely harassing and aggressive. Be prepared to be strong and stand your ground!

Indian people are very polite and will ask you lots of questions about your life, you may even be required to have your photo taken with complete strangers! Indian people also are extremely clean and well dressed, and I was told that they don't understand why rich western people come to India and dress like tramps - and nor do I actually, there is no need to look a mess. Seriously, if you keep yourself well maintained when you are traveling and make an effort to be neat and clean, you will find you are respected a lot more in your interactions with Indian people. Don't wear tiny shorts/skirts and low cut tops, buy some Indian clothes that will not only keep you cool in the heat but will also help you blend in.

There's a lot of people in India!

Crowd at the beach
Crowd at the beach | Source
Traffic jam in Dhaka
Traffic jam in Dhaka | Source

India is Beautiful...but dirty - There is a huge garbage problem

These photos aren't just small areas of India that you may occasionally see. Trash is everywhere in India.. It is (or would be) a beautiful country and all this litter everywhere is just horrendous. You will see people collecting trash to sell - like water bottles. You will see cows eating the trash, which gets caught up in their gut and kills them. The state of the Ganges is disgusting, polluted and dirty - and it is meant to be spiritual.

India is a very dirty place and the depth of the filth is something you just cannot comprehend until you have seen it. I recommend reading this excellent article Dirty India from Matador Travel

Pollution is absolutely everywhere in India

Canal in Chennai
Canal in Chennai | Source
Feed me - Agra
Feed me - Agra | Source
Tuk tuk
Tuk tuk | Source

Traffic and transport in India

If there is anything that will give you culture shock, it will be the Indian traffic!

This ties in with the volume of people in India - there are lots of people so there's lots of traffic. And it is (to our western eyes) chaotic, dangerous and disorganized.

In Delhi I saw a beggar get run over by a rickshaw, right next to me, the wheels went over his head. He was bleeding badly and the driver who ran him over just got out of the car and dumped the begger on the side of the road.

In Haridwar I also saw a cycle rickshaw driver who had been killed by a truck.

I noticed that every vehicle on the road will play chicken with the other and what should be a two lane road becomes six lanes! Cows really do wander about in the traffic and taxis do not have seat belts or wing mirrors!

Drivers hoot and use hand gestures to communicate to each other, we don't understand but they do and you just have to trust that you will arrive at your destination safely.

Road accidents are very frequent in, check out this article from the Indian Express

I traveled mostly by train for long distances, and even the train stations were cause for much frustration and confusion for me! Often platforms are not numbered (but people still know where to go, apart from me!), buying a ticket involves a long wait in a disorderly pushing and shoving queue and long delays are frequent.

It is well worth reading about how to buy a train ticket, the scams you may be up against in train stations and the many different classes of carriage in the trains, the Lonely Planet and Rough Guide books have great sections on transport. I found that it is best to research things like this as much as possible beforehand, it helps to know what you are up against!

Beggars of Bodhgaya
Beggars of Bodhgaya | Source

Scams, Touts and Beggars in India

As a westerner, you will be a target for scams and beggars

You will read about scams in any good guide book and it is well worth making yourself aware of the various ways people may try to dupe you of your money! Check out this forum on indiamike.com with advice from other travelers about popular scams and annoyances.

Familiarize yourself with the typical scams you may face, but don't let the possibility of them happening to you ruin your trip. Remain relaxed but aware, keep your wits about you and stand firm against anyone persistent.

Beggars are everywhere, and some are very badly disabled and others are very little children. I was told that I would stop noticing the beggars and extreme poverty after a while, but I never did. See this link for rules for dealing with beggars in India

Getting Sick - the Travelers Trots

Getting diarrhoea in India is pretty much an inevitability. Even if you buy bottled water or use water purification tablets, just a bit of water in your mouth when you take a shower or using the tap water to brush your teeth can cause you to have a tummy upset. There are also flies everywhere, and if you manage to keep them off your food when you are eating, who is to know that flies didn't land on your meal when it was being prepared.

I had a stomach upset for 6 weeks during my trip there, it was unlike anything I had experienced before! You kind of get used to it, luckily I had no fever so I continued doing what I wanted for the most part. I just had to make sure there was a toilet within running distance! I only took medicine to help bung me up when I was traveling around, otherwise I think it is best to, erm, let it all out!

Make sure you stay hydrated and if it gets all too much get out to the cool mountains in the North or the beautiful beaches of Goa and relax!

Have you experienced culture shock? Tell me your views

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    • profile image

      Random poster 2 months ago

      If you're going to go to India and just come back and whine about it, then don't go there at all. If you want to avoid sickness then get a malaria shot before and take the malaria medicine. If you actually know what to do, you will never get sick.

    • profile image

      Really? 2 months ago

      India is an open sewer/floating mortuary, and you are scolding westerners silly enough to waste their tourist money subjecting themselves to this septic hell about dressing dumpy?!


    • profile image

      Raj 2 months ago

      Yes its a poor country, its per capita gdp is 2000 dollars, mexico is something like 10,000, plus there are billions, have you ever tried to keep a home clean, that was built for 4, but with 25 residents, its impossible, so the combination of poverty and population has caused this, not all states are this poor, so you will see variety, if you do not want to see masses of poor people then stay the fuck away, visit europe instead, wait for 25 years and revisit

    • profile image

      Call of Travel 7 months ago

      I've been visiting India for about 4 years now and I still cant get over how dirty it is. Unfortunately there seems to be little civic avareness when it comes to preserving the environment and common space.

      The way I see it it's a mix of a lack of awareness, poor Government policies and of course the mentality of "whatever is not my household is not mine to any extent and I dont care about it"

    • profile image

      realhistoryindia.com 9 months ago

      The beautiful part of india is from north-east indians/kashmiri/himachali(northindians). Rest of india is dirty & both inside & outside

    • delancooper profile image

      Delan Cooper 14 months ago from Australia

      Once, around two years ago I visited Northern india. I flew from Bangkok to New Delhi and from New Delhi to Srinagar, the Northern part of India (Pakistan border). It's really different between the Capital and the North, the Northern is such nice view. And then I took a bus down to New Delhi and visited small towns along the way, ended the trip at New Dehli. I spent 2 nights in New Dehli, I felt like 'yeah, I'm now in India' I was really impressed how people live their lives there. To be honest, I really enjoined India, seeing something different from my normal life makes me see life differently.

    • garima17 profile image

      Garima Sharma 2 years ago from Sydney

      Well...it's an honest outsider view and a touristy one at that. Yes, India is a lot more easier to travel if you have friends in India. From the last few years, the Indian government is trying hard to introduce ways to be more friendlier to international tourists who often come to soak in spirituality, yoga, lots of colours, meet backpackers, affordable shopping and more. But which country doesn't have downsides? Its just that India is such hugely populated that it does get overwhelming for people and that includes Indians like me. But one thing's sure, people world over continue to be fascinated by India. There are a lot of positives to this country and perhaps you could read a bunch of travel books on the incredible India! or even a true story like Shantaram which almost got made into a movie starring Johnny Dep. Good luck with more hubs :-)

    • profile image

      Sara 2 years ago

      Did anyone reading this article notice the part about beggar run over blood or maybe about the horribly disabled beggars or the infant beggars?!! All of u are just going on about India and culture and blah blah.. Jeez do u people even have a heart?! As for the person who wrote this article thanks for the info on India but rather than just talking about the country's filth I feel appalled that u didn't apply any focused attention towards the poverty in India. In fact you applied the words "harassing and aggressive" to those poor poor people. White girl if u went though even a fraction of what try experience u would be murdering or a penny. I've traveled to India as well and I get that they don't leave u alone but jeez woman have some sympathy give the beggar some money and get it over with!! How much will it cost u? $5 or maybe $10??? As much as ur favourite frappicino? U wana culture ur self by traveling to India and blah blah because u think it makes u a more attractive person or cool or whatever goes through ur selfish head ! In my opinion and the opinion of any caring person u just became uglier..... As for you Indians that have commented on this post why didn't you say a single thing about the poverty? I guess to all you heartless people the look and smell of a country is more important than tortured human life....

      If India wants to grow up then it should change a lot more than it's muck and filth... It should start with it's own people!

    • profile image

      veiled_wonder 3 years ago

      as an Indian..I couldn't have given a more honest and comprehensive account of my daily life! a great read...thanks!!

    • profile image

      theworldagent 3 years ago

      This is really making me want to go to India. I haven't been able to check that off my bucket list yet.

    • profile image

      abcplumb 3 years ago

      Aaahh this bring back memories... I miss India

    • Klaartje Loose profile image

      Klaartje Loose 4 years ago

      Yep, I did. In India, the first week of my first travel there. It was all so overwhelming... But I came through it and stayed for another 3 months ;-)

    • desilegend profile image

      desilegend 4 years ago

      Beautiful images. I had the same culture shock when I visited India for the first time!

    • Cynthia Haltom profile image

      Cynthia Haltom 4 years ago from Diamondhead

      I haven't travelled to India it sounds fascinating.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Very Nice Article,,

      I\ve been in India for 2 times..

      1st time in April 2010 in a vacation with my wife and sun(6 months)

      we have been to Banglore, maissore, Delhi, Agra, Jaipur and Kashmir.

      it was horrible experience for us..

      The country is extremely dirty almost everywhere.

      Hotels are in too low standard comparing with Indonesia...

      we face a huge problem with our sun to find a food for him such as Cirelac ( it is not available in most groceries and pharmacies) which are extremely small and limited local brands choices.

      Banglore was much more clean and organized than delhi, Agra and Jaipur.

      we were so depressed because our expectation was much higher..

      we spent 12 days before we move to kashmir..

      when we moved to Kashmir , it is totally different story, |

      Nice landscape, Nice people, clean area,

      thanks god that it was our last destination in the trip,

      My Advise for people sharing with me the same mood ,, Kashmir is the choice.

      since I started my own business in Ethnic wear industry , India is one of my major supplies source , so I wen there again in 2012 .. I asked my wife to join me but according to our previous experience she refused and she said: I will never ever go back again to India ..

      I believe it's good place for western people who want to try new experience, dirty crowded smilly places, for people who are looking for relaxation, enjoying nice weather or landscape or high standard services I believe many other places will be better.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      As an Indian, I must say your depiction of India is honest. Yes it is very diverse. Even I feel overwhelmed sometimes. I would just like to add that food is not bad or contaminated everywhere, it is mostly the street food. If you go to a nice restaurant there is no chance of flies or getting sick. The thing is, the street food is very delicious and we forget how it was made. Don't get tempted, avoid street vendors(there are clean ones too, but it is best not to try unless recommended by somebody) and order your food in a good restaurant. They are pretty cheap and will serve you hygienically prepared food. Welcome to India, enjoy the spices and take the memories home!

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Even after living in India for 2 years, I still discover cultural differences. Which other culture has a concept of a return gift?

      I wrote a post about my culture shock when I first came to India on my blog: www [dot] gabrielasteiner (dot) com

      Although the culture shock is not pleasant at first, I think overcoming it is part of the exciting travel experiences in India.

    • LisaDH profile image

      LisaDH 4 years ago

      Everything you've said here is very true about India, but I absolutely love the country. I've been there three times. Bach time I've had at least one day when I asked myself, "What the heck was I thinking?" and yet I would go again in a heartbeat. I've been to other countries in Asia, Central America and Europe, but none has impacted me the way India has. The culture shock is huge, but so are the rewards.

    • NibsyNell profile image

      NibsyNell 4 years ago

      Really helpful and informative lens! :) Have always wanted to go to India... hopefully I'll fulfil that dream one day!

    • uneasywriter lm profile image

      uneasywriter lm 4 years ago

      I have been to many countries in Asia but yet to be in India. Culture shock huge in my first Asian travel (Philippines), after a couple weeks there on the first trip I have a better idea of what to expect. Good lens!

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