A longer than average flight with more than an average number of crying children. Don’t drink the tap water? Can I brush my teeth with the tap water?
Lots of bottled water.
Lots of cars, lots of auto-rickshaws, lots of traffic, lots of horn-honking. Learning that, in India, a car horn is not an expression of road rage, but rather a vital form of expression in a culture of extraordinarily aggressive drivers. Likewise, learning not to fear for one’s life when being driven by one of aforementioned drivers. Have faith, laugh, relax - you’re on vacation.
Being constantly on your guard against getting ripped off, even though the exchange rate means the worst-possible rip-off is still a better deal than what you’d normally pay at home. Being constantly on your guard against malaria and digestive troubles. Lots of malarone, lots of DEET, and even more bottled water.
Bright colors, strong flavors, intense smells. Most good, some bad.
Lots of goats, lots of cows, lots of dogs, lots of cats, and, most of all, lots of flies (more DEET). All of them out in the street and sometimes in your hotel room, too. Sometimes lizards, too.
The people. So, so many people. The first who approach you leave a bad impression, because they clearly just want to separate you from your money. The vendors, the restaurant barkers, the rickshaw drivers, the hordes of small children who chase after you yelling “One pen! One pen!” (I still don’t know what that means.)
But then there are the others. The ones who just want to say hello or practice their English. The ones who want to shake your hand or have their picture taken with you because they’ve never met someone so white, so light-haired, so tall. The ones who don’t speak English but are 100% sure that, yes, you really do speak Hindi, Malayalam, Tamil, etc. and that, if they keep talking to you, you’ll eventually have a perfectly fluent conversation with them. (To be fair, I’m sure there are Americans who do this to them in English.)
The people who had no intention of talking to you, but stop and give you all the help you need when you ask for it. The people whom you randomly greet on the street who then pay you back with the warmest, friendliest smile you’ve ever seen.
The inscrutable peripheral wiggling head gesture that no one can explain to you, but that you unconsciously start to mimic, nonetheless. And the crazy part is you’re fairly certain you’re doing it at the exact right moment in every conversation even though you have no idea what you’re doing.
The music. The dancing. The clothing. The food. The food. The food.
Trying not to be a tourist. Giving in to being a tourist because there’s really no way you could even begin to try to fit in. Sunscreen, wide-brimmed hats, ridiculous linen shirts.
Feeling bad for the elephants kept in captivity, but going to visit the elephant camp anyway because, hey, you want to see an elephant. Feeling even worse when you see the chains around their ankles. Paying to ride on the back of one of said elephants. Feeling bad about this.
Meeting and befriending travelers from other countries. Learning lots about that country just to take a break from learning about India. Making impromptu plans to travel with these people, becoming de facto best friends for a few days, perhaps never to see them again.
Writing in your journal in a restaurant or cafe while surrounded by other Westerners writing in their journals. Thinking of yourself as the “Quiet American” until you remember what that Graham Greene novel was actually about and deciding that’s probably not the best nickname to give yourself.
Realizing you haven’t had alcohol in a week. Realizing you haven’t eaten meat in a week. Realizing you haven’t checked your email in days.
Not really missing the alcohol or the meat, but maybe missing the email a little. Internet cafes.
Realizing you don’t have enough time to do all the things you want to do, but probably a little too much time to do the things you realistically can do. Taking a half day to do nothing but read. Surprising yourself with how much you enjoyed just reading.
Realizing most of all that no amount of time you give India will ever be enough. That it’s too big, too varied, and too diverse to capture in just one visit. Realizing that India will only stop giving to you when you stop giving to India.
Realizing that, one day soon, you’ll have to go back.