14 Stunning Photos That Show What a Gap Year in India is Really Like

14 Stunning Photos That'll Convince You to Take a Gap Year in India

India is a difficult place to describe or summarize because anything that can be said about it, the opposite will also be true: it is both welcoming and off-putting, gentle and harsh, rich and poor, beautiful and ugly, spiritual and irreverent, diverse and homogeneous. You are destined to both love it and hate it, each with equal amounts of heated passion.

Smiles, handshakes, and selfies serve as good substitutes for words.

I just finished a four-month backpacking journey from south to north, and I can say for certain that India is my favorite country -- and my least favorite. It's impossibly maddening and endlessly delightful. I struggled, cried, lashed out, laughed, and kissed the soil of Mother India. I almost died a few times, and I was undoubtedly reborn.

Since descriptions are pointless, there's no real way to prepare yourself if you're headed to India for living, traveling, working, interning, teaching, or volunteering, so the best I can do for you is share India through my lens and make a few humble suggestions along the way.

Looking for a gap year program in India to help you manage some of the shock of immersion? iSPiiCE offers gap year programs in India from one week to one year in length.

Be Prepared for a Lot of Attention

Most of the staring is harmless, but some of it will make you feel downright violated, especially if you're a woman. The only way to cope with it is 1) to expect it and 2) to have compassion. If you lived in a village your whole life and never saw anyone except someone who looked just like you, you'd stare, too.

children in India

No One Does a Crowd like India

Another thing you can be prepared for on a intellectual level, but when you actually stand in the middle of 20,000 people (or more), you'll find yourself utterly dumbfounded.

busy road in indiacrowd in India

There's More of a Language Barrier than You'd Think

There are more languages spoken in India than in any other country on Earth, and although English is widely spoken, people in more rural areas speak very little.

Smiles, handshakes, and selfies serve as good substitutes for words.

volunteer abroad in india

Each Mode of Transport Is Terribly Fun

Trains, planes, boats, motorbikes, hitchhiking, buses, and rickshaw. Train travel in India is among the most enjoyable anywhere in the world.

Quick tips: Never take long distances buses unless there's absolutely no train, 3AC is the optimal train class for comfort and value, and you can almost always get a train ticket on fully booked trains if you book with an agent at 10am the day prior.

girl on boat

Get in Touch with Your Spiritual Side

There's just something about Mother India that makes you get in touch with your deepest inner being. This doesn't have to be about God -- it's just about bringing out creativity, insights, revelations, peace, and awareness. If you have a chance, sign up for a 10-day silent meditation retreat called Vipassana, do yoga in Rishikesh, attend temple ceremonies in Tamil Nadu, watch Hindu cremation ceremonies in Varanasi, and bathe in the holy Ganges River if you dare!

man praying in India

The Natural Beauty Is Exquisite

I didn't come to India thinking much about its natural landscapes, but more than a few times I stopped dead in my tracks in awe of her rivers, mountains, rice paddies, and deserts. From the backwaters of Kerala to the Himalayas, you'll feast your eyes on India's wild diversity.

jungle in India

You probably aren't expecting just how different each state can be. The south and north of India are arguably as different as China and Japan. Not to mention Assam vs. Kerala and Rajasthan vs. West Bengal. Travel India as widely as you can and experience multiple cultures, cuisines, languages, and landscapes without leaving its borders.

river with mountains in India

Make Sure to Attend a Festival

Another specialty of India: festivals! There seems to be one every day in states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Follow the music, join the crowd, dance with elephants and temple-goers, take photos, and celebrate being alive.

festival in India

Embrace the Friendly and Curious Locals

This is the land where people will rake their fingers through your hair, take you by the hand, and spontaneously put their arms around you. You'll inevitably wind up taking family portraits with large groups of Indians and babies will be thrust into your arms on a moment's notice. Take the baby, take the photo, and don't take their curious touchiness the wrong way.

indian girl holding hands with two women

Learn from Your Fellow Travelers

India attracts a distinct breed of traveler: more mature, more curious, more well-traveled, more purposeful, more open, and more interesting. Talk to everyone who's on this journey with you -- you're all here for special reasons! They'll also help you navigate this huge country that simply overflows with interesting things to do, villages to see, motorbike trails to discover, and bus rides not to take.

travel abroad in india

The Slower You Travel, the More You'll Enjoy

Try to spend at least one month of your trip in just one place, whether you're volunteering, working, or teaching. India is hectic and complex, so the more you can sink your teeth into just one little nook of it, the more you'll actually understand.

travel abroad with indian food

The Food. Oh, the Food!

I ate Indian food basically every day, all day long, for 4 months and never tired of it. I got wretchedly ill (throwing up on my 17-hour train ride from Kolkata to Varanasi will always stay impressed in my memory), but I still concede that India has to have the most delicious cuisine on the entire planet. Don't be afraid to get sick. You will. And you'll get better, so just eat everything and enjoy it!

indian food

You'll Never Travel the Same Way Again

Whatever draws you to India, whatever purpose you're going for, and wherever you visit, you'll never be the same. I always say that India not only changes you forever, it changes how you travel forever. After India, you'll travel more deeply, more intensely, more simply, with more openness, and with more fervor to anywhere and everywhere for the rest of your life.

bike on bridge over river in India

It's also a place that calls its visitors back time and again, so you'll find yourself planning your second and third trips before you even finish your first -- guaranteed!

Ready? Take a gap year in India.

Elaina Giolando
A former NYC management consultant turned legal nomad, Elaina Giolando writes about the intersection of career, life, and travel for today's 20...