I went to India in February 2010 to present technology and art at Techkriti. If you are American preparing to go to India, this advice will make your trip much more enjoyable.
A friend of mine, first initial “S.” is from Kanpur, the exact city we visited. How crazy is that! Here’s what I gleaned from a conversation with him about the trip. After my trip, I can say that every word turned out to be exactly true.
- Never touch anyone’s head, not even children. Your sacredness starts at your (dirty) feet and goes to the top of your (sacred) head. So it’s a pretty sensitive spot.
- It’s usually best to greet people by saying “Namaste”, putting your hands together in a prayer stance and bowing slightly. If they offer their hand, shake it, western style.
- Women should wear conservative dress, high necklines, long sleeves, long dresses, nothing too flashy. She should always stay between the menfolk when walking the street lest she be propositioned endlessly. Because every white woman they’ve ever seen on the big screen has made like they wanted to have sex with them.
- Definitely see the Gangees river AKA Gunga. You might get lucky and see a dead body burning in a boat. If you are really lucky, you might see his (still living) wife burning on the funeral pyre with him. That rarely happens… but it happens. (yow)
- The native language of Utter Predesh is Hindi. A local speaker with a strong dialect/accent can barely be understood by a generic Hindi speaker. A lot of signs are in English but certainly not all.
- Use your right hand for everything. It’s disrespectful to use the left.
- If you find a local toilet, it might not have toilet paper. Or a seat. It’ll just be a hole in the ground. One option is to bring your own TP. To go local: fill the cup with water. While squatting, use your right hand to run water down your backside into your butt crack. Use your left hand to clean your butt. When finished, wash your left hand with more of the water from the cup. Now you know why Indians don’t use their left hand for anything.
- Beggar children will approach you on the street with the best begging you’ve ever seen. Some will have missing fingers and other deformities. Don’t give them any money, ever. If you do, you’ll very quickly be surrounded by other beggar children who will make off with everything on your person. Did you see Slumdog Millionaire? It’s like that. The children’s mother probably cut off their fingers so they would get more money begging. This is the caste they are born into. S. has seen these people all his life and never given any of them any money and noone he knows has ever given them any money but they get by somehow.
- S. has a cousin who I asked about connecting with since it’s good to have friends there “just in case”. He was willing but family wouldn’t allow it because an unmarried woman shouldn’t talk to an unmarried man, even if it’s just in email and even if it’s an emergency. Their family is a bit traditional but that is how it is there.
- If you have a problem, call the US consulate. Locals will back off if they know the consulate might get involved.
- In his family’s home, which is a common if slightly upscale one, when you wash dishes, the water is pumped up by hand and onto the dishes. The water falls onto the floor and into a hole in the corner, which drains to the street. The toilet drains to the same place. Yes, the alley smells as bad as you might imagine.
- The walls of first floor are made of cow dung, the second floor is concrete, the third floor is steel and concrete. Sounds like a bad idea, right? It pretty much is. But the building is still standing.
- There are a lot of bugs. Don’t wear shorts (it’s so “fat american tourist”). Many people in his photos wore short sleeves but we should wear long sleeves. Some of the bugs have rare uncurable diseases. Get your shots!
- He showed me a photo of 2 people outside his house. One was warming up an iron on a coal fire he brought with him. The other was hollering up to him saying, “Send out your clothes, I’ll iron them.” This kind of thing is very common but we’d do well to stay away from such situations.
- If you want to buy something in a store, ask the shopkeeper how much it costs. Whatever he says, counter with half as much as his offer. He’ll refuse. Scoff and start to walk out. He’ll then relent and try to bargain. Only agree to the 1/2 price. At the end, you’ll get something dirt cheap and he’ll have made more on you than he ever normally does.
- Most common items cost nickels. Maybe 20% of what you’d pay in the US. It depends.
- He added caviats saying the he was sorry he talked all about the bad parts and not much about the good parts. But I think if we know these parts, the good bits will take care of themself.
- If you ask someone to go to the store and buy you shiny blue pants with gold trim, they might get you brown pants because, well they are pants! They’ll do the job. That’s how things are.
- Bananas are a good snack. They’ll help decrease travellers diarea and they’re clean if you peel them.
- If we’re travelling with a native, it’s good to ask them to buy the item. They’ll get a better deal and watch out for you.
- Shopping is a bit of an angry experience. There’s posturing and dislike. People often walk into shops and holler “Hey, why doesn’t someone serve me!” And the shop keeper will be angrily nonchalant about the shopper’s anger.
- Hospitality is huge. Our hosts will likely take VERY good care of us.
Followup: every bit of this guide was EXACTLY true.
The Fifty Percent Rule
I’m sorry, you’ll just have to ask me in person about this most amazing phenomenon.
Cell phone service
Though AT&T told me there was barely any cell phone service in the cities I was visiting, there was fantastic cell phone service all across India. There was always at least 4 providers to choose from in any spot. Of course, it cost $2.50/min for roaming. I generally used texting ($0.40) and skype/wifi/iPhone ($0.05/min) for my calls.
- You do not want to drive in India unless you have been there for a long while. It’s insane. Hire a driver.
- Gas was $4-6/gallon when it was $2.50-3.00 in the US.
- For instance, when approaching a blind intersection neither driver stops as a mater of course; instead each driver listens for the other driver’s horn and acts accordingly. Therefore, people are CONSTANTLY using their horns and barreling through intersections.
- In traffic vehicles get about 1 ft away from one another.
- Cars share the road on a pretty much 1:1 status with motorcycles having 1-3 riders, bikes with 1-3 riders, pedestrians, pony & ox carts, human powered and motorized vehicles with wildly oversized loads, and pedestrians. Oh and roaming cattle have the right of way.
- Few cars have side view mirrors and I didn’t ONCE see our driver or any other look over their shoulder.
- Bumping other vehicles is frowned on but happens (we bumped a car and bicyclist in our 20 hours of driving).
- And cars drive on the left side of the road.
- Cars have signs on their bumpers saying “PLEASE HONK”, indicating they don’t have rear view mirrors and want you to honk if you’re passing them. The din of horns is unworldly, really.
Last night on our way back from the taj mahal and red fort ( wow the red fort buuilt in 1600 has better fortifications than almost any European castle I’ve seen AND is more opulent inside AND is much larger inside, wow) and we were talking about marriage. Our 3 indian hosts were honestly surprised that all marriages in the US were “love marriages” and not arranged. They watch US tv all the time; they they like watching shows like Friends. In Bollywood movies most of those are love marriages… But that’s the movies.
Related posts I wrote that you should read about India