One thing that struck me this time in India is how comfortable I am there. When I think back to how I was on my first trip and to the questions that many Americans ask me, I realize how far I have come. There are so many things that I can share with those who might be traveling to India for the first time. What I say won’t keep anyone from having to go through their own adjustments, but I do believe I can be helpful.
First of all, India is so worth it! I often say that everyone should experience India once and I firmly believe it. India is life changing! India has changed dramatically in the past fifteen years. On my first trip to Madras in 2002, it was still difficult to get a phone in your home. If you moved you had to place an order for a phone hook up but it could take a very long time to get one, sometimes years. My in-laws had a home phone, but you couldn’t make long distance phone calls. I remember waking up very early in the morning on my first day and crossing the street, with my husband Venkatesh, to place a call at a public phone. I remember the STD ISD PCO sign for the public call office, a store front always in yellow, with a shop owner that you paid when the call was over. I went to call my parents to let them know I arrived safely and it was the only call I made during my trip. There was no internet and no cell phones at the time. I still carry a ‘dumb’ cell phone and I’m finally tempted to get a smart phone because Uber has now come to India. Everyone in the city carries a cell phone and Uber has made transportation in Indian cities so easy! They arrive in less than 6 minutes and in India this is truly amazing. I remember going to a house for dinner and calling a taxi when it was time to leave. We could easily wait an hour for the taxi to arrive and I remember thinking, shouldn’t we have foreseen this and called at least half an hour ago?
India was an assault on my senses during that first trip. Everything is out there on the streets, all of life from its most mundane; eating, peeing, bathing and rearing children – to its most profound; begging, sickness, mutilation and hunger. I cried often. I went by the book and visited the CDC office to get my vaccinations and anti-malaria drugs before this first visit, but I realized after returning home that the drug made me highly emotional. I never took anything for malaria again and I have now been to India 8 times. Take bug repellant and do your best to prevent being bitten, but guarunteed you will be bitten. Don’t panic!
I have been asked by Americans so many times when telling a story about my time in India, ‘is that a cultural thing?’. I think Americans, or maybe western culture in general, find eastern culture baffling and slightly scary. Yes, some things are done differently, but in general people are the same. They want to be treated with kindness and respect. There are just a few rules to remember when visiting India. The main one, always eat and pass money with your right hand. Indians traditionally eat with their hands and the running joke is that the left hand is ‘the wiper’. There usually isn’t any toilet paper in the bathrooms and it is not only dirty, but disrespectful to use your left hand for anything decent. Also, when visiting friends and family, never go empty handed. This is very much as it is in the west but instead of showing up with wine or flowers, it is best to take sweets or fruit. I certainly don’t profess to know about all of India, I usually visit the South, but I think this is a decent house gift anywhere you go. If there are children or elders in the house, it’s nice to show up with a personal gift. Children always get a small toy or book when you haven’t seen them for a while.
I know this is probably the hardest part, but when walking around or especially visiting a tourist sight, put your ‘game face’ on. If you look like you belong and you don’t walk around looking wide eyed and scared, then you are less apt to be bothered by people who are begging or selling their wares. Also, without having to adopt Indian clothing fully, it is helpful to wear some pieces of local clothing. A ‘kurta’ top in any length with jeans or a shawl make you look like you fit in better. Also, unless you are staying in the center of a progressive city like Bangalore, Indians don’t usually show much leg or chest. Tanks tops, short skirts and shorts are not the best clothing to wear. Indians do show plenty of midriff in their saris, so this not an issue. Again, this is just local custom and showing too much leg just lets those around you know that you don’t belong. Instead of blending it can make you a target.
My family is Indian and when I visit it is usually customary to see all the local elders and cousins nearby. Indians are very social, friendly people. They will always feed you in their homes and food is something to be shared. If you are eating in your own home, always offer food to a guest. You should never eat in front of someone without offering some of what you have. I think these are also good manners in the west, but we have become quite lax about our formalities, whereas Indians are less so. Family and responsibility, supporting your friends and neighbors, and being helpful to others is very important. That does not mean you won’t experience rudeness on the street. That is another story, but for now this is enough. More to come later!
A kolem is a design, usually made by applying rice flower with your hand, as a blessing on the doorstep of your house. This one with flowers and fruit is made for a pooja ceremony, while below the prefab designs are made with stencils.