Calling All India Virgins!
Lonely Planet has a message board full of hilarious questions from India first-timers. Some examples: "Can I get a Starbucks Chai Latte in India?" and "Would it be safe to be seen reading a Salman Rushdie Satanic Verses book on an Indian train?" It's tempting to write back and say "Yes, if you are seen reading or even known to own a copy of Salman Rushdie, any Muslim within eyeshot will slit your throat instantly."
But seriously: every year thousands of India first-timers, most of them college age, head off on the Great Journey. Most of them have visions of either a mystical incense-laden land, or a seething horde of scheming humanity. The reality, of course, lies somewhere in between. As an India veteran (also a Manhattan veteran; I specialize in living in improbable places), I would tell them:
1-READ UP before you go. Particularly good is Culture Shock: India, the Lonely Planet current guide, and Lonely Planet's guide to health in Asia. Personally, I read everything I could get my hands on: travelogues, history, culture and customs. It will add dimension to your travels, explain many strange things you'll see, and enable you to better understand people you meet along the way.
1a. One does go to India for history, exotica and culture, but India is really all about the people. Believe me, there's no avoiding them, so brush up on your small talk!
2-FORGET your romantic notions of spiritual India. It is the most materialistic place on earth, in some ways for good reason (see below). Also the most interesting. After India, everywhere else in Asia, and perhaps the world outside of Bagdhad, will be a piece of cake. See #8 and #6.
3-DON'T BE SCARED. Don't do dumb s***, like flash lots of money, but don't be scared. India is madcap, energetic, and endlessly amusing.
4-LEARN some of the local language. Even your mistakes will thrill the people to no end and if nothing else, it will show them you're not the average stupid tourist.
5-WEAR traditional clothes, especially for girls. This means, in most cases, a Punjabi suit (aka salwar-kameez or churidar, the long baggy pyjama pants, long tunic top and accompanying scarf draped over the chest). I cannot stress this enough. Ladies, do not wear your hair down, especially blondes. Loose hair is a sign of a loose woman in many places, and if you are a foreign woman, you are doubly suspect and are, in local custom, asking for harassment. (unless you're in Mumbai, then no one cares.)
5a. If you want to get along with local people and be treated with any kind of respect, don't dress like a hippy. Indians have vivid memories of the first big wave of 60s and 70s tourists, and few of them (the memories) are positive. Also, any time you have to deal with any person in an office, or law enforcement, it pays to clean up.
6. A word about bargaining/haggling: Most Asians have barganing down to an art form. It is in their blood, particularly trader groups like Kashmiris. It is an art form you will never master, but must become decent at in order to have any money left by the end of your trip. Remember, bargaining is just the normal way here - they do it with locals as well. The difference is, locals know the game. Learn the game and see it as a game. DO NOT feel guilty about not paying 'enough.' Believe me, they will never let you get away without their having made some profit. Since you don't know the rates, you don't realize this. When a driver suggests 200Rs for an 80Rs ride, he is not trying to be a bastard - he's just negotiating. He is doing his job. It is your job to counter with half or less of the original amount. He expects this and is not offended by it! From his point of view, he may not get such a good fare the rest of the day. If he can make a day's wages in one go, why not? There is little social mobility and few chances for "getting ahead" in India's rigid, slowly changing social structure. The only way around it sometimes is to "cheat," or as they would say, be "smart." Fair play has never gotten the average Indian very far, so they often resort to these things. Don't get righteous, just hold your ground and keep smiling.
7-DO NOT get involved in drugs, or hang around people who do. Period. This is one good way to get in trouble, fast.
8-Keep a sense of humour, and do not lose your cool. You will NOT always succeed in this....but keep it as your goal.
9-Remember that to many, not all, of these folks, you are a walking bank. If you keep this in mind *without resentment* and regardless of the exchange taking place, regardless of how 'nice' anyone is, you will fare MUCH better in India. Just accept it and go on. Get used to it and don't let it get to you. Eventually, you will get past these people and meet some nice folks.
10-Do not display affection openly with your boy/girlfriend. Don't even hold hands. This is considered a slap in the face outside of Goa or Mumbai.
11. Don't bother asking for food with 'no spice.' they don't know how to cook this way. It works better to say NO GREEN CHILI. The green chilis are the really hot fiery things.
12. Any time money changes hands, REGARDLESS of who it's with - your nice old auntie innkeeper, anybody - it is time to be alert. Get a receipt for everything, absolutely everything. If you buy a museum ticket, be ready to show it at any time - they love to get official about paperwork.
13. Regardless of what your hippy friends say, do not "go native" and start cleaning yourself after the toilet with your hand. Most digestive diseases are transmitted fecal-to-oral. The fact that local custom does not understand this, plus the scarcity of water and soap in many places, accounts for the fact that 1000s of people still die of simple diarrhea every year here and in Nepal. This means that unless you have access, EVERY time, to good running (preferably hot) water, plenty of soap, and a clean towel, you will infect yourself. Needless to say, all these things are pretty scarce outside of star hotels. BYOTP (bring your own toilet paper) and mini bar of soap.
Questions? Hate mail? Don't forget to write, and include your email! Most of all, have a great time. It's a great country and I am proud to now call it home, even if they still call me 'a foreigner.'
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