I | GOT | BACK from my 3 weeks trip to India just over a month ago, and though I myself am Indian and only first generation American, I was as much a tourist as Sophia Vergara would be to my bedroom (..sigh. One can always dream).
In those three weeks I was lucky enough to be exposed to the natural beauty that only India can offer; pure yogurt made fresh every morning, starry nights no matter where you’re standing, neighbors that not only knew your name, but help raise you! India isn’t just a country, its a community. The kind you wish you lived in after watching Pleasantville (before all the racism and sexual oppression).
Unfortunately it isn’t without its flaws. In an effort to keep up with technological advances and global superpowers, India, like every other monetary driven nation, is lead by less than 1% of its population with complete disregard for the other 99%. It’s sad considering the deep rooted history India has and it’s influence on younger nations. We should be learning humanity from them, and instead they’re learning capital-cannibalism from us.
Alas, I digress. Here are my Top 10 Things you should know before your trip to India (in no special order):
1. Cellphones are like gold. Keep them in your pocket. If you have an iPhone or Android, there’s a good chance you’ve completely backed it up onto the web (if you haven’t, you should). Your contacts into Google, pictures into Dropbox, music into Amazon or iTunes, etc etc. But that’s not necessarily the case in India. Cellphones on average cost $250 more and the SIM card still stores all your information. And because desktops, Laptops and iPads are a luxury, smartphones carry an amount of worth people are willing to kill for. To give you an idea, $250 USD is a little more than 15,000 rupees (and a bottle of water cost 10Rs).
2. Bottled Water Only. It’s common knowledge you don’t go drinking tap water in India. They simply don’t have the regulation we have here. Local governments have upgraded by equipping homes with filtration systems for drinking water, but even so, our bodies aren’t use to the natural bacteria found in their reservoir. So stick to bottled or you’ll spend at least a week squatting over a latring hole (google it). The funny things is, I’ve spoken to many foreigners who say drinking tap water is unheard of where they’re from. Seems to only be an American thing.
*Beware; when traveling long distances through India, you may park at a rest stop. Shop keepers there are infamous for refilling water bottles with tap. I experienced this first hand. Listen for the breaking seal when opening, or just don’t drink any at all.
3. Street Meat is a No-No. In rural villages food is dished out on carts sitting either on ice or over a fire, similar to NYC hot dogs or Chicken & Rice. Typhoid is common there - my brother caught it from the chicken in Ludhiana. His liver shut down, he hallucinated, and was yipped up on antibiotics for 3 weeks. My advice - home cooked meals only. I even decided to be vegetarian for the length of my stay, which is really easy. Nobody knows how to season like Indians. Nobody.
4. Learn your Numbers. This comes in most handy when taking public transportation (of which, by the way, your options are plenty). Cabs, rickshaws, and 3-wheelers are all independent operations so there’s no dispatch to regulate pricing. And since a locals can sniff out a tourist a mile away, you’ll never get the same rate. A 40 rupee pedicab ride was sometimes 50, sometimes 60, even 70. I’m not telling you to learn a new language, but if you think you’ll be taking the same route more than twice, you best learn how to say “No, pachee!”
5. Toughen Up or Get Rolled Over. Just as my over packed, smelly coach flight was touching down in Delhi, I overheard the the lady next to me having a conversation with the flight attendant. Despite both being India-born, they agreed in not missing the lack of hospitality from strangers. India isn’t a country where saying “pardon me,” “excuse me,” “sorry,” and holding doors is common. It’s not that people there are always looking to fight, it’s just not in their social etiquette to be so submissive. So, don’t take it personally and learn to thicken your skin.
6. If You’re Visiting Family, Always Go Hungry. A good (really good) aspect of Indian culture is to feed your guests. Whether you’re just stopping in to say hello or picking up something small, you will be offered tea & biscuits; food if you’re staying a while. It’s as much the norm there as tipping your waiter here.
7. Give Food, Not Money. I tell you this because you’re going to be approached by more panhandlers and street peddlers than you ever have in all the years you’ve lived elsewhere and if you give money to all of them, you’ll find yourself right where they are. Instead, give food. They won’t turn it away.
8. Upgrade your wardrobe Elsewhere. There’s a real good chance if you check your threads the tag will read made in India. But you’re an idiot if you think you’re gonna go there and get a sick deal on top brands. Top designer brands actually cost more in India than they do in the states. The local brands are actually much more affordable, but will fall apart after only a couple of wash cycles. If you really want to shop, shop Indian. Peruse the markets for saris, kurthas, shirvanis and kusras, Amritsar and Ludhiana are excellent for those and you’ll get the best bang for you buck. If you can’t help it, go ahead and shop for designer jeans and button downs - chances are its a knockoff.
9. Get All your Medical Procedures Done. Some of the best doctors come from India. The best. They also aren’t use to billing an insurance company. So its no surprise to them when an NRI (Non-Residential Indian) walks into their office looking to root canal or lasik surgery. My teeth were jacked up and I was quoted upwards of $6,000 here - and that was by NYU Dental College! But Delhi, I got three root canals, 4 caps, 5 cavities, and a cleaning for exactly $1,000. Best I ever spent.
*But don't half-ass your research! Ask for referrals from your friend. Go through a trusted relative and in a major city! You're getting dental work, not hiding your abortion.
10. Don’t Rage or Flirt with Girls. Firstly, India has an extremely corrupt legal system. Being a cop there is nothing more than a job which, half the time you don’t need to take a test to land. It’s one thing to go have a few drinks with your friends, but leave your ego at the airport. If you leave yourself open to trouble, it will find you and criminals are not afraid of anything.
Secondly, it’s wise to remember New Delhi has been call the rape capital of the world. Thus, it’d be in your best interest to believe every woman there is scared of you. My brother accidentally stepped on the back of a woman’s heel while in a mall and caught her by the shoulders before she could fall over, equipped with eye contact and apology. Regardless, she took cover like the victim of a mugging and ran away as soon as she got her sandal back on.
And though women in major party spots like Goa and Delhi can be as approachable as they are in any US city, you need to know who you’re talking to. If you do anything to cause a fright, you’ll have the whole town to deal with. States like Punjab especially are not the place to talk to girls at bars. Its not the culture there and if you try it, you’ll immediately be labeled an attacker. Keep your hands to yourself and refer to every girl you meet as “Dhi-Dhi” (sister).