A Quick Survival Guide to India [en]

A friend of mine mentioned she might be going to India for business next year, which prompted me to dish out a few “Indian culture survival tips” to her — how about a quick blog post about that? Also, being here with my dad (who is in India for the first time) has made me notice things I’ve grown used to but which aren’t “obvious” for the first-time-visiting foreigner. So, in no particular order, while I sort through the 500 somewhat blurry photos I took from the train to Bangalore…

Pune 268 Street Paparazzi.jpg

Warning to my Indian friends: this is full of stereotypes and clichés. I know not all of India and not all Indians are like this. This is just to prepare people to things that do function very differently from in the West.

  • expect everything to take longer than you expect
  • in general, expect things to go slowly
  • expect plans to be derailed and changed and modified and cancelled
  • be patient
  • we’re in a part of the world where saying “no” amounts to some degree of loss of face — so expect people to say yes or give you an answer when in fact they mean “no” or “I don’t know” (classic: ask for directions, people will point you in some random direction rather than saying they don’t know)
  • don’t plan on accomplishing more than one thing a day (you’ll exhaust yourself and make yourself sick)
  • people don’t generally make eye contact unless they want something — so don’t look people in the eye when saying “no, I don’t need your prepaid taxi” or “no, I don’t want to give you money” (just shake your head, say no, ignore them — and try and pick up the “negative” hand wobble if you can)
  • people don’t usually shake hands or hug or kiss or anything like that, so take the cue from the person you’re meeting rather than sticking your hand out
  • expensive services or goods does not necessarily mean they will be quality (ripping people off is generally not viewed as “immoral” as it is in our Judeo-Christian culture)
  • eat when you have a chance, pee when you have a chance — you don’t know for sure when the next occasion will be
  • the weird head-wobble means anything from “of course, you moron” to “yeah… may-be” — context will help you (or not)
  • direct confrontation does not work very well
  • expect people to make plans for you without asking you if it’s OK for you
  • expect people to assume you can’t eat “normal-spicy” food (but if you can’t take hot food at all, it will still be way too hot for you)
  • bottled water is called “bisleri” (whether it’s proper Bislery, Kinley, AquaFina or anything else — down to the shadier brands)
  • don’t expect western-style toilets or toilet paper (carry some around with you if you can’t do things “Indian-style”)
  • people will be wanting you to “sit”, have a cup of water (politely decline if it’s tap water, but say yes to chai)
  • the horrible loud midi tunes you hear outside are cars reversing
  • it’s noisy
  • beds aren’t really private places
  • wash your hands, don’t drink unbottled/unfiltered water, don’t eat uncooked stuff (the general rules — bend at your convenience and at your own risk)
  • expect to freeze in A/C places (trains, busses, hotel rooms, offices)
  • verbal communication is often kept to a minimum — lots of hand gestures (people will gesture you to follow them instead of saying “would you please follow me”)
  • most Indian food is eaten with your fingers (rip a piece of chapati/naan, pick up food with it, put in mouth) or a spoon — your fingers are more sensitive to heat than your mouth, so if you can pick it up without dropping it, you won’t burn your tongue
  • men: jeans/trousers and shirt are fine — t-shirt is trendy for Indians, but makes you look touristy if you’re white; women: jeans are starting to be OK with long-covering kurta, but I recommend going a little more classy and getting a salwaar kameez in the fashion on the day stitched — it’s pretty and it makes you stand out a bit from the 100% touristy crowd (leggings and kurta are in fashion now too, but I feel I get treated differently when wearing a pretty flowing salwaar kameez — maybe it’s just me)
  • expect things to not go as expected (did I already say this?)
  • life is complicated enough without making it more complicated: if you’re trying to buy something and have a chance to buy it, don’t think “let me first shop around” or “I’ll come back later” — just get it then and there (if you really need it, that is)
  • expect commuting to be not as simple as you imagine: rickshaw drivers might refuse to take you where you want, specially in the evening (we had three local guys flag down about 20 of them the first evening my dad was here before we found one who would take us home by the meter)
  • you’re not supposed to tip left, right and centre — ask a trusted local or a well-adjusted foreigner when to give extra (again: not often)
  • at stations and airports, take prepaid taxis or rickshaws if your transport has not been arranged (you’ll find the prepaid stand by yourself, don’t follow the guys who ask you if you want one)
  • in general, don’t go with people who come up to you offering services (e.g. flagging down a rickshaw on the road is much better than taking the one who just drove 100m to come to you; and no, you don’t want to go to the shop this guy who just walked up to you is suggesting you buy from; etc.)
  • the country in general is not designed to help people figure out “how it works” — you just have to know (hence how precious local help is; don’t expect instructions to be written down anywhere to tell you how to take the bus)
  • expect to be stared at, by children and grown-ups alike
  • be ready for paperwork; tedious and seemingly useless paperwork
  • the person you interact with and the person doing things is not usually the same person — big division of labour: you talk to a guy in the store and ask to see something, he tells somebody else to take the thing out, and that person might in turn tell somebody else (perfectly normal, just feels weird at first); also, in a restaurant, not the same person who serves meals, seats you, picks up the dishes, cashes in the bill, etc.
  • expect many occurrences of “not my job” brokenness
  • what locals expect you to want and like is probably not what you will want and like…

Did I leave anything important out?

India is a lovely place once you’ve understood how it rolls. Main piece of advice? Be patient, and if you can hang around with local friends or well-adjusted foreigners, observe them, and try to learn by example.

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11 thoughts on “A Quick Survival Guide to India [en]

  1. Funny and very true :) rest about the rikhsha guys well they are smart enough to fool we Indians too :)
    “eat when you have a chance, pee when you have a chance — you don’t know for sure when the next occasion will be” this one is hilarious.
    oh yes keep a distance from the local police, you know what i mean :)

    cheers,
    LHI

  2. You missed out the #Pune twitter connection… we’re a helpful lot and actually love everyone who comes to India for work or as a tourist. Will be glad to show around, introduce others & yes… always ready for a drink & good conversation. Cheers!

    http://twitter.com/MrShri

  3. sorry but some of this is way off…okay for first-time-short-time travelers, though

  4. All of it, quite true :) It is amazing how India works, despite everything ..

    Hope you have a fun trip.

  5. Haha, that made me laugh! Actually Pune is also pretty good. Rickshaw drivers normally go by the meter, so you can safely simply dismiss all those who won’t and… be patient 😉

  6. Not all of of the things you have written are actual facts. As a person who has lived both abroad and in India, I must say that India is very friendly to those who do not “know how things roll”, too. Agreed, hygiene wise the country might not be so good, but otherwise, it is par excellence. If I might say so bluntly, you have put everything almost as if it is a toxic vine that will infect on contact. The title of the post is also slightly offensive(“A quick survival guide to India”). And to all others who think in a similar manner, India may not be fully developed but it is by far the best country I’ve been in.

  7. Very well written, I am Indian and I was trying to help my friends travelling from the West with my own survival guide and I am gonna refer them to yours. But people need to realise that it is just for to prepare them for the worst, even they keep all this in mind they will really enjoy their stay here in India :)

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