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.

TEDx Geneva: Xavier Rosset — 300 days alone on an island [en]

Xavier Rosset — 300 days alone on an island

Alone on an island, with a swiss army knife and a machete. He’s from Verbier. Extreme snowboarding, finished 2nd in 2005. Quit pro snowboarding but wanted to keep traveling. What’s the opposite of me? He likes mountains and is very social => idea of spending 300 days alone on an island.

Back to nature, and survival, and a search for himself.

Took him 14 months of preparation to realize his dream. 2nd September 2008, on a plane to head to his island near Fiji.

Initially, day-to-day survival. First started collecting coco-nuts so that he would be able to drink. First coconut? 40 minutes to open it. In the end, 30 seconds.

Night? sleep, but not under a coconut tree. On the second day, he lost his camp. He didn’t have much initial information about the island before going there. Did take some information about food before leaving. Coconut is a great laxative, he learned very fast. Snails. Crabs. Mangoes. Oranges. Lemons. Was given some fishing line and 20 hooks, and a lighter. They saved his trip.

Built a shelter. Took him three weeks and two tries to get a waterproof shelter.

He also hid his watch, wanted to lose the perception of time.

10 days after his arrival, his motivation completely plummeted. Depressed, what am I doing here? Realized he wasn’t as strong as he thought. Visitors on the island! A few hours with people from Norway on a sailing boat. They were in a hurry, but Xavier didn’t know what that meant anymore. He was ready to give up.

After 75 days, he decided not to do the 300 days. It seemed so long. 150, instead. Missed his family and relatives. He felt much better with the idea of being half-way through. Found a new motivation: sleeping, because he’d dream about his family. Being alone gives you the best freedom of the world, only limits are imagination.

Christmas: called his family on the satellite phone. Very hard. They were all there. His first Christmas without his family.

30 days later, end of January, 150 days. But it wasn’t a real victory. He was used to his lifestyle, managing it better. Wanted to be able to say he had done what he set out to do. So he added 50 more days, 200.

Water: he used 3-5 litres of fresh water a day. In Switzerland, we use 160 litres a day. He washed himself three times with fresh water. Another definition of drinking water.

End March, he really wanted to quit… but two-thirds in… He started becoming more active. Built a bench, explored. Started feeling confident because he could see the end.

Initial end plan: his best friend would come and stay with him for two weeks. He didn’t really know when it would be. Sat on a rock waiting. Very emotional when he arrived. Jumped in his arms, end of his loneliness. Lost 18kg, but did it. Stayed with him a little to socialize him again 😉

First thing GaĂ«l told him: “hey, you missed the world economic crisis!”

Departure: sad to leave the island. It was his home for 10 months. Another adventure was going to start. Going back… arrival in Geneva. Lots of people. They came for him.

All that can get in the way of your dream is the fear of failure.