India: Tips to Survive Your First Trip

Someone once told me that India is growing at such a fast rate that the number of babies born in the country per year is equivalent to the entire population of Australia. So every year that passes, India basically pours one more Australia into their borders. Its population is second only to China, and they pride themselves on being the “Largest Democracy in the World”.

You’ll hear tourists call it “Incredible India,” “Land of the Gods,” “Land of Adventure,” and of course, “Land of the Taj.” It’s the perfect place to escape everyday life. Sadly, it’s also overpopulated, underdeveloped and thriving with scammers. It’s the ultimate backpacker’s litmus test because if you can survive in India, you can survive anywhere.

Don’t let this scare you, but it’s best to get as many answers as possible before boarding the plane. In case you aren’t sure about what questions to ask, here are the most useful ones I found during my time in India.

NamasteHow should I introduce myself?

The proper way of introduction in India is with “Namaste.” This should be said with a slight bow and palms touching at chest level. Some foreigners seem to get the impression that this is the equivalent of a hand wave in the Western world, but it’s really closer to a handshake. It’s slightly more formal and as you make friends, you will see that it has fallen out of use with some of the younger crowds. However, if any of your friends invite you to a family dinner, you’ll definitely want to make a good impression with the traditional greeting.

I just want to buy a samosa. Where is the line?!?

It may be a shock the first time you go into a crowded place, get in line to buy something and helplessly watch as someone cuts in front of you to get the clerk’s attention. It may surprise you even more when they say “excuse me”, cut in front of you and do it all over again. When this happens, it’s important to remain calm and collected. Shops and cafeterias in India rarely have queues or any discernable method of keeping order at the register. Instead, customers crowd around the counter, wave and try to make eye contact until the clerk decides who gets to go next.

You will probably have to deal with the chaos in some setting or another, so just remember a few key signals to make the process smoother. First, personal space doesn’t exist in India, so if someone cuts in front of you, it’s because they see space and assume you aren’t trying to get to the counter. Second, once you make it to the counter, keep your cash in your hand so they know you’re ready. Last, don’t hesitate to call out what you want when the clerk looks at you. If you take too long, they’ll move onto someone else and you’ll have to wait longer.

It’s not a nod, and it’s not a shake. What does it mean?

The head bob is the answer to every question. It is done by tilting the head from side to side several times. It can mean “yes”, “maybe”, “I think so”, “I understand”, “I’m listening” and so on. It’s best not to assume that it’s a definite yes or no, so look for other cues to get an exact reading. When haggling, a shopkeeper might bob their head to convey that he’s thinking, but not necessarily agreeing to your offer. Don’t be afraid to ask for verbal clarification if confusion continues.

CowsWhat’s with all the cows?

Cows are sacred in the Hindu faith and can often be seen grazing on temple grounds or wandering the streets. They are identified as an extension of Mother Earth and considered good luck. Don’t disrespect the cows, no matter how much you want a hamburger.

Where (and how) do I eat with my hands?

Indian food is meant to be enjoyed with multiple senses – smell, sight, taste and touch. Many restaurants in southern India have sampler meals served up on banana leaves (far more eco-friendly than paper plates). There should be a jug of water at the table which you can use to rinse off your leaf before the food is served.

When eating with your hand (right hand only), try to keep the palm clean. You can use all of your fingers to mix the curries and gravies with rice. The thumb should be used to push food onto your middle two or three fingers. Try not to put your fingers too far into your mouth, and keep the slurping to a minimum. It takes practice to eat a full dinner this way without wearing half your meal by the end, so plan on eating out as much as possible.

Is there anything I should know about the drinks?

No tap water. Bottled water only. Ensure that the seal is still intact when you drink – stories circulate about bottles being taken from the trash and refilled to be sold on the street. Be cautious.

Also, be brave while you’re in India. It’s highly advisable to try at least one coconut (they are usually sold by a nice merchant who will slice a hole in the top with a hatchet). Another favorite is sugar cane juice. Vendors can be found chopping, stripping and juicing at portable stands all around India.

Why can’t I use my left hand?

This rule stands even if you are left-handed. Never hand someone anything with the left, never attempt to eat with the left, just pretend like it isn’t there, even if you have to sit on it during meals. The left hand is reserved for cleaning in India (foreigners often don’t realize that this explains the hose and lack of toilet paper in public restrooms). All unclean tasks are handled with the left, and the right is reserved for everything else.

What do I use the bucket for?

You will find a bucket with a small cup in your shower regardless of where you stay. They baffle most foreigners, and many backpackers (myself included) eventually adapt them into makeshift washing machines. Actually, the bucket is meant to assist in bathing. The bucket can be filled with water and the cup is used for rinsing off. They can be immensely helpful in places where the water pressure is weak, and you will use less water than you would taking a shower.

SquatToiletWhat exactly is a squat toilet?

Many great articles have been written about the squat toilet. All tourists headed to India should know that a squat toilet is a toilet without the chair part. As the name suggests, you have squat over the hole and try to keep your balance while holding all articles of clothing out of harm’s way. You must learn to use them if you plan to travel around India. The best technique to avoid splashing is to get as low as possible (meaning your thighs should touch the back of your calves when you sit).

Remember to carry toilet paper and antibacterial soap because you won’t find them in Indian bathrooms. Actually, finding a public bathroom at all in India is a difficult proposition. For this reason, don’t be too shocked when men relieve themselves on street corners or designated ‘pee walls’ around the city.

What should I bring?

Nothing feels quite so unusual as having a 10 second blackout in the middle of a crowded mall in Bangalore. Life continues normally, other shoppers will continue as if nothing happened and you will begin to wonder if the malaria prophylactics are causing hallucinations. They aren’t. Many areas in India experience frequent black outs, so bring a flashlight. Aside from the obvious stomach medication, sunscreen and bug spray, you may also want to pack a battery-powered alarm clock.

It’s also highly advisable to bring books or a drawing pad for the long waits while traveling. Indian buses and trains rarely leave on time, and you’ll also notice that appointment times are fairly flexible. If you agree to meet someone at 1:00, don’t be angry if they don’t arrive till closer to 1:30 or later.

What do I wear?

Men really need not worry about wardrobe issues in India. It’s best not to wear shorts and keep sturdy shoes because your feet will need protection from the ground (dirt roads littered with glass, nails and potholes).

Females will have far more difficulty in choosing appropriate outfits. Prepare to cover up in spite of the blistering heat because the more skin shown, the more catcalls you can expect. Bring sturdy leggings or even pajama pants that cover the ankle. Loose shirts that extend to the thighs will come in handy, and you can always buy kurtas once you get settled in. Unless you go to the beach in Goa, don’t wear shorts.

Culturalindia.net has more information about traditional Indian clothing.

StreetcrossHow do I get across the street?

There seem to be several schools of thought on this subject – most newcomers go with “close your eyes, pray for mercy and run”. This may not be the best method with scores of rickshaws, motorbikes, livestock, speeding buses, and the landslide of cars that plow down the street daily. Few, if any, crosswalks can be found in major cities, so be prepared. It’s not uncommon to see tourists weighing how much they really need to get across the street against how much they really want to keep their limbs.

Don’t be afraid to put your hand out to the cars to make them slow down a bit (don’t try it with buses, they really don’t stop). It tells them you aren’t just thinking about crossing, you’re actually crossing. Be confident and only wait in the middle of the road if absolutely necessary.

I want to talk to people from India, but what do we talk about?

One of the safest ways to start off is with movies. Before you leave for India, try to watch as many Bollywood movies as you can. Other students seem to light up when you mention John Abraham or Shahid Kapoor. Most Bollywood movies are a semi-musicals with dance numbers and a fair amount of singing, but if that isn’t your cup of tea, you can try more serious films like Water. Keep in mind, most Bollywood movies are longer than their Hollywood counterparts – 3, 4 and even 5 hour films are common.

I’m not a movie star. Why does everyone want a picture with me?

It’s normal to feel like an alien when you first arrive to India. In some cities, children will point at you and adults will stare. A few brave individuals will ask if they can have their photo taken with you (especially if you are a female, but men get asked too). Some exceptionally outgoing people will attempt to start a dialogue by asking your age, country of origin, marital status and/or weight. It’s difficult not to get annoyed with the interrogation, but remember that they are just curious about outsiders. Opportunities to speak with people from the other side of the world are rare, so it’s understandable that they’d want to learn more about you.

I don’t know how to haggle, but I really want to shop. Any advice?

It’s common to feel smothered inside shops because if you eye anything, the shopkeeper will be there to start haggling. A good rule of thumb is to start bargaining at a third of the asking price. Don’t be surprised if vendors follow you around if you’ve shown interest in something they’re selling. It is possible and quite likely that they will continue to hassle you up to three city blocks later.

Expect to get ripped off at least once. It really does happen to everyone. Don’t let this ruin your perception of the entire country or your whole trip. Think of everything as an opportunity to learn and pass your knowledge onto others.

TransportationIs the transportation as bad as everyone says?

Yes. Rickshaw drivers have a tendency to triple the normal price of a ride for foreigners. If you take a rickshaw taxi, make sure to pre-negotiate a fare or use the meter if they have one. It’s best to find a different rickshaw if they refuse to turn on the meter or claim it is broken.

Expect to have at least one fender bender. Auto insurance isn’t exactly required in India, so the drivers will get out of their vehicles, argue for a short while with plenty of pointing and arm waving, then return to their car and drive away. Always wear a helmet if you take a motorbike.

What else should I expect?

Expect to be overwhelmed. India is a land of extremes in every aspect – the noise, the smells, the tastes, the sights, the heat, the people and the history. There will be days when you feel like India is beating you mercilessly and days when you feel truly blessed to be seeing “Incredible India”, “Land of Adventure” and “Land of the Gods”. Don’t forget to schedule some time outside of the chaos when you can relax and regain your sanity if necessary. You won’t enjoy temple hopping unless you’re rested. Don’t try to do too much and remember that just surviving your first trip to India is an accomplishment unto itself.

Helpful links:

incredibleindia.org – A recommended travel guide site

kamat.com/kalranga/timeline/timeline – A brief history of India

timesofindia.indiatimes.com – A leading newspaper in India

Photo credits:
Namaste by Ragesh Vasudevan on Flickr, Squat toilet by query_squidier on Flickr, All others by Roger Wade

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  • Leslie Love said at 2011-07-06T18:00:44+0000: Thanks for the tips. I've been reading some Indian folk tales lately and it's made me really want to visit India. I have my plane booked for the end of August I'm really excited for my trip. Thanks for all the tips. I'll try to remember them all! http://ponnivala.com

Older comments on India: Tips to Survive Your First Trip

Lady Skye Greig
24 October 2009

Wow, I really am glad that I saw this article before I wore my summer dress in India. Some things were just common sense, some things were so good that I read beforehand. Thank you.

SFLboogie
03 November 2009

Metered rickshaws? Can’t say I ever found one over seven weeks in India. Other than that, good advice!

Anil Sharma
05 November 2009

hmm..very well written i must say..i agree vth ur understanding on all th aspects..things r fast changing vth younger generation tho..but vat is striking about ur article is th lack of bias..so i am sure ppl wud appreciate ur effort..all i can hope is tht u had a gud time here n so do those who plan to come here..wud b happy to help if nebody needs ne additional info..enjoy!!!