Monday, December 7, 2009

Cultural Do’s and Don’ts for Americans Traveling to India

Varanasi, India 2006 (C) Darrin Commerford

Here are some tips written by my sister, Rachel Commerford about traveling in India. She has been traveling and living there on and off for the past 5 years. We will be going to India together the first week of January.

1) Trust your gut. Your instincts will kick into high gear when you are in India. If a situation seems fishy, just get out of there. If you are feeling uncomfortable in a situation, there is probably a good reason for this. Logically, you may not understand what is going on, but your instincts will tell you, so listen!

2) Take your safety seriously. Be extra cautious because after all, India can be a dangerous place for foreigners. Women: be careful about going out alone after dark. Men: protect the women you are with. Stand up for them and look out for them, take this as a serous responsibility.

3) Try new things! Take advantage of every opportunity you can. India is unpredictable and you never know where something will lead.

4) Let go of home. I know many people that were so intent on keeping in touch with people back home that they spent the entire time at the internet café. Ladies and Gentleman, please do not let this happen to you. You are here to experience India, and the people back home will still be there when you get back. In my opinion, the people who could let go of home had a better time when they are there.

5) Remember to laugh. Here is the deal: You are guaranteed to be confronted with frustrating situations on a daily basis. The way I see it, the situation can either be funny or upsetting. Learn to laugh about the absurdity of the situation rather than being mad. In India, laughter really is the best medicine.

6) Dress appropriately. This one is for the women, because lets be honest, men can wear whatever the hell they want. Women: Please take this seriously, I know it is hot there, but you can buy modest clothing that is airy and breezy. Now, depending on where in India you are, the meaning of modest will differ. So use this as a rule of thumb, look at what the Indian women are wearing and do not base your assessment on what you see other foreigners dressing like. Remember: how you dress effects peoples perceptions of you. The sexual harassments in India is awful, and you do not want to give any more reasons to be hassled. This is more important than you realize.

7) Again for the Women: Be very careful how you are interacting with men. Remember that what is considered an appropriate interaction in the U.S. may not be considered an appropriate interaction in India. Always air on the side of caution.

8) Act confident. And walk fast, with purpose, like you know where you are going even if you don’t. Do not talk to people who come up to you. You can tell them to leave you alone, but the best way to handle it is to ignore them completely. People will try to trick you into conversation by asking where you are from and then twisting the conversation to try to take advantage. Its best not to engage in conversation at all.

9) Ask Questions. People will love to tell you about their country and their culture, anything can be asked if they are asked in a respectful way. Asking is better than making assumptions. If you have a question that particularly fascinates you, I would ask multiple people and see how their answers differ.

10) Tip people. Especially at restaurants. People will tell you that India is a “no tip” country, which is true. However, the people serving you are not making very much, and a tip is nice to leave. This goes for cabs and other services also. Remember, many of these people are struggling to survive. Even if they are trying to rip you off, don’t get too upset, they are just trying to live. That being said, don’t let people rip you off. I would often haggle rickshaw drivers down as far as I could, then still tip them generously at the end.

11) Be open minded: To anything and everything. And be positive. Your experience will be 100 times better if you do this. Try to hold back your judgments when you start learning about arranged marriages, cremation, etc.

12) Don’t point your feet at people. This sounds weird, but seriously, it is considered very disrespectful. Many times if you are hearing people speak or play music, you will be sitting on the floor listening to them. You will want to stretch your feet out, but don’t. Even if your feet fall asleep and you are extremely uncomfortable, do not show especially the bottom of your feet to people.

13) Remember you’re on India time. Everyone and everything will be late. Just expect it and don’t let it get you down too much.