« June 2004 | Main | November 2005 »

July 24, 2004

How to have an enjoyable India excursion

Sorry, I am still not done talking about India (and there are no guarentees that I ever will be). Many friends and acquaintances have complained about the sub-continent and swear it is awful. I have heard that being there is like having a hundred monkeys pounding on the inside of your skull, one person described it as "organized chaos" (which I consider a compliment), other people comment on the massive amounts of injustice that goes on constantly towards women, poor people, white people, powerless people, children, and all other people who can possibly be taken advantage of in some way. I won't deny that this stuff happens or go on at length about how it happens everywhere; we are just used to ignoring it in our own countries. Instead I simply want to help other people understand or ignore these things in India, therefore helping them have as marvelous a time as I did. John and Paul, fellow Friends World bloggers wrote their ten and eleven highlights of the country, but here is a list helping fellow travelors create their own top ten (or more more) list

  • As soon as you send your passport away to apply for your visa or purchase your ticket (whichever is sooner) start squatting regularly or learning to squat. Most toilets in India are of the squat variety, which is actually a good thing (more sanitary) so if you are going to evacuate comfortably, start practicing early. Incidently squatting is a great position if you are constipated or gassy.
  • Someone once described a walk in which you simultaneously look at everything and nothing. If you can imagine this, it is a great gait to excel at. It lets people know you are paying attention but not interested. It is the only way to defend yourself against hords of people wanting to sell you things. Get good at ignoring people and constantly but nonchalantly saying "no" as you continue moving. For Gods sake, don't stop moving EVER, unless you really are interested in something. If you do need to stop, engage in haggling or conversation with a vendor, he will simultaneously shoo off any beggars and other vendors.
  • You are never obligated to purchase anything. Even if you have spent an hour talking with the vendor, even if calls you, "my friend." Think up several excuses to carry with you at all times as to why you can't purchase things (i.e. I am a poor student, I have a mortage and loans, I am supporting my sister and her twelve children, I got fired from my job...). It doesn't matter if your excuse is true or even makes sense. The only important thing is that you repeatedly say it while exclaiming something is too expensive or that you cannot afford to buy anything no matter how low the price. Remember, even when no money exchanges hands, the vendor was entertained by you and able to practice his English, while you learned about his culture and products. Therefore you each gained something so there is no need to feel guilty about not buying anything. There are plenty of sucker tourists out there supporting these guys without you contributing.
  • If you do want to purchase something, think about how much you are willing to pay before you ask the price. Unless you are a quick thinker this is the most important aspect of good bargaining. It does not matter how much something is actually worth - the only important thing is how much you and the vendor think it is worth and if you can agree on this. I have found that sometimes I can bargain something down to a third the cost because I am not willing to pay more, but other times I haven't been able to get the price to budge at all. Sometimes this makes my offer increase, depending on how much I want the item, but usually I just walk away glad I didn't spend any money. Sometimes my offer is exactly the same as the seller's, in which case the transaction ends quickly and I don't worry about if I was over-charged because I paid what I felt was the right price.
  • Not everybody is trying to rip you off. When I first arrived in Bangalore, I was paranoid that I was always getting overcharged. To my surprise I gradually discovered this isn't so. True, a lot of people are trying to squeeze that extra bit of cash from you, but not everyone. Learning to tell the difference between Indians you can trust and those you can't is an important aspect of enjoying the culture.
  • If it comes to your attention that someone is trying to rip you off, exclaim loudly your verdict and your evidence (i.e. "yesterday I paid half this for the same service!") and then walk away. If it is a service you are asking for (an auto ride or guide) do not except the person's offer, even if he lowers the price after your outburst. In my experience if an Indian tries to rip you off once, he will continue trying in some way and usually, if you know what the fair price is you can find an honest guy to help you. It is worth it to search for the honest guys, they drive safer, give better suggestions and are usually happy to give you insight into the nicer side of their culture.
  • When taking an auto, look for the sleepy old drivers or the the middle age ones with families. They tend to drive safer, have less ambition, and know the streets better than the young guys clamouring to entice you into their autos
  • Try to connect with the ordinary people, not just the sales people. This means being open to conversations with other shoppers and train riders. Usually, especially on the train, you will not have to initiate conversation but you will have to make effort to continue it and ask questions so the exchange isn't just one way. Sometimes it seems everyone just wants your statistics, they ask, "From which country are you?" Then they want to know if you are married and what your job is, in that order. You can ask the same questions right back and then ask about their religion, culture, family. Especially on trains (where there isn't much else to do) Indians tend to be very friendly and they talk with each other the same way they speak with us (only not always in English).
  • Don't worry about the language, unless you are traveling to rural areas it is very easy to find at least one person who speaks fluent English. However it did take time to get used to an Indian accent, many people really do sound like Apu on "The Simpsons."
  • As a westerner you will be given plenty of leeway regarding cultural taboos, but it is polite keep the left hand rule (use your left hand only for serving yourself, for everything else, especially giving and accepting money use your right hand). Dress modestly as possible while being comfortable. For women this means very little neck, chest, waist and legs showing. For men it means hiding the latter two, though keeping your arms covered isn't a bad idea either. The best clothes I found were loose cotton ones, which were just as cool as shorts and belly shirts. Learn to drink with out touching your mouth to the bottle - if some shares their drink with you this how you accept it. It is very sanitary, swapping spit is taboo and it doesn't even happen in Bollywood movies. If you are unsure of a custom or how you are suppose to behave you can always ask. Wherever I went I always found people happy to expound on their culture and customs.
  • Clothing and other items are very cheap but always inspect them carefully. On clothing inspect the seems and the weave of the cloth (I have had some items fall apart quickly after I bought them). Inspecting it carefully also gives you time to contemplate your price on the item and defects are always an excuse to knock down the price.
  • Never expect to find toilet paper in the bathrooms. Always carry some with you and feel fortunate to have found a bathroom at all. A few days in the right place and you will understand why Indians defecate in the streets. You can purchase toilet paper at most pharmacies and when I was there it cost around fifty cents. In comparison this is about half the price I paid for most hotels. It certainly makes one think about priorities and understand why most Indians use their (left) hand and water.
  • Aspirin is called Disporin and if you need anything stronger than that I can't give you much advice. Travel with a friend who you can count to look after you if you need to go to the hospital. Their hospital system is based on having a friend or relative to help the patient. Basic first aid is always good to know. My doctor recommended bringing my own hypodermic needle. I never had to use it.

I am sure there are more things, I will add them as I see fit but this post is far too long already. I didn't go into obvious ones like "wash your hands" and "don't buy food from street vendors" because everyone knows those. If I forgot anything though, please inform me. When this posting goes off the main page I shall put a link on the left side of my blog so that anyone going to India can read up on the suggestions and they won't get buried in my archives.

| |Comments (0)