(adapted from information given at the beginning of the Antioch Studies Abroad Program)
~ Regions are more varied than the countries of Europe, with different peoples, customs, dress, food, language, and even script.
~ Religion and culture are intertwined, with a Hindu majority, but also sizeable minorities from Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Buddhist and other traditions.
~ The Hindu caste system still affects many social
interactions, and brings the many rules about cleanliness and
food. Many Hindus won’t even drink a glass of water in the
morning before doing their extensive mouth-cleaning routine, and
won’t make a chai or do their daily rituals before they’ve
done their long bathing and laundry routine.
You’ll see elaborate bathing rituals but also men urinating and spitting red paan juice everywhere and only the lowest caste groups engaged in cleaning common areas such as streets. There are few public toilets, so women especially will want to make use of toilets when available in nicer restaurants or hotels.
You’ll see people:
1) drinking from glasses and bottles without touching their mouths to the rim so that the glass/bottle can be shared with others.
2) eating with the right hand—sit on your left hand at meals if necessary, as it is the hand meant for washing after the toilet. (The use of toilet paper is accepted, but considered a bit gross.)
3) while eating, NOT putting fingers or utensils into contact with any other person’s food/plate/cup nor with the common serving dishes.
~ Staring and very direct questioning are common:
Is that a pimple on your chin? How much money do you make? Have
you gotten fatter?
We are the best entertainment that many Indians will have all week/month/year depending on where we are. You can turn the situation around by asking the questions you’d like to have answered.
(But if you need directions, ask several different people, and phrase the question so that the person DOESN’T have to answer just a yes or no, or “I don’t know.”
There is a very different sense of personal space—for us, it can feel in India that there is no sense of personal space. For many in India, life is lived in public.
Along the same lines, people are often not introduced individually, and are usually known in the homes by a relational title such as elder sister or father’s brother.
Bargaining is expected in many places, though “fixed price shops” are usual in more expensive hotels. Prices will seem cheap on arrival, but find out and pay the actual prices whenever possible. Trust your intuition, act confident, and don’t be pressured into buying anything or making any financial transaction before you are ready.
If you want to practice generosity, consider giving food or clothing rather than money.
Always keep money, tickets, credit cards, etc., securely in your money belt on you—never out of physical contact, and as much as possible out of sight.
Bring all the money you’ll need with you. Most people use traveler’s checks, but bring enough Rupees cash to places where there may not be a bank, or in case of the frequent bank holidays.
The Hindi words for yesterday and tomorrow are the same. “Ready in just five minutes” may mean “one hour.” Slow down. Pester in a friendly way.
Most marriages are still arranged by the families, sometimes through matrimonial ads in the paper, and in traditional weddings the bride and groom do not see each other’s faces till after the ceremony is over.
Young men often hang around holding hands, whereas even married male-female couples don’t usually touch in public. Men often have their first sexual experience with other men, but it is not considered to be homosexuality. Homosexual men often do get married to women, have children, and continue their male relationships simultaneously.
Many women live inside the home, and only come
out of the house occasionally and then accompanied by a male relative.
Inside the home, there is a huge spectrum of experience—matriarch
Some upper class, urban women live much more like women in the West, and some women from the lowest classes are mobile in public as they work to feed their families.
Still, you’ll come into contact with many more men than women in public, especially in North India. Sometimes it seems that Indian men are adolescent till the age of 55, with very “healthy” egos—not surprising in a culture where phallic symbols called lingum are worshipped in many Hindu temples, and male children are prayed for and then waited on by all the females of the household. Dowry, though illegal, is spreading as a custom, and is a big part of why many families abort female fetuses: they cannot afford to pay the dowry expected in order to marry off their daughters.
Depictions of women in the western and Indian media contribute to the sense that women alone outside the home are interested in sex. Think MTV in a culture where women don’t publicly show their ankles.
Women travelers need to be alert to guard themselves from “Eve teasing”—sexual harassment—and men traveling with women can do a lot to help prevent unnecessary hassles. If you’re female, don’t be shy to put your elbows out to prevent a man from “bumping” into you, or to make a scene if someone tries to touch you.
Better for women to avoid being out alone in deserted places or after dark. If you’re male, accompany women and be alert to unwanted attention towards female traveling companions.
A healthy sense of humor an important asset, as life can be exhilarating and exasperating within minutes. If you get Delhi belly, try drinking lots of lemon water with a pinch of sugar and salt, or lemon soda. Eat simple rice, bananas, and/or yogurt with a local product called Isabgol, the husk of psyllium seed, surprisingly effective against both diarrhea and constipation. Homeopathic and herbal medicines, as well as allopathic prescription drugs, are all easily available without prescription.
Avoid eating raw food unless you have disinfected it yourself: no fruit or juice on the streets.
Travel with a bit of food for emergencies when you miss the serving hours or don’t find something you’d like to eat.