For Westerners who come to India
I hate it when foreigners come to India and diss about it for being poor. India is a rich country. It is the people who are poor. We have been independent for only a few decades but we have remained a democracy. The US was a democracy for over 200 years but it went through a civil war and gave women the vote only in 1920. Let us not discuss about Red Indians or Blacks.
Many Westerners come to India and the experience leaves them shocked. From news journalists to TV documentary makers, there is no dearth of people willing to exploit the image of a dirty poor miserable shocking India. Every year, Western and Indian photographers descend on the banks of Ganga in Varanasi to photograph ash-covered sadhus because Western news publications are never tired of publishing such photos. Most Indians do not even know these people but somehow these sadhus have become our unwanted brand ambassadors.
In the age of the Internet, a lot of kids armed with selfie sticks are giving the same old spots 360° coverage. When will this stop?
It is as if foreigners will never learn how big or varied India is. If you are coming to India, it is always better to know in advance what to expect and what not to. Whatever you think of India after that is an informed opinion. We are guilty as charged. Otherwise, you are just annoying.
- The ‘foreigner’ tag: If you are from the West, then this is how we know you. There is no malice intended. We have no other word to adequately describe you until we know which country you are from. Usually, it saves a lot of explanation. There is an online video channel by a British-South African expatriate who walks around Chinese streets and acts offended when amused kids on the street call him out as a ‘foreigner’ to their friends. As if to correct them, he usually responds with an annoyed “Hello, Chinese person.” I am not particularly happy with this situation either. When people from India’s North-East visit the other places in India, sometimes they get called ‘Chinese’. People are ignorant so do not get offended. It can happen to anyone. Indians are a very welcoming people and we treat our guests with great respect.
- Everyone is ‘looking’ at you: A strange-looking stranger in a strange land will get strange looks. A 6-foot-plus WWE wrestler came to India and he was so overwhelmed by the crowds here that he left the country as quickly as he could. There are many unfunny online videos of tourists, Western women particularly, who get so unnerved that they visibly start crying over their selfie sticks.
Every day, thousands of people are coming to cities from rural areas and they have not seen a foreigner in their life. In some areas, you are what a traveling carnival is to a kid. Most of these problems can be eliminated simply by changing your dressing style or by sticking to the usual stomping grounds for tourists.
- Where have all the women gone? Men are leering at me!: Major Indian railway stations are not located in the best foreign tourist-friendly locations. These stations are very big transportation hubs. That is, the areas around such a railway station is mostly used by people who ship all kinds of products to various places in that state and abroad. When we get out of such a station, we quickly take a vehicle out to our residential area. We do not stick around in the Indian equivalent of a commercial district. People who you find around big train stations are all men because they are either traders or transporters. The traders are busy people and they will not even look at you whoever you are. The transporters are not real transporters but carriers. They are all men because they have to do the back-breaking work of transporting heavy stuff through narrow alleyways and cavernous stairs. When you go there with a selfie stick, these men are thinking, “What is this idiotic woman doing here? Why doesn’t she go to the usual tourist places?”
- Your ‘hotel’ is not good?: When we travel to a new city, we usually stay in a relative’s or friend’s place. We do not have a culture of staying at lodges or hotels. India does have lodges and hotels but this business is totally ‘unregulated’. This means that there is no basic standard. The quality, hygiene and safety of these places depends entirely on the fares. You should not go to the cheapest place and expect it have basic standards. It is cheap because they have no standards. If you want standards, you need to pay a little more at a better establishment.
- Carry toilet paper everywhere: India manufactures everything and you can buy almost all household goods in any city or town, big or small. Except the toilet paper. Not all shops stock it. If you are travelling to unknown places, carry one roll with you. One for each person. We do not mess around with paper. It is disgusting to use just paper. Learn to use water or else carry a toilet roll. Before you decide to stay at a place, ask if the room has a toilet with a water jet. The water jet is a fantastic thing. If you use it once, you will never go back to paper. This is the hygienic way. It is the greatest invention since indoor plumbing. If you cannot get the water gun, get a bidet add-on kit.
Asians do not understand why Westerners have the bath and the toilet in the same room. Westerners even have the medicine cabinet and drinking water tap there. This is very revolting. In Indian homes, the toilet and bathroom are separate. Do not take your toothbrush and go to a toilet. In lodges/hotels, the bath and toilet are in the same room because real estate is expensive.
Our streets may be dirty but our homes are always clean. We do not bring the footwear into our homes. We leave it outside. In many English-language movies and TV programmes, we see foreigners touching the toilet seat, puking over it, sobbing over it and (in one movie) even washing the hair! It is not a piece of furniture! Do not touch toilet surfaces even if it is your home. Squat toilets are the natural way of emptying the bowels. And, you will not be picking up germs from previous performers.
- Wear a saree properly: If you decide to wear a saree, learn it to do it carefully. When Western women wear sarees, they walk like men. I do not know if Indian women walk differently but it looks really funny when foreigners do it. If you want to wear a more convenient Indian attire, then there is the modern churidhar. It comes in all kinds of fashions and sizes. If you still feel intimidated by the presence of men on the street, then throw its duppatta around your head like Benazir Bhutto. You will become invisible. It is the greatest disguise in the world. No, it is not cultural appropriation if you wear Indian clothes. Wear them whenever you want when you go back. Indians are always happy when foreigners use Indian stuff abroad. The Chinese also feel the same way. So do all normal people in the world. Do not listen to morons.
- Get an idea of India’s foreign exchange rate: Under pressure from IMF and World Bank, one US dollar buys 68 Indian rupees. With 68 rupees, you can buy meals for two or three people. If you are a student with only the money made from waiting tables, then hitch-hiking in Europe will be a happier option. If not, you will be hunting for the cheapest option available for everything and India will disappoint you. When you buy stuff, you will find everything cheap. India is great for that kind of shopping. But, when you stay at a place, do not skimp on class or comfort.
- Stomach bug: Foreign tourists are often advised to drink only from water bottles because tap water is unreliable. This is because sewerage lines and drinking water lines often run side-by-side to each other. Several illegal connections are made to these lines and the pilferers leave behind leaks. This results in contamination of water. In urban areas, people use tap water only for cleaning purposes. Drinking water is usually boiled before drinking. Others have immunity to survive anything. If you stay for several days in India, it is quite possible that you will go down with a stomach bug. It will not kill you but after a few days of it you will have lifelong immunity. Nevertheless, always carry a water bottle with you or drink only boiled water. Get a water filter if you stay for more than a few weeks. Chlorination of water is an exact science and you are most likely to overshoot the mark and kill useful gut bacteria required for digestion.
- Tender Coconut Water: If you end up consuming something questionable, you can usually fix it by drinking two tender coconuts – the water-rich ones, not the fleshy sweet ones. This will fix most cases of food poisoning. However, it also increases 1 and 2 urgency so be ready for it. Apparently, this also clears UTIs.
- Fried or boiled, not raw: When you are at home (in your home country), you should try to eat more raw foods. When you are traveling (in any foreign country), you should only eat food that is fried or boiled. Being sick while traveling is extremely stressful for everyone and is not worth the risk.
- Rice or roti: Indian meals are usually based around rice or roti (chappathi or naan). Learn to break off a piece of roti with just one hand – your right hand. Don’t use both hands and freak everyone out. You take one piece of the roti, fold it into two, near-drop it over some side dish, grab a bit of the dish into that fold and then stick the stuffed roll in your mouth. You will burn your esophagus. With rice, you mix sambar, kozhambu, rasam or curds (in that order but not together) into the rice. Then, you take dollops of vegetable side dishes (poriyal, kootu, chutney, pickle, appalam/puppadum) on the mixed rice, pick a handful and drop it in your mouth. Some items like cloves and curry leaves are used in cooking. You are not supposed to eat them. You leave them in a corner of your plate for these ingredients. (You can also drop off pieces of chilly there if you find them. Hot stuff is usually balanced off with curd. If you eat too many chilly pieces, you may go down with the stomach bug. This will not give you any immunity because it is caused by an intestinal irritant.) They have been added only for the aroma and/or their digestive/medicinal/preservative properties, not for their taste. Onion rings are usually offered with non-vegetarian meals to aid in digestion. Don’t drink curry or some side dish as if it were soup or porridge. If it is a non-vegetarian curry, some amount of oil will be floating over contents. Mix it up with a spoon or your finger. Payasam, buttermilk, and other semi-solid stuff can be taken like coffee or tea. Sweets are consumed last. Breakfast dishes like idly and dosa have to be consumed in a slightly different style but you will easily figure that out.