Monday, May 26, 2008

india traveler tips


I am not an expert. I am not an officially mandated Lonely Planet vagabond, and I do not profess that this is actually good advice. This is, however, what worked for me.

1. Become very good at ignoring people.

India is full of people who want your money. This is natural and to be expected, but you should have a coping technique. Beggers and touts almost always leave me alone, and this is because I completely ignore them.n I look right through them and pretend they do not exist. They will usually follow me for a half hearted couple of steps, realize I am not going to react in any way shape or form, and then they leave and go for an easier mark. This makes my life as a traveler much, much easier.

Is this rude? I have given this advice to a few other friends, and they acknowledge that it works, but also note, "I just couldn't do it. I'd feel so rude." By normal standards, completely ignoring the existence of another human being is rude. However, I find that touts and beggers are being rude by following me, getting up in my face, and aggressively attempting to sell me crap I don't need - and I might as well reciprocate.

Unfortunately, polite refusals do not work. Polite refusals simply indicate to the tout or begger that you 1. speak English and 2. are probably a soft touch, which means they will step up their entreaties even more. If you engage in conversation, you will probably have found yourself an unwanted new friend for the next thirty minutes, attempting to sell you a drum or a taxi ride or an elephant or a hooker (whatever.) Just know what you're in for if you wish to maintain politeness.

Note for women: Ignoring amorous men also works very well. It is especially important never to engage in conversation with men who are hitting on you or attempting to solicit you - this will encourage them and you will probably pick up some very unwelcome and rude followers.

2. Don't give to beggers.

Beggers are a tremendous presence in India. They are everywhere, they are persistent, and they are incredibly desperate looking. Westerners often give to them, and furthermore, they give a lot - and its hard not to. However, you shouldn't give your money to beggars. According to all the Indians I've spoken to, beggers in most areas are organized, which means the rupees you give to the starving mother and cherubic child may not actually benefit them in any way. (Furthermore, the beggers often are not in as dire straits as they may initailly appear.)

If you want to help the poor in India - and who doesn't? - find a big and legitimate charitable organization in the area you are in and make a hefty donation. This will find its way to the right people and projects and do a lot more good then random dollops of money given to random people.

3. Bargain for everything, but not TOO much.

“I have learned that the cost of everything from a royal suite to a bottle of soda water can be halved by the simple expedient of saying it must be halved.”

- Robert Byron

This is sort of complex. In many places, especially tourist areas, rickshaw drivers, shop-keepers and random Purveyors of FIne Crap will overcharge you immensely with a big smile on their face, under the presumption you are incredibly stupid. Do not fall for this. Bargain, do not accept the first price, and do not be cowed or fooled by claims that you are looking at an incredibly nice antique or that you will be taken on the best rickshaw ride of your goddamn life to date. Halve the price and keep moving down from there. Walking away and saying you'll think about is usually an excellent tactic.

In regards to transportation: ask around and figure out what baseline prices for rickshaws and taxis are BEFORE you take one. You will never, ever get local price, but you can at least shoot for decent Stupid Foreigner price. I had a guy at the Delhi airport attempt to charge me 2000 rupees for the 10 minute ride between the domestic and international terminals. I looked at him, he looked at me, and we both burst into raucous laughter because he was full of shit and he knew it.. Do not pay these prices.

HOWEVER. The bargaining thing can be taken entirely too far. The poor woman selling handicrafts in the small village is not trying to screw you and could probably use the money a hell of a lot more then you. Many sellers in Colaba might appear skeezy, but I genuinely felt bad when I read an article in the newspaper where the salesmen lamented foreigners who bargained them down to prices that didn't even cover their expenses - they're trying to make a living like anyone else. If there's a sign on the wall saying BARGAINING NOT ALLOWED, then be a nice polite human being and heed it. You may not want to admit it, but you are indeed a Wealthy and Decadent Westerner and can probably afford to pay a smidgen over the local price. Take a look at the average local salary and perhaps you will appreciate the logic of this.

4. Dress nicely, you damn hippie.

Indians place a big premium on dressing nicely and looking put together. For some reason, many Western tourists decide to completely ignore this, going everywhere in ratty body-odor smelling clothes, while flashing hairy unshorn armpits (women) and bristly five o' clock shadows. (men.) This is not the way to win friends and influence people in India. Many Indians I've spoken with have demonstrated extreme disdain for the omnipresent dirty hippie found wandering in most tourist areas. They also wonder why people who can afford a not-inexpensive plane ticket to a place like India are somehow unable to afford showers.

You are not making a polite gesture of solidarity to the common man by dressing like you are poor yourself - the common man, odds are good, just thinks you are a utter fool for refusing to use your decadent Western wealth on a t-shirt that doesn't have holes in it. People will be polite to you, help you out, and treat you with respect if you show them the respect of looking nice, smelling good, and being put together.

5. Tip, but not too much.

Leave restaurant tips. This is a good thing and makes everyone happy, especially if the food was good, the service was polite, and you enjoyed your meal. I leave big tips at my usual restaurants and the staff are always happy to see me - which makes enjoying dinner a lot more fun. And yet again, you can afford it, you damn Westerner.

HOWEVER, do not tip too much. This can be a problem with rickshaw drivers (who demand tips at times for, uh, existing). It's also common at airports, where porters will do everything in their power to snatch your bag from you then demand money. Just refuse to give them anything if they attempt to charge you 100 rupees for touching your bag for 1 millisecond.

Good rule of thumb: if they ASK for a tip, they probably don't deserve one.

6. Shut up and stop worrying so much about the food .

Yes, India is not exactly known for its hygiene. Yes, odds are good you will get sick while you are in India - intestine-cramping crying for your mommy kill me now sick. HOWEVER, this happens less then you might think. Don't let the potential risk stop you: I may have an unusually steel-plated system but I've eaten just about everything here and have only been ill once. Use common sense - don't eat it if there's flies buzzing around it and no customers in sight - but a busy and fairly clean street stall full of happy customers will probably serve you fine. Try the chaat and the juice and have fun.

One thing that annoys both me and Indians is Westerners who will enter an expensive, classy restaurant and begin obsessing over the hygiene and the water and the forks and.... This is very offensive and you should really knock it off. A five star restaurant in India's major population centers is no more likely to give you food poisoning then a five star restaurant back home. Relax.

7. You will need balls of steel to cross the street.

Westerners are always jarred by the utter chaos that are Asian street crossings. We grow up accustomed to friendly crossing guards, blinking crossing lights, and drivers that stop when they are supposed to for the appointed amount of time. We are also accustomed to the notion of "pedestrian right of way."

None of this exists in India. Crossing the street means you are going to be playing a game of Frogger with your body and there are no extra lives. Watch traffic extremely carefully, be ready to run when there's anything approaching a break in activity, and take especial notice of rickshaws and motorbikes: they can be easy to miss.

Never, ever expect anyone to slow down or wait for you to cross: motorists assume they have the right of way and it is contingent upon you as the lowly pedestrian to get the hell out of the road if they are coming through.

Watch for groups of local people waiting to cross and cross when they do. Alternately, find the toughest looking old lady in the district waiting to cross, and cross with her. Old ladies have survived for a very long time under adverse conditions and generally have street smarts.

Westerners often like to remark in a patrician sort of way that, "You know, traffic looks dismal here, but it must be safe -I never see any accidents or fatalities!" This is a pleasant illusion. The accident and fatality rate is horrific. You just haven't been here very long.

8. You are probably safer here then back home.

For some reason, many people back home seem to believe you are propelling yourself into the jaws of Certain Death by making a visit to India. India has a popular perception of being some sort of squalid, terrifying shithole full of the screaming starving, emaciated villagers in dodhis fighting over a single scrap of cow patty, and vicious throat-slitting urban bandits and terrorists. This is totally untrue. India's recent economic leap forward has turned most of the country, especially the urban centers, into a highly civilized place indeed - and it is is deeply offensive to most Indians when travelers assume all of India is a poverty-ridden nightmare. Most Indians are rather proud of their countries progress and hopeful for the future: you could at least indulge them a bit and go along with it.

Poverty is of course still rife and obvious, especially when you get out of the posh areas and into the backcountry. These are problems that need to be corrected and must be corrected, and it is equally unwise to equate the Lacoste-wearing masses sipping Americanos at Cafe Coffee Day with all of India. Donate your money, your time, or your expertise, and maybe things will improve.

Use common sense: Delhi is indeed not a particularly safe place, but I would still wager you're better off there then in the nasty bits of most modern cities. Places like Bangalore and Mumbai have a well-deserved reputation for safety: travel intelligently, avoid seedy people, and you should be perfectly fine. I have found myself walking back home alone many times here in Bangalore and have felt perfectly at ease - and with good reason. I wouldn't take my chances doing such a thing back home.

9. Indian food is cheaper and tastes better. Eat it.

Many Westerners come to India and are immediately repulsed and disturbed by the food. This usually manifests itself into an almost-crazed reliance on KFC and McDonalds. Do not become one of these people. Indian food is delicious, varied, and inexpensive. (It is rarely healthy and do not let anyone convince you a korma swimming with ghee and butter and cashew is. But good.)

Western food might be available, but it is generally either fast food chain junk or extremely badly interpreted at the lower end of the price range. Of course, this is not true in the major population centers: there are absolutely amazing Western restaurants in Bangalore, Delhi and Mumbai which are definitely worth a visit for the nostalgic, though you will pay for the privilege.

Try as many different cuisines as you can: Indian food features an incredible variety of specialties that range far beyond the standard Punjabi/Mughali food that seems to dominate most Indian menus outside of the country. Try spicy Andra food from Kerela - served on a banana leaf with lots of coconut leaf and rasam (spiced tamarind broth) - or perhaps some Kalkutta chaat - or maybe Hyderbadi biryani or....

10. Go out to clubs. This is a lot of fun and you will meet people.

Many people are suprised by the Indian club scene - in that there even IS one. I may be biased, but I have had a tremendous amount of fun at nighclubs in Bangalore, Mumbai, and Delhi and you certainly will as well. Many tourists I've spoken to made the false assumption that there was no party scene in India and thus failed to pack their schmany me ladies, bring along your glam stuff, you will certainly need it (and miss it if you don't.)

One more thing: Do not stand in the corner with your other Western buddies. Nightclubs and bars are excellent places to meet young and fun Indian people, who will probably be friendly, intelligent, and willing to hang out with you and have a good time. Meeting locals is half the fun of travel, and you are denying yourself an extremely good time if you stay in the company of your fellow Americans at all time - whether it be out of fear, politeness or (hate to say it) prejudice. Disconnect from your group, head up to the bar, and make some new friends: you may find yourself with invitations to parties or family events that will be infinitely more interesting then the average tourist experience. I have made many amazing Indian friends here who I hope to keep in contact with for a long time to's a good idea.

11. You can always pee in luxury hotels.

One unfair but welcome perk of being a Westerner is that you are always able to pee in luxury hotels. This is an absolute godsend when you are walking through a sweltering Indian street with a full bladder and your other option is a cesspool watched over by a grinning overseer who is almost certain to peek at you. And charge you five rupees for the privilege.

Don't subject yourself to this. Walk into the nearest Taj or Oberoi, give a polite and confident nod to the attendant, and pee in air conditioned and marble-outfitted luxury - the attendant will hand you a jasmine scented towel and a breath mint on your way out. This only works if you are clean and dressed somewhat nicely. We discussed this.

More will come as I think of them. I guess.

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