Visiting India: A letter to our son and daughter-in-law.
India is an amazing place to visit. The sights, colors, smells, sounds and people are a treat to behold. But there are some things you should know before you arrive.
Getting Ready: Embrace your role.
The first thing to understand is you are mules, our mules. Yes, we love you and want to spend time together. But your primary reason for visiting India is to bring us stuff. We may ship you a few things to pack in your luggage, like granola and mayonnaise. Perhaps there will be a jar of barbecue sauce waiting for you when you check into your hotel the night before your flight. Maybe we’ll ask you to stop and purchase ten bags of corn chips to put in your carry-on luggage. You’ll definitely be stopping at the Duty Free during your layover. The point being, bringing stuff is the responsibility of everyone who visits someone in India.
There are a couple caveats to this mule thing. First, although it seems like you are bringing edibles, we do have food here in India. There are seasonal fruits and vegetables, fish, shrimp, and many restaurant choices. In fact, almost everything is fresh and won’t get you sick. Second, you won’t be asked to bring anything that will get you arrested. Although we will occasionally push the envelope just a teensy, tiny bit upon returning to India, you’ll only be bringing what is legally allowed — unfortunately.
Personal Items: Know what you need and bring it.
Some things in India can be difficult to find or more expensive than in the US. Special soaps, shampoos, and conditioners might not be available at the local grocery stores; however, there is at least one Body Shop in the city. If you’re partial to a certain cooking spice, might as well throw it in the bag. Recurring medications, as well as any allergy meds, are a definite must. But most importantly, please pack any feminine-specific items needed for the month. We’ve already had to parse out a bit of mom’s stash — a rather embarrassing moment for me and our guest, let me tell you — mom is not going to want to keep giving away the good stuff. Pack what you need.
Clothing: The right outfit is not the one that turns heads.
India is a conservative, staring society — more on staring later — and they wear conservative clothing. This is generally true despite one’s religious bent. In the bigger, more metropolitan cities, of which Hyderabad with its seven million people is not, younger women may tend to push the envelope a bit by dressing slightly more western. But even then, they will usually cover their shoulders, keep cleavage to circa 1940s Peoria, Illinois, and wear dresses or pants that would make a Catholic nun proud. Stretch-style yoga pants, all the rage among people who should consider more baggie alternatives if for no other reason than they show off a little too much gender, are generally not worn as an outer garment in India. There are exceptions. It’s better if you are not one of them.
Accordingly, one might consider clothing that clings neither to the bosom nor the crotch. Just like the US, either will turn heads in India. Long sleeves are not necessary, nor is clothing that fully covers the shoulders and chest. But this is only because the Indian’s invented the reverse scarf — what we might refer to as a pashmina muffler. It is a nice, light weight scarf worn backwards, draped across the nape of the neck and shoulders, flowing down the back. It can be used to cover even the most endowed among us.
Feel free to bring along whatever is comfortable to wear around the house and compound. It is perfectly okay to wear a fancy tank top around our gated community. Although we’ve been in India for a while, we’ve yet to develop the staring habit ourselves. There is also a pool and depending on the weather, one might like to take a dip, in which case consider one of the fashionable circa 1880 swimming costumes available from Amazon.in. Even if you adhere to every suggestion, don’t think people won’t stare while out and about, or while walking around the community, because they certainly will stare. But it is our home and we feel some small liberties are in order.
Staring: A lot like the American need to buy stuff.
Americans buy stuff. Indians stare. It’s like birds migrating with the seasons, neither of us can help it. Indians stare when you deplane; they stare while you retrieve your luggage; they stare when you visit major tourist attractions; they stare at the supermarket, the mall, the restaurant; they stare while you exercise, mountain bike, and walk around our gated community. Staring is to Indians what shopping is to Americans — a way of life.
@DiL, fair warning seems in order. As a tall, blond, well endowed female — Is that weird? It seems weird. — people are going to stare. Unless you are willing to cover yourself in a burka, head to toe, eyes gleaming through the tiny slit between the head dress and the face covering, pretty much every male, female, child, buffalo, and dog in India will stare…many will even want to touch you. Brace yourself. We are fully capable of keeping the throngs of admirers away, saying ‘no’ to new selfie requests, charging for your autograph — a guy needs to put food on the table — but there is little we can do about the staring.
I’ve tried many tactics to curtail the staring. I’ve stared back, which only results in both of us staring. I’ve waved, which sometimes gets a wave in return. I’ve smiled and bobbed my head, normally to no avail — In their defense, my Indian head bob isn’t very good and they may have thought I was an epileptic. I’ve considered flipping them the bird, but once you realize they can’t help it, that just seems mean. Usually saying ‘good morning,’ or ‘good afternoon,’ jolts them out of it long enough to at least force a reply. Acceptance is the only true coping mechanism.
The Head Bob: A little like the perfect reply combined with the most annoying response in history.
I don’t care how many Indian’s deny it, the head bob is as much a part of the culture as curry. Own it. Be proud of it. Laugh out loud when people from other countries come to India and can’t figure out if they’ve just received a ‘yes’ or ‘Sure, if you say so.’ The head bob is as quintessentially Indian as yoga and we should all embrace it.
Those of us that aren’t Indian may not always understand the head bob. It can mean ‘yes,’ ’sure,’ ‘maybe,’ ‘I understand,’ ‘I’m not sure you’ve fully considered your options,’ ‘I hear you, but you’re a moron,’ and many, many other things I’ve yet to discover. None of the head bob replies are malicious. It is simply an acknowledgement.
Here are a few places you’ll see the Indian head bob:
Me: Can you fix the plumbing today?
Indian Contractor: Head bob.
Me: You want me to look at the camera?
Indian Immigration Guy: Head bob.
Me: Are you sure this is the best soil you have?
Indian guy selling plants on the side of the road: Head bob.
Me: So you think it will just stop leaking on its own in a few hours?
Maintenance Guy: Head bob.
You get the picture. The head bob is a timeless means of ensuring that at least one person walks away confused — usually the non-Indian.
Negotiating: Don’t pay that extra 47 cent expat penalty.
Our driver, Rawoof, is a master negotiator, which is good, because Indians negotiate everything. We’ve negotiated for fruit, plastic chairs, household furniture, electronics, a refrigerator, and even plants, saving — this is no exaggeration — hundreds of rupees. I once received six glasses in lieu of a 1 percent price break on a case of Corona. Anything not sold online is an opportunity to negotiate.
Once, while looking for pashmina, we found our way to the Shilparamam — any description would not do it justice, so we will make sure you experience it for yourself. I wanted six pashmina. Shabir, the proprietor, wanted too much money. I let Rawoof loose on him. Eventually we reached an impasse and walked away. Seconds later Shabir chased us down and agreed to Rawoof’s terms. I asked, “Is this the best price I’m going to get?” Shabir bobbed his head.
Negotiating is a social norm, generating respect and goodwill between the negotiators. I like Shabir. He has a great look and reminds me of what I believe would be pashmina salesmen from several hundred years ago. During each visit — he’s my pashmina guy, now — we have tea in his tent, touch and view dozens of pashmina, and talk at length about his father’s business in Kashmir. Now I buy all of my pashmina from him before every trip to the US. We may pay retail on Amazon.in, but everywhere else is like the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
Monsoon: It might rain just a little bit in July.
Rainy season, which runs from about July 1 through August 31, can be a mixed bag. It might be warm and rainy every day, or only rain in the evening. There may be afternoon showers for a few days, or it might just be cloudy and not fall. It might be a seven hour down pour where we sit in the relative comfort of our carport smoking cigars and drinking wine. The point is — I know you were hoping I’d get to one — the point is, it’s called monsoon for a reason and that reason has nothing to do with Monday coming soon — Okay , that was super lame, but it does seem to work if you think about it.
Bring some wet weather gear; maybe a poncho and some rain pants; possibly some sandals or waterproof shoes; perhaps an umbrella. It won’t be cold. But if you are visiting in July, you will likely get wet. In fact, I’d bet my twelve dollar Target galoshes on it. Better to be prepared for the worst.
Also, don’t be surprised if most people here are hoping for a very, very wet monsoon. The last two years were a bit dry. So much so that some people wonder if India is facing her worst water shortage ever. Several people blame global warming. I’m not in a position to support that theory anymore than I can support Trump for president. But the fact is water levels throughout large portions of the country are at dangerously low levels. So if you hear someone say, “I sure hope it rains for the next sixty days,” it’s not because they want to ruin your vacation. They’re just a little parched.
Crowds: We found the answer to the question, “Where does one put 1.3 billion people.” — Everywhere.
In case you haven’t heard, India is crowded. Not like the mess haul during Army boot camp after a twenty mile hike with an 80 pound ruck, or a pot rally in Denver — no, it’s much worse than those. There are so many people here — queue Johnny Carson’s audience, ‘How many people are there?’ — there are so many people here one could walk from Delhi to Kerala on Indian heads and never touch the ground. Bud ump bump.
There is no such thing as personal space in India. The translation for the term ‘personal space’ in Hindi, Telugu, and the other 1,652 spoken languages of India is the head bob. Imagine Disneyworld — or Disneyland for Californians — on its most crowded day, in India. Lines — or queues for our British readers — are like Indian traffic rules, simply suggestions. Those that do stand in some semblance of a line will breathe on you, bump into you, cough on you, step on your feet, lean on your bag, and try to cut in front of you at the earliest opportunity — It’s your fault, you should be more proactive.
Indians either don’t understand, or more likely, don’t have time for the concept of personal space. Much like staring, it is the result of billions of years of evolution. In a country with 1.3 billion people, it’s a matter of survival. Failing to shove your way into the security lane at the airport is the same as being last in line at the dinner table. Late for your flight and going to bed hungry, both manifested through generations of procreation.
Consciousness: India will be an assault on your senses.
There is a symphony of sounds, topped with a fusion of smells, and layered on a mosaic of sights everywhere in India. Honking is a form of communication, and Indians take communication very seriously. Like any good form of communication, there is meaning to honking. It could be a warning of one’s approach, a statement of intent, a shout to move over, an argument with another driver — whatever the meaning, much like the head bob, only Indians truly understand it; however, understanding and caring are not necessarily happy bedfellows. Just because one honks does not mean the recipient will heed the intended message.
It rained last night. This is important only because the rain released smells with an overpowering intensity. We discussed rain earlier and will not belabor the point; however, everything from impromptu garbage dumps to buffalo dung smells worse shortly after a rain — and remember, it is going to rain in July. Prepare yourself as best as you can, although it will not be enough.
There is garbage, people peeing on the side of the road, emaciated dogs, traffic jams, and what seems like enough billboards to fill every inch of space on I-80 from San Francisco to New Jersey, creating a topless tunnel throughout the route. It will seem at times like there isn’t an inch of unoccupied visual space.
Worry not about this assault on the senses. Every crowded tourist venue will include a quiet, out of the way place of silence and escape where you can decline posing with another group of Indians for a photo; a day of honking cars is followed by a morning filled with prayerful chanting; the smell of sewer and cow dung is replaced with the scent of curries and hot chips; and the guy peeing on the side of the road for the thousandth time disappears into a stunning view of a temple. There is much beauty in India and we will experience it in the tranquil, as well as the throngs.
Experience India: It’s really about attitude.
India is greater than the sum of her parts. She is all the things mentioned, as well as much of what needs to be seen and experienced in order to appreciate. An otherwise hectic schedule will include sufficient downtime for reflection and recuperation. Experience India with the right attitude and she will return the favor. Oh, and bring rain gear.
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