Sunday, June 26, 2011

India guidebooks

I read three of these I think, but only remember two specifically, Wanderlust and Lipstick: For Women Travelling in India and India - Culture Smart!: the essential guide to customs and culture.  These are both generally about visiting India, not about Pune or moving permanently.

Maybe because Brij is Indian or I'd read enough about India online already, but I didn't find either of these helpful.  There are some very short anecdotes from travellers in Wonderlust that were enjoyable to read, but otherwise I found these books very superficial.  I also haven't spent any time in rural India, which I'm sure is a totally different experience.

Some specific peeves.  Both books suggest that women not make eye contact or small talk with strange Indian men.  Yes, sex is quite under wraps here and that can create some weird tension.  Baywatch and other American media has pretty well gone and sullied our reputation almost everywhere.  We'll just overlook the fact that Bollywood's got a lot of skin and booty shakin' and unarranged romance.  Be aware of that, dress modestly, but don't be rude.  I smile and nod at people I pass in my neighborhood, make small talk with rickshaw drivers, ask strangers for directions and nobody has ever mistaken that for a sexual advance.  Hopefully you travel for more of an experience than just looking at things from a distance.  Indians are on a whole friendly, inquisitive people and there's very, very little violent crime.  You know, except for all that communal violence...  But I'm not part of those communities (Hindu, Muslim, Dalit, upper caste, etc.).

And about how to dress.  A common piece of advice is to look around and dress like the most conservative woman you see.  That's not bad advice, but it cramps my style.  In my experience the more affluent and westernized women are not walking around on the street.  They are in cars, malls, restaurants, etc.  You may blend in more at the open market in a Punjabi dress, if a white chick in ethnic clothing counts as blending more than contradiction.  But as soon as you're inside the swank mall or at a party with modern Indian women, you'll stick out like a very sore thumb.  Jeans and a kurta is a nice compromise.

Interpret the ambiguous head wobble as the answer you want.  That almost always works.  Be polite, use common sense, and go with the flow.  Don't drink the water or eat at an empty restaurant.  Pack assuming you won't be able to buy whatever you need easily.  This isn't always true, but it does make things easier.  Most Indians are not my size/shape and miming diarrhea is embarrassing.  If you want a better understanding of where folks are coming from, read In Spite of the Gods.  Get a travel book on the specific place you are  going.  Find out what holidays are going on when you travel, but be particularly cautious in crowds.  There, you don't need to read these all purpose India travel books now.

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