I am about half way through a six month adventure in South Asia. I am going to be leading more photography workshops to India in the future, including ones in February and December of 2013. Both of these realities prompted me to pay attention to the day to day routines I encounter (and practice) in India, in order to share them with readers of this blog and future workshop attendees coming to India.
India, at least for me, is not a place to be feared. It is a place that takes effort to manage. There are places I go where fear is a dominant emotion but India is not a place like that. Yes, traveling in India is a challenge, no question, but it is a challenge that can be managed. I obviously am okay with managing it since I spend so much time working there and hope to do as many as three workshops trips a year there via http://www.epicphototours.com/
I have blogged previously about my particular approach to staying healthy here (or most anywhere in the developing world.) What I want to write about this week are the cultural (or inter-personal) routines that I have noticed happen here which facilitate my enjoyment of the place. In no particular order:
Most Indians like to be gently courted. The ritual of greetings, having tea and chatting before starting almost anything serious still matters here. I am pretty good at reminding myself of that but sometimes I forget. If there is a rule to follow in terms of how to handle the offer of “coffee/tea sit down and chat,” it would go something like this: ‘Either turn it down gently up front or embrace it once you agree to be so hosted.”
I find I am washing my hands a lot, which is a good thing. I probably should do it more at home anyway to avoid colds and other illnesses. In this country what you do is ask someone “Can I wash?” which means I want to wash my hands before eating or after coming in from outside or….. It is something I do often and I know it helps guard my health. I also carry alcohol swabs on me, which I use to clean my hands in situations where I can not wash, such as eating fruit that can be peeled while outdoors.
Speaking of food and health, I am constantly negotiating the delicate question of “how do I turn down that offer of food or water without being impolite.” What I have found seems to work best is:
Coke is usually safe and considered something of a treat so I tend to gravitate to that since I am often perceived as a guest to be “honored” with a Coke.
Tea, which is not something I especially enjoy, is usually a good bet since it is served steaming hot.
Having nut allergies, as my wife really does, has helped her out in such situations.
Honestly, but gently, complaining about how overfed I am by all of my many Indian hosts seems to both generate a laugh and allow me to avoid questionable food.
In most restaurants, before I start a meal, I perform what I jokingly call “brain surgery” on the glasses. I pour a couple of table spoons of water into the glass and rotate the glass slowly on its side, almost but not quite spilling the water. That way I wash out the inside of the glass. I do this for a whole table full of glasses and the only trick is to remember that the one glass which is sitting full in the corner is the one full of the water I used to wash all the other glasses. In the best of all worlds that water is emptied into a nearby planter. To read further on health concerns, please look at: http://thewellspoint.com/2012/09/07/staying-healthy-in-the-less-developed-countries/
I ALWAYS wear slip on shoes or sandals when traveling. Spending so much time in airports and Indian homes has conditioned me to remove my footwear automatically. So much so that we follow that same ritual at home. This trip I have been struck by how many otherwise-traditional Indian households are starting to forego that ritual. I am curious to see if this change is purely an urban phenomenon or if it has reached rural and small town India as well. I like removing my shoes, since many homes here have cool marble floors which I enjoy walking on. Visitors sensitive to cold may want to take advantage of the changing norms here (and keep their shoes on) or they may want to wear socks indoors (something very commonly done here.) Temples, mosques and other landmarks still generally have no shoe policy so slip on shoes are highly recommended.
One way India has changed dramatically in the last few years is in the way that I use the telephone and the internet. When I started coming here, I spent an hour or two a day, on average, in an internet cafe suffering with bad bandwidth just to keep up with my emails. Then I would go to a pay phone booth and make few calls to America which were both very expensive and not very high quality. WiFi is now common in most hotels as well as in some restaurants and cafes. Still, internet cafes exist in most places and they are a good fallback, just in case. I actually use my iPhone, set in airplane mode with WiFi turned on for a great deal of my internet access.
Skype calls have become my international default and domestic cell phones are so cheap that I use one as needed. I have a fairly antiquated Nokia cell phone that we bought years ago for $40. It has no features worth mentioning except I can make and receive calls as well as text messages. Each time I arrive in India for a long stay (or most other countries) I buy a cheap SIM card, pop out the old SIM card, drop in the new and I am ready to go. My wife has gone one step further, having her old, early iPhone “jail-broken,” here so she can do the same thing with SIM cards that she gets here or elsewhere.
An alternative is to understand and take advantage of the the Indian pay phone system which works rather well. That involves strange acronyms like ISD and my favorite, STD (which is not an illness but means Standard Trunk Dialing.) STD is for domestic calls and ISD (International Subscriber Dialing) is for overseas calls. Asking a stranger for an STD is usually the easiest way to find such a phone booth. From there you can call a local hotel or an Indian friend on their land line or their mobile, as the two types of phone lines are differentiated here. You can also make fairly cheap international calls with pretty good sound.
Making calls at an STD is great way to get the one thing that seems in short supply here, which is small currency notes or change. Auto rickshaw drivers, cafe owners and street vendors all hoard their small notes (ten and twenty Rupee notes.) I like to have them handy for tips, especially for hotel workers who carry my bags up flights of stairs. So, every cash transaction that I make, I pay in larger notes than I might normally usually just so I can get those tens and twenty Rupee notes.
I know it is a cliche, but I smile here, a lot. I realized I do that because at home, if I make eye contact with another person they usually smile back at me, even if I am NOT smiling. Here I have to go one step further and clearly smile, which INVARIABLY wipes the stoic look off the other person’s face. They then break out in a big, natural smile. Like much of the world where life can be pretty difficult, I am guessing most people here keep a slightly cold or blank look on their faces in order not to give away their feelings and thus not to make themselves vulnerable.
Indians love their routines and the trick to dealing with them is accepting and even embracing them. For example, when traveling by airplane, remember to get the airline-issued tags for your hand luggage when you check-in. Checked baggage is treated the same as anywhere else in the world, but here, each carry on bag needs a simple tag looped through the handle. The important thing is to make sure that such a tag is stamped by the guards at the security screening stations. Your boarding pass needs to be stamped as well. Assuming your bags pass security screening, anything goes, as long as it is tagged. I know because we once carried a full sized birthday cake in a Tupperware container on a domestic flight a few years back. No one cared that we were carrying a cake but the container needed to have a tag which needed to be stamped. I remember this well because my wife had to take the cake through security a second time, just to get the tag stamped properly.
As far as photography and walking around in general, I strongly encourage anyone to be think ahead and be prepared. By that, I mean do not carry too much and do not carry anything with zippers and pockets left open. The average sloppy American teen, with their back pack left half zipped, would not last a minute here. Not because they would be robbed but more likely, in the pushing, shoving, crowding, twisting and turning that is part of negotiating the streets of India, things would fall out of their open bags. The irony is that a dozen Indians will stop whatever they are doing to make sure that you know you dropped something. To read further please look at: http://thewellspoint.com/2012/08/31/safety-tips-for-working-in-less-developed-countries/
Large tripods are something I stay away from when working in the developing world, especially in India. The place is jammed with people and things are happening so fast that using a full blown tripod is impractical. I use a table top tripod A LOT in India (it is where I really perfected my use of that technology.) Lately I have taken to using a monopod to steady my camera, especially with video. A mono-pod also doubles as a walking stick which is good thing when walking on India’s uneven roads. Read more about my use of table top tripods at http://thewellspoint.com/2008/12/08/what-is-the-best-tripod-in-the-world/ and watch http://thewellspoint.com/2010/02/24/using-the-best-tripod-which-is-a-table-top-tripod/
My default In India is NOT to assume that people have bad intentions and that attitude of generally being open to the possibilities has worked in my favor. There are plenty of places where my default is much more defensive. Hustlers at tourist traps in India are the exception to this open-attitude policy and I ignore them immediately. I always so Hi back to people who say Hi. The most common question I get is simply “what country.” To which I reply “Merika” (which is how many Indians here pronounce America, dropping the first vowel.) Lately, that response has lead to some banter about Obama. Back in the day, the banter would often be about Bush or before that Clinton, one president who Indians really seemed to love.
India is place where the golden rule really applies. A simple act of acknowledging another person can go a log way. In all, I try to keep my common sense about me. When I am feeling comfortable with plenty of people around I will stay and work. When all the others around me are leaving a place, I leave.
Yes, it is the developing world and people here have much less than most Westerners. On the other hand people here are very proud of India and proud that outsiders have come to see their home. They too have to “manage” India in their own way each and every day. Visitors to India have a shared bond with Indians since both guest and native are managing the maddening and magical place called India.