Day to day India, part two

I am continuing my time in India, most recently hosting some old friends from Brazil as well as my daughter (and her friend.) As we have been taking them around, I have been again paying attention to the advice, warnings and cultural highlights I have shared with them. I recently blogged about some of those same things and this blog entry is ANOTHER collection of advice to anyone considering visiting India, including people in my future workshops in India.

In no particular order:

As a photographer working digitally, I NEED to be able to regularly charge my batteries, plug in my laptop, etc., etc., etc. My system is built around a few “issues.” 99% of the electrical devices that I use are set to automatically use either 110 volts (as we do in the USA) and 220 (which is what the rest of the world uses.) Or, those same power adapters can be bought with a toggle switch so they work with either110 or 220.

EVERYTHING I use is dual voltage and I would encourage anyone traveling outside the U.S. to get the dual voltage power supplies/chargers/etc. I would get the ones with the plug points, blades (or pins) that work in the U.S. and then adapt those for use in the various countries you go to. In most cases, I have two of each of the chargers/power adapters which I depend on, and that is because I am paranoid. That is your call.

The next step in the process is to get simple pin adapters which change the shape of the blades (or pins) on the plugs which normally work in the U.S. into blades or pins that are the correct shape for India. My first stop in almost any country overseas is a hardware store where I can easily buy these “pin adapters” for a dollar or two. Because of my travels I am slowly building up a collection of these pin adapters. Anyone attending my workshops in India will get such a pin adapter from me, for free, to speed up this process.

An important step in my power chain is a surge protector/power strip. I am a BIG fan of the Belkin Mini Surge Protector Dual USB Charger http://www.belkin.com/us/p/P-BZ103050-TVL Besides the being a surge protector and power strip, it also has two plugs to charge my USB powered devices. I strongly encourage anyone traveling outside the U.S. to get one. I actually bought mine at Home Depot. I liked it so much I bought my wife one as a gift, which was appreciated since she is a photographer as well.

Speaking of electricity, in every hotel or house in India, you will here about the “Geezer.” Pronounced either geezer or geyser, it is the hot water heater that delivers steaming hot water to the bath or shower. It needs to be turned on about 15 minutes before bathing. I am encountering more places (especially in hotels) with what is called “24 hour hot water,” which certainly is more convenient. It is also is a huge waste of electricity, keeping water hot all day when it only needs to be used once or twice a day.

In hotels and homes across India you will also often find small plastic devices plugged into certain electric plugs, which will usually glow when the plug they are connected to is powered on. (Yes, in India, many plugs or power sockets have their own on-off switches.) These same devices will typically have a small bottle as part of the device. They are supposed to take the liquid in those bottles and mist it through the room in order to chase off/kill mosquitoes. Though I sometimes doubt the effectiveness of these devices, I am always diligent about plugging them in at twilight and through the night (as well as making sure the liquid in them is at the appropriate level.)

I have written about how I work to keep small bills, ten and twenty rupee notes with me. During this trip, as I paid attention to my daily drill, I was reminded how I keep a small stash of bills, 10, 20 and 50 Rupee notes in my shirt pocket. Keeping the small change so handy means I rarely open my wallet in public to fish out change.

Speaking of safety, yes, I do try to avoid opening my wallet in public so I do not to advertise my already obvious wealth. I am actually more concerned that I might do something stupid like drop bills out of my wallet or lose a credit card, etc. My experience in India is that I have rarely felt unsafe, but I have done stupid things that might have resulted in losing some of my money through actions that are clearly my fault.

For many, many years, I brought Traveler’s checks to India (and other places overseas.) That meant I spent hours in banks going through the mind numbing paper work to get those changed into Rupees. A few years ago I started using ATMs, which are pretty common in India. My strategy is to call and remind my American bank, before I go, that I will be making withdrawals from India. Then I make a withdrawal in India, using only banks that claim they charge no fees. After that first withdrawal I look at my bank account on-line to see what fees were in-fact charged. We have had very good luck with ICICI Bank and the State Bank of India, which only appear to levy a simple 3% exchange fee (which in fact may actually be levied by my own bank.)

After money, food is another big issue here. Remember that all food in India has some kind of chili in it. Food without some spice is considered un-Indian. So, travelers should get used to asking the waiters turn the spice up or down depending on their tolerance for spice. Those who are unsure probably will do best to start with a bit of spice and work their way up. Keep in mind that 90% of the time the waiters and cooks will accommodate most requests (as long as they are communicated clearly.)

One thing I started doing on my recent trips with groups was have the people in our group sit by their food preference. In this culture, vegetarianism is very common and meat eaters are called simply “non-veg.” To make the sharing of dishes easier, we ended up having seating divided so there was a “veg” and a “non veg” side of each of our dining tables.

Speaking of food, they use a lot of nuts in the cooking here, so asking about nuts when ordering can prevent lots of trouble later. Again, in the better restaurants, 90% of the time the waiters and cooks will accommodate most requests (as long as they are communicated clearly.)

Watching friends order in restaurants recently I was reminded how the pleasantries that are commonly practiced in American restaurants actually back-fire here. Ordinarily, you might say “I would be most happy if you brought me poached eggs, if you don’t mind.” Though you want to be polite, most of that will make no sense to many waiters here, so simply say “two poached eggs” and nothing more.

I used my iPhone a great deal on recent trips, to listen to music while traveling long distances. I strongly encourage anyone coming here to bring some kind of MP3/music player and headphones to pass the time on the long drives. There were a few moments of cognitive dissonance, where my eyes “saw” India but my ears were listening to Bruce Springsteen singing about New York City post 9/11 (The “Rising” album.) The same music will do a great job of distracting you from the wild world of Indian driving, which can provoke fear in anyone, Indian or otherwise.

Another decision that travelers need to make is whether to keep up on the news. I choose to do that by putting the NY Times app on my smart phone (iPhone.) The trick is to remember to update the paper daily when I have Wi Fi access. I do this with my iPhone in airplane mode AND with Wi Fi turned on. When my iPhone is in that same settings I can also check e-mail.

Finally, the sense of personal space in Asia in general and India in particular is very different as compared to ours. Indians will naturally stand closer to you then you are used to. Just as Indians think you must have a bit of spice in all food, I suspect they feel the need to have lots of other people around and to be physically close to them. While caution is always good, simply assume that behavior is part of their “Indian-ness” and nothing more.

That attitude, assuming something you are not used to is just someone “being Indian,” will go a long way in this culture. If you really want to enjoy your trip to India (or anywhere else outside the U.S,) turn the tables on the people you meet. Ask them to tell you what they perceive as odd behavior that is a natural part of your “being American.”

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