Before even deciding to visit this country or not, you should make an effort of imagination and forget all the clichés. You’re not going to run over a mystical land of the exotic East, as you’d expect and you’re definitely not going to find a homogeneous country. These things aside, some of the most fascinating facts about this country are the frenetic rhythm in which it constantly develops. Don’t just expect the Taj Mahal and veiled women who are only allowed to look down.
India is building a modern infrastructure, while its population somehow manages to live the contradiction between the cultural facts we know and the modern country that it fast becomes. Expect to still see the influence of the three centuries of British imperialism and prepare to be amazed by their political scene – I really wouldn’t want to be in their shoes when it comes to voting, since the political realities are twisted and if you’re visiting for more than a week it’s almost impossible not to hear something about it.
And the first step before departing is to try and imagine the heterogeneous society you’re going to visit. Modern malls with high-tech stores and and swanky shopping centers sit just next to mosques which have preserved their cultural and religious heritage for centuries. Don’t expect any clear boundary to announce you that you’re passing from the impressive urbanistic projects to plain misery, where some people live in hovels at your left and some other drink expensive champagne from skyscrapers at your right. And if you’re lucky enough to have peripheral vision, there’s a good chance to have all their national landscape with the paradoxical, twisted realities at once.
Hinduism is an entire universe in itself, but what you must know about it before getting to India is that the body parts are classified according to their significance and superiority. The head is definitely the most important one, while the feet are believed to be gross, vulgar and dirty. This is one of the reasons why before entering a house, not to mention a mosque, it’s a must to take your shoes off. A weird sign of deference you’ll have to make while in this country is bending down and touching a respected elder’s feet, symbolizing your respect for his spiritual existence. If you pass the test of touching the most inferior body part, it shows a great amount of respect and you’ll be rewarded for your courtesy.
While you’re in a temple or any kind of cultural monument the least related to religion, be extra careful not to wear revealing clothes. While it’s very common for the travelers to wear shorts because the weather is sunny most of the time, you shouldn’t step inside a worship place with your skin revealed – not even the shoulders or the lower part of your body. It’s also crucial because of the extraordinary relevance of religion in their life to be respectful when it comes to their sacred rituals and beliefs, even if you don’t belief in them yourself – nobody is going to ask you to.
Food and family represent the most sacred components of an Indian’s life. Therefore eating with the family is more of a social construct than just any other norm. If you’re lucky enough to have the chance to eat with a local and his family, it means you’ve fought well for their respect and your pay day has finally arrived.
There are two other religions in India besides Hindu that you’ll have to take into consideration before leaving there: cricket and Bollywood. There’s even a saying that these are the only three things that make an Indian run, which should speak of their ardent passion.
And you’re only going to be able to enjoy experiences the cultural splendors of this country if you’re ready to accept that their infrastructure is not as efficient as you’d expect for an Asian culture, and you are going to be forced to make time and observe absolutely everything. And because somewhere along the way you’ll be frustrated and hurrying, you should remember that the true wonders of these people lie in their everyday life – and you’ll have plenty of time to observe it – and that patience is the key to manage in India.
I am aware than whenever you heard ‘special treatment’ up until now you were inclined to believe that’s something positive. Well, not in this place. You will find out as soon as you tart wandering and visiting that you’ll be charged differently because you’re a tourist – and I’m not speaking of the taxi-took-me-more-money-than-it-should-have type of charging, but the actual fees to have access in museums, libraries and any other cultural edifices.
Don’t eat at open food stalls, not only don’t you know for sure whether the food is good or not, but it’s really not recommended – and not just socially, but the authorities underline this as well. Don’t trust overly friendly people, they’re always up to something. Indians in general are the kind of people who enjoy being discovered progressively, and if things are moving the least bit too fast you should know something’s fishy.
But the social norms here can be described as complementary. You’re really not supposed to give money to beggars because they represent an entire industry and you shouldn’t show too much mercy and give the benefit of the doubt; but, in a complimentary way, you shouldn’t show too much appreciation if someone, for instance, offers to give you a lift home. It is really this simple: don’t give anything and don’t expect anything.
The deal about public displays of affection may seem as a double standard if you’re not used to their own way of thinking. While it is socially believed to be gross and vulgar to show public displays of affection, especially as a woman and because of their local restrictions, prepare to be stared at. We’re not saying that all Indians are perverts, but that you’re going to be something very rare and most of the men are likely to take advantage of this. And the funny part is, that even if you believe you’re being decent, they’re certainly going to think otherwise.
PDAs aren’t acceptable no matter the circumstance. If you feel like giving a quick kiss on the lips to your significant other while admiring the miracle of love that is Taj Mahal, you may want to reconsider that. But you should know that kissing in public isn’t the only way to make sure you’re being stared at. In fact, I’m not sure there’s any way you could escape this as a tourist – the truth is that after the first few days you just get used to it and understand that it’s nothing more than curiosity and good intentions. The very well-meaning locals are, sometimes, very shy and chances are you’re going to feel avoided. In case this happens, remember that despite their heterogeneous mélange, you still stand out.
And as far as standing out goes, there are some specific, technical details that are best to be remembered well. After checking with your country and following all the VISA norms to get a permit for visiting, you should better recall what your expiration date on your VISA is. Violation of this principle is going to cost you a small fortune; and just to make sure, remember that the Indian vias are not validated from the day you enter the country, but from when they’re issued.