I worked as a travel agent for almost five years. India is a popular travel destination but there are some things you should know before you visit. For most people it is a complete culture shock; especially Americans.
Basics About Indian Culture:
Indian culture has been westernized to an extent but when you visit India, you should be aware of some basic facts. The majority of the population is Hindu. Religious beliefs do affect diet, personal exchanges, and even gift giving. The social structure of Indian society is still very hierarchal in nature. Men are generally thought more important than women, and social classes can be very pronounced. Poverty and opulence are often seen side by side. Do as much research as you possibly can on India before visiting.
If you don’t want to offend every person you meet in India there are a few things you should know about being polite. The bottom of the feet are considered unclean and you should avoid showing them in any way. Even if you accidentally brush your foot against someone, please apologize. Also, please don’t touch anyone’s head or face since the head is considered spiritual in nature. Eating with the right hand is common practice but using the left hand is considered rude. You should research the part of India you are visiting because customs concerning eating can vary from region to region. Even the way you greet someone, time you arrive to certain events, and what you wear may potentially be offensive if you don’t do your homework.
Appropriate clothing is important when you visit India. In general you should avoid showing a lot of skin. Yes, Indian people have seen Westerners who wear tight revealing clothing, but it isn’t polite. Wear conservative clothing that reaches the ankles if possible. Never wear your shoes into a persons home or into a temple!
As I mentioned before, you should only eat with the right hand. This also goes for passing food to someone, use your right hand. Hopefully you are already in the habit of washing your hands when you eat. Be sure to wash before and also after dining in India. Normally, people use the first two fingers of the right hand. In certain regions, you should only use a certain portion of your fingers. In India, if you clean your plate you will be insinuating that your appetite hasn’t been satisfied. You should always leave a bit of food. If you aren’t sure whether you should tip after a meal, make note of whether there is a service charge. If so, tipping isn’t necessary.
You should be fairly safe in India if you follow a few precautions. First of all, always keep your important travel documents and large amounts of money in the hotel safe. I also recommend that you put copies of travel documents in a plastic bag and keep them with you as well. Never go into dangerous looking areas, especially alone. Make sure you’ve had all appropriate immunizations before you visit India. Always let someone at home know your exact travel plans; where you are staying, places you will visit, and when you will be home. Follow basic precautionary measures that you would take when traveling anywhere. Don’t keep our wallet where it can be taken (like your pocket), don’t allow strangers to talk you into going anywhere you feel uncomfortable with, and don’t travel into dimly lit areas you aren’t familiar with. Most bottled water is safe for you to consume but imitations are sold at times. Just make sure that the seal hasn’t been broken and ask for bottled water even when dining out.
Many Americans aren’t sure how to handle beggars in India, especially children. You can get mobbed by people who are begging very easily if you hand out money when arriving at a destination. For your safety, wait to give any money or food until you are leaving. Seeing children begging can be very sad. The best thing you can do for a child or handicapped person is to give a gift of food. Caretakers of these children often pocket the money and the children are left with nothing. My first visit to India left me feeling stunned when a woman offered to sell me her child for about thirty U.S. dollars. Just remember that desperate situations can lead to desperate actions. If you give out large amounts of money, you can be mobbed fairly easily.
As a travel agent, I never recommended that someone visit India for their first time without being a fairly seasoned traveler. If the furthest from home you’ve ever gone is Disneyland, you might want to try Europe or Canada first. India has a rich history and culture but it should be studied extensively before visiting.