Several years ago I went to India for three weeks to attend a friend’s wedding. (Yes, I know you saw that episode of Seinfeld.) I was in graduate school at the time, getting an MA in Literature and this lovely girl was in my class. We got to be close and she invited me to her wedding in southern India. My feeling was that she had offered me a place to stay with her family and her friend so why the heck wouldn’t I go? Even though I had to spend $1,500 on a new transmission two months before I left… Even though I would be traveling to the other side of the world by myself… Even though I would be the tallest whitest person there… I went. I was looking through my photo album the other day and I had written some things down that I should have taken with me, which I’ll add here, but I should have also written more about what I learned.
1. When you’ve boarded the plane to Detroit and are just settling the monster butterflies in your stomach and you’re trying to look like a savvy world traveling adult and your mother comes flying down the aisle dragging behind her a small Indian woman after having persuaded the flight attendants to delay closing the plane so that she (your mother) can point out that this woman’s husband is going to Mumbai just like you and tells you you should follow along with him so you don’t get lost/abducted/robbed/mugged/curried by Krishna-knows-what in that foreign airport….thank her kindly and acknowledge you know her. Do not squinch down in the seat without making eye contact and mumble “Thanks,” shaking your head in embarrassment until she and the Indian woman she dragged aboard are off the aircraft.
2. Your mom was right about tagging along with a native. Upon reaching India, if you are indeed a single lady travelling alone, do find an Indian family who will take you under their wings. Otherwise, you won’t have anyone to defend you against the very helpful Indian porters will snatch up your luggage before you can tell them you’re actually going to Chennai, not Goa, and then you’ll be in a real pickle.
3. It doesn’t matter if you try to blend in with the locals if you are in a small town, you will never ever blend in. I was clearly the tallest (I’m 5′ 6″) whitest (I think this complexion is referred to as Consumptive) person the tiny town had ever seen and I finally got to know what it was like to be a celebrity.
4. You cannot possibly eat rice and curry for every meal unless you are very used to it. So when your friend’s mother kindly purchases corn flakes and has the help heat the milk for you (because it isn’t pasteurized), you will eat it and be grateful, even if you are eating rice and curry alongside it. You will also suck down the Coca-Cola she purchased as well, although Ribena is pretty tasty.
5. It’s not as hot as you think it will be. September in south India was the end of the monsoon season and quite comfortable for a girl raised in the allmight oppressive heat and humidity of the Ohio River Valley.
6. When in India, you may sleep with your friends’ friends and your friends’ cousins. Picture this: a train built during the British colonization of India with no air conditioning crammed to the gills with passengers, including the bride’s family and most of her friends and their families. It’s 10:30 pm and you still have 7 hours to go until you reach Chennai. Your friend’s best friend finds you in your little sleeping berth and explains she has given up her berth to someone’s grandmother and says she will be bunking with you. Conundrum! Did Emily Post cover etiquette for such a situation? What’s the proper procedure for spooning your friend’s friend on a train in India?
7. If you tell them you like spicy food, they will not believe you. My friend’s household help, a darling old man who had served the family for two generations, kept making the chai tea weaker and weaker until one morning it was nothing more than warm milk. He also prepared a separate dinner for me which was “not so hot.” Honestly, I love spicy food and insisting I like it spicier than this was kind of embarrassing.
8. Things you should take with you to India:
Photos of your family. Indians are big on family and my friend’s friend’s family could not believe that I lived alone but were reassured that my sister still lived with our parents. I wanted to show them where I come from.
Gifts for your hosts. This applies anywhere, actually. I brought several coffee table books with large pictures of my hometown and home state and a cookbook for the bride to remember her time in my city.
Lots of clothes. The laundry facilities I encountered were unable to keep up with the clothes I sweat in/spilled curry on/got wet. 147% humidity means…stuff doesn’t dry quickly.
9. Like speaking the language of the country you visit, wearing the clothing of the country is a good thing to do. It shows you’re trying to experience the culture in all its facets. Ladies, wearing a sari is just like wearing a dress and don’t let them talk you out of the gorgeous silk one because its “too heavy.” Nonsense. I wish I’d gone for the silver and blue silk but I do love my green and gold Bengal cotton.
10. You’ll get used to the traffic, where signals are optional, honking is mandatory, and you feel like you’re going to be in a terrible crash every time you get in a vehicle. Relax. It’s fine.