In honour of my last blog from the field, I thought I’d go against my usual grain and actually post something brief and to the point. While I’m glad I learned some personal and emotional lessons in my time abroad, I’ve found that I’m also leaving with a bunch of knowledge that I will not use again until I come back. It’s these kind of survival tips that I was craving when I first left, and though they may not apply to everyone coming to this program in Hyderabad, they’re certainly a good place to start.
On one hand it’s so much fun to play the bargaining game, but on the other, it can be tough to gain the expertise, especially if you haven’t grown up with it. In Hyderabad, you’ll find yourself bargaining every day, especially if you live in a homestay, with auto-rickshaw drivers, at food vendors, or in markets. Don’t let people take advantage of you just because you can spare the extra rupees as a foreigner--- you gain more respect from strangers by being a good bargainer than a passive stranger.
- Always ask for their price first, and offer either a third or half of the starting price.
- Never settle for more than ⅔ the asking price
- Looking uninterested, or confident that you’ll have multiple options later usually makes you seem more credible for low prices
- Settle the price before getting into your rickshaw, every time!
- Once the price is agreed upon, don’t try to haggle your way any lower, and trust that they’ll stick to their end of the bargain, so don’t be too shy to ask for change for bigger bills
- Code-switching can be a sign that you’ve been in this area for long enough to know how it works. Throw in a few phrases in Hindi or Telugu to help the process go smoother for you
If, in this digital age, you switched from writing by hand to typing before you developed a beautiful handwritten script, you might want to work on it before coming here. Every exam will be handwritten with a limited timeframe, and most professors won’t settle for bad handwriting. Make a real effort to practice writing fast while remaining clearly legible.
3. Right hand
When it comes to all things related to transactions, you must always use your right hand. Traditionally the left hand is reserved for more polluted tasks like cleaning yourself, while the right hand is used to eat, exchange gifts, or during money transactions.
4. Crossing the street
Cars, buses, and motorbikes all move on the street like people in a crowded hallway, just a bit faster and bigger. While constant honking and no actually regulated lanes may seem like mayhem, there still is a system of sense on the roads. Cars honk not to tell you you’re in the wrong, but to let you know that they are there and moving, sort of like saying “hello excuse me” but with loud ringtones emanating from a vehicle. As a pedestrian, they will see you and try to accommodate you (without stopping) as long as you’re predictable, so walk steady and don’t wait for a perfect break across every lane. In general, it’s good to conceptualize that you should cross one lane at a time.
5. Hop on fast
Just as cars won't stop for you as you're crossing the street, busses won't either. There usually won't be announcements for each stop, so before you get accustomed to a certain route, ask the driver or ticket attendant on board if it will drop you in the right neighbourhood. Get ready to hop on and off fast, as a slow decelleration and acceleration are often all you get in terms of warning.
6. The hot seat
Any public transportation will have segregated seating due to gender, though it is circumstantially flexible for women if you assert yourself. In rickshaws, women don't sit in the front with the driver, so men in the back seat will often be asked to quickly change their seat to accommodate. In city trains or metros, there are designated ladies cars, for women and children only. However, if a woman wants to stay with her masculine companion, she can join him in the men's car, though it might attract some attention. Many busses have a front entrance and back entrance for different genders as well, though it's not as explicitly marked or regulated as in city trains.
7. No thank you
One particularly wholesome way people make fun of me for being a foreigner is how much I say “thank you”. Actually, for the first three months of the program our house’s cook referred to me as “shukri-babi”, since I said “thank you” after every single item she’d put on my plate. While I’ve stopped saying it so much, I still want to convey gratitude and recognition. A low-key but understood way to show this is to instead just wobble your head side to side, which generally means something along the lines of “okay” or “thanks”.
8. Drinking from a bottle
My friends and I have all agreed that this is one social behaviour we’ll all be bringing back to the states with us. In South India especially, people don’t tend to touch their lips to any water bottle, and some people are so good at it that they don’t even touch cups to their lips. I have yet to learn that side of the skill. We all like this little custom so much because it derives from the idea that water is a shared resource, and as such you’ll never know who you’ll be sharing with so you need to keep it clean. In class, it’s common to ask for another student’s water with full confidence that even though the bottle is technically theirs, it has never even touched their lips, so anyone can have it safely.
9. Go slow
When in circumstances of customer service back in the states, we are taught to be speedy and efficient. We will have our money ready after the cashier goes at a hundred miles an hour scanning our groceries, before grabbing our bags and bolting. In Hyderabad, you will definitely find less hurry when exchanging money for goods and services. While it might feel strange for the interaction to go on so long, it means that you can take your time safely retrieving and putting away your money at the counter. In fact, for a lot of food and drink vendors, people will just hang out chatting at the counter to eat and drink instead of taking fresh food away to eat alone.
10. Lines? What lines?
Speaking of buying things, don’t expect to stand in an orderly line. You might experience this right off the plane in line at customs, where lines or queues are more of a suggestion. While you’ll (hopefully) never find yourself aggressively jostling with a stranger to place your order, you will certainly have to maintain patience in order to diligently work your way through the cluster.
11. Carry a scarf
This is always a good idea for women especially if you’re going somewhere you’ve never been before. A light scarf (dupatta) is a widely understood symbol for modesty, so I always have one in my bag. Many sacred spaces require that you wear at least a loose head covering. I do find that whenever I am out and about or travelling in shared autos it’s a nice comfort to publicly communicate that you both want and know how to appear modest or respectable.
12. Bring gifts
Gift giving is another good way to show gratitude to people. While it is nice to bring other students or your other social equals gifts, it is important to bring at least a little something to anyone who is socially above you or hosting you for free. It doesn’t need to be kitschy, materialistic, or an overly heartfelt handmade gift, but something that shows you appreciate your host’s time and presence. Classy and novel yet small is usually the way to go for gifts, like fresh sweets or some kind of small home decor like a meaningful trinket.
13. Be kind to books
Anything that carries knowledge should be afforded respect. While some houses adhere to this more than others, it is a good idea to not have books or papers on the table at which you’re currently eating. Furthermore, you have to really take good care of any papers given to you so that they remain unharmed, unfolded, unstained, and unworn. Buy some plastic folders; you’ll need them.
14. Sir, Madam
You will probably notice right away just how frequently people use "sir" and "madam" to address strangers. If you were raised with good southern manners in the US, this may not be new to you at all, but for me it was something I had to get used to fast. This is because it's not just used every once in a while, but it's used almost constantly in small exchanges like with vendors, and auto drivers. Again, because "thank you" isn't said too much, using these terms is an alternate way to show respect. You'll also see this used abundantly in the classroom with professors.
As you get further along in your time here, you'll easily develop relationships that move past the sir/madam phase. In order to address those closer to you of an older generation, like host family members, you can use "auntie" or "uncle". If you're ever around children, or have siblings in your host family, you'll probably be called "akka" or "anna", meaning older sister or brother. Even if language learning isn't your main focus, it's good to pick up how people address each other, and what level of respect or closeness is associated with each term.
14. Don’t mess with mosquitoes
Coming from someone who got dengue, please do not take mosquitoes lightly. Either bring your own bug spray, or buy an anti mosquito lotion when you’re here (I use mine as a moisturizer too). For your room, buy an anti-mosquito electric diffuser that plugs into a socket and disperses scentless repellent into the closed space. The best thing to do though, is wear nice breezy full coverage clothes, so check out my previous post about clothing for tips!
15. Learn how to use a hand bidet
Or carry your own toilet paper everywhere you go. I think I’ll leave it at that-- no one really wants me to go into detail here, I’m sure.
16. Pani puri
I would say that the moment I felt comfortable in India is when I had Pani Puri with some friends at a nearby street vendor. Our stomachs had adjusted with a curated army of probiotics, we knew how to stand around a busy street cart eating, and how much good food should actually cost. I’d call this my last survival tip because it involves so many other prerequisite tips and it really is just so delicious--- I’m a little scared to go back home and try to live without it.
The start of this video is while he’s just getting set up, but the actual eating process picks up around 2:06
That's all from me, folks! I've had a wonderful time with CIEE Hyderabad over the past few months, and I hope that you consider my meager words of wisdom. Happy travels!