I’m not an expert on India travel, but with the hope that these thoughts might help future visitors, I’ll take a chance at listing my do's and don'ts. These comments are based on my own personal experiences, and should be read with that in mind. I traveled to India in February 2007 for 16 days. I am a middle-aged light-skinned American female lawyer, reasonably well-traveled, and in good health. I speak only English plus some French and Spanish (neither of which were used on this trip). My air travel (roundtrip Washington DC) was in coach class on British Airways, and my in-country air travel was on Jet Airways (also coach class). I stayed in 5-star hotels in Bangalore, Mumbai, Jaipur and Delhi. All the hotels provided airport pickup and drop-off, and all had in-house car-hire services, which I used (supplemented by a few regular taxis in Mumbai). All my business contacts and clients sent chauffered cars to pick me up and return me to my hotel, and when dining out or at a client office, the drivers parked and waited for me. With these caveats and my background, in mind, here are my observations (but if you’ve been in India before, or if you are Indian yourself, or if you speak Hindi or if you’re in India for a tourist adventure, rather than business, this list might not be appropriate for you…).
My Top 10 “Do” list:
1. Do take taxis or private cars (either from the hotel or those booked with reputable taxi companies) rather than walk in the cities, unless you know the area. On foot, you will be followed by auto-rickshaws, taxis and other vehicles, whose drivers honk incessantly to persuade you to accept a ride.
2. Do drink only bottled water that is provided by hotels and restaurants, and make sure the cap is sealed when the bottle is presented to you. Use this water for everything, including tooth-brushing. If you get a Coke or a soda, make sure it is served in a closed can and don’t take ice in it (or in any drink).
3. Do accept the exceptional Indian hospitality you will find everywhere. Your Indian hosts want your visit to be pleasant and successful and they will go out of their way to make sure it is. Put your skepticism aside – Indian hospitality is the real thing (and it’s wonderful).
4. Do bring along heaps of business and professional cards – everyone will ask for one and everyone will offer you his or hers. Even when you are meeting 10 people from the same company in the same room, you’ll be expected to give each person a card.
5. Do try and remember the names of the people you meet and address them by name – most of the Indian businesspeople I met used my first name (and expected me to use theirs) right away.
6. Do study up on the companies you visit before you get there – they’re likely to make a big effort to prepare for your visit and it’s only reasonable for you to learn about them in advance.
7. Do take a day or two out of your schedule to see tourist sites or simply enjoy the city or town you’re in. Simply looking out a car window in India is more interesting than any movie you’ve ever seen if you haven’t been here before. Hire a guide if you’re especially interested in art or history – they’re knowledgeable and inexpensive and love to demonstrate their knowledge.
8. Do talk to strangers. I met interesting and friendly people in airports, on trains, in hotels, and even on the street. I never felt threatened or intimidated and everyone I met with a smile and a hello seemed eager to engage in conversation.
9. Do dress modestly if you are female and professionally (not in shorts, even when it’s hot) if you’re male. Indian ladies have a wonderful and colorful look with their loose bright sarees, but these garments are designed to cover a lot of the body. Form-fitting clothes on women just aren’t seen (except perhaps in Western-style nightclubs). In the cities, men don’t wear shorts, t-shirts, baseball caps, or sandals. Although the dress code is casual, it’s also modest and businesslike.
10. Do keep an open mind – you may be frustrated by the apparent contradictions you face everyday, but this is an ancient country with a complex history and there’s simply no way to figure out “what’s what” on a short business trip. So et go of any preconceived ideas about what a business trip should be, and accept that India is very different from Indiana.
And my Top 10 “Don’ts” are:
1. Don’t neglect to prepare for your India trip with more attention that you might give if traveling elsewhere. For example, Americans need a visa (and a documented business purpose to obtain a business visa valid for 6 months), and you’ll probably also need shots for hepatitis, typhoid fever, and perhaps tetanus, and pills for malaria, diarrhea and other potential illnesses. Bring along special foods you can’t live without (none of my 5-star hotels had a convenience store) and special toiletry items, plus loads of hand sanitizer. Don’t forget your camera and computer and all the cords, cables, converters, chargers and adapters you’ll need for plugging it in. Figure out how to get all your hand-carried items into a single (1) carry-on.
2. Don’t be late for meetings – although I was told that Indians are routinely about 30 minutes late for everything, I found all my Indian hosts to be not only punctual but often quite early.
3. Don’t over-schedule yourself. It takes 30-90 minutes to reach some offices from downtown city hotels because traffic is heavy and unpredictable. I would aim for one meeting a day rather than two if it’s possible, unless the second meeting is a dinner meeting or something late in the evening. By US standards, Indians eat dinner on the late side (8-9pm or later).
4. Don’t engage in public displays of affection (PDA) with members of the opposite sex. You often see men and boys holding hands or with their arms draped around each others’ shoulders, and you sometimes see women walking arm-in-arm, but rarely do men and women touch in public and I never saw any overt displays of affection between men and women, which I assume means PDA isn’t appropriate.
5. Don’t give money to begging women and children – they will approach you on the street or knock on the windows of cars you’re riding in. Distributing even a coin or two makes many more children materialize instantly. On the other hand, I often carried apples or candy bars with me and passed them out when asked (but once or twice, this led to fights between the recipient and other kids).
6. Don’t assume everyone eats meat and drinks alcohol. Many Indians are “veg” (eat only vegetarian foods) and others don’t drink. I never saw a restaurant with beef on the menu as Hindus revere the cow. Be careful what you order when eating with Indian people and be prepared to give up beefsteak and the burgers. Follow your host’s lead in this department.
7. Don’t make flashy displays of wealth or property – this is a poor country and foreigners stand out enough without flaunting themselves and their property.
8. Don’t insist on “self-help.” We Americans carry our own bags, make our own beds, drive our own cars, and are generally quite self-sufficient, but in India, you’ll be waited on, so relax and enjoy it. In the high-end hotels, waiters, concierges, travel desk attendants, butlers, housekeepers, and other service-providers are eager to do things for you – and that’s how they make a living. With more than a billion people, India needs ways to keep its people working. Business travelers contribute to much-needed employment.
9. Don’t dive in to business conversation immediately upon meeting your contacts. They’ll want to know something about you first, and you should ask about them. Many conversations with Indian professionals began with two simple words – “tell me” – which was an invitation for me to tell them something about myself and my intentions. Eventually you’ll get to the business part of your conversation, but take a little time upfront to get acquainted. It will make for a smoother business relationship if you do.
10. Don’t go off on your own or wander into unknown parts of the city by yourself; let someone know where you are all the time, and always carry a photocopy of your passport (not the original) on your person. There is a high price paid in the black market for foreigners’ passports and it would be easy for a novice traveler in India to be taken advantage of or end up in a dangerous situation because he/she misreads what appears to be a friendly overture.