Preparing to Travel to India, Part Two

In personal news, Satya successfully defended his PhD thesis last week!  We are so happy. Now that is done, our attention has turned to India.  There are seven more weeks to go until our trip to India. It will be my first trip to India and Satya’s first since he left in 2000.  Most or all of the trip will be in Karnataka. 

So far, here is what we’ve done to prepare:

Bought some travel guides.  We bought Lonely Planet South India and Rough Guide South India.  Our favorite is Rough Guide South India because of all the great background information it has, like reviewers on Amazon have also noted.  We have a huge list of places to see, but I don’t know how we’ll divide our time between staying with his parents and visiting and going off for little sight seeing trips.  Some of our must sees are Hampi, Gokarna, Pattadakal, Badami, and Jog Falls.  Everyone also keeps recommending Mysore to us.  We got a good laugh at how his cousin’s village was referred to as “deep, rural Karnataka”.  Soon I’ll find out what exactly that means.

Restarting my Kannada lessons.  I’m following a course provided through Mysore University’s Central Institute of Indian Languages.  So far, I’ve been impressed with the exercises that follow each lesson.  Some exercises are relatively easy, like find this letter in this word which is a matter of simply matching letters.  Others are more difficult, for example, make 10 words out of these letters.  It also shows how each letter is supposed to be drawn.  I expect I’ll be able to read some simple words, know the alphabet, and say some simple sentences IF I continue studying. 

Researched health hazards and consulted with family.  Satya’s sister was trained as a doctor and his uncle still practices medicine as a village doctor.  The strong recommendation is to get a typhoid vaccine.  We haven’t done this yet, but time is getting short.  Satya has decided we will only eat what his mom prepares for us, but I don’t think that will work in reality.

Clothes.  This is a sticking point a bit with us.  Satya thinks I should just wear my regular clothes, but my belief is more one of, “When in Rome, do as the Romans.”  I think I’ve channeled some of my trip anxiety into “What do I wear?” I’ve also ordered a cotton handloom saree from  They have a great website about traditional sarees and the saree arrived very quickly after I ordered it.  I went online to and purchased two sarees and two salwar kameez outfits.  I wanted to have a saree to practice with before I go so I can drape it competently and know how to move in one.  The salwar kameezs are for sightseeing.  Temperatures are going to be around 80 so I thought they would be easier to move around in than jeans.  Unfortunately, ordering online is a bit tricky when one does not have a good idea of clothes and measurements.  They are too small. I also bought two salwar kameez suits yesterday at an Indian clothing shop nearby, but I have a strong suspicion they are too big.   Still have yet to get bindis, bangles, and mangalsutra.

Bathroom changes.  I’ve used some Indian products before like Sandalwood soap at my sister in laws or most recently Shikakai for hair.  Those things are all good and I love how clean Shikakai feels and how easily it rinses out.  I’ve researched bathroom procedures in the book “Going Abroad:  The Bathroom Survival Guide”, but I have not practiced.  Satya’s parents have a squat toilet and use water instead of toilet paper.  Getting used to that will be one of the biggest challenges, I think.  Satya said that when he got to the US, toilet paper struck him as disgusting as was how the shower/tub is usually in the same room as the toilet.  Now it will be my turn to adapt and logically he is right that the Indian way is probably cleaner and is better for the environment. 

Gifts.  We don’t know what to do about this.  I want to get some simple gifts for close relatives because that is what my mom has always told me is correct guest behavior-always get something for the people who are letting you stay with them.  I also really want to get gifts for his cousin’s kids, mostly because I like buying toys.  Satya is not keen on this though.  He says he does not want the kids or any other family members to associate us with gifts.  Also, his sister and her husband, who married into a more status oriented family, must always go to India carrying suitcases filled with gifts according to a list dictated by her mother in law. 

Cultural differences.  Here are some from my sister in law and from Satya: lots of noise, lots of wildlife (his parents have a group of monkeys living in their yard and lizards are common in the house), lots of people visiting and dropping in and out, people being much more open about their opinions and with advice. 

I don’t know why I’m freaked out so much.  Satya keeps telling me that I just have to be myself and relax.  I think part of it is that we’ll be seeing his extended family and lots of his old friends.  We’ll also be probably meeting a cousin Satya might have married if he had stayed in India and wanted an arranged marriage.  So the stakes are higher than if we were just going as tourists.  I want to make a good impression and not look like or be “the ugly American”.


14 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Ann Z
    Nov 25, 2009 @ 04:18:04

    Wow, congratulations to Satya! The trip sounds like it will be amazing, and I think you’re doing some really smart preparations – just knowing that there will be differences, and being open to understanding why they’re different will go long way, I think. I loved wearing a saree at my brother’s wedding, and I didn’t find it hard to move in, but I have no idea how too drape one by myself.

    Thanks Ann!!


  2. Doli
    Nov 25, 2009 @ 15:00:03

    Oh congratulations to Satya for his phD.. looking at your preparations to go to India , it seems more than enough.. 🙂 above all have fun there!

    True…seems like a lot! We talked to his parents last night-they just say to relax and enjoy. Thank you for the congratulations!!


  3. Anu
    Nov 25, 2009 @ 20:56:54

    1) Take some rolls of Toilet Paper with you. You’ll need them to wipe up after using water.

    2) Always drink boiled water – don’t trust bottled water – it’s a big scam

    3) Carry your regular cold, cough and paim medicines (Advil etc.) – since your body is used to them!

    Jeans and Kurtis make a good “in-between” outfit. You can buy good Kurtis in any major town.

    Please don’t listen to men and their “why do we need to take gifts” – it is expected – the relatives and kids especially kids will expect something. Mini-chocolates, T-shirts, unique stationery will do fine .



  4. Gori Girl
    Nov 27, 2009 @ 18:44:41

    Congratulations to Satya for successfully defending. Hope you guys had a great party after he’d recovered.
    Travel Guides: If you haven’t already stumbled across it, I highly recommend the India Mike Forums for getting regional specific information, as well as general advice on traveling in India as a Westerner.
    Language lessons: I’m right there with you! We’re traveling to India in mid-February (Delhi, Rajasthan, Bombay, and Calcutta), and I’m really working on my Hindi with that date in mind. I’ve written a couple of posts on my schedule, recently, and I want to start journaling my efforts soon as a way to keep motivated…
    Health: We aren’t doing anything in particular in preparation. Just planning on not eating street food and only drinking bottled water.
    Clothes: I’m planning on bringing some salwar kameeze, kurtas, and some t-shirts and jeans too. Maybe one sari in case we go to any fancy events. My understanding is that sarees are more common in South India then in the North, though. I wouldn’t worry too much about it if I were you, though – you’re going to stand out no matter what, so as long as you don’t wear immodest clothing (which jeans or capris and t-shirts certainly aren’t), you’ll be fine.
    Bathroom changes: My inlaws have western toilets, but bathing by bucket certainly takes some getting used to! Good luck there! (And consider bringing one roll of TP just in case you need it.)
    Gifts: I would bring gifts for your hosts, whoever they might be, but not large ones. I understand your husband’s desire to not be looked upon as a gift machine, but I think small items are always appreciated.
    Cultural differences: Yup, it’s a big shocker! 🙂 Just go with the flow, be aware that you almost certainly will experience some culture shock, and recognize that it’ll get better as you get used to it.

    How long will you be in India for?


  5. Jennifer
    Dec 06, 2009 @ 23:05:45

    Wow you are really doing a lot to prepare! Good for you! Don’t get stressed out though! 😉

    Wish I lived near to you, I’d love to help you with sari wearing. I love wearing saris!

    How did you get involved with Mysore University? How do you take classes with them? Is it online classes? Do you talk with teachers to learn the language?

    You may be interested in this

    Regarding bathroom, I wrote an interesting post about this on my blog –

    Practice using by squatting here itself .. lots of squats!! It’s really good for toning the thighs! I miss that exercise, really! 😉

    Good to get some Indian clothes here to get used to it, but wait to get to India to buy more… the prices and selection will blow you away!!!

    Also, about your hubby’s family members- who are female- do they speak English? That makes life easier, if not try to follow them around and do things they do- which probably means cooking, cleaning, household chores and caring for kids if around. This will be a bonding experience through non-verbals if you can’t really always understand each other. This is one tip I wish I had when I first went to India.. I missed out a lot because I did not go in the kitchen and help. Just watch the other girls and follow their lead. They will bond with you quicker and see you really are interested in learning the culture and fitting in. This along with learning some language is a good idea. Clothes, comes after 😉 Ask your hubby what he thinks about this.


    • minnesotameetskarnataka
      Dec 10, 2009 @ 20:35:19

      I saw the Mysore course online and then talked about it when Satya’s parents were here.

      Apparently, one if his dad’s former students works there so he was able to get me registered. It is an unofficial course. The courses are online, but there so far I’ve had no interaction with any professors. If I get really ambitious and do well with the lessons I could do an exam and get a certificate.

      I’ll definitely look at your bathroom post!

      Most of the female family members will speak some English. Only my mother in law’s sisters do not, I think. I like your advice about following them and seeing what they do. There are some delicious dishes I’d like to learn to prepare!

      Do you have any gift ideas for an 8 year old girl and a 4 year old boy?


  6. Shyamsunder
    Dec 11, 2009 @ 02:55:44

    A blonde Barbie doll for the girl and Disney sing along DVD for the boy
    Make sure that the Disney sing along DVD also plays in Indian format


    • minnesotameetskarnataka
      Dec 15, 2009 @ 02:05:26

      Really?? A blonde barbie doll??!! Seems too politicly incorrect. I did see a cute fairy-type doll that had red hair though. My husband thought that the red hair was just weird.

      Anyway, so far we have two books-a child’s atlas and a seek and find ‘how things work’ type book. Kind of boring though….

      One of my latest ideas is a nerf basketball hoop and ball that could fit on their bedroom door.


  7. Shyamsunder
    Dec 11, 2009 @ 14:26:14

    Regarding clothes,
    Wear a Salwar Kameez or a Sari with a Bindi on your forehead

    This will indicate that you are a white person with Indian culture and greatly reduce sexual harassment


    • minnesotameetskarnataka
      Dec 15, 2009 @ 02:02:23

      Yes, the bindi makes sense. My husband keeps saying that bare foreheads look ugly and naked almost to him.

      His whole family is strangely anti-Indian clothes, though. They keep saying that most of the time jeans or longish skirts should be ok. I’m thinking salwars will be most comfortable.


  8. Shyamsunder
    Dec 27, 2009 @ 03:59:16

    Indian girls love blonde blue eyed barbie dolls
    due to the ‘fair skin fetish’

    Walt Disney is also very popular with Indian kids
    and they really love the Disney sing-alongs
    cost $10 at Amazon

    Salwar will have less sexual harassment than jeans and functionally it is similar to jeans and easier to wear than a sari

    In South India, the only people who dont wear bindi are muslims
    Hindus wear bindi and Christians wear bindi
    Not wearing bindi signifies widowhood
    and for a married woman not to wear a bindi
    is considered not cool

    The bindi was definitely important…..towards the end of the trip I started to feel naked without the bindi. Definitely could not leave the house without it!
    Salwars worked great! I will definitely purchase more-especially the cotton ones. Even in January, the fancy salwars made out of synthetic fabrics were hot!


  9. Shyamsunder
    Dec 28, 2009 @ 06:11:32

    Just to alert you against any faux-pas,
    Lingayats in India are strict vegetarians and dont even eat eggs


  10. Shyamsunder
    Dec 30, 2009 @ 01:40:30

    Indian taste for blonde barbie dolls

    From the internet forums

    “This reminds me of the time I met the VP of international sales for Mattel once (who was an Indian woman). In her entourage was the chief designer for Barbie. I asker her about Barbie in India and whether it was popular. She told me that they tried to introduce an Indian Barbie but it was a failure. Her distributors told her that what India wanted was a Blonde Barbie. When the blonde Barbie was introduced it was very succesful.”


  11. Shyamsunder
    Dec 30, 2009 @ 02:45:21

    Escaping sexual harassment in India

    Indian women also do get sexually harassed, but thanks to the image built up by western media,
    western women are likely to face far more harassment

    The way out for a western woman visiting India is to try to ‘pass’ as a fair Kashmiri Indian, at least from a distance

    To this end, Henna, Indian style shoes, Salvar, Saris, longer hair, bangles, bindi, Indian style ear-rings and any other similar tactic is advisable


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