15 Lessons Learned the Hard Way by a Single White Female in Chennai
Make a habit of removing your shoes outside every holy site or temple you visit. Some places will insist that women cover their heads or don a bindi, out of respect, depending on the customs of the holy site. Don’t question these rules. You are there to observe and to learn, so be respectful by keeping your voice down and discretely doing as you’re told by your guide or the locals escorting you. Like Islam, Hinduism has “prime-times” for prayer that occur at dawn and dusk. Keep this in mind when planning your visits.
I recommend visiting your first temple during off-hours. A guided tour with a temple elder or priest is also highly recommended, and can usually be arranged in English if you call the temple in advance. (There always seems to be one resident English-speaking monk at every temple for some reason.) Their commentary and explanation are invaluable in understanding what exactly you’re looking at, what everybody else is doing, and how to honor and acknowledge different deities you come across in a more respectful and better-informed manner.
2. A HOT OFFER:
If you are visiting a Hindi temple (as you inevitably will, multiple times,) it is prudent to bring offerings of flowers or fruit, to present as an offering before the statues of the Gods and Goddesses. (Money works too!) These gifts are used for adorning the temples, feeding the monks, and keeping the facilities functioning 365 days a year.
3: THE TOURIST’S TAX:
Many large attractions, like the 5 Rathas in Mamallapuram for example, will have different admissions prices for Indians and non-Indians. Tourists should expect to pay significantly more than domestic visitors, (often as much as double!) At some attractions, the admission or use of DSLR cameras may require an additional fee.
4: THE H2O SITUATION:
Drink bottled water! Tap water will not be kind to foreign stomachs. Save yourself the trouble and pack a couple bottles if you’re planning a long outing or day trip in the city. If you are planning on being out sightseeing, I highly recommend drinking at least two full bottles of water before noon when temperatures are at their peak.
5: DON’T GET THE WRONG IDEA:
If you’re a woman, don’t smoke alone outside. It’s seen as taboo for Tamil women to smoke, particularly outside of a social or party situation. When westerners are seen doing it, they are guaranteed to draw some attention from passers-by.
6. DISCRETION GIVES THE RIGHT IMPRESSION:
If you have a ton of tattoos or piercings, it’s advisable to cover them up. Heir on the side of modesty, particularly in the rural areas. Remember the benefit of light over-layers. (See: ‘WHAT SHOULD I PACK?’ below.) And if you have tattoos that you can’t conceal? Just own it! But don’t be alarmed if a local comes up and asks you about your ink!
7. OKAY, WHAT’S THE DEAL ABOUT EATING WITH YOUR HANDS?
Eat with your right hand ONLY. Use just your fingers, keeping your palm clean and above the plate at the whole time. If possible, scoop the messy stuff like sauce and rice into a small piece of naan or chapati to soak everything up in one bite. (The real challenge is tearing a piece of bread with one hand!) Don’t stress about this so much that you don’t eat! (I took my dinner up to my hotel room the first two nights because I was worried about ‘eating wrong.’)
Generally, locals are very forgiving of this etiquette when it comes to dining with foreigners, but showing awareness of, and interest in learning their customs will go a long way. And plus, it will give you a far more authentic experience if you try your hand at eating with your hands!
8. WILL I GET SICK IF I EAT THE FOOD?
I tend to have a pretty strong stomach and I found that I had a lot more issues in the plumbing department than I ever expected. Luckily I had brought some over-the counter pills as well as some Atovaquone that my doctor had prescribed for a previous trip to Kenya. While I definitely recommend bringing your stomach medicine of choice in the event of a surprise angry stomach, I can’t recommend highly enough the importance of electrolytes! If you do get a bout of digestive problems, electrolytes will help to re-hydrate you. Since you’re going to be in extreme heat on the daily anyway, I suggest getting a daily supply of electrolyte tablets or packets to last the duration of your trip, and
9. SHOULD I BE WORRIED TRAVELING ALONE?
Chennai is one of the safer cities in India, and as one of the four major metropolises of India, its police force is more concentrated and competent than small towns. But like any city, if you are prone to walking around after dark, please do so with a companion or two. You will have to prepare yourself for beggars of all shapes and sizes, often children who are dispatched to beg for money on their parents’ behalf. If you don’t want to shell out coins to each kid that tugs at your heart strings, but you still want to help them, a friend suggested bringing dollar store crayons and pencils. And for the adults? I always suggest taking some extra fruit from the hotel breakfast buffet and distributing it during your day’s travels.
10: NO REALLY, THEY’RE BEING POLITE:
If you are a western woman eating or drinking alone in Chennai, expect questions and friendly interactions. This is different than the west—people are genuinely hospitable here, particularly to obvious foreigners, and may ask you to join their party if they see you dining in solitude. Accept these offers! (As long as you feel safe and protected in the company of these strangers.) Exchanges like these, with kind strangers, are how you learn the most about the place you’re visiting.
11: THE GOD(S) TOPIC:
Be prepared to talk about your religion. (Aside from the caste system,) Indians identify themselves primarily by their religions. Atheism and religious non-association are very rare, particularly in Tamil Nadu, and will be met with many skeptical questions. The primary religion in the state of Tamil Nadu is Hinduism. To most westerners, a polytheistic religion with thousands of gods, all of them fantastical, animal and human, may be a bit daunting to try and comprehend while on your first couple of temple tours. You may find yourself feeling over-whelmed and hopefully, deeply humbled by the beauty and complex, centuries-old history of each deity. In order to absorb as much as you can while you are there, I suggest doing some background reading into Hinduism, Hinduism 101, if you will. It will make your experience far more rewarding if you’re able to identify and tell the difference between Ganesha and Kali, or Shiva and Krishna.
12: THE RAINY SEASON:
Monsoons are a real thing in Southern India! While you may be tempted by discounted off-season travel fares or accommodation, don’t underestimate just how decimating and constant the rains can be during the months of November-January. In Chennai, there are hundreds of casualties annually from flooding and monsoon waters alone. Strongly consider the weather when planning when you will be traveling to Tamil Nadu, it can ‘dampen’ the entire mood of your trip if you’re trying to navigate such an already overwhelming locale. Only so many things can be fun if you’re soaking wet.
13: ISN’T THIS WEIRD?
Nobody in Tamil Nadu that I encountered wore sunglasses. This didn’t stop me from wearing them, out of sheer necessity or perhaps desperation, as someone with blue eyes and freckles. But it’s something that always struck me as interesting. They just didn’t seem to be a thing for Tamil Naduians, apparently!
14. WHAT SHOULD I PACK?
Honestly, anything you want to buy, clothing-wise, you can buy in Chennai, and for very reasonable prices (particularly considering the favorable exchange rate of Euros or Dollars to Rupees.) Some westerners jump right in and don saris like the locals, but if you’re not trying to acquire an entirely new wardrobe, I suggest bringing lots of light-weight, light-colored scarves (that can be used in a variety of ways when traveling!) and loose, cotton or linen long pants.
Shorts, or anything that shows your legs, are also a definite no-no here!
While you may be tempted to pack tanks or shoulder-bearing maxi dresses, keep in mind the Indian sun is on a whole other level than what you may expect. (And I say that after two years spent in South Africa.) Make sure you pack a light over-layer in your day bag to wear when traveling outside. (A scarf can also serve this purpose!)
15: AND TIPPING?
It’s customary throughout all of India to tip waiters roughly ten percent of your bill. Keep your eyes peeled on your receipt for a “service charge,” which means the tip has been included for you. For bellhops and hotel staff, anything between 5 and 20 rupees is appropriate, depending on how much luggage you have. Any larger gratuity is considered extremely generous. For things like manicures, guided tours, and other gratuity-bearing situations, it’s acceptable to ask what is customary. Tipping, in itself, is a highly appreciated act, and is very highly valued, particularly in the lower castes of Southern Indian society. That is not to say that you should go without tipping. There’s nothing worse than traveler’s karma– you never know when you’ll need some generosity when traveling, so it’s best not to be stingy with yours! =)