Five easy ways to brush up quickly on a new country
Indian Muslim vendors sell delicacies from their push carts on the last day of Ramadan, near to the Charminar monument in Hyderabad, India. (AP Photo/Mahesh Kumar A.)
Business travellers are frequently called on assignment at the last minute, with no time to learn the basics about their destination, especially when they’re travelling to a new country.
That’s too bad, because a little preparation can help ease the way in a new place, impress colleagues and make the traveller a better guest.
For me, the anticipation and preparation prior to visiting a country for the first time -- getting to know more about the culture, cuisine, customs and language before taking off -- is one of the best parts of the trip.
I’ll be taking off on my first business trip ever to India (Mumbai, Hyderabad, Delhi) later this month, and with little time to prepare, I’m tapping my top five sources of country information to familiarize myself as fast as I can. No matter where you are going, if you need to brush up quickly on a new destination, here are five places to start.
Rent films about the country
My Netflix queue (an online video rental service in the US) is currently packed with Indian classics, documentaries and some Bollywood, of course. The BBC’s Story of India documentary series hosted by Michael Wood refreshed my memory of historical figures such as Emperor Akbar and gods such as Shiva and Rama. Fellow travel writer Rudy Maxa’s Exotic India video taught me the custom of clasping hands together and saying “Namaste” when greeting someone. The classic Gandhi taught me that adding the suffix “–ji” to the end of a name shows respect, as in “Gandhiji”. The adventurous Mr and Mrs Iyer provided insight into the strained relations between Muslims and Hindus. From Earth I learned about the pain of India’s partition in 1947 that still hurts to this day. Dil Chahta Hai and Monsoon Wedding provided a glimpse of what it’s like to be young and upwardly mobile in modern, urban India. After watching the heart-wrenching Water, about a feisty, young widow trapped by the caste system, I would like to try a ladoo — a small round flour and bean paste ball cooked in butter and served at special occasions — that played a special part in the film.
Read novels about life in the country you are going to visit
Between movies, I’m tearing into the 1997 best-selling novel The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. It’s an exotic and engrossing story told from the perspective of two twins growing up in southern India during the 1960s. So far, the story is as big, diverse, detailed, dirty, juxtaposed and flavourful as I expect India to be once I get there. If I find the time, I hope to peruse two recommendations from my editor at BBC Travel:
Dine in restaurants serving the cuisine of the country you’ll visit
I’ve always loved going out for Indian food, but I’m now paying a lot more attention and asking for advice when I duck into the Indian restaurants in my neighbourhood. From a friendly server in San Francisco, I learned that curry powder does not necessarily come from a curry plant or curry seed. It is a blend of spices such as pepper, cumin, coriander ginger, cinnamon, turmeric and sometimes, but not always, curry leaves and it varies among restaurants, chefs and households. Similar to the way I grind coffee every morning -- good Indian cooks grind up their curry powder or garam masala every day.
Check out travel websites and guidebooks
The first paragraph of the Lonely Planet online guide to India includes the words bamboozling, enigma, diversity and multidimensional, so I’m prepared to have all my senses assaulted when I step off the plane in Mumbai. In February, BBC Travel posted an excellent guide for first timers in India, providing this nugget of advice I’ve been considering adopting: “Many travellers go veggie whilst in India. It is not a bad idea. A dodgy bit of meat will do you a lot more harm than slightly undercooked vegetables.”
From online business travel guides I’ve picked up that that many Indian women may prefer not to shake hands, and that I should refrain from using first names in business meetings. Small talk, including the weather, your family and cricket, are important when breaking the ice and developing new relationships. (Note to self: Brush up on cricket talk!)
Inquire with friends and social media
Of course, I’ve tapped the brains and experience of friends who have lived or worked in India — all of whom are very eager to offer advice, recommendations and recollections. An Indian friend in California told me that it would be impolite to ask locals if they are Hindu or Muslim. Fellow travel writers from India have told me it’s common (and not insulting) to refer to Mumbai as “Bombay”. My cousin who once lived in Delhi suggested a typical Mughlai meal at the famous Karim’s and a side trip to World Heritage site Fatehpur Sikri, an ancient fortified “ghost city” near the Taj Majal. Then there’s social media…. What I’m doing right here, tapping into the crowd for more tips and advice from readers… so here goes….
Have you been to India? What advice would you have for a business traveller seeing Mumbai, Hyderabad and Delhi for the first time? What foods should I try? Is there any typical or irritating behaviour in business or social settings that unwitting visitors should avoid? Please leave your advice on our Facebook page.
Chris McGinnis is the business travel columnist for BBC Travel