Business travelers are frequently called on assignment at the last minute, with no time to learn the basics about their destination, especially when they’re traveling 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 — can be one of the best parts of the trip.
A few years ago, I took off on my first business trip ever to India (Mumbai, Hyderabad, Delhi). With little time to prepare, I tapped in to my top five sources of country information to familiarize myself quickly. 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
In the weeks prior to the trip, my Netflix queue was packed with Indian classics, documentaries and some Bollywood. Of course I had to watch Slumdog Millionaire again. 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 tore 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. The story is as big, diverse, detailed, dirty, juxtaposed and flavorful as I expected India to be. I never got around to checking out Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie and A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth– maybe before my next trip!
Dine in restaurants serving the cuisine of the country you’ll visit
I’ve always loved going out for Indian food, but I paid a lot more attention and asked for advice when I ducked into the Indian restaurants in my neighborhood. 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 was prepared to have all my senses assaulted when I stepped 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 travelers go veggie while 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 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 tapped the brains and experience of friends who have lived, worked or grew up 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…. and I tapped into a virtual crowd for more tips and advice from readers.
Have you been to India? What advice would you have for a business traveler seeing Mumbai, Hyderabad or Delhi for the first time? How do you go about preparing for a trip to a new country for the first time? Please leave your comments below.
(A similar version of this post first appeared on BBC.com)
Check out my Faces of India video here:
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