Business Travel to India as a woman – what to expect
The first time I was asked to go to India for business purpose I was very nervous. India was never a country on my Travel bucket list and also not a country that has caught my attention before (which is probably why it wasn’t on my list). So when my boss asked whether I could travel to India with him next week I was a bit overwhelmed at first. You hear many controversial things about the country, but I was never before faced with the decision whether I want to travel there. Also I haven’t had much contact with Indians here in Europe before either so my opinion was based on stories of others. But as this was a great opportunity and I was up for an adventure and new insight into our business, I decided to join him. And I do not regret it at all, which is why I want to write this blog post about my business travel to India as a woman.
There was only one week left and I had a lot to do with getting my visa, booking flights, arranging the hotel and trying to read as much about the country, the culture, what to wear, food and customs as possible. Now I have been to India several times (Pune and Bangalore) and have had very good experiences. I fell in love with the food and the warm and open way of being welcomed by my colleagues to their home country. The Indian culture is a very welcoming one and they make sure that their guests have the best experience.
Travelling alone as a Woman?
Before going to India everyone would tell me to stay safe and be careful. I think I am already somewhat of a careful person so I was extra careful the first days there. I tried to remember everything I read on blogs on what to do and what not to do up to every little detail. In the end nothing happened and I never was unsafe. However, I have heard from Indian colleagues that this strongly depends on the area! They told me they would not feel safe having their moms or sisters walk through certain areas in Mumbai for example. Whereas other cities are completely fine. Pune is considered one of those cities that are rather safe. Before going somewhere alone or taking an Auto Rickshaw by yourself it is best to ask your colleagues what they think. They are the best judges when it comes to the city they live in and they will tell you what you should or shouldn’t do. Still I think being cautious isn’t wrong. You do not need to go out alone at night or after dark. Try to have someone accompany you back to the hotel or make sure the hotel cab picks you up at a certain time if you travel alone.
After all I never really felt unsafe, but I think that I probably barely saw the areas where I would need to worry about my safety. Out of all my three visits there were only two situations where I felt a bit weird and wanted to leave: 1) at a crowded market in Bangalore 2) at a crowded shopping street in Pune.
Both places, my colleagues did not want to take me to, but I rather insisted on going there as I was curious.
Street Market – Bangalore
I had one Indian person from our office with me who acted as our bodyguard/guide. He was apparently told by his boss to make sure to show us all the prestigious places that Bangalore has to offer. First stop was a shiny mall with fancy clothing stores. We already indicated to him that we want to see some other parts of Bangalore besides malls. Of course, they are proud of their country so they want to show you the pretty areas (We would do the same). After that he had planned yet another mall for us so we kept telling him we want to see some markets. I found out about this big market on Trip Advisor and told him I wanted to go there. At first he tried to tell me that the market is already closed, which was obviously a lie and we insisted the driver would take us there. Later on we found out he told us this lie as his boss told him NOT to take us there as it would not be safe. So we arrived at the market and he would make sure that no one touched me or would come in my way. I actually felt a bit silly that he was so overprotective and I thought he is overreacting at first, but in the end I was very glad to have him there. The market was super crowded and I don’t think I have ever seen so many people in one place! After 20 minutes I was so exhausted. So many new impressions, so many people looking at you and I was the only Non-Indian here so I felt a bit out of place.
Laxmi Road – Pune
The experience we had in Pune was similar. Only difference we were alone here without any Indian colleagues. So we were strolling through Laxmi Road as this was ranked as a top sight seeing activity in Pune. Somehow we lost track of the route a bit and ended up at a very shady area with women standing in front of doors… I was so glad that I was not alone and we were with a few of us. But have we had an Indian colleague with us this would not have happened. We quickly got into a Auto Rickshaw and left the place! What was different about Pune compared to Bangalore is that no one tried to touch me here. It seemed as if people were rather used to having Non-Indians around. Maybe they are also just more respectful.
So I do think travelling with colleagues from home is good especially when it is your first time. You have someone who stays at the same hotel and share the whole experience with. And even better if you also have Indian colleagues taking care of you. Your colleagues or partners know where to take you and how to keep you safe. But overall no need to panic, just make sure that you ask colleagues before going to some area and be a bit cautious about what situations you get yourself into.
Always share a meal with your colleagues
Indians take pride in their food and there are many Indian dishes and variations of dishes and bread through the country. The food served in the south differs from the one in the North largely. Meals are usually eaten with rice or bread and also the bread varies in each state. When travelling, one of the most important things to me is to always try the regional food. Also, I would say this is one aspect of travelling I enjoy the most! Trying different food, having others explain to me what what is and how they prepare it.
I think in general it is important to show interest in the Indian food and be open to try it. In India, Lunch break is quite important and it is used to socialize much more than for example in Germany. Also what is different than in Germany is that sharing food with colleagues is very important. In Western cultures, everyone orders their dish and eats it. In India colleagues share their food with each other and plates go around on the table. It is common that they offer you to take some of their rice dish or other snacks.
Lunch at the office cafeteria
When I was in India I tried a lot of different dishes. Our office building has a cafeteria with various booths where they serve different food. The first few days I was overwhelmed by the variety to chose from. The menus on the walls are sometimes in English, but the staff barely speaks English. I was so relieved that my colleagues picked and ordered for me. I just always made sure to stress out that I want to eat something that is not spicy! And yes, even if you think you can handle spice you should better tell them that you don’t want anything spicy. It will still be a bit spicy. I think there is no Indian cuisine without spice. At least I haven’t really had any dish that isn’t at least a bit spicy besides dessert probably.
At the cafeteria they have various rice dishes (Briyani), vegetarian options, snacks, sandwiches, Smothies etc. One booth serves Paratha which is a flat bread a bit like a savory pancake filled with veggies of your liking. I always enjoyed the one which is stuffed with potatoes, corn and cheese. It comes with a bit of yogurt sauce on top and can be easily eaten with one hand. So this is always my favorite option when eating at the cafeteria in our office building!
Eating Indian Food as a Non-Indian
You have probably heard stories about food poising in India or other Asian countries from colleagues who traveled there. I think there are two reasons why travelers may get sick from food there: a) because we are not used to the kinds of bacteria in India and b) because we are not used to the spices
But I would not worry too much and just try to stick to a few rules to be on the safe side. Especially when it’s your first time in India you may want to be a bit careful and see how your body reacts to it.
Peel it, Boil it, Leave it!
So the most important and basic rule if you are eating out on the street: Peel it, boil it, leave it. Meaning: Either you buy food that you peel yourself e.g. a banana or you buy something that is cooked e.g. a soup or something deep fried. If neither one applies to the food, you should leave it! I would never eat cut up fruits, a juice or salad from a street vendor or another smaller stall. You cannot be sure how they clean their knives or with which water they cleaned the fruits. Often the water that utensils or food is rinsed with is the main problem. It is not as clean as here and contains much more bacteria than we are used to.
In bigger hotels I don’t think you have to worry about hygiene too much. You can safely eat the salads here as they prepare it more hygienic. They have many western travelers so they know what to pay attention to when preparing the food. Our hotel offered fresh pressed juice, but here I also did not really feel safe trying it as I wasn’t sure how they would clean the juicer afterwards and I know my stomach is quite sensitive. My colleagues tried it though and seemed to be fine.
Be careful with water
Always drink bottled water (make sure the cap is sealed). In restaurants they sometimes serve water out of a carafe which is placed in the middle of the table. I would try to avoid this and rather order another drink for you individually where you can make sure that it comes in a sealed bottle.
I was facing such a situation on my last visit. These situations are tricky to handle. You don’t want to be the stuck up European who calls the place unhygienic and not good enough but you also don’t want to end up with an upset stomach. Their bodies cope perfectly fine with the water as they are used to it. I had the servers pour me water in my cup as I did not want to be rude, but I didn’t drink it and just let it sit there without commenting it.
Also for brushing your teeth make sure that you use bottled water and don’t use the one from the tab. I also do not clean my toothbrush with it, but use a bit of bottled water to rinse it off. Not sure whether I am too cautious here, but better safe than sorry when it comes to this 😉
How to eat
Indian food is very spicy so be honest and tell your hosts or colleagues that you can’t handle spice. And trust me, even if you tell them you can’t handle spice it will still be spicy! In some restaurants or the cafeteria the food is already prepared in big pots and the spice can’t be regulated anymore. In this case make sure that you use lots of yogurt or cool down with a Lassi. Just don’t drink water right away as it only makes the spice and burning in your mouth worse.
At nice restaurants they will bring you a fork and spoon to eat the food with, but in rural areas or other places it is common to eat with your hands. Bread is often used as a utensil to get the sauce or the meat. Rip off a smaller piece of bread and place it on the piece of food you want to eat and wrap it up a bit so you can grab it and put it in your mouth. Also make sure that you only use your right hand when eating, the left hand is considered unclean. Of course many of your colleagues may also be familiar with the western way and understand if you are not doing everything perfectly, but it is nice to show them that you are respecting their customs and are interested in their culture. You can also ask them to show you how to eat or just watch how they do it first and then copy.
In the picture below, we went with our colleagues to a local Biryani place in Pune (SP’s Biryani House) and the food was delicious as my focused face indicates 😉 We tried the Mutton biryani which is meat of an adult sheep. It was a bit spicy but not too much. I also ordered some Paratha Lachha (my favorite bread) to take some of the spiciness away. It’s rolled up bread baked with a lot of butter.
Relationships are very important for business matters in India. So while you are there try to spend a lot of time with your colleagues to get to know them better. I tried to schedule only the most necessary calls and meetings. l ended up drinking plenty of Chai teas and having great conversations. Depending on the state you are travelling to, colleagues may be more open to certain topics than in other states. During my travel to Pune, I experienced everyone as very open, friendly and chatty. They also made a lot of jokes and mocked each other. If the area you are travelling to is more conservative, they might be less outgoing and open.
Streets of India & Transportation
Traffic in India is crazy! There are cars, scooters, bikes, trucks, Auto Rickshaws and pedestrians everywhere. Everyone seems to be going their own route and crossing the street at the same time in all different directions, but somehow the traffic flows. You may already have experienced this in other cities in Asia. Indian traffic is similar just much more. So streets are packed and you may need a long time to make it through a few kilometers. Especially in the morning during rush hour and in the afternoon you need to plan more time to get to the office or other locations.
From the hotel we always took the hotel taxi to get to the office building. It was very convenient and we did not have to worry about anything. Of course compared to Uber or other public taxis, the hotel shuttles are rather pricey.
We also used Uber a lot to get back to the hotel from the office or to go to a dinner location. You can easily order the driver via the App and prevent any language barriers as you also enter the destination. There are many Ubers around and we never had to wait too long. Especially around malls or crowded places you will get assigned to a driver quickly. Also these places are good for dropping the needle to be located.
We also sometimes used a Auto Rickshaw for shorter distances. Downside is that you are breathing in the polluted air the entire time. Also I felt a lot safer in a car. On the upside, especially during rush hour, Auto Rickshaws can pass through thick traffic better than cars. So sometimes taking the Auto Rickshaw may be faster. Also make sure that you ask for the price before getting in. Ask colleagues at the office what would be a regular price to get from the office to other places. If you have some indication on the price you can better prepare for the negotiation.
Gifts for your colleagues
Most important part of travelling to India on business is to bring gifts to your colleagues or clients from home.
Relationships are very important in Indian business circles. Before getting to business your opponent wants to get to know you and your family background better. A small and thoughtful gift can help strengthening the relationship.
Candies, chocolate or other snacks from home are always nice for the entire team. Indians eat a lot of sweets so they are used to very sweet taste. I always packed plenty of chocolate and it was gone within a few minutes after handing it out. So make sure you bring enough so that everyone on the team can taste some. I always brought chocolate in snack sizes such as Kinder Chocolate, Duplo, Rittersport Minis or other chocolates and cookies. I think snack sizes are a good option for the office. They are individually wrapped and can be easily shared among the team.
For a business partner, something that is relevant to your home country and he/she can proudly display on a desk is a good choice. It does not have to be an expensive gift, but something that shows that you thought of the business partner. One of my team leads in India always wanted me to bring him German cigarettes. He was always excited and would then smoke them outside with his team! So cigarettes may also be an option, but probably best if you already know the person better.