Backpacking North East India

Ten Faux Pas to Avoid in North East India

There’s a tendency to bracket North East India as one region. However, just as North, Central, East, West, or South India, the North East is a combination of highly diverse states with many proud communities, cultures and indigenous lifestyles. Therefore, just as elsewhere in the country, respect diversity while visiting this incredible region too. Remember this point zero. Always. Drop that stereotype. Abhijeet Deshpande, author of Backpacking North East India: A Curious Journey, shares a list of ten faux pas to avoid in North East India.

For those who do not know, North East India comprises of eight states – Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, and Tripura. The Himalayas and its waters define the region’s terrain, climate, rich biodiversity, and the peculiar indigenous lifestyles her people follow. That North East India is bound by Bhutan, Nepal, and Tibet to the north, Bangladesh to the south and west, and Myanmar to the east hints at the eclectic mix of cultural, ethnic, and linguistic diversity. This is where elements of Asia come together to do what they do best – cast a spell.

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Beware – no two Indians share the same idea of their country, region, or state. Hence, social standards of acceptance may vary for each of these and, if you ask around, you are likely to get a slightly different version of a list every time. For whatever its worth, here’s one take on things to avoid. Do not:

01. Assume Indians Look Alike

Skin tones and facial features may change as you head from north to south or west to east. India’s North East is its gateway to South East Asia. Many, not all, people in the region have mongoloid features. Remember point zero about diversity? So, drop that stereotype. Avoid patronizing comments or questions like: “you do not look Indian” or “why do you look different?” As an offshoot, unless you want to attract potential angry reactions, do not ask questions about nationality: “do you think of yourself as Chinese (or Myanmarese or Nepalese)?” Tied with race, this could be seen as insulting.

02. Pigeonhole Beliefs

Needless to say, diversity exists in the realm of religion too. In addition to Buddhism, Christianity, and Hinduism, there are indigenous religions / religious beliefs in north east India. Avoid patronizing questions like: “why are you a Christian?” or “why aren’t you a Christian?”. While Mizoram and Nagaland are predominantly Christian, Assam is home to the unique practice of Shakti school of Hinduism – the feminine divine power is revered, and the higher reaches of Arunachal Pradesh and the state of Sikkim are Buddhist. Besides, indigenous beliefs also co-exist.

03. Leave Out Languages

Is there anything sweeter to a host than have a guest speak her language? North East India has over two hundred (200) languages and dialects. While most, not all, people are skilled to speak Hindi or English, and will extend the courtesy to visitors, everyone is proud of their language. If you want to maximize on your travels, it is recommended to learn basic words on-the-go. Learn words that help you, as a visitor, to say hello and thank you, to seek help, seek directions, to get food and water, etc. If you have traveled thousands of kilometers to get to the least explored North East India, do not be lazy in the last mile of languages – pick up useful words from the street. Language is your only access to enjoy fulfilling homestays in some of the remotest areas of the region.

04. Codify Cuisines

Just as North India goes way beyond cottage-cheese (paneer), do not assume that North East India is all about noodles and momos (dumplings). From a dazzling mising thali on the island of Majuli to smoked meats in Nagaland, you are in for a ride. From the ghost-peppered eromba in Manipur to the near-absence of spices in Mizoram, North East India offers one of the widest spice-spectrum on the culinary menu. However, if your palette desires something familiar, do not irk your hosts by asking for ‘Indian’ food. Be specific, ask for parathas, dosas, etc. When with strangers, do not ask patronizing questions like “do you eat dog meat?”. Some eat. Most do not. Remember point zero about diversity?

05. Break Alcohol Rules

Brewing alcohol is an intangible heritage for most communities of North East India. So, enjoy the local brews in every state you visit. Beware though that, as of this writing, two out of eight states, viz. Manipur and Nagaland, continue to be prohibition states. Travelers’ baggage may be frisked at entry-points to these two states. So, unless you want to risk social embarrassment and/or legal troubles, do not carry alcohol (even to gift to someone) while traveling to Manipur or Nagaland.

06. Judge Customs

The cultural landscape in the north east is unique. For instance, in Meghalaya, a man might live with his wife at her parents’ home after their wedding. The youngest daughter takes care of the parents and inherits the family wealth. While this may be the norm in Meghalaya, it is not the case for everyone in North East India. In other places, you may come across some (not all) couples living-in and a formal wedding may only happen after a few years. If you harbor an alternate perspective on love and marriages, keep quiet. Do not use your own moral lens to judge lifestyle choices.

07. Jump the Gun

In some parts of North East India, hunting may co-exist with agrarian practices. So, you might observe people carrying guns and machetes (daav). Mostly, these are licensed guns and do not represent a threat. Hence, there is no need to be shocked or to raise an alarm. Be calm.

08. Forget the Context

  • Talk Politics? North East India is safer than you think. Most places in the region are peaceful and welcoming to tourists. However, given a legacy, people might be sensitive to topics such as insurgencies. As a thumb rule, and unless in the company of trusted friends, avoid political conversations.
  • Loud and Clear? In the hills, people might frown upon a loud voice and an aggressive tone. Please be mindful of this. On the other hand, people in urban centres of Guwahati or Agartala may not only tolerate it but also be loud themselves. It is contextual.
  • Poker Face? People in rural areas, will invariably offer a smile and a warm greeting to strangers. So, drop that poker face. However, this may not happen in crowded cities like Guwahati or Agartala or Imphal. It is best to observe such nuances on the go.

09. Forget Courtesies

This is more of a good practice than something that might attract arguments. When someone invites you home, do not go without a souvenir (howsoever modest that might be) for your host. If there are kids in the hosts’ family, take goodies for them.

10. Forget Point Zero: Diversity

Its never enough to stress this bit so you do not stereotype people. Just as Indians elsewhere, people in North East India are proud of their cuisines, heritage, languages, and lifestyle. Respect diversity.

Think North East India

Need reasons to visit North East India? Pick up a copy of Backpacking North East India: A Curious Journey. It covers over two dozen places and attempts to answer the question – what is it like to travel in the region? Give it a read and make your own choices. Buy now!

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Credits: This piece is edited from its original version, written in response to a question, on Quora?

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