This is a guest post from my friend Kris, an American writer living in India. She and her husband are in New Delhi to participate in an educational exchange program. The juxtaposition of cultures has been interesting.

When you think of grocery shopping in New Delhi, please don’t imagine your local Safeway or City Market, with aisles wide enough for two pushcarts passing as shoppers stroll, browse, select.

Our grocers — or rather, “departmental store” — is a packed-to-the roof little cubby that requires deft yogic moves just to enter and exit, let alone exploring a row of goods. When it’s time to restock, they open a hatch in the ceiling and toss down from storage the items they need, calling directions back and forth as they go.

Some grocers have no rows at all, but stand at a walk-up counter with all their wares behind them; you request your purchases like ordering at a coffee bar or pharmacy in the U.S. Others display their goods on pushcarts, and still others spread out on the sidewalk.

Some tips for getting what you want at our market:

  1. Buy it when you see it. When you go back tomorrow, it may be gone, or it may be hidden so that you can not find it again.
  2. If it is manufactured and packaged in India, the price will be fixed and printed on the wrapper.
  3. If its label includes a small green dot inside a green-outlined square, it is vegetarian. Eggs are not vegetarian in India, though milk, yogurt, and cheese are.
  4. If its label includes a small red dot inside a red-outlined square, it is non-veg (includes eggs).
  5. Choose the butter and the bread packaged in plastic. Sorry. I know it’s not environmentally sound, but if you buy the butter and the bread wrapped in paper, it will taste like the shop’s insecticide. And you will be bummed out when you can’t have your toast.
  6. Speaking of butter, you can also buy it at government milk kiosks. “Mother Dairy” products are considered safe and hygenic.
  7. For real chocolate flavor, splurge on the Swiss stuff. Cadbury, while perfectly satisfying in both England and Canada, is perfectly bland when made in India. Nestle too.
  8. Mentos, however, taste the same the world over!
  9. If the label highlights “no onions or garlic,” you can serve it to those following the Jain religion.
  10. The young man on your heels is to carry your items to the checkout. In fact, if you speak Hindi, you can send him to select from the shelves for you too.

I recently bought some food in a can, and on the way home I remembered that we had no can opener. So I turned into another little market street where there are a bunch of hardware stands. I chose the stall with all the plastic colanders hanging on hooks and strings around its perimeter. It also had a big sign: “pressure cookers repair.” I figured the pressure cooker repair man would surely have a can opener. Plus, he had a nice white mustache.

— Yes, ma’am? (the standard shopkeeper’s hello).
— Yes, I need a can opener.
— Please. Come. Come.

There wasn’t really anywhere to come to, but I stepped up onto his floor next to his service counter. His narrow stall was stuffed with household goods, most of them dusty, dirty, and balancing in precarious stacks. It looked like a mad jumble to me, but of course he knows exactly where it all stands. He rummaged around and brought out a small box, from which he presented this handy gadget:

[A can opener very strange to American eyes]

— This is very good opener. One, two, and three. It has three openers. All in one piece.
— Yes. Okay.
— Very good opener. Only 50 rupees.
Tiik he. (Okay.)
— You speak Hindi?
Ji, thora-thora hindi. (Just a little.)
— I have small English. I am old man. How many years you are?
Chaalis. (Forty.)
— I am eighty years. You are forty, I am eighty. Still I am working here every day. This is my shop.
Achaa. (Good. Meaning: I see.)
— I come here in the morning, I stay till the night.
— Sir, you are very strong.
— Yes, yes! I am good health!

Meanwhile, some young women stood behind me fingering the colanders, napkins, rubber rings. “Uncle,” one spoke up. “Uncle, have you got…?”

I handed him a 100-rupee note which he took with both hands. He touched it first to his chest, then to his forehead. Then he turned around in his chair and waved it around in the incense smoking behind him, then circled it over the head of the goddess Lakshmi in her little niche. He unlocked his cash drawer and waved the bill over the money inside, then brought it to his chest and forehead again. All the while chanting a little prayer.

When he noticed me watching, he said:

— Madam, first customer today.

And gave a little shrug as he passed me my change.

-Thank you.
-Welcome, ma’am. Welcome. Namasté.

So the opener doesn’t work. But the conversation was worth it, don’t you think?

Previously at Get Rich Slowly, my friend Kris asked, “When is it okay to give?This is the third of three posts I’ve shared this weekend about personal finance in other countries. All photos by Kris (the writer, not my wife).