8 Things You Should Know Before You Go to India

Dispatches from the Road, India, Studying Abroad — By on January 27, 2011 at 10:00 am

After a semester of French on the beaches of Cannes, I’m now settled in Kolkata (Calcutta), India for the next 4 months on another study abroad. I’m here with 11 other students from my college, and we’ve a whirlwind month of traveling, sightseeing, and settling down in Kolkata. India is as thrilling as it is exhausting, a constant roller coaster of sensory overload. Living in this fascinating, extreme, and contradictory culture is part of my most exciting and challenging adventure abroad yet. If you’ve ever thought about traveling to India, whether you’re planning to travel for 2 weeks or 2 months, here are some things you should know:

1. Keep your plans flexible. No matter how well organized you are, your plans probably will not go accordingly. You should always allow for more time than you think you will need because unexpected delays tend to happen, with or without explanation. Be patient. On our way to the Taj Mahal, our 4-hour drive lasted 8 hours on a freezing bus when the driver decided to take the back roads instead of listening to our director and going on the highway.

2. Dress modestly. To avoid unwanted attention or offending someone, it’s best to cover up – absolutely no cleavage, shorts, skimpy tank tops, or short skirts/dresses. I have had to adjust my concept of “revealing.” One day I wore a shirt with an open neckline that would be considered conservative back home, but I still received leering glances. Western clothes are worn as often as Indian clothes, but would be considered as conservative or very modest by American standards. It’s best to pack a small amount of clothes and plan to buy a few Indian items once you arrive. Indian clothes are much better suited to hot weather, so they’ll keep you cool while keeping you modest.

3. You will be easily identified as a foreigner. Whether it’s because of the way you look, the language barrier, or general lack of cultural awareness, you will attract attention. I’ve become very used to people staring at me on the streets and sneakily (or not so sneakily) taking pictures of me. Being an obvious foreigner also poses problems regarding safety. Street vendors and beggars target foreigners, and strangers often strike up a conversation with you or invade your privacy. Be assertive, make sure you know where you are, and know how much something should cost.

4. You will get sick. There are a number of vaccinations you must receive before traveling to India, but you will inevitably catch something that will leave your digestive tract in distress. Luckily, over-the-counter antibiotics are readily available at pharmacies. I felt great for the first 5 days in India before I fell prey to “Delhi belly,” and have had a few other stomach upsets since. Carry around hand sanitizer and use it often. Also, the pollution in the bigger cities may irritate your nose or throat and give you a cough.

One of the most important factors in warding off illness is choosing the right foods, so:

5. Do not drink the local water. Buy bottled instead. Avoid street food but if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, only buy street food that has been cooked hot and hasn’t been sitting out. Buy fruits and vegetables that are whole (not cut open) and that you can wash and peel.

6. Traffic is merciless. Traffic laws are more like guidelines. Bigger vehicles have the right of way, except for cows, which always have the right of way. Traffic can be anything – from buses and cars to rickshaws, bicycles, carts, horses, cows, and more. Much of the traffic is like a game of chicken, so the driver will keep driving straight and fast until the other car swerves. Brakes are not used regularly, and honking is encouraged. It’s rare to find seat belts. Carefully dodge traffic as you cross the street, and always look ahead of you.

7. Have reasonable standards for cleanliness. It’s rare to find bathrooms or hotel rooms that would compare to America’s sterilized standards. It’s normal to see large piles of garbage on the streets, and the large cities have a haze of pollution. Most everything is dirtier than what you would find at home, so you will learn to adjust your criteria. Don’t expect to find toilet paper or Western-style showers.

8. When you find one thing to be true, the opposite is also true. India is a country of incomprehensible diversity, so it is impossible to make blanket statements. There are few steadfast rules regarding India, so keep an open mind and ask questions. Be warned: the long answer will leave you with more questions. It seems to me the more you learn about India, the less you know.

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    22 Comments

  • Alex Rascanu says:

    Very interesting. Your “you will get sick” point is something I should seriously prepare for when I’ll visit India in the not too distant future.

    Victoria Gibson Reply:

    It really is no certainty that you will get sick when you go to India. I have been on six trips and never been sick. Sure, the tummy may do a couple of backflips now and then, but if you use liveral amounts of hand sanitiser and take probiotic tablets or powder before you arrive, you will be fine. Just follow normal food safety rules regarding temperature and sanitation. You’ll have a ball. If you want some inspiration, visit my site!

    Jaime Carroll Reply:

    What is your sight?

  • Suvendu Biswas says:

    I am from India and some of your points seem very mean to me.like cow in roads?! Well that happens,but definately not something to be worried about!!! If you can pay as per the ‘strerilized standard’ hotels here,I bet you.would get a better hotel.And you mentioned getting the antibiotic like you thought you wouldnt get it here.C’on India is one of the leading economies of the world! I don’t understand the point foreigners exaggerating slums,polutions,traffic when this persist here as much as in your country.

    julianne callaghan Reply:

    You are being subjective, not objective. There are not the same persistence of slums for example in the UK as in India. How silly.

  • Beverly says:

    I will be traveling to India soon and appreciate these tips.
    @Suvendu – it is important to understand that in other countries having a cow in the road is very unusual. Where I live this kind of event would make the evening newscast.
    Also even all hotels (even cheap ones)are required to uphold a standard of cleanliness. You do not have to pay more to expect clean, rooms and bathrooms in hotels as this is regulated by health and city authorities.

    Additionally antibiotics are not available in some countries without a prescription so some of the things that you say were mean were simply factual and not value judgements. These kinds of conditions are not part of everyday life for people from other countries.

    I am going to try hard to protect my digestive system by taking pro-biotics and also some other herbal preparations that will prevent parasites from taking up residence. While I may expect some churning and bubbling in my colon from a change in the types of foods it is exposed to, I am hoping that these preventative measures will at least prevent me from “getting sick”.

  • snoop dogg says:

    im going to india
    peace out

  • Suvendu Biswas says:

    Well,hello from India.. I understand the points. But if you are in cities like Kolkata,Delhi,Mumbai,Chennai,Bangalore,Hyderabad I bet cow won’t be of prob. Cow is holy in our religion,Hinduism;so you may understand why it may roam out so easily.Anyway,you would get hotels with range starting from Rs 200.. (less than $4) can you get a hotel room there for four bucks?! I am sure you don’t.And I bet those hotels will be clean enough if u compare the price.
    Hope you enjoy staying here when you come.
    If you face any prob you are welcome to mail me
    suvotherocker[at]gmail[dot]com

    Beverly Reply:

    @Suvendu
    I have returned from my trip to India and I am enlightened as to cultural differences and expectations.

    We all got sick just as “The Lost Girls” predicted.
    within 8 hours of eating a communal meal prepared at a university, we all started to get sick. Some were really sick and all of us returned home with diarrhea.

    Those people who took antibiotics however, seemed to be the worst off as they went on to develop a severe case of bronchitis after returning home.

    I did not take any oral vaccines or antibiotics and was able to return to normal colon health with probiotics and a homeopathic remedy for traveler’s diarrhea.

    We spent most of our time in the north and I would not recommend India for travelers who are not hardy physically or emotionally.
    While I am glad I made the trip, it was arduous and most of the twelve women I travelled with found it difficult to endure the environmental and social conditions. It was emotionally and physical exhausting for us.

    We did not stay in many hotels and like you said the ones we did stay in were clean enough, but definitely not up to the standards we would expect.

    We did stay at universities in the guest housing and they were definitely NOT up to the standard we expected… in fact we questioned if the bedding had been changed from the previous guests.

    and do not even get me started on the bathrooms…honestly I still cannot grasp why the Indian people think that unsanitary, dirty and poorly maintained bathrooms are OK even in the first class compartments on the trains.

    All in all a great adventure, but not one that I would repeat.

    I was appalled at the lack of social justice in a supposedly democratic society and was overwhelmed at the poor living conditions so many had to endure. Even our poorest neighborhoods in Canada would be considered first class by many of the people living in some of the conditions we witnessed.

    I was ever so grateful to return to Canada. Now I love my country even more.

    Archana Reply:

    Hi Beverly, Sorry to hear that you all got sick. But its good to get to know about a country before going there. India has the second largest population in the world and so many below poverty line… so cleanliness and garbage can be issues in many places but not all.
    There is no lack of social justice – the poor in India get 1 kg of rice for Rs. 1, they get Rs. 100 a day for sending their children to school. School and College education for girls is absolutely free and it is highly subsidized for boys. Believe me there is enf work for everyone. The beggars on the street have an option to work but they simply dont and choose to beg instead. Many time I have offered household work to such beggars myself and thru various NGOs but those people simply like to earn easy by begging…
    Clean bathrooms is really an issue… I agree. But with right info u can avoid using dirty loos. In india you can walk in any 5 star hotel, use the toilet facility, get a glass of water and walk out. And pay nothing. Also try to use toilets in Malls. They are always clean. So u need to keep a lookout for good hotels, restaurants and malls.
    All indians are careful abt food and water. We are taught since childhood to not eat uncooked food and drink unbottled water. Atleast my father was very particular. But i dont see why u guys bought over the counter antibiotics. The medical facilities and doctors of India are very good and really cheap. Medical tourism is on such a rise here. U cld have visited any doctor and avoided being so sick.
    Loads and loads of Russians, Americans, British, Canadians and other nationals visit India – places like The Art of Living Ashram in Banglore. They eat communal food and they dont get sick….
    It really depends un where u are staying and where u are eating…
    U guys sld have stayed in decent 3 star hotels – it wld still have been very cheap for u…. and if u guys are coming as exchange students or thru universities you can insist ur organisation to get u accommodated in homes of well to do students.
    The upper middle class live in very good homes in India, have servants, can provide u with international quality food and a great stay. infact since guest are like Gods for us… if u stay at someones house u will be treated really special. Believe me by brother brought some friends over from UK and when they were leaving they were crying and didnt want to go back at all…
    India is a wonderful country, u just have to know where to go and how to dress. Hollywood has made such an image of foreign girls in the eyes of men in India that those who dont know much abt ur culture think that u girls are easy and have no morals at all. But those who know about the culture abroad (such people are less in number) can help u all who visit India have a great time here.
    So if u are students coming from abroad to north India, insist on staying with a business class madwadi (from Rajisthan & Gujrat) or Punjabi family and u will have a field day here.
    I dont know much abt the south so cant comment.
    India is so complicated… Most people who visit India from abroad simply love it or really hate it…. I have always heard these extreme views…
    I guess India is really like that. I wldnt know much abt walking on streets or staying in hostels… indian girls live a very protected and sheltered lives… home – car – school – car – home – club – tennis – swim – car – mall – car – home…. such is the life of most upper middle class and many middle class girls too… n we r pampered and spoilt by our mothers, brothers n fathers…
    Hope if u come to india next time, u will have a better trip and will not fall ill.

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