8 Things You Should Know Before You Go to IndiaDispatches from the Road, India, Studying Abroad — By Katie C 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.