Thriving in the Land of Prayers and Snakes – Things I Wish I Had Known Going Into India

*To be fair, I didn’t see a single snake during my trip, not even deep in the jungle.  A guide told me that I would have seen a bunch of them had I spent more time on the Eastern coast.

 

The Taj Mahal in the Golden Hour

This past summer, I had the opportunity of a lifetime for someone in my field of study – a trip to India to study software engineering on the Infosys campus.  The University of South Florida offers the trip through the Muma College of Business.  If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance that you’re interested in the trip as well.  Due to the relative recency of establishment, there isn’t a ton of documentation about the ISM in India program.  I recall being confused and a bit nervous when I committed to the trip.  While I had traveled abroad previously, I never imagined I would spend a summer fully immersed in another culture, completely different from my own.

In an effort to help out those looking to travel on the ISM in India program – or really any study abroad/adventure to India, I decided to create a list of tips.  I would not say that this is an exhaustive list of everything I learned about travelling in India, but it’s a good start.  I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it.  If there are any questions I didn’t answer, I’m happy to do so with the email listed in my profile, or any social media.  Hope this helps!  Shubhkaamnaayein!

Navigation

If you have never been outside the US, this may come as a surprise to you.  Driving internationally is very different from the droll, relaxed driving experience in the domestic United States.  India is no exception.  Particularly in Southern India, the streets are narrow and worn, and the driving-style is rapid and dizzying.  While the city streets of Bangalore and other major areas are a bit better, the first time you traverse the winding, sharp-turn roads of the Chamundi Foothills, you may feel a bit carsick.  While I am typically fine driving back home, I found myself nearing the end of my wits on several occasions, and craving the sweet feeling of my feet on solid ground.  If you are planning on travelling to India, even if you have never been carsick before, I strongly recommend taking precautions to avoid it.  Pick up a tube of Dramamine or one of those anti-dizzy wristbands – your not-nauseous head will thank you later.

Trying to get to a specific destination in India is also an interesting venture.  I think the best way to explain what I mean is to regale you with a brief story.  After my trip concluded, I decided to stay in India for a bit longer and explore Bangalore.  Without a doubt, that was one of the best decisions of my life.  I met several new friends that I am still in contact with, had an eye-opening culinary experience, and toured the offices of a few companies and networked.  Nevertheless, at the end of each day I found myself in a new part of the city, a bit lost and unsure how to get back to my hotel.  The public train system in Bangalore is excellent – assuming you, or someone you are with, who knows the city and speaks fluent Kannada or Hindi…  I didn’t take a lot of trains.  Uber is an option, but unless you have an Indian phone number, you’re going to be taking a lot of international calls, and those usually aren’t cheap.  (The one exception to this is ferrying to the airport – Uber is really the only way to get to and from Kempegowda Airport if you don’t have a ride lined up.)  So that really leaves you with only one consistent option to get around – rickshaws.

Train station in Bangalore

The idea behind a rickshaw is simple.  It’s a small, three wheeled taxi that doesn’t consume much gas and therefore offers cheap fares on a metered system.  This would be great, if it were the way the rickshaw system actually worked.  Unfortunately, rickshaws are more of a mixed bag.  Most drivers won’t turn on the meter, thus it is vital that you agree on a fare before entering the cab.  Many drivers are also partnered with tourist shops, and will attempt to ferry you around to a litany of them in exchange for a free ride.  This is a slippery slope.  On one hand, you can absolutely get your shopping done and get where you need to go if you’re not on a time limit.  However, beware the foible that is choosing to not make a purchase.  It does not end well.  Instead, find a rickshaw that will agree to a pre-set fare that makes sense.  Talk to locals to find out what a rickshaw driver should charge you per kilometer.  Don’t be afraid to barter with them.  Follow these simple guidelines and you’ll be cruising around Bangalore like a pro.

A couple of rickshaws in Mysore

Plumbing

As you have likely heard, the fabled “eastern toilet” is not quite the same as what we have here in the states.  I won’t sugar-coat it, the eastern toilet is a hole in the ground.  I’m not kidding, look it up.  For brevity and the intention of avoiding too many toilet jokes, I won’t get too into this.  Essentially, you’re going to want to bring camping toilet paper (the kind without the tube in the middle) and some hand sanitizer.  You won’t run into the eastern toilets very much, as most places pander to the ignorant Westerner afraid of squatting, but every time I did run into one it was the least opportune time for me to re-learn potty training.

One of the lingering cultural differences that I could not adjust to while in India was the rationed hot water.  Hot water is costly to produce and is only accessible in most places for a short period of time during the day.  If you’re like me and prefer the blistering heat of water on your back to wake you up, make sure to ask each of your accommodations about their hot water situation.   It is available, you just have to know when to shower.

Food

As I write this, I am transported back to my wonderful experiences with the diverse culinary adventure in which I embarked while in India.  I often get weird looks from my friends and family when I tell them that I didn’t have a single bad meal during my trip.  It’s true.  This is not an exaggeration, everything I tasted in India was incredible.  Regardless, I do have a few tips so that anyone considering travelling to India can be prepared.

A typical vegetarian meal in Karnataka

The first, and probably biggest one, is a bit of a cliche, but holds true.  My American stomach, as well as anyone’s who does not live in India, needed time to adjust to a different spice palette and type of oils.  Everyone on our trip, myself included, took the first few days to eat at the Floating Restaurant – a clean, Westernized joint in the middle of Infosys Campus, Mysore.  I strongly recommend anyone considering this trip do the same.  Wait until the locals say you’re ready – they know way better than you do about how heavily the food can affect you.  Be patient, you’ll get there.  It is so worth the wait.

One gentleman in our group decided to dive into the local cuisine a bit early, and it didn’t pan out very well for him.  Ask for recommendations and, for the first bit of time you arrive, follow those recommendations.  That said, you can’t eat at hotels every night, neither will you want to.  Don’t be afraid to explore a bit once your stomach has adjusted!  Go to the colorful restaurants, eat at the street stalls (at your own risk), try the fruit from the vendors’ carts – just bring some TUMS and activated charcoal capsules.  When is the next time you’re going to be in India?

Communicating

A bit of India trivia – the Republic of India (Bharat), in its current form, was established on January 26, 1950.  India is a federal republic governed under a parliamentary system and consists of 29 states and 7 union territories.  Each of those states has it’s own language (not a coincidence).  Should you choose to go on this trip, you’ll land in Bangalore, a city in Karnataka, which is a state in the south of India.  So here’s the thing – people in Karnataka don’t speak much Hindi, as they have a local dialect called Kannada.  Google Translate does a straight-up horrible job translating to Kannada, assuming you even get cell service fast enough to do live translation.  You can bring a translating book, but it’s really not necessary.  Most people will speak at least a little English, many speak it fluently.  Don’t let your assumptions get the better of you – ask someone if they speak English if you need to talk to them.  Don’t speak slowly like they’re stupid, that’s offensive in any culture.  Even if the person you’re trying to talk to doesn’t speak English, be patient.  You’ll be amazed how well you can improvise on communication in a pinch.  After all, necessity is the mother of invention.

*A good tip – bring two notebooks, one for a journal, and one to draw when you run into a language-barrier situation.

I had no trouble getting a haircut even thought the barber spoke no English

Sleep

This goes without saying, but sleep is crucial on any trip.  When you arrive in India, you’re going to feel strange.  That’s just the jet lag.  Some people get hit with it right away, others, like me, don’t feel the jet lag for a day or two.  Just make sure to get plenty of rest.  There’s nothing worse than being cranky at a monument or temple because you’re falling asleep.

An interesting note: most of the cities we visited went to bed pretty early.  Whereas American, European, and South American cities that I have been to are often up all night, it was not uncommon for the majority of stores, restaurants, bars, and clubs to close up shop before midnight.

On the Streets

I hesitate writing this paragraph, but it deserves mention.  While India is an amazing, gorgeous country rife with colorful landscapes and generally wonderful people, there are a handful of unsavory experiences you may encounter.  The first is that cleanliness and sanitation, although very good in many places, does lack consistency on a national level.  Sewage is visible in many areas and the odors are not always pleasant.  While there is little you can do about this, it’s good to know going in.

Crime is also a bit of an issue.  Depending on who you talk to, some say it is significantly reduced when compared to American crime.  Some say it is worse.  All I will note is that it is present.  Drug trade is big, and it’s visible.  Police corruption is present as well.  Unfortunately, rape is also a very real thing in India as well.  None of this is a secret, it’s all accessible information, but it’s worth noting because you can easily steer clear of it.  Read up on safe travel strategies.  Don’t go anywhere alone, unless you know exactly where you’re going and it’s light outside.  Smile and speak cordially to police.  Avoid them otherwise.  DO NOT try to commit any crimes while in India.  It may seem like a relaxed place, and things like public intoxication and… “interacting” with cannabis appear to be things you can get away with.  This is a stupid thought.  Don’t try it, I know several Americans that I met from another university while in Bangalore that are STILL awaiting trial in India.  Be smart.  Follow university guidelines and policies – they exist for a reason.

Social Conventions

Americans have tendency to be loud.  This is not something you want to do while in India.  It’ll attract a lot of unwanted attention.  Be careful, speak softly.  I didn’t realize I was being too loud until the faculty on our trip informed me, and being aware of my volume is a professional critique I still try to pay special attention to.

Sarcasm, at least in my experiences, was not well received in India.  It’s important to remain pleasant and modest.  Being a guest in another country, in another culture, means respecting their social conventions and norms.  Take the tips from your trip coordinator and chaperone.  In my case, this was Dr. Manish Agrawal.  Dr. Agrawal is a wealth of knowledge on both Indian culture and professional socialization.  He is as much as resource as he is a liaison, don’t be afraid to ask him, or whoever accompanies you, for help.

Concluding

India was, without a doubt, the most humbling experience of my life.  I wish I had known then how much it would affect my life.  I have scored interviews, connected and fostered unlikely friendships, and become a more globally attentive human because of my trip.   I would recommend this trip, or any trip to India, to anyone looking to participate in something that will help their future.  I am the professional that I am today thanks to that trip.  So what are you waiting for?  Apply and go to India!  It will change your life for the better!

Enjoying a windy weekend on the Western Coast, at the Kabini River Lodge

About Hunter Goldenberg

I'm a Senior at the University of South Florida currently studying Business Analytics and Information Systems with a concentration in Cybersecurity. On campus, I am a resident assistant, junior scrum master/developer for the USF Honors College, and mentor for the USF Muma Analytics Team. I am passionate about travelling, food, and technology. Join me on my adventures across the globe!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *