This January, I got the chance to spend two weeks studying abroad in India with UTSA’s College of Business International. I thought I knew so much about Indian culture going into this experience, but I learned that myself and the world don’t understand it at all. Here’re some things I learned.
1. The Traffic is Literally as Insane as Hollywood makes it seem
In America, we have two lane roads for different directions of traffic. In India, there are no lanes, and you can go any direction you please. It’s pretty typical to hear excessive honking, people driving against the flow of traffic, and to see three adults, one kid, and possibly a goat on one mini-scooter with no helmets on. Imagine New York traffic but on steroids. Not only does it look dangerous, but there are numbers to back up the perception that India is one of the most dangerous places to drive in the world. In 2013 alone, over 1,370,000 people died on Indian road according to the NDTV. If you check out my video from my trip, you can actually see some of the members of our group get into a tuk-tuk accident.
My Tip: Chances are your study abroad program is going to provide you with a bus or taxi for any major excursions. If you do want to go out and explore on your own, be diligent in watching the traffic, and get out of your tuk-tuk if your driver is making you uncomfortable or fear for your safety
2. You Will Hate Indian Food by the End of Your Trip
Going into this experience, I was most excited to eat authentic Indian food. Since I’ve always loved Indian food, I ignored my professor’s suggestion to bring pepto bismal or something for my stomach. Big mistake- by the end of the first week I would have rather starved than eat anything with curry in it. Not only was I battling explosive diarrhea from the spices (sorry, n9ot sorry for the TMI) the heavy creams in everything caused my lactose intolerance to flair up. Also, the Indian diet is VERY high in carbohydrates, which screwed with my blood sugar and kept my reactive hypoglycemia in a perpetual dive.. Even the plane food coming home on the 15 1/2 hour flight made my stomach want to curl up and die. After coming home to the states, I had to wait four months before I could muster up the courage to eat Indian food again.
My Tip: PACK SNACKS. PACK STOMACH MEDICINE. I cannot stress those two things enough. If you have any food allergies, do your due diligence before you eat a meal and figure out if it contains any allergens. Most restaurants are used to dealing with diet restrictions due to differing religious practices, so they will be happy to accommodate you if it comes to that.
3. You Don’t Need to Worry about Missing Leg Day because You’ll have to Squat to go to the Bathroom
I was forewarned of this fact before my trip, and also the fact that there is no toilet paper anywhere. I still died a little inside when I had to go into every dirty unlit bathroom and brace myself over a hole in the ground, and then hope to God that I had remembered my wet wipes, or pay the lady handing out toilet paper 10 rupees to get two squares worth. If by chance we found a “western style” bathroom stall (mostly in really nice restaurants or hotels)l, all the girls would let each other know. Even if we didn’t have to go, we waited in line, because we had no idea when we’d get this chance again. From what I’ve read, this style of bathroom is best for making sure everything gets out because of the way your body is positioned, but I think I’d rather stick to western style toilets.
My Tip: Bring packs and more packs of baby wipes and bottles of hand sanitizer that you can keep in your purse at all times. Also, try and build up your legs muscles a bit before you go, and NEVER wear sandals to public bathrooms.
4. Indian People Love Westerners
Being in India was probably the closest I’ll ever feel to being a celebrity. Even with 1.252 billion people living in India, there’s not a lot of diversity when it comes to skin color. If you’re white or black, not only are people going to be curious, there’s a 99.9% chance they are going to come up and talk to you or invade your personal space by feeling your hair or touching your skin without any warning. By the second day, we had already made it a joke to start charging people 100 rupees per request to take a picture with us/ of us.
Some of the weirder things that happened:
- On our first day in Hyderabad, a woman came up to one of my group members who is Nigerian to feel her box braids and ask if her hair was real.
- When we were taking group pictures, families would take it upon themselves to insert their children into our photos (see below).
- When we were balancing trying to put our shoes on after every temple, we had people videoing us.
- Outside of a temple in Jaipur, a man came up to me and proposed marriage to me because of how “beautiful” I was. When my professor stepped in to get him away from me, he assumed my sweet 60-year-old professor was my pimp.
Some of the cooler things that happened:
- Getting to sit and talk with students at the University of Hyderabad about their lives and what life was really like in India versus the U.S.
- We got amazing service where we went, and our waiters were always excited to see “the Americans” to ask us about life in America.
My Tip: be open, but be safe. Indian culture is different in that they have a different idea of what a “personal bubble” is. Talk and be friendly but always be aware of where your things are and your surroundings. If anyone is making you uncomfortable, just walk away.
5. The Taj Mahal has an even better Love Story behind it than “The Notebook.”
Not only is it beautiful, but it’s also the greatest gesture of love ever. Noah writing Allie 365 letters isn’t anything compared to what Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan built as a testimony of his love for his wife, Mumtaz. When the Emperor was imprisoned by his own son in the Amber Fort, his cell window faced the Taj Mahal so he could be tortured by its beauty and the memory of his beloved.
My tip: To take the best pictures at the Taj, I suggest standing in front of one of the fountains.
- Business Wear for Women Is Totally Different Than In The States
We visited some of the most prominent businesses in India (Wipro, GVK Biosciences, Indian Immunologicals, and even an ALEAP, an entrepreneurial business development center for women to name a few), and all the women wore the equivalent of yoga pants to work. I’m not saying that women in Indian business don’t wear power suits, but i didn’t meet a single woman in a position of authority who wasn’t wearing a sari or a kurta with the equivalent of leggings underneath with heels or flats. Most of the men, however, wore business suits instead of more traditional dress like the women.
7. Sari’s are Expensive, and Hard to put on.
If you’re looking to buy one of the beautiful ornate saris that you see in movies or what your Indian friends post on Facebook after they’ve been to a cousin’s wedding- expect to spend $300. Since I didn’t have the cash to be shelling out like that, I waited to wear a sari until we went to a cultural center to get to try some one and get henna done. As the lady was wrapping my Sari around me, I realized this was hard work. I honestly have no idea
1) how these tiny women wear so much fabric
2) how they do this every day by themselves.
Sari wearing is an expensive art.
My Tip: Unless you’re going to an important event, I won’t spend your money on a sari.
8. You can Haggle for ANYTHING.
I wasn’t going to haggle since the exchange rate was 66 rupees to 1 dollar- until I realized every shop keeper was going to try to rip me off because I was American. I had a guy tell me a “silk” shirt was worth 5000 rupees. When I promptly told him that I knew what silk was, and this was not it, the haggling began. I walked out of that shop with two of those shirts and “cashmere” scarf for 2000 rupees. It wasn’t always so easy, though. When we were riding elephants, the men who took our pictures stalked us, and even went as far to climb into our jeep and harass a girl in our group.
My Tip: Play hard ball and don’t let anyone take advantage of you because you’re a foreigner.
- Even in larger cities animals are just kind of everywhere.
In Hyderabad, there were wild hogs and even a leopard running around the university. In Agra and Delhi, there were monkeys, pigs, and cows all over the place. There were animals everywhere.
My Tip: Don’t touch the animals and stay far away from the monkeys if they have dark faces since those are the aggressive ones. Always keep your things close to you or attached to you. The monkeys are trained to steal your things, so you have to give them money or food to get them back.
11. The Smog could Kill you.
Delhi is the most polluted place on Earth currently, and you can tell the minute you step off your plane. My first \breath was met with a burning sensation in my chest that made it hard to breathe. Despite how beautiful and green Delhi is, you can hardly see the sights in front of you. By the end of the two days in Delhi, I needed medical attention for a nasty sinus infection. Everyone in our group suffered from similar ailments, and no one even cares about all the snotty wet wipes and tissues taking over the bus seats. Even in the surrounding farmland, the smog leaves its mark. I definitely won’t be going back to India without an allergy shot, and antibiotics on hand.
My Tip: Bring allergy medicine and be prepared to get sick. It’s inevitable.
12. You Don’t Hear about Terrorist Attacks in India because they make you go through 12 Rounds of Security.
You go through regular security.
Then you go through security again.
Then to board your plane, you go through yet another metal detector and x-Ray machine.
They check your boarding pass vs. an ID, even more, times than you can count. Even to get into our hotels everyday, we had to put our bags through the machine & go through the metal detector. With all the added security, the lines were never long & went fairly quickly. Seriously, no wonder you don’t ever hear about terrorism much in India! Even sharing a border with Pakistan, the Indian government has found and an efficient and safe way to protect the people within its borders. TSA could learn quite a bit.
My Tip: Always have your passport ready to go
- You’re going to miss any meat that isn’t chicken.
The top two religions in India are Hinduism, which considers cows to be sacred, and Islam, which considers pork to be too unclean to eat. Pork, I can live without, but being from Texas all I could think about by the end of the week was the Whataburger and spicy ketchup my body was screaming for. Even if you’re not a big meat person, you will-will wish you had anything to eat besides chicken or tofu for every meal. The first thing I did when I got home was devoured that Whataburger.
My Tip: Even if you fall in love with a certain food, don’t burn yourself out on it.
14. Riding an Elephant is Cool- Until you realize you might die.
My one goal for this trip was to ride an elephant. The experience left me sad and terrified. When you go to ride the elephants, you can instantly tell they are mistreated and abused. These majestic and highly compassionate creatures look sad and tired. I almost didn’t want to get on
1) because I felt so bad contributing to this
2) because the apparatus that holds you on is a wide seat with two bars for protection.
Let’s be real; India is a developing country with no real safety laws. Maybe I’m just a big baby, but I spent the whole 15 minutes holding on for dear life and praying to God my elephant that wasn’t in a good mood that day wouldn’t throw me off. At least I get to mark that off my bucket list…
My Tip: Don’t do it. I felt like scum afterward. If you’re looking to volunteer with the elephants, there are many programs across Asia that will let you do that.
15. The caste system is alive and well
Even though the caste system was “outlawed’ and it’s “illegal” to mutter the word “untouchable,” the caste system is alive and well in India. My most prominent memory of this was when we visited a steel yard where they made metal parts for cars. The workers were incredibly kind and gracious to us, but when they would speak out of turn or got to close to us, their managers would turn on them. I asked one of the professors what was going on, and he mumbled to me that these people were part of the lowest caste. These were just hard working men and women who were trying to feed their families. In America we have a racial divide, but nothing like what exist in India or other countries.
My Tip: Be kind to everyone. There’s no reason to immerse yourself in that part of Indian Culture. Help make the world a better place.
16. The Indian Head Knod offers and Infinite Possibility of Answers.
The next time my husband asks me if I’m okay with him going and drinking with his friends, I’m doing this.
My Tip: Always try to get a verbal response out of someone, or you’ll be confused as hell.
A lot of the stereotypical ideal of Indian culture is true. India is also so much more than what you would expect. As a country of contrasts, you can expect to see some of the poorest living conditions but also some of the most progressive businesses in the world. The only way you can understand modern India is the experience it for yourself. I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world.
My Tip: Go with an open kind and be prepared to be amazed by this beautiful culture.