Advice for visiting and living in India
December 15, 2006 5:26 PM   Subscribe

I will be leaving in a month for Jaipur, Rajasthan, to study abroad. I'll spend the spring living with an Indian family, studying international development, and doing an internship at an NGO in or near the city. Afterwards, I may travel around India for a while with a friend. Please give me any and all advice you have about traveling and living in India.

I have lots and lots of questions.

I'm a junior in college, studying international health and social issues, and am doing this through the University of Minnesota's Studies in International Development program. I don't yet know anything about the family I will be staying with, or exactly what my internship will entail.

What should I pack for 4-5 months in northern India? What can I buy easiest there, what will I wish I had brought with me? How am I going to want to dress? Jaipur is a pretty big city: is it going to be easy to find stuff like tampons and sunscreen and contact solution? Any books I should read before I go, or bring with me? Should I bring gifts for my host family, and if so, what?

And what about that family thing? It's part of the trip that I both dread and look forward to. What is it like to live with an Indian family? What will they expect of me, as an American coming to live with them? Will they be protective of me, as a young woman in their care? I haven't lived with a "family" since I was sixteen or so; even then it was just my mother and me and our cat. I'm used to a lot of independence and privacy and I have a feeling that this situation will take a lot of getting used to. At the same time, it'll be a great chance to develop a close relationship with some local people. I don't want to accidentally offend or upset them, although I'm sure some minor faux pas are par for the course. Any advice on that front?

What are some things I should make sure to do and see and experience during my time in India, especially considering I'll have some opportunity to travel after the program is over? Where's good to go, in May or June? By then I should be speaking some Hindi, and have a fair bit of experience with Rajasthan. I'm the sort of traveler who likes to just immerse herself in other worlds; I'm more interested in experiencing interesting places and cultures and meeting interesting people than seeing monuments.

Any general advice about living in India, for a non-Indian 21-year-old college girl from the midwest, with very little experience traveling outside the US? I've been interested in India for many years, and I know quite a lot about the country-- but it's a huge and varied and strange country, and there is so much I don't yet know. Rajasthan, or even Jaipur, specific information would be especially lovely.
posted by bookish to Travel & Transportation around India (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I think the best general advice for anyone visiting India is to read this amazing book. If you have a limited amount of travel time, it will still be hard to choose where to go, but at least you'll know a lot about many of the most interesting places, and have a lot of fun along the way.
posted by spasm at 5:48 PM on December 15, 2006

Response by poster: That looks like a really interesting book spasm. I'm browsing used prices on Amazon right now. Thanks.
posted by bookish at 6:05 PM on December 15, 2006

The more practical advice you are looking for is readily available elsewhere, so there's just one thing I'd like to point out: India has been the light of the world for 4,000 years, and Indians are the very best kind of person, every man Jack of them. I know this, because Indians tell their own story via the largest movie industry in the world. If you want to know how Indians see themselves, what they value, what the cultural memes are -- watch Bollywood movies. There are more "realistic" ones -- Rang De Basanti, Taxi 9-2-11, Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon -- that show people living something resembling real life, and there are more fantastic ones -- Hum Aapke Hain Kaun?, Dilwale Dulhaina Le Jayenge -- that show people's dreams of life, which are not less fascinating.

If you were to rent and watch, say,
  • Sholay
  • Shri 420
  • Hum Aapke Hain Kaun?
  • Mughal-e-Azam
  • Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham
  • Kabhi Alvida na Kehna
  • Rang De Basanti
...I daresay you would be well on your way toward having a bead on the Indian psyche, and you'd also have a sure-fire conversational topic that would delight most of your Indian interlocutors. And of course, while watching the movies, you would be beside yourself with joy for three hours at a time, because nobody does eyeball-exploding entertainment like Indians.
posted by Methylviolet at 6:29 PM on December 15, 2006 [4 favorites]

Per spasm's tack, I'd like to recommend Chasing the Monsoon.
posted by Liosliath at 6:49 PM on December 15, 2006

If you need to take a long train or bus trip, stock up on the opium.
posted by mert at 3:08 AM on December 16, 2006

I've never been to India, but it seems like contact solution in Europe is about twice as expensive as in the US.
posted by srah at 6:32 AM on December 16, 2006

I visited India nearly ten years ago, so my advice may be out of date; also, I'm male, and I never visited Rajasthan, so my experiences may not be directly relevant to yours, but seeing as you haven't had many replies I'll give you what I've got.

* Expect crowds, and noise, and stench (not always, but many places).
* Expect many of those crowds to be very interested in you, as a foreigner. This can be good, but equally, it can be wearying to be constantly having to talk to people. (That said, I'm from New Zealand and we tend to be more introverted in this respect - I've found Americans to be more willing to talk to strangers, so maybe you'll adjust to this more easily than I did).
* I also find Indian people to be quite direct, and to ask quite personal questions. Don't be offended.
* Families are also, I think, more important in Indian culture than in English-speaking countries. You tend to find people living with their parents/in extended families for a lot longer than we would. So this might be hard for you to adjust to.
* My group tended to find a gender divide when making friends with locals - it was easier for the males in my group to make friends with local males, and for the females to make friends with local females
* You may experience sexual harassment (not being a woman, I don't know too much about this)
* Long journeys go more easily with some valium (in theory you shouldn't be able to buy it over the counter, but in practice it should be possible some places)
* Get good medical insurance. If you're really sick, you want to be treated outside of India (my lab technician friend got sick in Kerala, and was very nervous about the quality of treatment/testing he received)

Places to see: I've mainly been in the south, but I'll drop some names:

* Kerala is beautiful and relaxed. Good place to lay on the beach for a while.
* Goa is OK but way over-touristed.
* Hampi (inland from Goa) is very very cool and one of my favourite places anywhere (a small village in the ruins of an old old city)
* Varanasi/Benares is amazing - very old, very holy city on the banks of the Ganges
* The Ajanta and Ellora caves (ancient Hindu and Buddhist cave temples) are great if you like that sort of thing
* Khajuraho is also good for temples - it's hard to get to (long bus ride, or expensive plane ride) but it'sdefinitely worth it - get there from Varanasi
* And worth checking out one or two of the big big cities like Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi - I've only been to Mumbai which was stressful but interesting
See also Lonely Planet for some basic ideas

Bearing in mind you will be there in June, which will be HOT, I would suggest getting up to a hill station and cooling down. Heading up towards the Himalayas might be a good idea, but I never went up there, so I won't offer any advice.
posted by Infinite Jest at 1:53 PM on December 16, 2006 [1 favorite]

I was an exchange student in India (visited Jaipur, beautiful place, but lived farther south) 20 years ago. I traveled all over, alone, by bus and train, but only got bothered by men twice. Both times, the minute I raised my voice, the "gentleman" was led away by other men in the car, and I didn't see them again.

My host families fit me into the family structure, and were very good about trying to give me more privacy than an Indian would be accustomed to. They also tried very, very hard to not be openly critical of my parents for letting me, a 17 year old girl, come to India alone.

You'll want to wear long sleeves and long skirts or pants not just for modesty's sake, but so you don't get sunburn or sun poisoning. Loose cotton clothes are cooler, too. Really. Don't worry about taking many clothes. You'll be able to get appropriate and inexpensive clothing there (and garnets, IIRC, Jaipur is known for them).

It took a couple months before my friends at college believed that I really did want to be told when I did something wrong. Learning the right things to do charmed folks. Things like don't step on the doorjam (and, some temple doorjams are a couple feet across), gestures (the hand to the chest apology movement, the side to side head nod) and body language really helped. But, Indian cultures are used to dealing with strangers of various sorts, and are generally very accepting of foreigners making social mistakes.

You should definitely take gifts. Lots of gifts, so you can give them to friends, helpful people, folks who give you things, etc. I took a bunch of sets of US coins in plastic display thingies, postcards of my city and some small things from a museum nearby. The coins and postcards went over really well. Everyone wanted to see pics of my home. In hindsight, I wish I'd taken some of my grandmother's family recipes to give out, also. Food is love. You want to aim for light and small, but very typical of your area. If you are a Minnesotan, a few small packages of wild rice might be interesting.

The Rotary provided me with a bunch of business cards with my picture and partial home (USA) address. These were wonderfully useful. I passed them out like candy. They were folded over, so I could write notes or contact info on the inside.

Hindi films are a wonderful way to get a feel for an idealized view of Indian culture, and will give you something to talk about ("So, what is Amitabh Bachhan doing these days?").

I'm sure things have changed in the past 20 years (tampons weren't available where I lived, but who knows these days), but I'm willing to bet you will have a wonderful time. India is an amazing place, the people are wonderful (strangers always took care of me in busses and trains), and while there are some really difficult things to deal with (beggars, poverty, crowding, etc.), it is so worth it.
posted by QIbHom at 9:38 PM on December 16, 2006

« Older Summary of Vietnam War Casualties   |   What do you do with a BA in English? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.