Namaste: Preparing To Study Abroad In India

by Felicia Savage

You’ve decided to study abroad in India so it’s time for a little preparation. College courses are tough enough, let alone learning them in a foreign country. While studying abroad can be one of the most exciting and fulfilling times in a your life, it can also be one of the scariest. With a population of approximately 1.2 billion people, it can be easy to get lost in the crowd. However, learning a little bit about the people and culture before takeoff can make your study abroad program in India more enjoyable and help foster an appreciation for Indian tradition and society. Here’s a quick guide to help you have a smooth study abroad experience in India.

Hand pulled Rickshaw, Calcutta, India.
Hand pulled Rickshaw, Calcutta, India - Photo Courtesy of Nomad Tales

Know the Basics

India doesn’t have a national language, but Hindi is the official one. Although English is commonly spoken as well, it is helpful to learn the language, or at least some commonly used phrases and local customs while studying abroad in India. For instance, it’s important to know that “namaste” means “hello” and “goodbye” in Hindi.   

Similarly, hand gestures or common practices in America can be offensive in India. For instance, eating with the left hand is considered unclean, so eating with the right hand is a must. Even if you’re a lefty, try with the other to avoid being seen as dirty. Another important custom to remember is the Hindu religion’s reverence of cows. Cows are considered sacred, and killing or injuring them can lead to jail time. Steer clear (pun intended) of any restaurants or vendors serving beef. They are most likely serving it illegally. Don’t expect to bite into a typical Big Mac if you are craving a taste of home. Beef is not served in chain restaurants. Instead, try a Maharaja Mac which features a chicken patty between the buns.

Travel Made Easy

Indian rickshaws

Hoofing it is inexpensive, but getting around a large country like India is much easier when using a faster mode of transportation. It’s also helpful to know which methods of travel are the most convenient, least expensive, quickest, etc. For instance, HCCMIS, a noted travel insurance company, recommends hiring a driver who has experience with India’s heavily populated streets and poor road conditions. They also provide more information for navigating the congested streets. Drivers usually cost as little as two U.S. Dollars per day.

Train. This is the most affordable choice after your feet, but it is also often the most crowded. The plus side is that the train system literally covers the entire country and is safe and comfortable. There are over 14,000 trains operating throughout the country everyday.

Planes. Traveling by plane has become an affordable and efficient way to cover long distances in India. Be sure to confirm your flight a couple of days in advance because airport computers can be unreliable also and be prepared for long waits.  

Buses, Taxis, and Rickshaws. Instead of driving yourself, taxis, buses and rickshaws are all safe and inexpensive options. Traveling by plane is an affordable way to reach remote locations, but watch out for long waits at the airport. The train is, by far, the most affordable choice, but often the most crowded. No matter the preferred method of travel, having a travel buddy is a key factor in staying safe.

Barter Like a Local

One of the most fun (or most frustrating) parts about studying abroad in India is bartering with local vendors. While it’s unheard of to bargain for lower prices in American stores, it’s unheard of not to do so in India. By using the right haggling techniques, it’s possible to negotiate prices down to less than half of the original price. Those completely new to Indian prices should do research beforehand to find out what items typically cost. It pays to be assertive—shoppers should state firmly how much an item should cost. If the vendor doesn’t accept, the best plan is to simply walk away. Either the vendor will change his mind or that item can likely be found somewhere else (For more money tips check out this article: 11 Ways to Avoid Money Mishaps while Studying Abroad in India).

Local kids in India

Don’t Drink the Water

When studying abroad in India, it’s normal to want to see, do, and eat all the area has to offer. However, doing so could cause some pretty serious stomach issues later on or at least ruin your trip. Finding the safest restaurant or vendor is as simple as following the locals’ example. Empty stalls or restaurants are empty for a reason. If a place is busy, that means it has a good reputation for being sanitary and having healthy food.

For the more adventurous foodie, there are a few more warning signals to watch out for. Wise restaurant patrons will pay strict attention to the way food and drinks are prepared. Food prepared after it’s ordered is a safer bet than something that’s been sitting on the counter for who knows how long. It's a good idea to ask vendors to prepare something fresh. If they refuse, there's surely another nearby who will. Similarly, peeled fruit is safer to eat than pieces with the peel still on; fresh-looking fruit from vendors is often doused with less-than-sanitary water.

A little research can go a long way, especially when studying abroad in India.