Amid the global COVID-19 pandemic plans have changed, are postponed, or canceled. Most of us feel stuck at home and maybe have a difficult time seeing the light at the end of the long tunnel. Some of us decided to plan for what’s next despite the impending unknown. Others, like myself, are reminiscing what once was and looking back at our experiences. Whatever circumstances you find yourself in, the pandemic has shown that there is still much help needed both at home and globally. I look back at India as an example of how I want to continue traveling in the future.
During my last two years of my undergraduate career, I joined a research training honors program called Global Women in STEM and Global Policy (GWSTEM). In May 2019, with my cohort, we spent ten days in India. Within the state of Rajasthan, we spent our time in a city called Udaipur surveying women of rural villages of their political engagement, healthcare, and the use of natural remedies in their daily lives.
As excited that I was to go, this wasn’t a vacation or a big touristy trip. While we did have touristy experiences, the nature of working with non-profit organizations, translators, and seeing the standard of living in a country that was so different from what I had known was impactful. Currently, India is the third country to report 1 million COVID-19 cases, and when I remember my time there, I know that the world hasn’t halted, that other issues around the world are now put into a back-burner.
India is many things; it has thousands of years of vibrant culture, diversity of language and religion, and one the largest recognized democracies in the world. India is one of those countries that have so much open beauty and harsh realities that nothing could prepare me for the impact felt both mentally and physically—granted that I didn’t go for a vacation in Mumbai or New Delhi. Most of the trip was pre-planned by professors and non-profit organizations. Even then, I had found that there was still much to plan and prepare. While planning for a research trip isn’t that different from planning for a vacation, there are certain things that are needed to be considered before going.
5 Ways to Prepare for a Research Internship in India
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1. Vaccinations and Medicines
For the most part, checking to see if you need vaccinations or medicines is pretty much a given for any kind of travel. An excellent resource for checking what kinds of vaccinations and medications you need is the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For me, this quickly became a vital source because my cohort and I were going to be in India for a short amount of time and this was a working internship with a team, I didn’t want to fall ill suddenly. I highly recommend scheduling time in advance to make an appointment at a travel clinic instead of a general or family doctor who will most likely refer you to a travel clinic anyway. Travel clinics usually leave you with a nice packet of the kinds of diseases within a country that you are traveling to for your knowledge. For the travel advisors page of India, depending on where you are going or what you plan on doing, you can narrow down the vaccination and medications you are planning on taking. The CDC was also a great resource because it recommended to travelers what food and street vending to avoid and how we should safely drink water. It’s a comprehensive guide.
2. Consider the Environmental Factors That Could Affect Your Personal Health
Even though I am generally very healthy, I decided that it would be best to take allergy medicine and an inhaler, which ended up being used throughout the trip. One of the long time growing severe health issues in India is air pollution. Overpassing the World Health Organization’s safety limits, it’s something that could affect travelers with respiratory and cardiovascular issues. While the Air Act was passed in 1981 to prevent air pollution, it is poorly enforced. Fuel and biomass burning, fuel alterations, traffic congestion, and greenhouse gas emissions are some reasons for the grave amounts of air pollution.
Luckily for me, when I went to India, it wasn’t Monsoon season, but I did experience a bit of heat rash. Heat rash wasn’t exactly a big problem for myself and the rest of the cohort; it was more or less a surprise to experience. We hear how pollution has been eroding the ozone layer; then, in turn, instead of having a protective layer against the UV light now, we are more exposed to harsh UV rays than we were ever used too. Seeing how sensitive our skin was to this type of sun exposure was surprising to experience first hand. We spent about 6-7 days outside when sun and heat exposure was the harshest. Wearing cotton and using sunscreen is always extremely important. Having a hat and using sunglasses helps if you find yourself spending a lot of time outside in India during the summer.
Links about effects air pollutants and depleting ozone layer:
3. Travel Alerts and Warnings
When working, volunteering, researching, or interning abroad, it’s imperative to look at the travel alerts and warnings to where you will be residing. Sometimes these opportunities take place in not the most common places where tourists go. Even then, a traveler should look at the alerts and warnings not to get scared but to educate themselves about the country’s status. Rajasthan is the state closest to the India-Pakistan border, so it was vital for us to know what was going on there to be aware. It’s one thing to have fun while traveling, but there are moments as a traveler where we notice certain things that are not seen back home. Looking at travel warnings will allow you to understand what state a country has been in historically and politically.
4. Cultural Norms and Etiquette
Even traveling leisurely, you meet new people, so it was essential to learn about cultural norms and meal etiquette before going to India. With GWSTEM, they had arranged for all the students to live in home-stays. While home-stays do their best to accommodate their guests, they are among the best ways to immerse into a culture. In India, feet are considered unclean, so you either wear indoor shoes or socks inside someone’s home or worship space. Seeing a dotted Swastika in India is common because imagery and symbols are something vividly used. While to westerners, the symbol has an immediate relation to the Nazis, before it was twisted and appropriated, it is commonly used symbolically within various religions conducive to well-being, luck, and prosperity. Eating with our hands is respectful in restaurants or homes. It’s important to dress appropriately, and if you are a woman, have some scarf or head covering for when entering a temple. During my time in India, I had naturally learned more about the norms and etiquette. Still, there was a comfort knowing that I wasn’t experiencing cultural shock from everything I was seeing and experiencing. I had found that knowing and understanding some of the underlying cultural etiquette made others feel more comfortable and appreciative of each other’s time.
5. Communication, Language, Expression in Cross Cultural Teams
India is known for its wealth of diversity in religion, languages, and culture. When going abroad for work, internships, or volunteering, there is a good chance you will be doing some group work. With GWSTEM, the organizations we worked with both scouted out areas for us to survey and had us working with translators to help conduct the surveys. I quickly realized that between the students and nonprofit workers, we had different working styles. The way we express ourselves was different, so sometimes, there were moments of miscommunication. Sometimes we had different expectations for how everyone was supposed to be working. In these situations, it’s essential to be flexible and understand that somethings might be out of your hands. There are books about cross-cultural teamwork within India and other places that help foreigners understand expressions, work behavior, and engage in active communication.