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What NOT to Do When Volunteering in India

Volunteer India

India is a pretty fantastic place. I know – I spent eight years of my upbringing there. It is not for everyone but, love it or hate it, that country will leave a lasting impression. It is loud, riotous, and just plain in-your-face. You will have some intense experiences, including a likely encounter with feral monkeys who are determined to steal your food or your belongings. You will also meet some incredibly welcoming and hospitable people who will share amazing food and invite you to some awesome wedding celebrations. And you can also, as an international volunteer, make a formidable difference in the lives of others.

India, as one of the most densely populated countries on the planet, is experiencing a wide variety of social problems. There is a need for volunteers in women's rights, community development, and conservation, just to name a few of the top 6 volunteer projects in India. As a volunteer in India, you will see the extreme lows of poverty and the opposite highs of generosity and charity. Depending on your budget, you might be treated like royalty or you will discover just what level of squalor you find acceptable. You'll learn to treasure bathrooms that have a separated shower and toilet area.

However: if you're going to make the most of your time volunteering in India, keep the following DON'Ts in mind.

1. Do not forget to bring Pepto-Bismol or Imodium.

Food sickness is inevitable, so just accept the impending bathroom visit. I have only known one person ever who got through their entire three week visit without a single stomach bug or parasite. You will likely not be so lucky. Got that overnight bus somewhere? Pop one of those bad boys and stop yourself right up. Never forget that Delhi belly is lurking around every stall!

2. Do not shy away from trying new things.

There is going to be a ton of foods and dishes that likely did not make it into the mainstream Indian buffet. Combine multiple regions with local specialties and the unique way that every cook prepares each dish and you have a recipe for unlimited delicious foodstuffs. Do your best to pick places that look like they adhere to clean culinary practices or, even better, get yourself invited over to someone’s home and get ready to eat some of the greatest food of your life.

Volunteer India

3. Do not forget to bring ear plugs.

This is specifically for those who plan on volunteering during Diwali/Deepavali, the Festival of Lights. While extremely fun (and unbelievably dangerous due to the wide use of improperly made fireworks), Diwali is as loud as it gets. Literally non-stop fireworks go on for a week or more, depending on how boisterous the celebrations get. My dog was convinced that World War III was occurring and she would open the door to my room for a cuddle (yes, she was a genius puppy). Either bring those ear plugs or say goodbye to sleep.

4. Do not dress in skimpy clothing.

India is a conservative society that is opening up in many regards but is still pretty adamant about others. Whenever I go to a new country, I always start conservative and then open up when I get a better feel for cultural norms. As a foreigner, you will already get stared at a lot and revealing clothing will just add fuel to the fire. This goes for guys too, so keep those shirts on! If nothing else, you never know when you will visit a temple or some holy site and, like the Vatican, it's important to be respectful and dress appropriately.

5. Do not avoid the language.

As a foreign volunteer, you are likely not going to be fluent in any Indian language. However, it is always nice to learn a few words of the local tongue. People really appreciate the effort and you might just discover a new passion. Plus, language classes are a great way to make friends and get out into the community.

6. Do not drink from the tap.

This is not okay. Never ever do this. You will not be okay. My guy, in a fit of absolute insanity, decided to use tap water to wash down the antibiotic pills he needed to fight his already pre-existing stomach bug. Luckily he did not get a parasite, but he could have and it would not have ended well. Hoard bottles of water or find yourself a clean well.

Volunteer India

7. Do not pet wildlife.

The thing is, there is more wildlife in daily Indian life than other places. Between the monkeys, stray cats and dogs, cows, goats, oxen, and occasional camels and elephants, you will encounter some sort of animal. It is only a matter of time. When it happens, you need to remember two things. First, monkeys are out to sabotage your life and they come with a nasty bite. Second, those animals might not take too kindly to random tourists stepping into their personal space. I've been a sucker for stray puppies and I do not expect everyone to stay strong, but do try to limit the number of rabies shots you need to get.

8. Do not flaunt the beef eating.

Okay, I realize that most people are aware that cows are sacred animals to Indians. In fact, that is the reason why they roam so freely (although places like New Delhi are herding them to the outskirts so as to minimize traffic accidents). Obviously you will be able to find beef in certain restaurants, but there is a reason why I had lamb burgers at McDonald’s as a child. Again, be respectful of the culture in which you are immersed. You might even consider going veg for awhile!

9. Do not forget to buy a Saree or a Salwar Kameez.

Do not leave India without having a piece of local attire, and, no, those gigantic balloon pants that hippies wear do not count. Try to find yourself a Fabindia store and pick up some gorgeous clothing to parade around when you get home. Maybe pick up some bangles or shoes. You could even get your nose pierced and wear a diamond nose ring if you wanted.

10. Do not throw yourself into an advanced yoga course.

You are in India. You are looking to get fit. You decide that ancient practices are best and what better place than where the practice originated. You sign yourself up for the most convenient class you can find and prepare for your body to be in the best shape ever. No. This will not happen. You will be bruised, broken, and twisted in ways that you were not meant to be. Unless you find a beginner yoga class or you are a yoga master, you are going to hurt. Ease yourself in and say no when the instructor tries to get you to do something absurd. Your back will thank you.

Some more helpful tips:

  • Do not get into an overcrowded bus – it will likely tip over.
  • Do not forget to bring clothes that you can ruin – you could end up bathing an elephant or getting colored powders thrown at you during Holi, the best festival ever.
  • Do not neglect to watch a Bollywood movie with some friends – relish the intermission and your ability to pick seat numbers ahead of time.
  • Do not get caught out in the monsoon – These torrential downpours are no joke and will certainly have a detrimental effect on fancy camera equipment.
  • Do not stay in one place – India is a fantastic, large, and diverse country. You will only be there for a limited amount of time so go out and experience as much as you can.
  • Do not overlook using a volunteer program - Great orgs like Cross Cultural Solutions or IVHQ have awesome projects in India you can contribute to.

Volunteering in India is an extremely exciting opportunity and I know you will make the most of it. You will be challenged, you will likely cry at least once out of either frustration or joy, and you will see some of the most breathtaking places in the world. Throw yourself into the food, the people, and the questionable train system and above all, enjoy yourself!

Photo Credits: Global Volunteer Network.
Cecilia Haynes

Cecilia is a Third Culture Kid who is currently based in Florida. She hopped on her first plane when she was three months old and has yet to stop flying. She has lived in China, India, the U.S., the Philippines, and Turkey. After saving money by working as an English instructor in Hong Kong for a year, she backpacked around the Tibetan Plateau, western China, and northern India.