Culture Shock Part One: India

Jaipur has some beautiful sites, but there's a lot about India that's hard to deal with at first.

Jaipur has some beautiful sites, but there’s a lot about India that’s hard to deal with at first.

I’ve been working on Short Journeys: India lately (due out in April) and thinking of some of the experiences I’ve had there and thought that ‘Culture Shock’ would be a good topic to write a blog on. This will be a three part article over three weeks (check on Sundays for the next part!) with Part One on India, part two will be Africa and part three will talk about the dreaded reverse culture shock – coming home!

Paraganj, Delhi

Paraganj, Delhi

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What is culture shock exactly? Well, shock can be a medical condition. Culture shock might be arriving in a place and the country and culture shock you to the point of well, being lost, afraid of leaving your hotel room, worried that you simply will not be able to cope in the country you’re in and end up in a ditch or something else along those lines. For those who travel and have never experienced culture shock… I think you might be missing something! Honestly! Experiencing culture shock allows you to learn about yourself and discover your limits, and then improve them.

So, I have visited India three times in my life, firstly in 1999. Let me paint the picture for you. Oh crap, I don’t have a scanner! I’ll need to use words. Well, my first solo trip, I had just had an adventuresome start to my backpacking life when I took two weeks in Thailand. I coped pretty well with any culture shock I think, despite getting incredibly drunk on the first night!

I flew to India, and upon landing it was pretty much immediate culture shock. Delhi airport has since been remodelled I am sure, but in 1999 the place was simply a DUMP. No offence to the good people of airports India, but the roof had partitions removed left right and centre for repairs I guess and I could see all the wiring which believe you me was NOT confidence inspiring.

I have never seen so much checked luggage on a plane too. Waiting to collect the bag I remember as being one of the longest waits as the number of giant cardboard boxes was surely a world record. Through customs, and out into the real India. BANG! There was a two-metre high fence in front of me and some friends I had made on the plane, and behind it seemed hundreds of thousands (although in reality it was probably just thousands) of people, pushed up hard against the fence looking at all who came through the doors. They were waiting for their loved ones no doubt, but one could be forgiven into thinking they were waiting for a Bollywood star sighting or news of a disaster!

Rickshaws - always associated with India.

Rickshaws – always associated with India.

Well, luckily our group went to the pre-paid taxi booth and was soon in a taxi to Delhi. Despite having already paid, many taxi drivers approached us as we walked with our driver to the taxi. We sped into Delhi to our requested guesthouse despite the driver desperately wanting to take us elsewhere. We settled into our rooms and desperate for some water, we set off in the middle of the night to find some. Walking down the street at 2am we found the footpaths (that’s sidewalks for those in the US!) difficult to traverse because ever few metres we had to step around homeless people sleeping on the streets. Literally hundreds on that street alone!

Did you expect this on the banks of the Ganges?

Did you expect this on the banks of the Ganges?

My first time in India, boy was that a culture shock and a half. Also on my first time in India I got very sick for around 2 weeks, struggled to find food that wasn’t overly spicy, got stuck at a guesthouse I didn’t want to stay at because my rickshaw wallah refused to take me where I wanted to go, had a hotel room with actually more than a hundred mosquitoes sharing it with me, endured an earthquake and a car accident within 12 hours of each other, had a man almost kidnap me and try to make me sell his gemstones in Europe and was NEVER happier to leave a place, with the exception of Burkina Faso in 2006 after I had had malaria.

Culture shock can hit you hard, and if you can’t overcome it you will be miserable. As it turned out, even on that journey I had plenty of good days. Days in Udaipur by the lake, staying with a family in Jalandhar, experiencing a Bollywood movie for the first time and seeing the Taj up close. I met a couple of others who were struggling far more than I with India too, but when I left, I swore I would never, EVER return.

Throngs at the Golden Temple, Amritsar

Throngs at the Golden Temple, Amritsar

Well, I’ve been back twice since and would happily go again as soon as someone buys me a ticket! India is a country that teaches you about yourself, and shows you the extremes of poverty and riches. I remember arriving in Delhi later after an overnight bus trip to a bus station next to miles of tents, barely standing up. Home to thousands and thousands. Do I wish I had taken a route or tour as to avoid such sights? Not in a million years. Culture shock in fact is an important part of travel. It’s about realisation and adjustment.

I went back to India not for the challenge strangely enough, but because I realised what an amazing, unforgettable place I had been and that there was so much more to see. In my return trips I managed to ‘go with the flow’ a lot more, and relax and appreciate what was going on around me. I paced myself a lot better too – India is better enjoyed more slowly than some places. Two days here and one day there, it is very taxing on the traveller, the transport is not fast, and you are dealing with so much.

Holi revellers.

Holi revellers.

Thanks to India I was able to deal with culture shock a lot better almost every place I went. Except for one – tune in in seven days to find out how I found my first experiences of West Africa.

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