I was wide awake, but I stayed in bed, staring at the ceiling. The blowing dust and blaring traffic pressed on relentlessly, muffled by the double-paned glass. I felt trapped in a bunker in the comfort of my hotel, unable to face what waited for me outside.
What have I gotten myself into?
I had managed to delude myself into thinking I’d be able to just bop along through India unaffected by the crippling population density, apocalyptic pollution and sheer chaos. I’m tough, I thought. I can totally handle it. I’d thought I was prepared for the culture shock after hearing stories from my Indian friends, reading blogs about India – Garren and I even watched a Bollywood movie – for research purposes, of course. My Lonely Planet guidebook even made it seem easy. But no, I was woefully unprepared. The culture shock didn’t fully hit me until I was hanging out of a tuk tuk filtering air through a kleenex.
Was India an enlightening experience that opened my mind to a fascinating part of the world? Sure. But don’t think for a second that it was all beautiful temples, photogenic cows, and cardamom-scented markets. Ok, there was a lot of that. But India tested me, India was tough, and there were times I just wanted to book a flight home.
With some practice and some time, I started to get it. I even began to understand why people get hooked. I’ll be posting a survival guide and packing list later on with all the tricks I learned to help make the culture shock easier (update: here’s the survival guide, here’s the packing list), but before we jump into the good stuff I’m going to be brutally honest. There were some things in India that drove me crazy, starting with…
Every street was lined with garbage that was often swept into piles and lit on fire. The pungent smell was everywhere we went. Smoke hung in the air. How did it all get there? I felt like I was the only one who noticed it.
The trash bothered me so much, that when Garren and I had some empty ice cream cups and couldn’t find a trash can anywhere, I belligerently insisted we carry them back to our room despite the truck-loads of trash we passed by on the street.
Blue skies were elusive in India. Mumbai’s skyscrapers dissappeared into
fog smog. The forecast for the day was – I kid you not – “smoke,” a result of pollution in the air from exhaust and the burning of trash. Lovely.
Sunsets were consistently anticlimactic with the sun dropping into a dark grey band before escaping below the horizon. Curious about the phenomenon, I learned from Wikipedia that there is such a thing as the Asian brown cloud, a massive brown cloud of air pollution that hangs over South Asia and is visible by satellite. Eww. The things you learn when you’re bored and jetlagged at 4am…
Rides through the streets of India meant weaving through auto rickshaws, mopeds, and cars, all spewing grey fumes that hung in the air. I played the game of taking a big breath whenever we emerged from a cloud of exhaust, then holding my breath as long as I could until the air cleared again. Often it didn’t and I begrudgingly inhaled. I may as well have attached a breathing tube to an exhaust pipe. Commutes ended in a pounding headache. Bring ibuprofen.
It often took an hour to travel just a few miles. Indian roads and highways were a jumbled mess of every possible vehicle from cars and large trucks piled high with cargo to pedestrians, bicycles, cows, goats, and chickens.
Cars drove on the left side of the road except when they didn’t feel like it. I also found that the only way to stop a motorbike from passing us was to point my camera out the back window.
I’ve watched this video of the show-stealing moped driver dozens of times and every time I see something crazy I didn’t notice before. See the mopeds driving the opposite direction? See the trash on the side of the road? The big cloud of exhaust? There’s not a dull moment on the streets of India.
Nowhere else have I heard so much honking and such variety of horns! Imagine what it would sound like if you dropped an ice cube down the back of someone playing a trombone. That’s what some of the bus horns sound like. And they’re honking all. the. time. Each night I drifted off listening to the circus symphony of sounds occurring outside my window. Bring earplugs.
I’ve never had so much trouble getting from place to place as I did in India. One particularly bad example was when we tried to get from the center of Hyderabad to the outskirts of the city to meet my sister’s boyfriend’s family. Andrea’s boyfriend, Sid, spoke both Hindi and the local language, yet we still could not get a taxi, auto rickshaw, bus, or private driver to take us. Empty taxis refused us because we hadn’t booked in advance, so we downloaded the taxi booking app (using precious data) only to find that we couldn’t complete a booking because we didn’t have an Indian phone number. Sigh…
You might say, “OK, so get an Indian sim card.” We tried and failed. Apparently you have to be a current resident, not just of India, but of the Indian state you’re currently in.
Still trying to get to Sid’s family, we tried to catch a bus but there weren’t any buses heading that far outside the city. We finally found an auto rickshaw that would take us as far as our hotel and then we tried to hire a private driver from there. No luck. No one wanted to take us out and wait around to bring us back. Why was it so difficult to hire a cab?
The USA has its share of slums, but they are so isolated that I’ve never seen them. Americans either don’t know they exist or forget they ever knew. But in India, the wealthy, the poor, and everyone in between live in such close proximity that the contrasts were glaring. Opulent skyscrapers and regal palaces stood across from crumbling concrete buildings and houses made of corrugated metal and tarp. Wealth was displayed openly and proudly, perhaps as a memory of the Old India before imperialism robbed the country of its riches.
There weren’t as many people begging and hassling us as I anticipated, but it did happen and they were quite insistent. I had to turn my heart to stone to ignore some of their pleas, but I knew the darker secrets behind many of the beggars. The sad reality is that children are sometimes snatched from their families and trafficked by a begging mafia, sending them out in troupes to beg on the streets. Children are forced to hold babies that aren’t their own, or are sometimes maimed to make people feel sorry for them. I knew throwing money at the problem would only perpetuate it, but I was kept awake wondering what their lives were like.
Many adult beggars would try to get our money through Sid (who is Indian, if you didn’t catch that). Assuming he must be our tour guide, they’d demand he give them our money, saying “You’re getting paid by them, don’t be so selfish!” It never crossed their mind he might be with us as a friend.
I was out to get sunset photos of the Chinese fishing nets in Kochi. Some guys operating the fishing net contraption encouraged me to take my photos from out on the rig. I was suspicious they wanted something in return so I asked, “is it free? You don’t want any money?” They replied “Yes, free! Please don’t pay us! Come!” I felt awkward, but I went out to get my shot, knowing it was the only way to get the perfect angle. When I was done I was walking off the rig and of course, the guy asked for money. Whatever, it was expected. He had lied to me, but I did get some good shots, so I pulled out 20 rupees (a small amount of money). He scoffed, “no, no. 100 rupees.”
OK, I know that’s not a lot of money, but he outright lied to me! I don’t tip liars! I was so frustrated with his cocky behavior that I threw the measly 20 rupee note in his face and told him “Take it or leave it,” in my meanest voice as I walked away.
This kind of thing was so common in India, and it got to be disheartening having to repeatedly shout “No!” at anyone that talked to me. Anytime I went out by myself, I was bombarded with stares and unwanted attention. I wanted to talk to people, I wanted to connect. But I also wanted people to respect me. As I was talking about it with my sister one night, I told her Sid had forgotten to teach us a key phrase in Hindi. Before I could tell her, she guessed it on the first try: “Fuck off?”
Every culture’s got this one. Everyone thinks their way is the right way, or sometimes the ONLY way! I never thought about it, but after traveling through India I have really started noticing aspects of my own American culture. It was a bit of a shock to see my own preferences met with frowns and confusion.
I had a conversation with someone about how servers at restaurants in India would dish out the food equally onto everyone’s plates. I had wanted to serve myself and take the amount that matched my appetite, but the server insisted on distributing our food for us. “It’s better that way,” he said. Good thing I didn’t tell him I served myself seconds without waiting for the server to do it for me!
My first impressions of India were tainted by discomfort, disorganization, and disheartening moments. But each time I had a bout of pessimism or a wave of pure shock, there was always a redeeming moment that made me realize there was more to India. When I was sipping straight from a coconut in the middle of Hyderabad, taking in the Mumbai city lights, or kicking back in a hill station guesthouse, I started to feel the heartbeat of India charming me little by little. It’s a complicated country – a whole bunch of worlds all wrapped into one – and it required me to slow down, dust off a few layers, and explore deeper. There was a side of India that was worth staying for. It just took some time to find it and appreciate it.
So much of what I thought I knew about India was flat-out wrong. Westerners think India is all about snake charmers and yoga – a place to retreat and find inner peace. I wrote this post not to scare you away, but to introduce you more realistically to the rough side of India – the side you will see as a first time visitor. Upon first glance, this was the India that I saw. But as I got to know the country a bit better, it started to win me over little by little. That’s my plan for you. So stay tuned, and follow in my footsteps.
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