Backpacking India: A Chronicle of Culture Shock

"Nothing prepares you for India."

An older Canadian woman cautioned us as we chatted with her amongst the temples of Bagan, Myanmar. We heard this same response from most people when we told them we were heading to India for two months. My partner and I had been traveling Asia for several months, and we felt confident about transitioning to travel in India, because we felt we were well equipped for culture shock. So when my own parents told me that "India was a different playing field," I took their comment with a grain of salt. The night before our flight to Kolkata my partner and I both admitted to each other that we were nervous for what was to come. Thirty days later, we have travelled by bus, train, and auto-rickshaw over 3000 kilometers. We have had flawless days and difficult days. We have had incredible food. We have seen disturbing scenes, we have seen beautiful scenes. India has challenged us like no other country, and because of that, we have fallen in love. What follows is a diary of our first thirty days in India. The things we saw and experienced which impacted us the most. Here's to the next thirty days.

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1. We were overwhelmed by the smells, noise, traffic, colours and sheer amount of people in the pulsing city of Kolkata. This sense of pure overwhelming by the culture, people and city around us was the first inkling of shock we would feel. But although we were shocked, we were simultaneously fascinated.

2. We discovered the challenges of booking a train ticket in India. After two hours in one office, we learned it was the wrong office. We were sent to the correct office, where we spent five hours waiting to see an agent. Total waiting time? 7 hours. The actual booking process? It took 5 minutes.

3. We watched Indians bathe in the Hooghly River, while others picked through the garbage that floated by. It was our first glimpse of complete poverty, and we were shocked.

4. Our first overnight train trip was a breeze. We slept soundly in our berths, and woke up in Varanasi. Overnight, rats had chewed through peoples bags, but ours were spared.

5. We stared in utter shock at human bodies being burned over open fires along the ghats of Varanasi. We didn't think we would ever know the smell of human ashes.

6. A man asked us for a photo, and within seconds an entire extended Indian family asked for individual photos. It was a 20 minute affair and involved alot of hand shaking. Since then, we have had our photo taken daily.

7. We held back our own tears as we watched a man wail for his baba, whose body was burning.

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8. While we ate our breakfast, a dead body was paraded past us, headed for the ghats.

9. We both felt ill. Nine days in our new vegetarian diet of spicy Indian food was taking its toll.

10. We saw a man lying outside the train station. He was covered in flies and his own filth. We gasped. My partner said to me, "I think he might be dying."

11. A woman threw a dirty diaper out the window of her house, and the street dogs fought over it. Adjusting to the garbage in India was a hurdle we hadn't yet overcome.

12. As our train entered Agra Indians ushered us to their window for our first view of the Taj Mahal. It was magnificent.

13. We woke to see the Taj Mahal at dawn. I will never forget how the first rays of sun light so beautifully reflect off the white marble.

14. As we wandered Agra town, we smiled and waved as hoards' of children yelled helllooooo! From the rooftops.

15. We had our lunch in a small cafe run by women who have survived acid attacks, attacks typically committed by husbands or men that they know. It was difficult to see the evidence of such attacks on these women's faces, but their willingness to take up public space is inspiring. Their stories should be heard.

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16. The stifling heat and noise of Jaipur exhausted us. We were tired of being followed by touts. So after a short walk through the pink city, we returned to the silence of our hotel room. We learned quickly in India that a hotel room becomes your oasis.

17. We visited 6 ATMs before we found one that worked. Now we know that this is always the case, so budget an entire afternoon when you need to withdraw cash.

18. We visited a monkey temple and watched as the monkeys dove into a pool and swam. Who knew monkeys like to swim?

19. A child followed us up a mountain, grabbing at us, demanding we give him 50 rupees. After saying no a billion times, it is hard not to scream. I couldn't believe I was yelling at an impoverished child to leave me alone, but I knew I shouldn't give him the money.

20. We arrived in Pushkar, the holiest city in India. In the evening we watched as thousands of candles were placed around the ghats of the town's holy lake. The twinkling of thousands of candles was absolutely magical.

21. We learned that in Rajasthan marijuana is legal, and they like to put it in a yogurt drink called lassi. They call it bhang lassi. A man tried to sell us on it, claiming it would give us "full power for 24 hour, no toilet, no shower!" Whatever that means.

22. We stayed several nights inside one of the only continuously inhabited ancient forts in the world. In the middle of the desert, it was 40 degrees, and power outages happened several times a day. We spent many evenings sweating in our room hoping for the fan to come back on.

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23. We rode camels out into the Thar Desert where we cooked dinner over a fire. We slept with blankets on a sand dune. All of it was romantic except for sleeping on a sand dune ...black beetles crawled all over us and we woke up with sand in all our crevices.

24. We took a 6 hour local bus ride to Jodhpur. The bus was crammed full with Indians standing in all the aisles. We drove through a dust storm, and when we got to our hotel room we showered off the thick layer of dust that encrusted our bodies.

25. One of the most polluted cities in the entire world, I took my inhaler every two hours just to breathe in Jodhpur.

26. We booked a hotel room for the two of us. When we checked in we were shown a room with a single bed and one pillow. Our host insisted, "it's a double bed!" #India.

27. We trekked out to see a famous lake in Bundi. We were aghast to see that it was devastatingly overflowed with garbage.

28. An elderly man in a shop in Udaipur took my hand and pulled me down to sit next to him. He wanted to share his grapes with me.

29. At a rest stop I couldn't bring myself to use the squat toilet. It was covered in shit with flies and wasps buzzing around it. Instead, my partner guarded me while I peed on top of a garbage pile. I was terrified that the pack dogs nearby would come after us while I peed. This is a valid fear in India.

30. We took an overnight non ac bus. The 17 hour trip was the worst of our lives. All night long we were sweating, jolted around, and close to vomiting from the putrid smells wafting in through the windows. We did not sleep and I spent the morning crying until finally we were dropped on the side of a highway in Mumbai. My tears were the evidence: I was not immune to culture shock.

What is culture shock?

“The feeling of disorientation experienced by someone who is suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.”

Culture shock is experienced differently amongst people, and to varying degrees. For some, it will show itself in tiredness, irritability, or …the need to cry (that’s me!). In some cases, culture shock is just an intense missing of home.

Culture shock is often not experienced right away. It can take weeks, sometimes months, for the feelings to be felt. Whilst living in The Netherlands, I only began to feel it after about 3 months, when the subtle differences between Canada, my home country, and The Netherlands became more obvious to me. In India, my culture shock kicked in in the first two weeks, but after about one month, I had adjusted. My experience of culture shock has been different according to country. In Japan, for example, I was certainly culture shocked, but it did not feel frustratingly difficult to overcome.

How do I cope?

Culture shock is normal and often inevitable. Here are some tactics that have helped me through bouts of culture shock:

  • Talk with other travelers about your experiences. I find that talking out the differences that are frustrating or fascinating in a foreign country helps immensely.

  • Chat with friends or family at home. If you haven’t got a travel partner or met other travelers, talking out your experiences with people at home can help!

  • Take time to rest. Afternoon naps, rest days cooped up in your hotel room are needed and deserved!

  • Write down your experiences. Travel journals are a popular method for remembering experiences on the road, but are also a great way to help cope with shock. Writing it out has a therapeutic function.

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