It was my second full day in India. Eyes-wide, everything was new and strange to me. I was so overcome with emotion that I returned home and wrote the below letter to a friend of mine.
This letter is an honest, candid representation of my true feelings during those first few days. I decided to publish this on the blog because I think it can help other travelers prepare for the culture shock that you might experience. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly – here we go!
After having traveled to other developing countries, I thought I was prepared for anything. But India is different. Life is not easy here. Poverty is everywhere; the streets are filled with trash.
Everybody stares at me. I’ve adjusted my expression to a permanent scowl so that I have that, “don’t mess with me” look. It seems to work, and nobody bothers me. Everyone is always trying to sell something which can be frustrating, but then again, I admire their entrepreneurial spirit. To a point.
The vibrant colors are beautiful. India is nothing if not colorful – even the broken walls of the slums are bursting with color.
Indian women are stunning, and the traditional style of dress is somehow both elaborate and simple at the same time.
There are animals everywhere. Cows, donkeys, chickens, cats, dogs, and goats. On the streets. Weaving through traffic. It’s crazy!
Speaking of traffic, the roads in India are absolute chaos. A 10 km distance can take up to 3 hours by bus. Because of this, everyone is always late for everything.
Oh, the bus…
The bus is a sub-culture in itself. There is no set bus schedule. When you see a bus coming, you have to flag it down and then poke your head in, asking “Does this bus go to X?” If they say no, it’s a no. If they say yes, it could still actually be a yes or a no! There have been a few occasions where the driver smiled at me and answered, “yes,” but I’m pretty sure that he had no idea what I said, and I ended up very, very far from where I wanted to go.
And yet, there are some really nice, interesting aspects of the Indian bus culture. Women stay in the front of the bus; men sit in the back. My very first time riding the bus, it was crowded and I was standing. The woman seated below me motioned to take my bag from me and I was all, “No, thank you ma’am!” and a bit shocked by the gesture. Then I noticed everyone around me. ALL the standing women had handed their purses to those who were seated. Oh! It’s actually a thing. A very sweet, kind gesture amongst the madness – and that’s very symbolic of India as a whole.
Another small shock came during my very first meal in India. I discovered that it’s customary to eat with your hands, no utensils. At the end of each meal, you are given a bowl of water to dip your hand in – but only your RIGHT hand. Using your left hand for eating is considered extremely disrespectful. The first time I did this was at lunch yesterday, and afterwards I put both hands in the water bowl and washed them thoroughly. I immediately noticed when my Indian counterpart cringed at the sight. She then explained to me the etiquette of Indian dining.
Society runs differently here. The modern caste system is very apparent. Our homestay has a live-in housemaid who sleeps on the floor in the corner. Drivers are not even allowed to enter the hotels when picking up their guests, instead there is a loudspeaker for calling them by number. At the school, I can easily guess the position of each teacher based on the very obvious treatment of the “lower” ranking assistants.
I observe the little ways in which women are treated as second class citizens, and yet, I’ve only personally encountered very strong, smart, and powerful women. To that point, the communication style here is direct and forceful. It comes off somewhat aggressive, but I don’t think they mean it that way.
For example, the organization where I’m volunteering is run by several women. On the first day, each of them took a turn calling me into their office for a chat. Each was more intense than the first, a series of pressure-filled interviews consisting of some seriously personal questions! The entire time, all I could think was: What is she doing with her head?! Now I know. The Indian head bobble. Imagine doing a figure 8 motion with your neck, which appears to be a side-to-side shake. I’ve been conditioned to perceive this action as a sign of disapproval. But in fact, the Indian head bobble is more often a gesture of approval and agreement. Whew!
There was this one really sweet moment at the school today. I was playing with the kids and the primary teacher, who doesn’t speak any English, was watching me closely. Suddenly she walked over and held both my hands in her own. She then took off all the bracelets she was wearing and slid them over my wrist. And she held my palms in hers again, smiling. It was very sweet and surreal, and in that moment I really felt the weight of this experience. I thought, “I’m not even sure where I am right now – somewhere in a small village, inside a school, in India. And this is incredible.”
At the end of the day, I walked about a mile to the bus stop with this little old lady whose height only came up to about hip-level with me. She barely spoke English but she just smiled anyway and talked ‘Hinglish’ the whole time. She knew every person that we passed, and damn if she didn’t stop and introduce me to every single one of them. I am touched.
If I had to explain India using only one or two words, I would describe it as a series of contradictions. Relaxed Insanity. Chaotic Peace. Inspiring Challenge.
Tomorrow is a new day, and I can’t wait to fill you in on every new experience. More to come!