Culture Shock! Reflections on Leaving India

Over five months, I traveled alone across the Indian subcontinent. I saw those unfathomable population centers of New Delhi and Jaipur, and I traveled the lonely rural road through Rajasthan to the golden fortress of Jaisalmer. I rode out into the Thar Rajputana desert bordering Pakistan before traveling down to the “blue” and “white” cities of Jodhpur and Udaipur. I saw the south of India in Kerala- the ancient Fort Cochin where the Portuguese of old set their battlements upon the western coast of the subcontinent, and I paddled the backwards backwaters where the locals live like old trees off the criss-crossed canals and swamps of the south. I ascended breathtaking peaks in the greatest mountain range on planet earth, and descended those mountains in violent expulsions of built up energy. I met with the love of my life in Delhi and we hitchhiked to Tibet and then on via motorcycle to the Indochinese border of Pangong.

On this blog I have told a lot of stories about these experiences- but of course most stories remain untold.

One thing is true- this experience has been a mind-boggling smack to my consciousness which has largely altered the way that I see the world. I didn’t realize this initially. Since I spent so much time alone or with strangers in Nepal, I had no static reference points against which to observe the change in my own mind. 

But when Natalie came out to visit in August, and especially when we traveled together away from the subcontinent to Thailand, then I could notice.

One thing especially that crystallized for me upon leaving was that realization of the strangeness of India. It’s a country like no other in the world. 

India is a nation which hits you hard on every sensory level. My auditory memory of the country is one long truck horn blasted straight to the eardrum (that unique fluting horn of the Indian truck).

The spices that they put into their different Masalas are fresh in a way that isn’t often matched across the world. And then, imagine streets littered with food carts roasting these fresh, pungent spices. 

For this reason the smell of India is saffron, cumin, coriander, cardamom, black pepper and cinnamon… the smell is cattle, and bonfires, and incense burning, and humans. HUMANS. One point three billion of them press in upon you and create a sensory pressure which is impossible to describe. The pressure of this humanity creates an extremely reactive environment- one of bizarre imagery, unexpected situations, and a boisterous people.

India is a place where 2 truck drivers will let you share a tiny cabin with them for 25 hours to get you where you need to go, safely. “You are with us now…”

It’s a place where a guy you met for half an hour at lunch once will invite you to his home and clear his weekend to show you the version of his valley that only he knows. Thank you Fuzeil

It’s a place where walking down the street means a dozen invitations for tea, and truly devoted assistance from almost anyone you might ask for help. Atithi Devo Bhava

Friendships are easy to forge in a place like India.

India is a place where chaos is the rule. You can see it from the traffic filtering all the way down through society to the subtle interactions and expectations that people have for situations Jugaad

In a country of 1.3B, you reduce your idea of personal space, and what I would call auditory space. People will talk to you out of the blue, even shouting at you some random-ass question from across the street. They will sit down right next to you and loudly watch videos on their phone, or ask you to take your own earbuds out so that can inquire about what country you’re from. People will stare! I got pretty used to the feelings of 5-10 eyeballs on me when I walked down some less-traveled street. 

On the whole, I loved that stuff. Its so unique and cool to meet lots of people every day. As a solo male, venturing out into a new place in India felt kind of like being a video game character who could accept one of dozens of plotlines. You just wander about and people ask you to tea, or to sell you a shawl, or to take you to a random cult temple on the other side of town. You take on these questlines all while being aware of malevolent scammers and hawks.

India is a place like no other in the world; it’s a place that has a lot to teach. For some reason, I know that I’ll go back to India someday. And until I do go back, it is with me.

5 thoughts on “Culture Shock! Reflections on Leaving India”

  1. damn, would like to hear even more about the mental changes, is that shiva with the trident in the mist? so cool

    1. I think I spent a few hours trying to explain this but ended up removing all of it from the article because I’m probably not even sure what I mean. Its pretty hard to write about psychological changes within yourself in a way that is both accurate, and unpretentious. I think a big part of it is witnessing the hardships of life in a poorer country like India. Putting into perspective the challenges that I face in my own life compared to the way that people like poor rural Indians face their lives. The important part of this is that universal human concepts like Struggle and Truth, don’t seem much to change based on how “fortunate” the human in question is. We all struggle, we’re all in pain, we’re all seeking some way out or some story to “lessen” our pain. Despite how strange and different a place like India is, as humans we share these things with all humans; we are more alike than we are different.

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