Culture Shock in India: What the guide books don’t tell you.

I have always loved travelling in non-western country’s and exploring their less touristic areas. I have traveled overland through most of South-East Asia where I came head-to-head with culture differences, and quirky circumstances that challenged me and I took it all in my stride relishing every moment. It only made sense to turn things up a notch on my round the world trip and conquer incredible India.

Everyone I’ve talked to about travelling in India told me I’ll see things I’ll want to forget, but India is a “spiritual journey” that will bring me to tears before I find the beauty. I wasn’t really prepared for India. I don’t think I ever could be ready to tackle the cultural shocks that, well, ‘shocked’ me when I landed in Kolkata.

The first thing I noticed when I emerged from the yellow Ambassador taxi that shuttled me from the airport to the dirty streets of the Esplanade was the amount of people begging. I thought I was used to people asking for money as this is a common sight in underdeveloped countries but the tactics used to extort handouts from sympathetic tourists is so much more unpleasant to witness in India. Everywhere I walked filthy looking woman with young children in their arms would come running towards me, dangling their lifeless looking child in front of me as they grovelled for money.  Little boys with running noses would bang on my taxi window and shout “one rupee, one coin” and men in sarees clapped their hands in my face demanding money to pass. I understand that India is a poverty-driven country and some people have to beg because they have an inability to work due to poor health, but I also know some families opt for begging to earn their livelihood exploiting their own children in the process.

My heart melted when I saw a young woman my own age holding a tiny baby begging outside the Red Fort in Delhi and I felt obligated to help for the sake of her helpless child. Later I was overwhelmed with dis-taste and shock when I found out that beggars outside tourist attractions are in most cases are part of “begging gangs” and babies are rented to give credibility to the scam. The begging scene in India truly devastated me, it made me question my role as a tourist in the development of poverty.  As a caring and empathetic person I want to donate money and help the less fortunate but by giving money to beggars I know I’m enabling the cycle of child neglect and trickery to continue while simultaneously disadvantaging individuals who really need assistance.

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Before I landed I heard stories of children playing in mounds of rubbish on the street, cow dung gracing the pavements and the overall pollution. Having been warned I stocked up on antibacterial hand sanitizer and baby wipes, but I didn’t expect to be visiting the ‘world’s largest rubbish dump’ and here Purex wouldn’t do the trick. As I pushed my way through the crowded Kolkata streets, the narrow allies of Varanasi and Jodhpur the stench of urine lingered from where men had pee’d against the wall like dogs marking their territory. If the stench of fresh urine in 42 degree heat wasn’t foul enough open sewers flowed along building foundations in ancient cities making it hard to walk anywhere and impossible to breath.

There is no such thing as taking a leisurely stroll in India. Nope walking is work. Alex and I walked around daily and it was impossible to walk side by side, we had to walk single file on the road with the cars, auto-rickshaws, motorcycles and of course, the stagnant pools of filth. When unemployment, poverty and begging riddle the nation it should be easy for the governing body to employ people to clean up the streets but this happening seems doubtful considering rubbish bins are non-existent.

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Everything in India seems to be in a state of anarchy and the roads are no exception. At best the traffic is manic, huge numbers of trucks, cars, buses, auto-rickshaws, and bicycles cram into small lanes honking at each other as if their vehicles ran on the sound of their horn and not petrol. Driving in India is about convenience and driving how you please, right of way is given to the bigger vehicle, the most impatient driver or cows. With so much chaos I found it next to impossible to cross the roads. Zebra crossings exist but for decorative purposes – Nobody stops to let you cross and no one seems to care if they hit you either.

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Despite being surrounded in chaotic crowed cities of millions, locals always managed to spot my fair skin. No matter where I traveled in India whether it be Rajasthan, Delhi or Agra: people would approach me with a phone in their hand and yell “selfie?” Every second person who passed me would ask to take a photo. In the beginning it was exciting; I felt like a celebrity posing with an adoring fan. For a short time at least . But then I noticed the amount of men taking photos and videos of me without my permission and this is when the novelty wore off and I started to feel like I was being harassed by the paparazzi. How many photos are there of me in India? Photos of me with smiling families visiting the Taj Mahal. Photos with giggling little girls holding my hand. Photos of me standing uncomfortably in the middle of 10 men. Photos of me with a scarf pulled over my face. Photos of me pulling the bird at the camera and the not so sneaky creep aiming it at me.  And who knows where all these photos end up, You never know a pervert could be hiding in between those smiley faces.

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These are the things you don’t want to hear about when you ask about travelling in India. But these are the things the guide books leave out. Travel isn’t just about the glamorous Facebook sharing moments, it’s about uncovering the reality of a culture, country and people different to our own.

India has left such a massive impression on me, India pushed me out of my comfort zone everyday, this made travelling in India more challenging and therefore more rewarding.

Aleisha xx.

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