Before we got to India, our Indian friends and other avid travelers warned that the country is “overwhelming to the senses” and might wear us down. I didn’t quite understand what that meant. I was excited to explore India because it always seemed so exotic to me. But having done little travel outside of Western Europe before this trip, I didn’t know firsthand how truly shocking a non-Western culture could be.
In Africa, we traveled through a few in-your-face cities (e.g.: Cairo, Casablanca and Dar es Salaam) and I started to understand what everyone meant. These places are busy, dirty and overcrowded. Buildings aren’t well maintained, sidewalks are a foreign concept, everything is covered in dust and grime and no one seems to care. Cars, scooters and minivans zip down the street disobeying marked lanes and completely ignoring pedestrians. These sprawling metropolises make New York City look tame.
I thought those cities were good primers for India, but nothing can prepare you for what you’ll experience here. Our first week in north India was indeed overwhelming and the first place I experienced true culture shock. Mike and I disliked it so much that we even talked about flying to SE Asia sooner than anticipated (our outbound flight is still weeks away). If we can’t find peace and quiet in the south next week, we still just might do that.
I’ve been thinking about how to put this experience into words for you all to understand. As Mike and I talk to other India travelers about cultural and etiquette differences, we realize that talking about India is kind of like having an inside joke — you have to be here to understand it. Saying that sanitation standards appear non-existent isn’t enough. Neither is saying that in 360 degrees I’ve seen men urinating on dusty sidewalks, feral dogs eating their way through piles of trash and unregulated autos spewing clouds of thick black exhaust into the already foul-smelling air. Even with that, you still don’t get a sense of how polluted these cities are. So much of what makes India overwhelming is that everything overlaps senses. You get a triple dose of manure as you cover your nose, leap over the pile and walk past dirty cows who belong to no one and everyone. Most Westerners expect to see pigs and cows in a barn or on a farm, not in the middle of a four-way intersection or in front of a hotel. The reason you feel overwhelmed is because India is full of contradictions and sights that are inexplicable and incomprehensible. Looking away only reveals something different that you also won’t understand.
This Venn diagram is an abridged breakdown of what we’ve encountered in north India (the south is still to come, and supposedly a different world). It is a visual representation of how the sights, smells and sounds of this country overlap. When you read it, close your eyes and imagine these things surrounding you. Smell the odors, hear the cacophony of noises and try to visualize the things I’ve seen. The key to understanding India is knowing that using one of your senses, even when your eyes are closed, is impossible.
A Six Pack of Stories says
Wow, that’s crazy! I don’t think that would be our ideal experience either. Really good honest insight. Good luck with everything!
Thanks guys! On top of that, Mike & I have both gotten serious food poisoning twice in a month. Eeeek!
Asixpackofstories (@a6packofstories) Six Pack of Stories says
Oh my gosh! That stinks! Are you going to try and leave early?
We’re going to ride it out for now. We had to book an outbound ticket in order to get the visa (months and months ago) so we want to find a very attractive deal so we don’t lose a ton of money.
Hey Tara – please write more about your feelings – I’m quite intrigued and fascinated… But things will change as soon as you get out of the city –
Hey T1! Definitely more to come. We’ve been in big cities and smaller villages and there’s not much difference, surprisingly. Supposedly south versus north is the only contrast.
Rene Arrowsmith says
Wow! What a disgusting site. I hope the South is better or you should definitely move on soon. Stay safe.
Most definitely. We just took a photo of an empty trash can with garbage on the ground (yes, ground, outside) ALL around it. Epitome of what we’ve seen so far.
Most of my friends that have traveled to India prefer the North to the South. You might find a bit of refuge in Goa, but not much. Hate to say it but keep your eyes open for a cheap fare out of there. Air Asia always has great deals.
Just left Goa. It’s packed with Russian tourists! I think we saw more Russians there than in, well, Russia. We’re keeping our eyes open, but because we had to buy an outbound ticket to get our visa, we want to find a really good deal if we’re trashing that ticket.
Wow! That is not a good impression, sorry to hear that. We haven’t been to India yet, but we heard similar comments to yours already. We also heard from other travelers how beautiful and amazing India is despite its ‘down sides’.
It’s hard for me to tell how I would feel in your same position, but if you don’t feel comfortable there is nothing wrong with it and leaving earlier might be for the best, we cannot like every place we go while traveling.
I hope for you guys that the south is better 🙂
India does, of course, have beauty. It’s just hard to see it when you’re sick with food poisoning and can’t grab a breath of fresh air anywhere but in the Himalayas haha But you’re absolutely right — we don’t have to love every place we travel to. We do think India has been a great learning experience, for many reasons. Mostly the exposure to this kind of living has been really eye opening.
I hope I don’t sound stuck up but I was kind of wondering when you guys might experience this…outside of your first few weeks/months, your whole journey is in the developing world! I’ve heard India and other parts of SE Asia are just like you describe above…sometimes I love the thrill of an impossible city that is IN YOUR FACE 100% of the time and just doesn’t STFU…like EVER. And other times it is downright exhausting, jarring, and disheartening that parts of the world are like that. Just remember that for billions of people (literally) this is their lives, day in and day out. Gives you a different perspective on “problems” we and our society have, doesn’t it? Anyway, move on if you’ve seen enough, and keep us posted on what the rest of SE Asia is like because I’ve heard it’s more of this, and I hope for your sake it’s not quite that insane!
I was waiting for it too, wondering why I never felt like I experienced culture shock in Africa. (I guess, thank you BBC and NatGeo?) Anyway, I did want to incorporate into this post how much it really does put things into perspective, but that’s really another whole post in itself. I like in-your-face cities, but they typically have an energy to them that makes them so thrilling. Mumbai felt the closest to that, though. But in more than 4 weeks here, I haven’t found that energy anywhere else.
Hi Guys! We felt the same when we were in North India! However there is light at the end of the tunnel.. We arrived in Kochi on NYE and the south is like a totally different country. Abe was sick, so I went for a walk by myself and I wasn’t asked to buy anything, no-one shouted ‘RICKSHAW RICKSHAW’ in my face and there was decidedly less rubbish. One guy came up to have a chat to me (asked the usual questions, where are you from, where are you going etc) and then ended it with “Ok then, nice to meet you, bye”. Imagine that. Varkala is also lovely. Give the South a try before you write India off for good! Cheers, Jess (the Aussie from the Porto walking tour!)
Thanks for letting us know. It’s so nice to hear that! (That the south is different, not that Abe was sick!) We just got to Kerala, and visually it’s sooo different. I’ve never seen so many palm trees, and I grew up in Florida. Anyway, we think we’ll visit Alleppey, Munnar and some other places in-between before we re-evaluate our escape plan. Let us know if you have any suggestions, and if you’re still around. Maybe we can plan to run into each other this time!
Hi Guys! Glad you are enjoying the south! Mamallapuram was another highlight for us (about 2 hours south of Chennai). The town was a bit back-packery but the amazing temples and rock art made it totally worth it!
We’re currently in SE Asia and will be in the area until the end of April. If you are headed this way it would be great to catch up!
Nice! We’re probably staying on the west coast for the rest of our stay in India. Just too in love to leave 🙂 But SEA is our next stop. We fly to Singapore 21 Feb and will probably be in SEA until late June. Shoot us an email when you know your [tentative] route and maybe we can purposely meet up.
I hear all the time that you will love and hate India. I don’t think anyone ever leaves India without negative experiences unfortunately, but I guess thats what makes this place so intriguing. Sorry to hear yours have been mainly bad.
We’ve been here more than a month and have really tried to turn the negatives into positives, but it’s so hard when you keep getting run down. We’ve both had food poisoning twice since we’ve been here, too. At least we’ll have iron stomachs by the time we leave 🙂
I was going to recommend Kerala as a change of pace, but by the time I made it to the end of the comments, I saw you’ve already arrived. My wife and are in the last two weeks of a three-and-a-half month trip through India, so we’ve recently been through much of the north and both coasts. I’m not sure if you’ll make it over to the east coast while you’re in India, but we found Darjeeling to be very calm. From what I’ve heard, the closer to Nepal and Bhutan and the mountains that you get, the slower the pace. I suppose the mountain ethos and Buddhist culture are responsible? It sounds like you’re done with North India, but if you go back to Rajasthan, Ranakpur is a really peaceful area. We didn’t get a chance to stay the night there, but I wish we had.
I say take good notes on your discomfort. It can teach you a great deal.
Thanks for the comment! We did make it up to the Himalayas, and it was a very different atmosphere from the rest of the north. So far the south seems like another world as well. But I think it’s actually difficult to feel comfortable in India, as a woman. Between men’s stares and kissing sounds and all the articles in the paper about rape and the status of women here, it makes me really uneasy. And you’re right, I’ve learned a lot and mostly feel very thankful for my life in the States.
You did not contain beauty in you diagram 🙁
I find beauty in the details, like sarees and steamy masala chai. But to be honest, the north was such a shock to the senses that I’ve found more beauty in the south. My Venn diagram for the south would look completely different. Just my preference though 🙂
The north can be a shock!!!!!! If you have time to go to Gokarna in the south you should. Its chilled out and Beautiful!!! Enjoy your time 🙂 Pinky 🙂