This is the first of four posts about my Adventures in India. This first post will focus on my experience with adjusting to Indian Culture.
Adventures in India: Adjusting to Indian Culture
In December 2016 I traveled around India for about 3 weeks with two of my close friends, my dude and m’lady. The primary motivation for going to India was to attend our guy friend’s 4 day traditional Indian wedding. My friends and I also took this opportunity to travel to various parts of India.
Before Just Simply Alice Leaves the US
First, let me start with some context. I’ve lived in Portland for less than 2 years, but it is the first place that I feel like I can call home. Right before I left for India I quit my job. My life was in a whirlwind of stressful life transitions prior to India. Given that I did not have time to process my trauma based job, I was not feeling emotionally grounded.
Plus, a few days before traveling to India I confirmed that my two close friends, soon to be travel companions, were now dating. None of our travel plans accounted for a third wheel backup plan. So, having a vague idea of how intense India was going to be, not having time to mentally decompress from my job, and knowing that I would experience inevitable moments of third wheel loneliness, I was not incredibly excited for this vacation. I was homesick for Portland even before I left the country.
Just Simply Alice Mentally Prepares for India
Even with my many apprehensions, I knew I could not pass up on this travel opportunity. Inspired by a previously watched YouTube video about traveling in India, I began clinging to the mantra of ‘accept it, and move on’. This was, after all, a once in a life time experience.
About a week before I left Portland I requested for people to write down some personalized thoughts, memories, and/or reflections. I wanted to be able to physically carry some extra Portland love on my trip. Initially I was going to wait to read these hand written notes during my incredibly long plane ride to India. However given my decision to live out of a small backpack for 3 weeks, I instead mentally and emotionally absorbed these incredible notes the night before leaving the country. The love filled within these notes moved me to tears many times both at home and while in India.
Just Simply Alice Arrives in Mumbai
After over 25 hours of mostly air travel from San Francisco, with a quick layover in Seoul, my dude and I landed in Mumbai, India. It was about 2am India time, which is a 13.5 hour time difference from the west coast. M’lady was going to join our traveling group in a few days when we would all meet in Dehli. My dude and I planned to use our extra time to first explore Mumbai.
Adjusting to Indian Culture: Money
Adjusting to Indian culture was intensive and multi-layered. We knew ahead of time that finding any of the rupee paper currency was going to be difficult. Less than a month prior to our trip the government demonetized some of the currency (500 and 1000 rupee notes) due to fraud. And, the day before our travel we read that the government had yet to implement a successful replacement system. Our best bet to get any currency was at the airport. My dude and I were each able to get no more than 2500 rupees (about $40). And since we knew no valid 500 or 1000 rupee notes were currently in circulation, breaking our 2000 rupee note would be difficult.
It would be the equivalent to having only $100s when $20s and $50s were removed from circulation. I attempted to pull some more rupees out from any of the many ATMs we passed, but all were out of service. So we started our journey with very little cash in hand, the majority potentially unusable. We also had high levels of apprehension about being able to use our credit or debit cards, especially in local markets. We accepted our reality and moved on.
Adjusting to Indian Culture: Smog
The first very notable difference as my dude and I walked outside of the Mumbai airport was the smog. The smog was dense and visible. When checking the weather in Mumbai, Google would also show how much in the red zone the air quality was for that day. I have asthma, so I’m pretty sensitive to air quality. For the first few days, well the first week really, I could only take shallow breaths, even indoors. As unsettling as it was that I couldn’t breath, I accepted it and moved on. I had no other choice.
Adjusting to Indian Culture: Slums
My dude had a pre-arranged ride for us to go from the airport to our 5 star hotel. I typically prefer the more ‘roughing it’ path of travel. But given that a 5 star hotel was cheap in India, we had just traveled for so long, and that even 3 to 4 star hotels in India can be questionable, I supported this decision.
Our 20 minute ride to the 5 star hotel was via main town roads that passed many slums. Due to my lack of sleep and lack of ability to breath, the irony of our 5 star hotel destination while passing by so many slums became incomprehensible. I could only observe the slums with wide eyes. I grew up in a below poverty line household, and have traveled much of the US, but the slums in India are beyond comparison. The driver informed us, in broken English, that we were driving by the slums featured in Slum Dog Millionaire. Internalizing in person the density and appearance felt overwhelming, to say the least.
I was also surprised as to how many people and cars were active around 3am on a weekday. I sensed my brain needing to unpack many significant things, but I could barely process anything.
And after going just one block beyond the slums we turned into our 5 star hotel. I experienced mental whiplash to this sudden and stark difference. In that moment I did the only thing I could, I recited my now well used mantra, and moved on. My dude and I went our gender conforming directed ways through security at the front of the hotel. We checked into our hotel that included a Christmas tree in the lobby, and settled into our room.
Adjusting to Indian Culture: Sightseeing
The next day (or more accurately, much later that day after a few hours of sleep) we prepared for our first journey. At this point, I became overwhelmed by the incredible levels of sensory stimulation inundating my external senses. I accepted that my internal processing had to create an unorganized lump of unprocessed mush. I was feeling mentally, emotionally, and physically claustrophobic. Not being able to take a deep breath, find a quiet space outside of the hotel, or have some semblance of a connection to nature only added to my feelings of unease. That first day my adventurous self was incredibly apprehensive about journeying outside. But I inherently trusted my dude’s ability as a travel companion, and dove deeper into the abyss of culture shock.
Our first destination was to an over 100 year old ex-pat restaurant. During our uber ride, my dude and I were once again mesmerized by all of the sights, sounds, and smells. Everyone was well dressed in noticeably modest bright and colorful clothes. And there were people everywhere. Not just a few people here or there, but groups of people in every direction, in all sorts of places. The only comparison I can make to the quantity and density of people is similar to an incredibly packed festival, but with more people.
Adjusting to Indian Culture: Begging
During one our car rides while stopped in traffic, an Indian mother holding her young toddler started lightly tapping ever so persistently on my rolled up window. She would quietly tap a few times and then gesture an ‘eat’ like motion as if asking for money for food. I non-verbally shouted toward my dude for support. Then, I attempted my best, ‘I’m pretending this random person doesn’t exist’ body language. This was the first of many car window tapings and heartbreaking beggings. With all of the practice of ‘accept it and move on’, the constant begging is one of many situations in India that never became easier.
Adjusting to Indian Culture: Crowds
Our driver unexpectedly stopped in front of a very crowded and unassuming building indicating that this was our restaurant. Even though our whole car ride was navigating through very crowded and chaotic environments, I assumed our final destination was going to be a bit less packed with people. I was incredibly wrong. India is packed with people.
If we didn’t have a driver or Google maps, we would’ve never known where our restaurant was located. There were no signs outside and it felt like going into a back alley, hole-in-the-wall restaurant, even though it was on the main road. Peering inside the restaurant, it was apparent it was a nice establishment, though very crowded with people.
Adjusting to Indian Culture: Being in a Crowd
We had to wait in a group of people on the jam packed sidewalk for a table to open up. I wanted to go into observation mode while waiting, but there was no room for personal space to take a mental step back and observe. Plus, my distraction by the inundation of sensory information strained my ability to make any conscious assessments.
However, during this waiting time I became immensely aware of the fact that I was a white female surrounded by a sea of patriarchal influenced Indian eyes. My loose fitting capri pants and t-shirt suddenly felt too revealing. While drowning in the sea of eyes, I failed to notice a young Indian girl tying a bracelet of flowers on my wrist. I am fairly well traveled and confident in my stay safe skills, but I froze by an onslaught of differing thoughts. Was this genuine? Was I being marked as a target of some sort? Were these flowers dangerous? How do I get out of this situation with so many people around? Where would I even go?
My dude noticed the situation and while we didn’t know how to manage the situation, I knew he was keeping an eye on me. Luckily the young girl kindly insisted that I did not have to tip her for this forced upon gift. This was probably the only time in India a tip wasn’t expected in exchange for an array of things. We continued to wait for our table and I was able to indiscreetly watch this same young girl and her mom aggressively request a tip from another unassuming white female for the forced upon flower bracelet.
Adjusting to Indian Culture: Restaurants
By the time my dude and I sat down at our very cramped table, I already had the bracelet off of wrist and placed it on the table. I noticed a few other similar strings of abandoned flower bracelets on various tables in the restaurant. I ordered a beer and was very thankful when I was handed a large glass beer bottle.
Given that the tap water is not potable in India, I also started getting in the habit of ordering a bottle of water. I would make a point to check that the seal appeared to be in tact. This is when I first noticed a consistent theme of expired dates on all packaged food and drink products, including water bottles. I drank some beer, accepted this fact, and moved on.
Over the next few days we continued venturing around Mumbai with my dude taking the lead. My various levels of claustrophobia continued to be apparent, but I did what I could to accept it and move on. My dude and I were hoping that we would be able to meet somebody at a bar, restaurant, anywhere really, and chat it up. But, it became apparent fairly quickly that even though there was an exceptional amount of people everywhere, connecting with anyone, including tourists, was near impossible. Putting obvious reasons aside, we think part of the reason for this was a lack of any middle class. Generally speaking people appeared to be either living way below or way above the poverty line. Both my dude and I struggled with knowing how to connect with either extreme.
Adjusting to Indian Culture: Garbage
It was also shocking to see just how much garbage was littered everywhere, both land and sea. While my dude and I were walking along one of the boardwalks to a sacred tomb on the ocean, I saw multiple people casually toss their garbage into the water. People would casually add their litter to the piles of the most garbage I had ever seen floating in water.
Throughout our trip I noticed that tossing garbage wherever was a common practice. Finding garbage cans anywhere outside seemed near impossible. I later realized that people would collect their nearby garbage into an outside pile. This pile, including the numerous plastic water bottles, would then be burned in a small morning burn fire. I started to become more aware of the numerous small burn piles typically at the side of the road. Though I needed to drink only bottled water while in India, I had to accept and move on knowing the likely fate of my many empty water bottles.
Adjusting to Indian Culture: Traffic
Within a few days our motivation to adventure around Mumbai steadily decreased, however we both agreed that our preferred way to explore was uber rides. Using uber was safer and faster than walking, plus provided a wonderful tour of the town. My dude and I usually enjoyed our uber rides in fascinated silence, non-verbally sharing the same sights together.
Adjusting to Indian traffic greatly challenged my ‘accept it and move on’ mantra. Lanes are merely a suggestion, people are constantly using their horns, and rarely are there any stop signs at intersections. The flow of traffic is similar to the movement within a dense crowd of people walking in various directions: unpredictable, fluid, and with a high level of inherent trust in crowd mentality. And constantly interweaving within traffic are: pedestrians rarely having access to sidewalks or designated crosswalks, the occasional cow, and a non-stop herd of aggressive scooters and motorcycles.
Adjusting to Indian Culture: Motorcycles
Oh the motorcycles! As a motorcyclist myself, I cringed at watching the number of men riding in flip flops with no helmets. The motorcyclists would ambitiously thread their way through an ever shifting gridlock of cars and trucks. I commonly saw a variety of passengers on the motorcycles including ladies in saris only riding side saddle. The women would rarely if never hold on to the man. And sometimes the woman would be holding a child. Children were also not uncommon passengers. The most cringe worthy occurred when I would see mothers riding side saddle as a passenger, while holding their newborn baby. Never did I see a lady driving a motorcycle, and rarely did I see one drive a scooter.
Unlike in the western world cell phone use did not appear to be central to ever day life. Though, it constantly baffled me to see so many motorcycle passengers casually using their cell phones.
Indian traffic appeared to capture the natural pulse of Indian culture. It took some time for me to conceptualize the significant lack of entitlement and individualism within this culture. Given the unavoidable population density, each person seemed to accept that they were merely drops of individuals within a large pool of people; society best functioned with a mutual flow.
Adjusting to Indian Culture: Other Observations
Other noticeable observations when exploring was the sparse police presence. Even more rare was finding a policeman or security guard equipped with anything more than a baton. I never realized that I became accustomed seeing guns in my every day American life.
Even though India had a significantly different culture, I could still find some Americanization sprinkled throughout daily routines. My most vivid example happened when I found an infomercial about a fat reducing belt. The belt was basically a spandex like stomach belt that worked using the advance technology of creating sweat. The scientific reasoning made absolutely no sense. And though part of my brain found it comical, I also despised the globalization of the ‘quick fix’ capitalist mentality. The, “you have a problem that you didn’t know about, and also let me sell you a quick fix.”
Another strong cultural mentality promoted on almost every Indian television channel was the idea of ‘hetero happily ever after’. Show after show, and music video after music video focused on a conservatively dressed man and woman. The couple would be in various Indian locations flirting, yet very rarely touching, and never kissing. My internal rebellious social justice self continued to increase in passion. I found myself many times wanting to find any way to change this strictly prescribed, heavily influenced patriarchal script of repressed ideals around dating and marriage. But, while I didn’t at all agree or support this, I needed to accept it’s existence and move on.
Just Simply Alice Prepares for Dehli
While preparing for adventuring in Dehli, I barely felt grounded by my ‘accept it and move on’ mantra. The next part of our journey included meeting up with m’lady in Dehli. Meeting m’lady would unpredictably change our travel group dynamic as we went on many days of jam packed tours. Finding excitement for the continuation of this trip compounded with the knowledge that Dehli had an even more densely populated city (the 2nd dense city in the world, Mumbai being the 6th), and the air quality would be even worse.
Just Simply Alice Back at Mumbai Airport
As we arrived back at the Mumbai airport, I was missing some unexpected aspects of my everyday life. I never fully grasped the true extremes of gender binary segregation outside of US culture. And then my dude and I had to separate into the men and women lines of domestic airport security. In that moment I especially missed Portland’s generally accepting culture around gender and sexual fluidity.
While sitting in the airport I started to mentally sift through my ever growing unorganized pile of unprocessed mush. I focused on the perplexing, seemingly contradictory nature of India. How a primarily poor socialistic culture lived within an incredibly dirty and polluted environment. And conversely, how Indians celebrated every day life through a myriad of vibrant colors and smells. There seemed to be so much disconnection from nurturing nature when attempting to beautify the city.
A question also popped into my brain that I still struggle to answer: while acknowledging all inherent limitations, what are the differences between materialism (i.e. material things are more important than spiritual values) and taking pride in ownership of objects that represent delighting in life? Does ‘spiritual values’ include a connection with nature? I’m still so unsure as to how to process these observations in a seemingly logical way.
Just Simply Alice: Accepting and Moving On
As for my increasing stress levels about going to Dehli, well, I acknowledged my anxiety around the impending potential doom of becoming the constant third wheel, made the conscious mental shift to focus on the fact that I was soon going to be traveling India with not one but two of my good friends, and moved on.