Culture Shock - Traveling to India for the First Time
Experiencing Culture Shock in India
What is culture shock? It is the impact of traveling from a familiar culture and trying to adjust to an unfamiliar one. India especially is renowned for causing Westerners culture shock and this page is going to show you what is most likely to befuddle and confuse you when traveling to this beautiful but crazy country! I visited India alone and as a solo woman traveler experiencing the sensory overload of India could be a little much at times. I hope that by writing this article about what could give you culture shock in India may help you plan a first trip there.
This article is not trying to put you off visiting India - but rather to show you what is most likely going to make you think "argh! this wasn't in the guide books!"
The diversity of India - Your culture shock may be different to mine!
Take a look at the two photos below....he top one is Ladakh in the North and the below one is Kerala in the South - the same country but very different landscapes. This is a gigantic country and it isn't just the landscapes that are so diverse - the people, cultures and languages are too. So depending on where you go and travel to throughout India, your experience of the culture change could be very different from place to place. I started off in Delhi and traveled in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh before heading to Ladakh. The contrast between each place was very different, Ladakh is like another country compared to Delhi!
My point is, if you travel through this vast country you will experience different levels of culture shock and you will love some places and hate others and that is ok! You do not have to love everywhere you visit!
The differing landscapes in India
The mass of humanity in India can be overwhelming! - forget personal space in India!
With a population of approximately 1.1 billion in India, you are never far from humanity. If you like your personal space, forget it because you will not be getting any here! You will have to get used to being shoved, pinched and in close proximity to people all day, with people shouting in your face to get in their rickshaw, buy their wares or give them money.
Indian people are extremely friendly and hospitable though and the only time I felt overwhelmed was when people were trying to sell me stuff or beg which can feel extremely harassing and aggressive. Be prepared to be strong and stand your ground!
Indian people are very polite and will ask you lots of questions about your life, you may even be required to have your photo taken with complete strangers! Indian people also are extremely clean and well dressed, and I was told that they don't understand why rich western people come to India and dress like tramps - and nor do I actually, there is no need to look a mess. Seriously, if you keep yourself well maintained when you are traveling and make an effort to be neat and clean, you will find you are respected a lot more in your interactions with Indian people. Don't wear tiny shorts/skirts and low cut tops, buy some Indian clothes that will not only keep you cool in the heat but will also help you blend in.
There's a lot of people in India!
India is Beautiful...but dirty - There is a huge garbage problem
These photos aren't just small areas of India that you may occasionally see. Trash is everywhere in India.. It is (or would be) a beautiful country and all this litter everywhere is just horrendous. You will see people collecting trash to sell - like water bottles. You will see cows eating the trash, which gets caught up in their gut and kills them. The state of the Ganges is disgusting, polluted and dirty - and it is meant to be spiritual.
India is a very dirty place and the depth of the filth is something you just cannot comprehend until you have seen it. I recommend reading this excellent article Dirty India from Matador Travel
Pollution is absolutely everywhere in India
Traffic and transport in India
If there is anything that will give you culture shock, it will be the Indian traffic!
This ties in with the volume of people in India - there are lots of people so there's lots of traffic. And it is (to our western eyes) chaotic, dangerous and disorganized.
In Delhi I saw a beggar get run over by a rickshaw, right next to me, the wheels went over his head. He was bleeding badly and the driver who ran him over just got out of the car and dumped the begger on the side of the road.
In Haridwar I also saw a cycle rickshaw driver who had been killed by a truck.
I noticed that every vehicle on the road will play chicken with the other and what should be a two lane road becomes six lanes! Cows really do wander about in the traffic and taxis do not have seat belts or wing mirrors!
Drivers hoot and use hand gestures to communicate to each other, we don't understand but they do and you just have to trust that you will arrive at your destination safely.
Road accidents are very frequent in, check out this article from the Indian Express
I traveled mostly by train for long distances, and even the train stations were cause for much frustration and confusion for me! Often platforms are not numbered (but people still know where to go, apart from me!), buying a ticket involves a long wait in a disorderly pushing and shoving queue and long delays are frequent.
It is well worth reading about how to buy a train ticket, the scams you may be up against in train stations and the many different classes of carriage in the trains, the Lonely Planet and Rough Guide books have great sections on transport. I found that it is best to research things like this as much as possible beforehand, it helps to know what you are up against!
Scams, Touts and Beggars in India
As a westerner, you will be a target for scams and beggars
You will read about scams in any good guide book and it is well worth making yourself aware of the various ways people may try to dupe you of your money! Check out this forum on indiamike.com with advice from other travelers about popular scams and annoyances.
Familiarize yourself with the typical scams you may face, but don't let the possibility of them happening to you ruin your trip. Remain relaxed but aware, keep your wits about you and stand firm against anyone persistent.
Beggars are everywhere, and some are very badly disabled and others are very little children. I was told that I would stop noticing the beggars and extreme poverty after a while, but I never did. See this link for rules for dealing with beggars in India
Getting Sick - the Travelers Trots
Getting diarrhoea in India is pretty much an inevitability. Even if you buy bottled water or use water purification tablets, just a bit of water in your mouth when you take a shower or using the tap water to brush your teeth can cause you to have a tummy upset. There are also flies everywhere, and if you manage to keep them off your food when you are eating, who is to know that flies didn't land on your meal when it was being prepared.
I had a stomach upset for 6 weeks during my trip there, it was unlike anything I had experienced before! You kind of get used to it, luckily I had no fever so I continued doing what I wanted for the most part. I just had to make sure there was a toilet within running distance! I only took medicine to help bung me up when I was traveling around, otherwise I think it is best to, erm, let it all out!
Make sure you stay hydrated and if it gets all too much get out to the cool mountains in the North or the beautiful beaches of Goa and relax!