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.