Culture shock happens to the best of us. In case you don’t know, culture shock is described as the disorientation someone may experience when they have been exposed to a culture with which they are unfamiliar. I’ve travelled to 19 countries since my childhood. I’ve been sick on a plane, puked in a cab, seen snakes on a plane… the movie… experienced minor food poisoning, I’ve almost been robbed and threatened, but despite all of those things, I’ve always maintained my composure. It wasn’t until I got off the plane in Mumbai, India, that I experienced what it was like to lose that cool, calm and collected demeanour that has become one of my most undeniable qualities.
When I travel, I do my best to avoid any preconceived notions about what I would experience. I knew there was poverty in India, but with the diverse countries I’ve been exposed to I felt like I was prepared for it. I knew it was densely populated, but after visiting China when I was young, Bangkok, New York and some of the other major cities in the world, I figured I was prepared for it. When I arrived at my hotel, a hotel that had been advertised as a 3.5 star out of 5, what I wasn’t prepared for was the fact I was deep in the slums of Mumbai and my concept of what a 3.5 star hotel should be, was vastly different than my new home for the next few days.
Maybe it had to do with the fact I had been in transit for 2 days with very little bed rest? It could have been the fact that I had just finished a stressful couple of months working everyday with the exception of Christmas and New Years Eve. Regardless, by the time I had finished checking into my room, my disorientation had consumed me, and my first experience with culture shock had officially set in. For 2 days, I wanted nothing to do with Mumbai. Me? An adventurous travel fanatic who loves nothing more but to meet new and interesting people, wanted nothing to do with this city? I was prepared to stay in my room, as shanti-like as it was, write in my journal about the lack of experience I was getting, and somehow make my way to my plane and onto the next destination when the time had arrived. This wasn’t like me at all. I felt sad, angry, scared, annoyed, and supremely tired all at the same time. Not exactly the best start to my vacation. Why was I being such a pussy?
On day 3, I woke up at about 6 am with 2 wasted days behind me. With that realization, I looked out of my window to a scene unlike any I’d ever witnessed. Imagine Canada day in Ottawa, or any other national cavalcade. In this circumstance however, there are no females, and everyone is dressed in a white shirt with black pants. Across the road from my room, in a run down building structure with absolutely no walls, I witnessed a family of 6 or 7 waking up from under the same blanket. Each one of the family members woke up one by one with a big smile on their faces. Where I asked myself ‘How could such poverty exist?’ this family showed me that their happiness didn’t depend on financials. My curiosity began to swell, and at that moment, I realized that I had to stop being afraid of a culture I didn’t understand. I had spent hours creating unnecessary situations in my mind that prevented me from leaving my hotel room.
What if I got robbed?
What if I got lost and had to sleep on the streets?
Questions that I had never allowed myself to consider or care about until 2 of the most self-deprecating days of my life. It was time for me to explore and be myself again. That night, I did something I rarely do, not for a lack of belief in its power, but more for my love of passing out to late night movies and articles on my laptop. With no Wi-Fi to distract me, I laid in bed and said a prayer.
Please let me get over this strange feeling that has taken over. I know this city has a lot to offer, and I just want to meet people who will help me to finally enjoy this place.
I woke up with renewed determination. I packed up my belongings, hid my laptop appropriately, hopped in the shower and prepared for an adventure. I packed my GoPro camera, passport, brought a couple of the mounts I had purchased, a book, and a water bottle and proceeded to the front desk.
Hi. I’d like to tour the city a little bit, what’s the best way for me to do that?
“We can set you up with a good tuk tuk if you’d like, and he’ll take good care of you”
I don’t remember the name of my taxi driver, but if there’s any circumstance that he reads this article, I’d like to thank him for helping me to turn things around.
We toured, chatted about his life, and I finally got a chance to see the size and scope of the city (so I thought). I saw the area that the Bollywood celebrities lived in, visited the first Christian church in Mumbai, and chowpatty beach where we took a stroll, drank coconut water, and watched a monkey dance to Michael Jackson. On a scale of culture shocked to having a good day? You can finish the rest. After purchasing a few t-shirts and extra supplies for the rest of my journey, my Tuk Tuk driver dropped me off at the hotel with wage and massive tip in hand. At long last I was ready to enjoy the city without that weird paralyzing fear I had just experienced.
That night, I took a stroll around the ‘slums’ that had worried me so much. The energy from the day hadn’t dissipated as it does in most neighborhoods you might see, and for each person co-habiting the street with me, you could see a massive contingent of people heading toward the trains.
I wonder where those trains go?
After a nice tour of the surrounding blocks of my hotel just to make sure I was my unafraid self again, I went to bed and looked forward to seeing what my final day would bring.
When I woke up from the best sleep I’d had the entire trip, a big part of me felt sad that I had to catch a flight at the end of the day. I had finally seen some of the city, experienced its food, which is as good as advertised, and I finally had a chance to talk to another human being even if they were providing me a service. I was getting ready to leave the city right when I had started to get in my groove. I packed my bags, checked out of the hotel, and asked for the nearest Internet café. As I picked my bags up, I felt someone staring at me. I looked up and there he stood, a random Danish guy waiting for me to acknowledge him. I awkwardly locked eyes for a few seconds, until he spoke.
Hello, where are you off to? I’m bored
Well I’m heading to the Internet café to figure some stuff out. I’m heading to Australia in a couple of hours. After the cafe, I need to kill time though
Well, I’ll come with you!
Um.. I’m gonna be there for a couple of hours potentially
No matter. I’ll wait
And he did. Two. Full. Hours.
After I finished, we decided to get some vegetarian food and talk about our experiences. He had been there for a few days and was passing through to Goa for some relaxation and a massive party bender in a few hours. He was a nurse who had taken some time off from Denmark to experience India for 6 months.
Have you seen the gateway to India yet?
… So you came to Mumbai and didn’t see one of the biggest landmarks in the history of this country?
I guess not
I know you’re leaving today, so we’ll have to change that. I’ll take you to the tourist office in central Mumbai and they’ll direct you from there. Tell them where you want to go, and what you want to see, and they’ll make sure you have the correct information. I can’t stay with you though since I’m leaving in a couple of hours, so you’ll be on your own, but you should be fine
After we finished our meals, my new friend took me to the train station I was so curious about the night before. I had always heard about the legendary pickpockets in Mumbai; the type to sneak around like Ninjas and find the exact pocket that contains your passport and any kind of finance you have for the rest of your trip. With that thought, my paranoia had returned and my eyes started darting around as if I were catching flies with chopsticks. Finally, our train arrived and my first ‘train in Mumbai’ experience was about to commence.
The train was crowded and with that being the biggest understatement of my lifetime, I have to admit that I was pretty nervous. For each person that crowded the train, it felt like 2 sets of eyes were on me at all times. I felt like a 5’11 180 pound flat screen television when Oprah’s on. As I stood there, doing that eye darting thing and maintaining polite but distracted conversation, an intuitive local who had picked up on my paranoia, motioned for me to stand in a spot near the door. As I moved over, not only was my massive backpack protected, but I also had an overwhelming sense of relief that spread over me like I had stepped into a cocoon. From that moment on, I could see the man motioning at people to stop staring at me with his eyes and I felt increasingly comfortable as the ride continued. The train stopped, I looked over at the man who showed me the way to the cocoon, gave a nod, and hopped off with my friend.
Once in the city center, I realized that I had missed an entire section of Mumbai. The city is absolutely massive and I had locked myself into a small sector of its structure. Locals and tourists alike buzzed around me in the train station. The energy wasn’t quite New York City but the pace was just as frenetic. I followed my friend, who expertly navigated through the crowd and up to the correct street level exit. As we emerged from the underground, I was pleasantly surprised to see the bustling metropolis I had expected to see when I hopped on the plane to get here. This was the part of Mumbai I had heard about; A place ripe with locals, tourists, bars, restaurants galore, hotels, nightclubs, and everything I could have used to fully enjoy my experience and write a much more positive article than what you’ve read. By the time we arrived at the tourist office, my new friend had to literally turn around and hop back on the train. His friends were leaving in a mere 2 hours, he hadn’t packed, and it took about 40 minutes for us to get to the city center from where we stayed.
Thanks a lot for your help today. You were pretty persistent in coming out with me today, and you really didn’t have to.
Not a problem. The thing is, when I saw you today I wasn’t really bored. I actually took one look in your eyes and knew that you needed a helping hand, whether you were willing to admit it or not. I would stay if I wasn’t leaving but I know you’ll enjoy the rest of your time! Safe journey my friend!
And like that, my random Danish friend was gone.
The tourist office was extremely helpful for me. I hadn’t done my research as much as I should have, since I was ready to write off this part of my trip, but they offered friendly reminders that the Taj Mahal hotel existed here, the same Taj Mahal that terrorists attacked in 2008. The gateway to India also existed and I suddenly recalled an amazing club called the ‘Blue Frog’ that I had read about in one of my favorite blogs ‘The Cool Hunter’. With a few landmarks in hand, I strapped my backpack on and strolled off.
My first stop, since it was a historical monument was the gateway to India. After getting there, I had finally seen one of the major world heritage sites and had begun to feel like I was on an adventure. I started to imagine what it would have been like back in the day when the British would arrive at that port with their tall ships and ‘diplomacy’.
I took a stroll over to the Taj Mahal hotel, only to discover that after the terrorist attack, they had developed a major security system that a) doesn’t allow you into the hotel without staying there, and b) screens you to the point you feel like you’re boarding Air Force 1. Somehow, I got in but didn’t get any further than the first floor lobby. With single occupancy rates of $250.00 per night, you better believe that everyone in this lobby was a ‘somebody’.
After smiling at the security guard who had previously denied my entry, I walked around the city and took in the sites. As I passed a group of kids in military detail, I heard a soft voice pipe up.
I looked down to see an elderly woman, sitting on the ground staring up at me.
Where are you going? Would you like to ride in my horse carriage?
My eyes followed the direction of her outstretched hand and blankly stared at an ornately decorated horse carriage. It felt as though I had stepped onto the set of the Bollywood version of pride and prejudice.
Um. I’m alright, thank you for the offer.
Oh don’t worry! I’ll only charge you 3500 rupees!
There was no way I was paying the equivalent of 60 bucks to ride around in a horse carriage.
hmm… no that’s ok, that’s way over my budget
Well what would you pay?
I started to realize how tired my legs were from walking as much as I had.
500 Rupees is all I have on me right now
Ok Let’s go! My name is Seelah, I’ll show you around
When would I ever ride in an ornately decorated carriage down the streets of Mumbai again?
As we rode around, Seelah told me about her life. She spoke 7 languages, sold suits on the side and basically did anything she could using her charm and sales ability to make money for her family. She told me about her son, and the time she met a beautiful Italian man who fell in love with her, taught her Italian and promised a life of grandeur in Italy. She turned him down because she felt too guilty to leave her sisters and the rest of her family behind. Despite this sad tale, Seelah was the most cheerful and happiest person I have ever met. Fiercely intelligent and caring, she stayed with me from the moment I hopped on that carriage, and guided me to the airport when it was time for me to catch my flight. Seelah taught me quite a bit about the people of Mumbai. She told me of the truth behind their poverty and just how much of a disparity there truly is. The fierce intelligence in her eyes I soon realized was a common trait in all the citizens of that city. When I felt the eyes of those staring at me, whether I was on the train or walking through the city, the intimidation I felt only stemmed from an insatiable curiosity that they all possessed. If I had acknowledged any of those people, I may have learned more about life and myself than I could have imagined. To this day, I still have Seelah’s card and in the small event that she reads this article, I hope she finds herself well and in great company.
When I began my time in Mumbai, every ounce of my being was set on skipping through it as quickly as possible and making it to the next stop on my vacation. As I got over the ridiculous pre-judgments I had made and the intense culture shock, I discovered beauty amid the chaos. Mumbai is a city that tests your senses, and overwhelms you with its cacophony. Once you filter out the noise, it’s a city that compels you to return and delve deep into its story because of its people. Not only am I encouraged to go back to Mumbai and experience more (with a better hotel), I’m dying to experience more of India as a country and get to know its soul. As terrible as the negative experiences tourists have experienced in India this past year, I’m happy that I was able to leave Mumbai with positives despite my rough start. All it took for me was a little faith in myself and the city.