A friend of mine asked me for some advice today, as he is planning a trip to India.
About 5 years ago I had I just finished University was about to leave my previous company to explore other options. This transition point was a great opportunity to take so extended time to travel, so that is what I did. I had always dreamed of going to India–I love the food, the language, films, music, dancing…you name it. And boy was it a trip of a lifetime.
I spent 3 months travelling India. One of the things that most people will tell you about travelling to India, particularly if you are from a western country, is not matter how much you prepare, you will experience culture shock.
I am reminded of my ‘shock’ both by my friends questioning and one of the active discussion forums this week on cognitive dissonance. Not only would culture shock be a form of cognitive dissonance, but some aspects of experiences in India are so contradictory.
It starts the minute you land. Most of the International airports are in cities 10 times the size of a large city in Canada. As you’re ride drives you to your hotel, you will see examples of enormous wealth and immense poverty, sometimes side by side. When you see this and walk the streets, you can see a sense of a disregard for the value of life. There are millions of people around you, someone can fall or get hit by a car and life just goes on. Not like here, where events like that life stops to aid. This is not to say anything bad about the environment or lifestyle in India–it’s different and one where survival is at the forefront.These things are shocking when you first see it, but in time, they become less of a shock because you too need to fight and survive.
India is also a place of immense love and hospitality. I had plenty of home cooked meals while I was there after briefly meeting locals in markets. I had shopkeepers invite me in for tea, not to sell me things, but to share stories, become facebook friends, and get a signature in their most cherished possession–a guest book.
And the amongst all this hospitality and beauty other contradictions will rear their ugly heads. Take my trip to the Taj Mahal for an example. I was among thousands of people that day with many of the locals visiting for their first time. Yet I left feeling me and my friends were photographed more than the 7th wonder because of our white skin.
To travel India is to learn. It also requires acting and believing in contradictory positions. You’ll see and experience the beauty and the ugly side of human kind. Does it change your perspective? Most definitely, but not in the way most would think. You don’t come back and devote your life to end poverty. Rather, you understand survival through your brief taste of it.