Culture Shock. Madras, India.

I can’t believe what is happening to me. I’m in the midst of severe culture shock. I’m in Madras, probably one of the nicest cities in India, and I’m completely and absolutely overwhelmed. I’m having trouble writing down my experiences because there is so much of it coming from so many directions that I can’t focus on just one thing. Madras inspires lots of thoughts and feelings but also completely sucks it away in an instant when you are hit by the next thought and feeling. It’s exhausting, trying and ugly.

Eating is an adventure. Nothing is filling, some of it is amazing, and some just plain disturbing. One thing I’m having a hard time with is never quite knowing what you are going to get. You want vegetables and the waiter brings you meat. You want juice and the waiter brings a coke. It’s frustrating. Curd takes a bit of getting used to but is necessary to help you get over sickness faster. Eating curd is like eating spoonfuls of marmite without any warning. Vadai Curd is the variety we tried today; rice balls in curd. The taste is so strong it clears your nose and makes your eyes water.

I’m sharing a room with Charissa who is from San Francisco. We are locked in our room together, clinging to each other like babies. I’m grateful to have someone to share my shock with because I don’t think I could have done it alone. India is not a place that you can handle alone and I’m sucking in every single word of advice that comes out of Clarissa’s well travelled mouth.

Arriving at the airport was quite calm. But the moment we walked out the sliding doors we were assaulted by heat, strange smells and millions of people. Taxi drivers all want to take you to their hotel and they are all screaming, “Taxi madam, taxi” over the din of each other. Two drivers came over to us immediately and started fighting over who would take us — they must know we were grossly unprepared for the scene that awaited us outside the sanctuary of the airport.

One driver finally won, and we started bartering a price. Charissa did most of the bartering. I was in too much shock to even open (or rather close) my mouth. We had her bike in a huge box and the cab driver wanted 150 rupees. We agreed because of the bike and tried forever to tie it to the top of his car. In the end, one of my bungee cords saved the day.

We drove through Madras. It was dirty, ugly and smelly. There is garbage everywhere and cattle, goats and dogs were wandering in every direction. People were sleeping on the sidewalks; this is the first time I’d ever seen thousands of people sleeping on the streets. We wanted to go to the Broadlands. It didn’t work out. We went to another hotel but were turned off by all the lizards and bugs crawling on the walls. We demanded to go to Egmore. The driver balked. We argued and he finally gave up and took us there. We stepped out of the car and were immediately surrounded by men. While Charissa got her bike off the taxi I offered money to the first person who could find us a hotel. That worked and we at least have a clean refuge with a toilet amongst all the craziness.

We go through periods of absolute hysteria. We just start laughing like I have never laughed before. The fact that Charissa brought her bike makes me scream. The “fucking bike” we call it. We leave the room for brief moments at a time to experience the intensity before retreating back to the peace. We need to somehow acclimatize. The room isn’t all peace and quiet; we have a constant flow of peeping toms. Men just walk up the stairs and think that they can stare at us through the window. For this reason, the windows and shutters are always shut.

Even with the shutters are closed I can still hear Muslim chanting/singing in the distance. I find it very peaceful and it’s the first thing I’ve heard since arriving that makes me feel the culture. The city reeks of chaos and poverty and I guess that is a part of the culture too. My constant and overriding thought is: What was I thinking when I chose India as my first travel destination? I feel like I’ve jumped into water that is way over my head and my feet are weighed down. It saps your strength fast. I guess it’s all part of the package.

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