I was laying face-down on a stained mattress, my skin soaked with sweat and my face soaked with tears. One thought pressed against the walls of my skull: What am I doing here?
Every one of my senses was overwhelmed and exhausted. In a single short walk from the taxi to my hostel, I’d smelt sugars, spices and various secretions; I’d heard horns and laughter, music and prayer; I’d seen one hundred near-crashes and one thousand near-witnesses; I’d tasted the musk of an air totally drained of its vitality; I’d felt a street full of people stop and stare.
I’d only been in India for three hours, but already it had defeated me.
I never thought that England would be that different from South Asia. I went to school with people from Pakistan, ate Indian takeaways every couple of weeks, and would often happen upon a Bollywood film while channel flicking. These experiences shaped my perception of South Asia into something romantic and dazzling, a sub-continent drenched in colour and bursting with life.
I was right, of course: South Asia is bursting with life, but for someone who grew up in the middle of England, that life can seem too copious, too intense, and too overwhelming. It’s impossible to describe just how it feels to step out of the airport in Delhi and into a tussling mass of people, each vying passionately for your attention, desperate to be noticed and given an opportunity to sell their service. The barrage doesn’t diminish until you arrive at the sanctuary of your hostel, and even then you are constantly aware of the activity from which you are separated by only a thin wall.
I spent ten days in India before heading to Nepal, a move I labelled at the time an escape. Here, I found life to be far more manageable, and I was able to process and enjoy what I experienced straight away rather than retrospectively, which was a total contrast to my first impressions of India. Indeed, it wasn’t until I got back to England six months later that I reflected upon my first day on the sub-continent and began to understand how seminal it had been.
I misguidedly placed immediate blame upon India for destroying my preconceptions and shoving me so far beyond my comfort zone, a feeling perpetuated by the ceaselessness of the place. What I should have blamed was my romantic expectations and the ideal I had formulated in my mind, which led directly to an elevated level of anticipation waiting to be realised. The reality of India was not actually any worse than this, it was simply different, which is exactly what creates a culture shock.
South Asia has a way of levelling people, of ignoring presumptions and doing things on its own terms. It forces eyes to open and view the world differently, to see beauty in the smallest things and appreciate what you have, not what you lack. In doing so, it presents a greater challenge than many are ever likely to face, but with it rewards that are everlasting and profound.
Survive the culture shock, and you’ll discover an enthralling part of the world that is impossible not to love.