“If we are brave, the whole world will be brave.” – Gandhi
As I mentioned before in a previous blog, it’s necessary to leave your preconceived ideas about good and bad, right and wrong behind.
Arriving with an open mind is necessary to not merely “see” India, but to start to develop a deeper understanding.
The first few days after my arrival I kept bumping up against the questions “What?” and “Why?” What does that mean? Why can’t I do it this way? Why are they doing that? What are those five buckets in the bathroom for?
Here are a few things I had to quickly adjust to during my first few days:
Like most of us, I’d been used to managing my own life. Doing what I needed to do, going where I needed to go, whenever I needed to go there. In India, this is a challenge. You have to relearn the most basic of skills.
Hiring an auto rickshaw is not just hiring an auto rickshaw. You have to be able to negotiate a fair price; you have to trust that the driver understands where to take you. You have to trust that you’ll be able to get yourself back. You have to find the auto stand in the first place!
Getting to the grocery to pick up a few things can turn into an all day event.
The directions you receive will be vague at best, the grocery won’t look like any grocery you’re used to so you’ll walk past it ten times, and you won’t be able to find what you’re looking for without assistance from the dozen clerks who will all simultaneously start helping you as soon as you ask.
These are all skills we have at home, but ones that need to be reprogrammed for India. Eventually you will find the nearest metro station; you will learn which counter is the counter to buy a token, how to use the token, and even one day you’ll learn the routes and how to navigate the city.
But this takes trusting in new experiences and being willing to make mistakes, getting yelled at, and maybe even getting lost.
In the west, we have a sense of privacy and personal space that simple doesn’t exist in India. You will be asked your age, marital status, profession, family origins, and why you don’t have children (or why you don’t have more children) within the first five minutes of meeting each new person. It will feel like an interrogation.
Family, and each person’s place in it, is the lens through which Indian’s view and understand the world. So an Indian cannot understand you until they know your place in your family and how it compares to their place in their family.
Are you the oldest in your family? This means you are responsible for things and are the person to go to in order to solve problems.
Are you the youngest? This means you are beloved and spoiled and the person who runs the errands and does the work no one else in the family wants to do.
Are you older or younger than the person asking the questions? If you are their senior, this requires them to show you respect. If you are their junior, it lets them know they should be receiving those shows of respect from you.
In India, who you are is defined not by what you do or what you accomplish, but by who you are in your family. And it is largely the importance of family which is the reason that personal space is a foreign concept there (well, this, and the sheer volume of people!).
You will find yourself uncomfortably close to 27 strangers all at the same time when you use public transportation. If there are empty chairs at your restaurant table, people may sit down in them. People will bump up against you on the side walk rather than make way.
No one knocks before entering.
It’s not rudeness; it’s simply a different understanding of privacy. Space is less important – as is the need to appear polite (which is a main motivator for us in the west – wanting people to perceive us as polite).
My first bathroom experience in India was perhaps the single most confusing culture shock experience. The bathroom in my guesthouse had at least five spigots and three buckets whose use was not immediately clear.
So you shower while standing right next to the toilet bowl. That’s if you’re lucky enough to have a shower head. Or a toilet bowl!
Many baths in India employ the bucket method. This is the purpose for the first of the three buckets. You fill the bucket from a tap in the wall and use a small jug to pour the water over you as you wash. Again, while you’re standing in the main room of the bathroom.
The Indian toilet can also be a new frontier.
Many times you will have a “squat” toilet, where there is no bowl. You place your feet on either side of a porcelain covered hole in the ground and, you guessed it, squat in order to go!
If you do have a bowl, sometimes it will not flush properly. Enter bucket number two. Using one of the taps, you keep bucket two filled in order to pour it into the bowl when you are finished.
Often, this is simply how you flush. Another purpose of bucket two is what I call the “water method.” Many Indians do not use toilet paper but instead use the water method. To understand this method, replace toilet paper with water in your mind’s eye. Same process.
Indian bathrooms can be very confusing and I still come across bathroom features that I don’t understand, but after using them for a while, they start to make a lot of sense.
And that third bucket?
That’s for washing your clothes! Many bathrooms will have a clothes line for you to hang things to dry.
Approach each new and unknown event with a sense of adventure. And try not to be too critical too quickly. What you may find is that, while something doesn’t make a lot of sense at first, there is a valid and necessary reason for it being that way.
An open heart and mind will help you to discover these reasons more easily! Do let us know how it all goes!
Want to experience the adventure of India but don’t want to do so alone? Check out our variety of spiritual holidays in India by clicking here and let us show you how to journey the road less traveled!