“Life always waits for some crisis to occur before revealing itself at its most brilliant.” ~ Paulo Coelho
After booking my plane ticket for my first trip to India, the panic officially took over. What had I done? Could I handle it? Would India eat me alive?
A quick Google search on what to expect when arriving in India was too low on details for my hypersensitive anxiety ridden state.
The only thing that seemed for certain was that it would smell bad. Really bad. Everywhere. All the time.
But as I was already committed with that non-refundable ticket, I had no choice but to quickly find the balance point between protecting myself and opening myself.
If you arrive with a closed heart and closed eyes you will be miserable. Nothing will ever make sense and the only thing you will learn is that different is wrong.
However, arrive with no defense mechanisms, no discernment, and no boundaries and you may find you are completely overwhelmed and drained or that you are the victim of scams.
The balance point is unique to all of us. As is the duration and depth of the culture shock experienced on arrival in India. Below are a few things you will probably encounter when you arrive.
Just showing up is often one of the biggest accomplishments of the whole experience. Most international flights arrive in the early hours of the morning, between 2:00 a.m. and 4:00 a.m. You are exhausted and on edge.
You don’t want to do anything culturally inappropriate or foolish, but you have no idea what that might mean yet. Three things will hit you, one right after the other. The heat and humidity will reach you about 20 feet before you get to the door.
Parts of the airport maybe air conditioned but “AC” is a misnomer in India. AC often means it’s simply stifling inside, as opposed to the sweltering oppression you’ll encounter outside.
The sheer volume of people will hit you next. Even at 3:00 a.m. there are hundreds of people just standing around outside the airport. Staring. Yelling. Waiting. Then the third thing hits you: each one of those several hundred people are there for you.
“Taxi madam?” “Do you have a hotel sir?” “I take you to best hotel in India!” “Tour of Delhi, all the best sites madam!”
Hundreds of people, vying for your attention, unconcerned with the fact that they are all yelling at you at the same time.
What You Don’t Know
The thing that won’t hit you for a while? This is a well rehearsed routine for every wala and tout waiting outside for you. They’ve all done this thousands of times before.
They can size you up quickly and know approximately what they can get from you based on your gender, your group size, your nationality, among other factors. It’s not malicious necessarily, it’s just the game.
The key here is to be firm.
Though it can be difficult to allow yourself to feel impolite, you must feel free to ignore anyone and everyone. If you try to acknowledge everyone you will be emotionally drained in minutes. Your energy is valuable and one of the most critical lessons to learn is that you don’t have to give it to everyone.
Be Real and Be OK with Being Real
It helps if you can start out acknowledging that not everything will go well.
Part of our panic and fear is about not wanting to be taken advantage of or appear foolish. It’s easy to let go of this if you allow yourself to be OK with the fact that, really, there is no way to avoid this. You’re fresh off the plane. You’ve been in India for 30 minutes and you’re going up against walas who have been greeting tourists at the airport their whole working lives.
You’re going to pay too much for your taxi (and every Indian you meet for the first two days will ask you what you paid and then bluntly tell you how much you over paid).
You’re going to pay too high an interest rate to exchange your money or withdraw from your credit card. It’s just going to happen. You’re learning. You’ll get better at it. Be real about your greenness and embrace it. Earn some peace of mind in the middle of all that chaos.
It’s essential to give yourself space to learn. With an open heart and open eyes you can navigate the process of adjusting to what India has to share with you and teach you. And no, it doesn’t smell everywhere. At least, not all the time!
My extra special tip: When we are planning our tours we always advise our participants to watch a film before they leave that we feel depicts not only the challenges of India but the rewards of facing them. Here is one we recommend. Enjoy and travel safe!