Lost & Ignorant: Culture Shock in Delhi, India

May 2007
Monkey business, Delhi
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Lost and ignorant in Delhi

Monkey business, Delhi

There are a lot of monkeys in Delhi.

I’m a seasoned traveler, now, but 6 years ago on my second international excursion that was definitely not the case. I went to India back in 2007, I was going there to teach but I wanted to travel before my volunteer program started, alone. I’m not going to lie to you, I was not prepared, but I don’t think anyone is prepared for their first real experience with culture shock. Ireland had the same language as my home and had a lot of similar cultural heritage. India on the other hand, was a completely different ballgame. Delhi was the largest city I’d ever been to in my life, it was loud, busy, and chalk full of people. I’d never even been to New York City at this point and I arrived in Delhi, the fourth most populous city in the world. It wasn’t just Delhi that overwhelmed me, the only country with more people than India is China.

To put it in perspective, I grew up in the countryside, in two of the most beautiful areas of the United States: Oregon and Vermont. Vermont has barely over 600,000 people, the metropolitan area of Delhi has nearly 21,800,000 people. I had only traveled out of the US to go to Canada when I was a kid and then Ireland the year before I went to India. I consider myself lucky in many respects to have been given so many opportunities that others are not afforded, I never went hungry, I always had my own bed, and my family unit was strong. And I was massively ignorant about real suffering in the world. I had no idea how to react to the overwhelming stimuli in Delhi, or the extreme poverty that coexisted with extreme wealth.

My second day in Delhi I got lost in Connaught Place, which is the “fourth most expensive office destination in the world“. It’s a huge traffic circle with seven roads connecting to it in the heart of New Delhi. The blocks that surround it are split into blocks with letters as their names. I was given directions by an Indian whose directions confused me so much that I just got even more lost, then a Nepalese man showed me to a travel agent named Raz who lived in Canada but was born in India. He gave me a better map than I had originally, and tried to ask me out on a date. I politely turned him down and went on my way, trying not to get lost again.

On my way back to my hotel, a woman with a teeny (and seemingly undernourished) baby begged from me, she had approached me the day before and it was the second time I’d seen her that day. I had done so much reading about India before I went, and I thought I was semi-prepared. I ignored people touting at me and I had read not to give money to beggars because I had read that they were often working in begging gangs. The poverty is not fake, but the begging is often organized by gangs who must turn over their earnings to their ‘boss’ who keeps most of it. It was really hard for me to grasp that.

That’s me, in Delhi, India wearing Indian clothing. Fooled no one. Even that baby knows I’m not from there.

I am so awkward sometimes.

The second time I saw the woman begging, I told her if she took my picture I’d give her some rupees. She laughed because she didn’t know how to sue the camera, so another woman took the photo. Afterwards I regretted not talking with that woman about her life, to learn about her story. That is what I value most in traveling, is making human connections. Her English was very poor and I could not speak more than a couple phrases in Hindi.

At that point I felt like I hadn’t been harassed much on the streets, because I thought I was walking with purpose and I thought wearing the salwar kameez helped me look more local? Really it was that not everyone will harass you, plus if you ignore everyone looking at you, and barely stop to take any photographs, no one will have time to speak to you, and you won’t enjoy the new place you are exploring. I shake my head at that now and feel completely ridiculous, but I’m not going to lie and say I was a total pro at that point. Everyone should know that when you first step outside of your comfort zone and into a new experience, no one knows what they’re supposed to do. Traversing uncomfortable and unusual situations is what makes you appreciate the world and understand yourself better.

Between Delhi and Agra

One of the views from the train.

The next destination on my journey was Agra, where the Taj Mahal is located. On the train I cried as I looked out the window. I missed my blissfully ignorant life of summer barbecues and pollution free air. Outside the train we whizzed past more poverty in that two hour train ride than I had seen in my whole life. People were living next to, and on, garbage dumps in makeshift shacks covered in ripped tar paper. I could smell sewage and at the time I found it difficult to enjoy the experience, but I knew it was something I had to see. I didn’t want to be so ignorant, but when a tiny girl came up to me and rubbed her stomach and pointed to her mouth, holding out a little tin can, my heart broke. I knew immediately not to give her any money, but I had a little box of cornflakes and handed them to her. She was so happy, but then I was followed by an entire crew of children and I couldn’t do anything, I felt the full extent of being an ignorant tourist. Helpless, shocked, and along amongst millions of people.

Resources About Poverty In India:

A New York Time’s Article: For India’s Children, Philanthropy Isn’t Enough

Born Into Brothels – If you haven’t seen this documentary, it’s a must see.

Salaam Bombay – A film from 1988 on daily life of children in Mumbai

About India’s Complex Mix of Wealth and Poverty

Poverty Reduction

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1 Comment

  1. mplanck on July 14, 2013 at 6:46 pm

    I so appreciate your sharing your “moments of truth” in a country so “foreign” to ours. We hear about poverty, see clips on the evening news, but to be there in person is overwhelming. When I was in Egypt, our guide told us not to give “bakshesh” to beggars or we would be followed by droves of them. It was hard not to, but I gave once and realized the guide was

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