Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Culture Shock and Beedies

My first thoughts of India, of Bangalore........I don't know what to say really; the people everywhere; the cars; the rickshaws; the bikes; the fumes; the funky smells; the street vendors; the boxy run down buildings crawling around on top of each other; the shops signs piled up competing for your attention; the dogs laying on the pavement (who, against my nature, I give a wide berth to); people trying to sell me sunglasses, maps, loads of other things I don't want, and trying to take me places in their rickshaws 'yes please madam', 'where are you going?'; the colourful clothes and scarves; the constant honking of horns for no apparent reason; the close-call car crashes happening at least every 2 minutes; the hot heavy air; and best of all... the sun. All I can do at first is to stand in amazement taking it all in, awkwardly finding my way.

I'm sitting in a restaurant writing this. It's just around the corner from my hotel but it took me ages to get here for all the distractions along the way; being ushered into shops to try on clothes and shoes and carefully treading around huge cracks in the rugged pathways and negotiating my way over busy roads. I smoked a beedie along the way and caused quite a stir with men shouting 'beedie, beedie' to their friends in disbelief. I knew it would attract attention for me, a woman, to be smoking, but it didn't bother me enough to  make me stop doing it.

This is the first thing I’ve eaten all day. Fish Biryani in a terracotta pot, the lid sealed with a rolled up piece of bread, nann bread and 2 chais, and a glass of water that I drink sheepishly after asking if it came from the tap or not. It’s 7pm. I’ve been so dumbfounded all day and didn’t leave eating for an entire day because I was scared of getting delhi belly, I just couldn’t work out how or where to get food from. If might sound strange but everything here is so overwhelmingly different that I’ve only just worked out how to eat.

The staff in the restaurant take great delight in serving everything onto my plate, not letting me do any of it, and come over every two minutes to spoon on more of their speciality chutney, whether I want it or not, asking if I like it, telling me what’s in it, again, asking what I’m doing here, what am I writing. I quite like it though as it makes me feel like I’m never alone. Well how could I be with this many people swarming around the whole time, and it’s not like London, people speak to each other, and me, a lot, and seem to have an inherent friendliness that I don’t see much of in England.

The flight was long and exhausting. I left Cambridge at 3am yesterday after only getting a few hours sleep, and feeling a bit sketchy to say the least. I travelled all the way here whilst slipping in and out of consciousness as my head fell to one side, jolting me awake, wiping away the dribble, and being woken up with amazing airline food. After 4 hours of broken sleep I watched a film called ‘I am Kalam’. I’d recommend it. It’s about a young Indian boy who has ideas and aspirations far beyond his caste and is inspired to change his name by the president Kalam.

At Abu Dhabi airport I experienced what it is like to be the only white person, and woman without a headscarfe, on a bus full of people. EVERYONE was looking at me, some older women with contempt, but young children with open-mouthed curiosity and friendly scrutinisation. I smiled and they became shy and looked away. I remember thinking how glad I was that I dyed my hair black and can only imagine how it might’ve been if I’d still had blonde hair. Abu Dhabi airport was impressive. It had a dome shaped ceiling covered entirely with a green, purple, blue and white mosaic which tapers down into a central point meeting the ground on the lower level. The whole thing reminded me of a mosque or religious type building crossed with a beautiful multi-coloured spaceship. Needless to say I found the smoking room and sat there in a smoky hot box of 10 Arab men and me chuffing for our lives before boarding the next flight.

On both flights I had a window seat and some of the views were breath-taking. The mountainous region with brown undulating rocky mounds rippling over a massive expanse of land reminded me of a book I read in the summer ‘Shantaram’. The part in the book where the gora (white guy in India) goes to Afghanistan to fight a holy war with some Mumbai gangsters and they take the perilous mountain paths by night on horseback. It wasn’t Afghanistan though. It might’ve been nearer to Kuwait by the look it on the flight map.

When stepping out of the customs area I felt very vulnerable. I was supposed to have my wits about me and be on the look out for dodgy taxis and con artists but I wasn’t. I was tired, half deaf from the flight, feeling awkward, confused and like my brain had just been spun out in a washing machine. I went with the first guy who offered me a pre-paid taxi. He was wearing a trustworthy looking, black and yellow t-shirt with some kind of taxi firm logo on it. He came with me to get money changed, watching all the while where I put it, and how much was there. I was paranoid, obviously inexperienced and fumbling around awkwardly with my body wallet, big rucksack and smaller bag. I didn’t even have the brain power to count out the money I got and check how much was there. I just took it. I went to the taxi place with the guy. I didn’t haggle. I just paid them while muttering something about how it seemed a bit expensive.

The ride to Bangalore centre took about 40 minutes and I was quite scary, yet exhilarating at the same time. At 5am there were a lot of cars on the road, going very fast taking a lot of risks, and regularly cutting up the taxi and honking their horns. The roads were bumpy with some massive holes and unexpected mounds with roadworks everywhere it seemed. I think that a metro is being built from the airport to Bangalore. We went through residential areas on the way, but not as I know them, they looked like houses made out of cardboard and corrugated iron, all crammed together. People were in the streets picking and sorting through litter, sweeping, gathered together on corners talking, and squatting on the side of roads doing a bit of business. We drove through an area so dusty that it came through the vents and I couldn’t stop coughing. I didn’t have any water.

I tried to have a conversation with the driver but I couldn’t hear anything as my ears were still suffering from the flight and I don’t speak Kannada, not yet anyway. I felt like a helpless chick freshly hatched out from a protective aeroplane shell, and I pretty much was, so I just had to put all my trust into the taxi driver and hope he’d get me there. He did. We stopped on a dark, dusty, littered street filled with western logos and signage as far as the eye could see, MacDonalds, Cannon, Nokia, Pizzahut, Lacoste, were only a few. He phoned the hotel for them to come out and get me as he could see how stunned I was. I met a couple of South Africans who also arrived at the same time, one of them was a huge friendly dark skinned man called Yolan, and he asked me a lot of questions. I couldn’t respond at first as I was in a bit of shock. My words didn’t come out.

Nothing could have prepared me for this and nothing was how I’d imagined it. I’m amazed, overwhelmed and also delighted that I decided to come here. I’ve been here for one day now and I feel like a lot has happened already. I had a white knuckle rickshaw ride, I bought some beedies, I met a guy from Argentina, Paulo, who was wondering around in the street, studying a map, looking for a hotel – so I took him to mine telling him it was a good one. He reminded me of how I felt only 12 hours before, stumbling around in a dreamlike daze unsure of who to trust.

The hotel guys were very happy that I brought them a customer and did a funny smiley head waggle at me –scoring me enough brownie points for them to let me use their mobile to make a couple of phone calls to the Born Free School to organize meeting them the next day. Although as I lay here on my hotel bed finishing off writing this blog, a giant bed bug came towards me really fast so I squashed it with my lighter onto the previously clean white bed sheets. I think I spoke too soon about this hotel and I have a pang of regret about bringing Paulo here. The next day I woke up late and missed my 6am check out time so they charge me for an extra day. I tried to argue my way out of it but I lost and ended up paying. I won’t be recommending this hotel again.

My favourite things about India so far are the smiley faces and head waggles (which I will be trying out soon), men who hold hands in the street, and my new found haggling skills which got me a good price on a sarwal kameez top and some sandals. I’m just off to the post office now to post back my heavy boots then I’m getting a rickshaw to JP Nagar to meet with Jon Dervaj at the Born Free Art School. I look forward to it.




  1. Few glad to hear you are safe and well. a lovely description aww..... u will have such experiences, just stay open to everything while being careful. there is a;ways time for a chat!

    eeeeww bed bugs! xxx

  2. Wow ! Sadie that's an amazing piece with wonderful experiences, take care