Some thoughts on culture shock

It’s hit me that the greatest culture shock about visiting India isn’t in the evident differences between South Asia and North America (language, crowds, traffic insanity, etc.) but in the subtler ones – the differences you don’t expect when you encounter something familiar.

Basically, it’s the little things that really push me to realize I’m not in Montreal anymore.

Going to the Mall.

In North America, the mall is a dying species. They used to be the one-stop shopping destinations in towns small and large, displacing mom & pop stores, but recently they’ve been bested by the superstore. Big behemoths like Walmart have slowly been obliterating smalls but offering roughly the same quantity of selection, albeit at a much lower quality and price tag.

In India, malls are pretty new. I’m fairly sure they only began appearing after the government started opening up the country to trade and investment in the past decade or so. Malls are therefore a sign of change and excitement in a country where most people used to shop at the flurry of stalls and tarpaulin covered sheds down the street.

The malls in Kolkata stick out like slot machines in a library. They’re big, bright, ultra-modern, and their air-conditioned interiors cool off the side walk a whole block away.

Inside, they’re loaded with glamourous luxury brands. The floors are marble. There’s 90s North American rock hits playing over the speakers. The food court is a heaven for vegetarians and foodies alike, with local favourites and fancier food combined under one shared space.

All this seems pretty much like the malls in a Southern American state like California or Nevada, but that’s where the similarities start to flicker.

First up, every store is overstaffed. A two story clothing outlet might havev 40+ employees just working the floors (not counting cash, security, changing room security, etc.) It’s downright frightening to see employees everywhere.

Even more so, because the employees are overly helpful.

Not only do does a small gang of them have a tendency to hover about 2.5 feet away if you dare stop and look at a shirt, but they also hawk their wares as you pass by.

“Shirt sir! Real cotton!”

“Sir, pants! Good pants!”

“Sunglasses! Top style!”

On the bright side, you never need to look for anyone if you need someone to run to the back to find a size for you.

As well, the stores are immaculate. 500% employment means the shelves are always faced, stock is never low, and there’s plenty of selection.

American stores like Target could learn a thing or two.

Going to the Movies.

You still go to a movie hall, buy your tickets at the entrance, wait around a ritzy lobby and then take your seat in a dark room. But the little things stick out.

For one, there was a fully stocked bar in the lobby for the Insignia pass members – basically, Scene Card Holders.

Next, the treats and snacks work differently. Sure, there’s still overpriced popcorn and soda, but there’s also steamed corn with lime, Kolkata street food, bags of nacho chips with dip and even pastries.

Perhaps the strangest part for a foreigner like myself was realizing that before the movie begins, a crew of men carrying confections roams up and down the aisles on either side of the hall shouting “Popcorn! Nacho Chips! Cold Drink!”

They then linger in the aisles long after they’ve asked every person in the room if they want chips or soda, and periodically shout of the name of their goods like crows perched on a wire, hoping someone notices.

As soon as the intermission rolls out (yes, they still have those. A short film in India is about two hours and twenty five minutes long) the hawkers are back.

“Popcorn! Nacho Chips! Cold Drink!”

They also check your bags at the entrance to make sure no one is sneaking in any snacks (heaven forbid) and they shut the doors to each cinema hall, discouraging people from sneaking from one movie to the next.

Plus there’s the obligatory team of security staff hovering about.

Malls here can also get horrendously crowded. On a recent Sunday evening, it was easily as crowded as the Eaton’s Centre on Christmas Eve.

Not that people were rushing around to get in some last minute shopping, of course. They were just here for the AC, the sights and to walk around and literally hang out at the corner.

Plus, take selfies every ten feet.

Standing in any line, anywhere.

This is one of the big ones. I’m certainly pampered by countries like Canada and Japan where everyone understands how a line works and generally respects it.

In India (as well as the Southern parts of the USA I’ve noticed) aren’t interested in any of that. Whenever there should be a line, you’ll have a funnel of people instead.

Think about hopping on or off a bus or metro. It’s a two way mad rush of bodies leaving and entering at the same time. No standing and waiting your turn, or first come first served. Even if you stand around at the front, someone will walk up next to you and inch ahead.

Cutting in line has become an art form.

The same happens whenever you need to pay for something at the store. People appear from out of the woodwork and cut their way to the front, usually waving money. The sight of money gets the cashier’s attention and they move to the head of the line.


Four days in the forest and a drive to Bhutan

We fly to Bagdogra, in Northern Bengal. Walking out from our small plane onto the tarmac, the temperature was easily 5-6 degrees cooler, and half as humid, as it was back in the city.

The airport is tiny, but the entrance way is busy – jam-packed with taxi drivers shouting for passengers. Fortunately, we had already booked a car with the local tourist agency.

We somehow found our driver easily, but then waited for 20 minutes as he scoured the mammoth-sized parking lot searching for his decayed white SUV out of an ocean of similar vehicles.

On the roads, it became clear that the driver had a death wish. All he knows is speed. He seemed unaware that cars came with breaks and driving below 100 on curvy, windy roads seemed to make him physically unwell.

Most of the time, when I looked up from the front window to see the road ahead, my eyes were met by either a truck or jeep heading in our direction.

He was, of course, no different than every other driver we’ve seen out here. Dodging and weaving around traffic, driving in the opposite lane, and playing chicken with smaller vehicles is a way of life – it was all bordering on becoming a philosophical doctrine. Everyone adheres to it in one way or another.

The cities out here are much smaller, and looked more like long abandoned construction sites than anything we saw in Calcutta. The roads were dust, and piles of it gathered along the sides and in the ditches. Countless storefronts, open to the road, with floors covered in gravel, hawked identical bags of chips, hair products and suspicious sounding Indo-Chinese dishes.

One place claims “authentic” Chinese, but behind the counter is a bunch of locals tossing whatever meat and noodles they have into a vat of oil.


Past the towns, we drive through the mountains, on narrow, winding roads. Along the way, we spot families of monkeys sitting by the roadside, apparently content to watch the traffic as entertainment.

Down below, empty, dried out rivers have turned into stone bed where people wander and kids play.


Past the mountains and the valleys, we’re in tea territory.

On both sides of the road for miles, rows and rows of identical tea bushes. Massive, white and yellow colonial homes, some on stilts high above the ground, interrupt the greenery.


We check in to the resort – which claims to be a forest retreat. In one part, that’s true: behind the little rows of cabins is the woods. But the woods only goes a half kilometer before it touches the train tracks. Out front, on the other side of the resort, is a slim row of trees and the country road where trucks come and go.


We head out in the evening to visit an uncle named Raja who lives in the area.

In the darkness, we reach Raja’s home. The massive two-storied building looks a cross between a train depot and a Victorian townhouse. It’s half-finished, and still under heavy renovations.

Most of the rooms are bedrooms with adjacent washrooms. Each one half done and mostly empty. The tour de force of the place is the semi-detached patio with airconditioning, 14-foot roof, and as much spare space as a basketball court.

The other oddity is the dining room. It immediately reminded me of the house in Beetlejuice. White walls, checkered tiles, and eggshell coloured furniture. Thankfully, that’s not how our dinner turned out.


On the drive back from the plantations, there was a lightning storm high above the tea fields. Bolts of white light, thick like vines, crept across the sky. They were moving fast, but slow enough that we could see them creep.

The storms and winds became a torrential downpour, that covered us the rest of the ride back.


We rented a jeep and drove out to the nearby national parks first thing in the morning.

We caught and elephant by the side of the road in the morning mists. It was tossing mud on its back and paused only to give us a stink face, and mean stare, before calmly retreating back into the woods.

Elsewhere, I hoped for rhinos, but all we saw were wild peacocks ducking in and out of the treeline.


After returning from the safari per-se, we took a quick rest, a fast lunch and hit the road again – this time for Bhutan.

The Himalayan kingdom was only a two hour drive from the resort. Along the way we saw the scenery change from dense, primeval forest, to endless fields of tea plants all lined in perfect rows, to the distant mountains themselves seeped in clouds and mist. We reached Bhutan in the early afternoon.

Unlike other border crossings, Pheuntsholing was an open border town to foreign visitors – a gateway into Bhutan without further paperwork required. It was a sort of tourist outpost that linked the two countries. The roads further in were closed and barred to visitors, but at this entrance there was simply an open gate with dragons painted on the side to usher us into another country.

The streets in Bhutan were oddly clean, with traffic moving in a reasonably ordered fashion, and less noisy. The people also walked on clearly defined sidewalks, and crossed the streets on painted crosswalks. Stores on each side of the road had glass windows, and revealed neatly stacked shelves of goods on the inside.

Our driver took us through the town and up the hillside, which was essentially a low-lying part of the Himalayas. We paused at an overlook, seeing how the mountains wrapped themselves around the town and empty river bed below. Colorful houses – most of them homes, and not the corrugated iron sheds we often see in rural India – dotted the neatly lined streets and avenues below.

This slice of Bhutan looked familar and markedly different at the same time.

On the way out, we stopped at a grocery store, which looked remarkably like a depanneur only several times larger. We could roam the aisles and carry our purchases to the register. It was radically different than the open-faced garages in India where you shout at the merchant and he pulls items from the shelf for you.


Passing back into India was night and day.

The clean, relatively quiet and orderly streets of Bhutan were replaced with the mess and clamour that busy Indian alleys adore so much. There were beggars, merchants shouting about deals and bits of meat hanging from butcher’s stalls. Steam coming from street side chow mein. Literal piles of shit on the sidewalk. Cars honking everywhere.

In the light rain and the crowded multicultural mess, it reminded me of the streets in Bladerunner.


The sights along the drive back is a mix of wonder and horror.

The poverty alongside the natural beauty is nearly impossible to understand. Most of the homes are sheds, many with unfinished walls, or blue tarps keeping out the rain.

There’s garbage everywhere. Behind restaurants, the ditch is filled with used plates and discarded water bottles. At the edge of the tea gardens, shreds of rags and towels cling to the tea leaves. A man burns a pile of trash and wet leaves in the alley alongside his home.

We take a turn and up ahead a small bridge. It’s literally made of garbage, pressed in with chickenwire, and flattened with earth and years of use.


At a roadside restaurant where we paused to eat, there was an empty river running alongside the edge of town easily a half kilometre or more wide. It was filled with tiny grey / eggshell white stones. Beyond were the mountains and Bhutan.

A cloud formation rolled in, sweeping the mountains, and with it darkness and the winds. In a matter of minutes, the torrential downpours of the night before came in for a second round, and we ran to the car for another slow ride back.


At night, the temperature falls to 23 and it’s downright frigid compared to the 38+ that we’re used to dealing with.



Recovering, some sights

I spent three days feeling nauseaus and living with everything that goes along with it. Maybe it was something I ate at the restaurant near Park Street. It’s also possible that one of the cups wasn’t washed properly. Or it could have been the water I used to rinse my toothbrush.

Either way, I’m finally recovering and was able to enjoy a hefty breakfast today. Still haven’t been able to get back into rich foods.


I haven’t seen a single other person wearing a hat in a city of over 10 million where it’s always sunny and deathly hot.


Heading to the North of the city, by way of the outskirts, we passed a roadside textile mall. For about a kilometre on either side, hundreds of vendors hawk shirts and other garments to countless clients.

Most of the buyers are themselves merchants. They buy bags of shirts in bulk and cart them back into the city proper, where they resell them out of shops no larger than a closet or shower stall.

We were stuck in the midst of the congestion, traffic brought to a standstill going both ways. Buses filled with men going to work, hand-drawn carts, and men riding bicycles with precarious bundles stacked atop the handle bars filled the streets between the sellers.


One day, after the rainstorm, the temperature lowered itself down to roughly 25 degrees. It felt almost cold. I can say the same happens during the warmer days. When it’s 38 degrees outside plus humidity, setting the AC down to 26 almost demands pants and a sweat by contrast.