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Culture Shock to the Max

CULTURE SHOCK TO THE MAX
                                                                         by Diana McLeod                                            1990

Dave and I first went to India in 1990. Before we left, we discussed our trip with Dave’'s older brother Mel, who had lived in India, and who was a very experienced traveler. Mel recommended that we challenge ourselves by exposing ourselves to maximum culture shock. He said that it is a very good thing to give your world view a real shakeup once in a while. Mel said that there was nowhere on the planet that he found as extreme as India, and he advised that, for total immersion, we should plunge ourselves straight into the bazaars of Old Delhi on our very first day.We took his advice, and headed straight for Chandi Chowk. This is the famous bazaar surrounding the great mosque of Old Delhi, called the Jama Masjid Mosque.

As I stepped out of the taxi, the slender minarets and the magnificent onion dome of the mosque loomed over me. The Jama Masjid was an ethereal vision in red sandstone and white marble. Its calm beauty was completely surrounded by utter chaos. The street I had stepped out onto was a mad swirl of auto and bicycle rickshaws, cars, trucks with blaring horns, and a nearly continuous stream of foot traffic. Muslim men in white caps and long robess jostled with boisterous Hindu office boys and roaming street vendors with baskets of food on their heads. Children ran in traffic, begging from me incessantly. Hustlers accosted me, talking a blue streak, offering to “guide” me while shopping (so they could get commissions). “"Madam, Madam, you must come to my brother'’s shop! Madam, Madam…”!" A bull (!) wandered aimlessly down the street, following right behind me. Luckily, I saw his horns coming, out of the corner of my eye. Young boys shoved and elbowed, and one even gave me a rude pinch. I practically tripped over he first leper I saw in India. The disease had ravaged his body terribly. He was lying right on the busy sidewalk, begging for alms.

The barrage continued as we went deeper into the market. The colors of the merchandise were overwhelming. The Indians love sparkle and dazzle, so everything was made using the brightest possible colors, with as much glitter and sequins and gold and silver thread as they could squeeze onto the goods. The spicy smells from the curbside kitchens were intense, especially when mixed with charcoal smoke from the cooking fires, and the acrid exhaust from passing trucks. My ears were bombarded by hawkers, competing music stalls selling bootleg tapes, and the blare of the loudspeakers from the mosque as the time grew close for afternoon prayers. I heard a tambourine and singing in the gardens below the mosque, and I followed the sound. A group of young transvestites were dancing for the crowd, swaying lewdly in bespangled saris.

I got lost in the bazaar. Around every bend were new products, new sights, new sounds, and new smells. The sari sellers tried to wrap saris around me. The incense sellers happily fanned clouds of thickly scented smoke into my face. I walked away, turned a corner or two, and suddenly wound up in the chicken market. I found myself surrounded by stacked cages full of dirty, clucking chickens! The reek of poop and butchery was horrendous. The chicken vendor greeted me, bloody hatchet in hand. I fled in horror. Luckily, I wound up discovering the bangle stalls. Indian women crowded around the stalls, arguing loudly with the vendors in Hindi, trying to knock them way down on their prices.

It took quite a while to escape from the market maze. I fought off two “guides,” a fortune teller, and a couple of would-be “boyfriends”, and made my way back, guided by the minarets of the mosque. There, to my eternal relief, I found Dave. He was snapping pictures as fast as he could.

That night, I couldn'’t sleep. My dreams were crowded with images that just kept popping up out of nowhere. I couldn’'t shut them out. This continued for a number of nights, and I finally realized what was happening. India had overwhelmed my senses so much that my mind was unable to process the images fast enough. They had gone subliminal! The flashbacks continued for quite some time. And then, one day, I managed to get the hang of it. India had caught me up and swept me into the wild unruly current of its unique stream of consciousness.

Thanks for reading! Diana


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