Sunday, March 29, 2015

Culture shock: going from India to Spain; from people to places

The morning we were leaving India, just two days ago, a friend wrote, among other things "I thought of you and the upcoming change in weather that you will experience, to say nothing of the change in culture." Below is my slightly edited response.

As you so well anticipated, I have been reflecting on the upcoming transition from India, and Asia in general and going to Spain where it will be sunny but cooler, but more importantly a change in culture and traditions. As much as I love travel, I am painfully aware of some misgivings about the transition and if it were not for the fact that Alison has never been to Spain, I am not sure it would be my first choice as a destination specifically, and Europe in general; perhaps its because my own background. Like the joke about a person bragging that he is going to Europe, and the other responding, "Big deal, I was born there". When traveling, I am also aware of the saying, if you like home cooking; eat at home and Europe is very much like home.

It goes beyond that and I cannot explain it in my still foggy state of mind at 5am this morning, albeit I am having my first coffee (mud). I think it goes to the root of culture. I find people in Asia generally warm and welcoming, curious about us as strangers. I have written about being stopped and asked for photographs; people on motorbikes and scooters constantly barraging us with questions, mostly in one of the many incomprehensible languages in India, and with a little bit of English, wanting to know our country, where we are going, how we like India, how old am I and inevitably, parting with a smiling wave wishing a "happy journey".

In India, we attended three huge and very lavish weddings, where we felt like we were the guests of honour and part of the family and it was genuine, perhaps in part because my own craving for family, as I am now an orphan and my children live some distance away.

Then there is the countless random acts of kindness. Asking directions often leads to a person taking upon himself to say, "Follow me on a motorbike", and patiently taking us through crowded city streets, as we move much more slowly, to our intended destination.

Riding along on a quiet country road, a couple of hundred feet away, I see a man running in the field as if chased by a wild elephant. His one arm is waving and the other is holding his shirt and he clearly wanting us to stop. I slow down and his intent is clear and he is totally out of breath when we meet by the roadside. He opens his shirt tail that he was holding and with a big smile hands me a banana, which just happens to be my favourite food on the road. Then another banana, and more. I count about six and ask Alison to help. Like a bottomless pit he keeps offering more and between us we have trouble holding onto them. We try to resist but he insists and we have nothing but a smile and many thanks to show our appreciation for the 12 bananas he has just given us. We wave and he runs back to the field to continue his work.

We both ride with two round side-view mirrors on our bikes. One broke due to a minor mishap. We pass a store selling frames and mirrors. The owner comes to us and I point to the broken mirror and he immediately tries to take the mirror off and is frustrated that he has to wait for me for to use a special wrench to remove it. He gives it to one of his workers, who spends about 15 minutes just removing the broken pieces as they are soundly glued. While we wait, we are offered tea and are peppered with questions. A half-hour later we are set to go, a repair that would nearly be impossible to effect in Canada and he refuses payment. "You are our guests in India."

At a highway dhaba, a truck stop eatery. We have tea and cookies. Once again, the owner and his family refuse payment, saying "You are visitors in India". The only thing they ask is that we hounour them, by taking a photograph of them!

Similarly there are countless bicycle puncture repair places. One of my inner tubes blew up in such a way that I did not even attempt a repair. Almost as a test, I approach a fellow, show him how to use my pump on the special valve and a few minutes later my tube is as good and new and he waves me away with a smile when I offer payment.

The list goes on.

In the western, (sometimes called the civilized world), when we talk about our travels in Asia, the most frequent question asked: "Is it safe?". There is of course, poverty in India. People work incredibly hard, and yet I have never felt unsafe, felt any kind of threat, day or night. I suspect most of us have a fear of the unknown, the stranger, people who look and behave differently than we do. But I have never felt fear here and only some mild degree of discomfort a few times, largely due to an inability to communicate, which is overcome by smiles, handshakes and the countless greetings and the simple acts of kindness, of perfect strangers.

And now we are in Barcelona. Of course it does not help that I have my own misgivings of big cities, the very high youth unemployment and a history I associate, to some extent with differences in religion, culture in Europe and South America, where crime is more rampant. As if to reinforce my preconceptions, just yesterday one of Alison's friends, who has lived in Barcelona wrote:

Be aware that the pick pockets are REALLY bad in Barcelona - so much so that you shouldn't have your phone out when you're walking around - if you have to text or make a phone call don't do it walking around - especially if you're anywhere between Plaza Catalunya and the port, sit somewhere in the middle of a cafe (i.e. with people between you and the sidewalk).

Yesterday, our first full day in Barcelona was perfectly wonderful as we walked the city for about 8 hours practically non-stop, feeling perfectly safe in the streets crowded with tourists, enjoying the brilliant, crisp, sunny day, with my valuables safely stowed in a money belt and my cellphone carefully hidden. The city and its architecture is stunning: clean, vibrant, orderly and is very much in contrast to India. The shock of prices will take some time to adjust not the least of which is the 7 Euros to enter the Cathedral, which we passed on, as we have little to repent.

It was while buying a SIM card for the phone that the major contrast emerged. Vodaphone, the company that gave us nothing but headaches in India is the largest service provider here so I approached them with some reluctance. Thankfully they reinforced their poor organization by telling me that they are out of SIMs and that I should try their competitor Orange, a French company, that I knew was the second largest in Spain.

The young woman at Orange was a delight. She was on the phone but indicated for us to wait and she had a beaming smile as she spoke to another customer. I also could not help but note that she was very attractive: tall, black hair, tanned skin, perhaps of Indian background??. She wore a black blouse and black jeans which were accented by an orange belt, which matched the colour of her lipstick. To boot, she was very efficient and in a few minutes we were on our way with the SIM installed and functioning.

Only when we were leaving it struck me that in India, we would have asked (and she would have been proud to have been asked) to have her photograph taken. I am sure there is some deep meaning in the fact that In Spain, at least thus far, we take pictures mostly of buildings and places; in India, it was mostly of people.


pablo said...

pictures of places rather than people; indeed that is a wonderful part of your reporting from india ..

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