I think I’ve experienced “culture shock” twice in my life. The first time was when I was 14 and went on a plane for the first time in my life to India. It was actually the first time for me out of England, unless you count a day trip to Calais to buy beer, a “booze cruise” as it was known. I was only 13 or something like that, it was my Dad and uncle buying the booze. I remember trying out the French that I’d been learning for 3 years in a Calais bakery. “Je vooodray un cwarsont de jam-bon”, only to be met with a confused stare and a grunt, which was a shame because pretty much every week in French class, for 3 years, we learnt how to ask for a ham croissant. Apparently my pronunciation wasn’t great.
We landed in Bombay, as it was officially still called, in December 1990. The doors opened and the smell of India punched me in the face. The drive away from the airport was the real shock though. The poverty along the side of the road was something you thought only existed in the movies, the people living there had nothing, barely even clothes on their backs. It was shocking and something that has stayed with me ever since. My first culture shock.
We have just spent about 3 months cycling across India but due to a combination of visa rules, time constraints and safety considerations we decided to fly from Delhi to Almaty in Kazakhstan. When you cycle across borders on a bicycle from one country to another you definitely notice you are in a new place but the change doesn’t feel extremely sudden. The changes in food, culture and people are easy to see but subtle at the same time. We landed in Almaty, where I would experience my second episode of culture shock. This culture shock was different to what I experienced on my first trip in India. It was in fact because of the sudden difference between India and Almaty that I was shocked. Just driving from the airport to our hostel was already startling. There were wide open highway with light traffic. The cars, for some reason traveled quite predictably in the lanes they were in and no one was constantly pressing the horn or swerving to avoid pedestrians, food carts or cows. In fact, there were no pedestrians, food carts or cows on the roads. Almaty itself was beautifully scenic city with snow capped mountains to the south, trees, open park areas everywhere and a distinct lack off litter. It was as though we were suddenly back in Europe but compared to India we may as well have been on another planet. The noises, the smells, the colours, the people and the intense energy of India were suddenly gone along with all the vibrancy and surprises that came with it. It is for these reasons that many people say that you either love or hate India. I don’t love or hate India, I love AND hate India, usually at the same time. It wasn’t that Almaty was better or worse, it was just very different and it really took a few days to get used to being there.
One thing that didn’t change was the friendliness of the people we met. After a few days in Almaty we started to cycle and once again we were met with overwhelming kindness from so many people. So many people wanted to say hello to us and ask us how we were and if we needed anything. A family in a huge Mercedes drove past and stopped a few meters ahead of us. They got out to talk to us and told us they were travelling 1500 km to another city. They opened the boot of their car to reveal a huge stash of provisions for their journey which they then proceeded to force on us. We have a lovely snack of home made pizza, ice tea and cookies, then when they left, they handed us a whole carton containing more pizza. Another day we camped on what we though was just open land. Apparently we were on someone’s farm, although the farmers were more than happy to host us. They gave us cooling bottles of what they called “Kazakhstan cola”, a kind of delicious cooling yogurt drink, made from the milk of their own cows. We also visited their farmhouse where they fed us with homemade bread, butter and fried goose eggs again all from their own farm. Kindness can be so delicious.
The differences between India and Kazakhstan are huge but the generosity remains the same. The acts of kindness we experience on this trip continue to happen and I’m glad to say they still shock us every time.
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