Culture shock in Varanasi, India

Culture Shock

It’s been three months since I touched down in Paris after a year living in Nepal, India and Sri Lanka. I’ve tried to write about that day several times—how vast the artificial sky underneath the airport ceiling had felt, the emotionally empty announcements that droned on over the intercom, the strangeness of people’s clothes, gadgets and mannerisms, the distance everyone kept between everyone else.

By that time my friend and I had already been traveling for a hellishly long time. It had started 30, 40, maybe 50 hours earlier when we showed up for an 8 hour, overnight bus across Sri Lanka to find out it was fully booked (the day before the man at the station had told us we needn’t by tickets, just show up early…) It was 9:30 PM and this was the last direct bus to Colombo before our flight the next day. There was standing room only. Were we on the bus or off? We boarded the bus.

Five minutes later, before the motor had started, we came to our senses, grabbed our bags and jumped off the bus. The next day, beginning at 6:00 AM we began an improvised route over a network of local buses, which got us to Colombo just in time to get stuck in the evening commute traffic, get ripped off by one final rickshaw driver and wash and change into fresh clothes in the airport bathroom before our 7:30 PM flight out. After a red eye to Mumbai we boarded a second plane, touching down in Paris just in time for the morning commute.

We had some business in the city so we took the underground into Paris. After, we took a cab to the tram station because the labor unions were on strike, shutting down the subway. Police walked the streets of Paris with bullet proof vests, their hands resting on black, automatic rifles. I was shocked, not because I’ve never seen that, but because I’ve never seen it so close to home.

We took a tram to Disneyland Paris, on the outskirts of the city where we waited for the train that would take us to Marsaille. I walked out into a light drizzle to find a toilet near the Disneyland parking lot. On my way back I walked for a couple hundred yards under a bright red portico with a moving walkway where people lined up to enter the park each morning. It was empty now as I walked back to the train station, serenaded by a Disney tune I fondly remembered from being a child:

Yo Ho, Yo Ho! A pirate’s life for me.
We pillage, we plunder, we riffle and loot.
Drink up me ‘earties, Yo Ho!
We kidnap and ravage and don’t give a hoot.
Drink up me ‘earties, Yo Ho!

Yo Ho, Yo Ho! A pirate’s life for me.

We extort, we pilfer, we filch and sack.
Drink up me ‘earties, Yo Ho!
Maraud and embezzle and even hijack.
Drink up me ‘earties, Yo Ho!

Yo Ho, Yo Ho! A pirate’s life for me.


We’re beggars and blighters and ne’er-do-well cads.
Drink up me ‘earties, Yo Ho!
Aye! But we’re loved by our mommies and dads!
Drink up me ‘earties, Yo Ho!1

On the way back I passed a homeless man begging on the bank of a flower bed. I had no change for him. I wanted to give him a smile but I couldn’t. I looked away.

While waiting for my train I watched families pour out of the theme park, parents drinking from soda bottles and paper coffee cups, carrying bags full with Mickey Mouse balloons and stuffed yellow Despicable Me minions while kids ran around excitedly waving light up wizard wands and plastic pirate swords.

It’s not fair, but in that moment India came rushing back to me. I thought of the children I saw in New Delhi, outside my train window, scavenging with the dogs through mountains of trash that were taller than the tarp-covered shanties propped up next to them. I thought of the day I was stopped dead in my tracks by the sight of a skinny old man cooking naan bread over a fire on the sidewalk while his infant child sat in the gutter beside him, filthy and naked. I thought of the time I watched a dead grandmother’s body burn to ashes while standing next to her grandson. I thought of the day I discovered a dead dog on a beach in Sri Lanka and the way that little girl had ran back to her mother in horror when she realized what it was. I remembered the rotting cow carcasses floating down the the Ganges like waterlogged tree trunks while families bathed yards away along its shores.

I don’t know what to do with these truths. I’m struggling. Where do they belong?

We boarded the final train to Marseille. Ten minutes before we were due to arrive, we came to a halt on the tracks. For the next half hour there was nothing—no news, no explanation. I was preparing to sob quietly into a puddle of self pity when through my window, I saw emergency response teams running down the hill to the tracks in front of us. There was a soft melody and the train’s intercom came online to inform us (in French) that there had been “un accident de personne.” We’d be off again shortly. That was all.

Two hours later the train started up and we arrived at the station where we waited in the cold night air for our ride. We stunk to high heaven. Later that night we took our first hot shower in three months, ate a hot meal and collapsed into bed.

It was the silence that I think shocked me most about that day. I’m painfully aware of silence because I cannot hear it. I suffer from tinnitus which means that for me, silence is a constant, high pitched ringing in my right ear.

In Asia there’s no such thing as silence—life, death and all the chaos in-between pour out of the cracks and into the streets from everywhere. The crickets gentle cadence, the bird’s hope-filled songs, the bat’s ghostly flutter and the monkey’s wanton war cries remind me that the days are wild and the night’s are wilder, that the country is breathing. The shouts of merchants, the screams of children and the rumblings of rickshaws reverberate off city walls all hours of the day while Muslim chants, ringing Tibetan prayer wheels and the violent midnight celebrations of Hindu weddings burst out into the night, reminding the world that they too, are microcosms of life. It Is All Happening.

In Paris the silence was deafening. It punctuated the monotone announcements on the airport intercom and swallowed up the echoes of hurried footsteps across cold, indifferent pavement. In the subway it hung uncomfortably in the air, ignored by people plugged into virtual worlds. I heard it while sipping espresso on a street corner in the heart of Paris, watching as cars with sealed windows quietly rolled down the double-wide street. People walked briskly by, with phones in their hands and wires dangling from their ears. On both sides of the street, beautiful, four-story-high stone buildings rose out of the concrete like trees, fire escapes wound down them like ivy, their rooftop canopies blocked out all but a small sliver of the sky. There were no leaves for the wind to rustle, no roosts for birds to serenade from. Instead there was the beep, beep, beep of a crosswalk, reminding the city that it was on its way to somewhere else. And there was my tinnitus.

But it’s what broke the silence, while I was locked in that train compartment 10 minutes outside of Marseille, that I remember most.

“Un accident de personne.”

Who was that “accident de personne” and why were they on the tracks?

Had they been suffering in silence too?


Last month I learned a family member was in the hospital after attempting suicide.

This holiday season, when you see your chance, break the silence. Risk a connection.

It’s what makes us human. It keeps us alive.

I can think of no greater gift.

*Photo taken on the Ganges in the holy city of Varanasi, India. 

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  1. Yo Ho, A Pirate’s Life for Me

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Hello. I’m Alasdair.

Hello. I’m Alasdair.

I believe that being aware of who I am and mindful of who I am becoming is the best investment I can make in my life —and that when we focus our efforts within, the rewards naturally flow outward to those we love and through the communities we belong to.