We have been living in rural India, Buldana now for 20 days, and are going through the stages of culture shock – the acute feeling of being way out of our comfort zones and unfamiliar culture. I think since arriving here the six of us have experienced it at different times and intensities. It’s been a shock to our usual well-oiled travel system, and a debilitating heaviness often surrounds our efforts to stay positive and upbeat. Arguments are common, but they were too at home anyway!
Google: Culture Shock
the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.
We have previously made the transition from home life in Australia (the routine life of work-school-home) to a life of a traveller (moving from place to place with a backpack) successfully. During the first month of travel, we were constantly on the move journeying up the west coast of India from Kochi in the south, to Goa, Mumbai, to the northern Punjab state to finally the capital of New Delhi. Things were different for sure here in India, but moving made it all the more bearable. We were in the routine of searching online for appropriate accommodation – both in regard to finding something safe, comfortable and within budget – and booking it as we went along. During this time, our daily goal was to find food to eat in cafes and restaurants that wouldn’t cause sickness and deciding what we were going to see that day. We also noticed our budget explode in the first month to almost double what was our planned daily allowance of $200. But the budget will peak and trough depending on the type of travel we are undertaking. If we’re always moving around the more expensive it will be than staying put in one place for an extended period of time. Common sense.
In this first month of travel, we have been motivated each day to catch trains and see the sights in all of the amazing cities and places we were visiting which is what we have been accustomed to in previous travel stints abroad. However, now we are having to transition again, from moving travellers to settled residents in a foreign and unfamiliar place. This change has hit us all hard. We now find ourselves confronted by the reality of being foreign residents – staying in the one place, finding grocery items, cooking and cleaning, and the girls getting out of holiday mode and into a new online learning environment with Distance Education. There seem to be major glitches all over the place, like hidden landmines in a green field. We are simultaneously coming to terms with an online learning environment and Learning Management System, as well as acclimatising to an unfamiliar place where no one speaks fluent English nor is there any tourist trail.
It’s hard for me to describe exactly what life is like over here in Buldana, other than to say it’s a tough life. And there doesn’t seem to be an end to it. The same people, the same situations, the same poverty, the same cycle, the same daily noise and chaos on the streets. There is a level of personal containment we are used to enforcing – the ability to hold it in, look beyond an off day, and realise it will pass and all will be good again soon. But living here doesn’t feel like that, especially to the girls. Here we are in it, submerged like a submarine in the dark Atlantic Ocean without a navigational map. And although there is an end date, 1 April we leave Buldana to New Delhi and explore the Golden Triangle with Steve’s sister and her two sons, we are all feeling that is another 44 days away and while that may not seem a long time in the long term vision of being away for 365 days, when you’re in the midst of dealing with culture shock for yourself and your four kids (and just 20 days in), it really feels like forever.
Not all is as negative as it seems though, and I’m concentrating on the little wins we have along the daily grind. I wake up to the neighbours going about their daily routine – sweeping their front yards with a broom made from sticks, watering their balcony pot plants, or watching the lady across the road put out her early morning washing over the railing. There are the beautiful sights and sounds of Buldana but there are always the not so beautiful too. Food and a severe lack of variety has been a very big challenge for us. The usual meals in Buldana include rice, dahl, overcooked vegetables in some sort of masala powder sauce, paneer, and chicken (containing everything of the fresh chook!) and chapatti (flat bread). We brought sickness with us from Delhi, which has made some of the us more cautious of what we put into our mouths: Billie ate only grapes and cashew nuts for a whole week while Dacey struggles with the spices that are used in normal Indian cooking (even when we ask for zero spice).
But it has made me more determined to find solutions to the food setback like finding packets of dry pasta at the ARD Supermarket so Dacey could cook up her own tomato, onion, and garlic sauce recipe (which I must say tastes delicious), finding sliced cheese and making toasties in a frying pan (best comfort food we could find), boiling fresh buffalo milk, but then discovering small packets of pasteurised cow’s milk which we have over cornflakes or muesli (thanks to James who is over from Melbourne and brought Nutella, peanut butter, muesli and vitamin tablets). Charlie makes French toast for breakfast with freshly cut strawberries, chocolate spread and a sprinkle of icing sugar over the top (very decadent). We have found plain green tea bags (the only flavour I can source in bags) which is refreshing after drinking sweet chai chai chai.
Buldana is also not a hip and happening place either. There’s not much to do and see here and the girls struggle with boredom and lethargy in the down times when school is over. There’s a park but it’s in ruins, the streets are dusty and brown, the local movie theatre plays movies only in Hindi, and there’s no cafes to grab a healthy snack of non-Indian food to break it up a bit. The best we have found is French fries, vegetable burgers (not recommended) and vegetable pizzas (they’re just okay). Drinks on offer are the usual – soft drinks, lassis, hot drinks like chai tea and Indian coffee, bottled water, and rich chocolate drinks (that are sickly). The limited food options mean we are eating less (which on a more positive note may be a good thing down the track when wearing bikinis in Spain!).
We were told there was a private swimming pool in Buldana, and drove out to take a look. The pool and the pool area itself looked quite lovely, except for the water (a tad green for my liking) and cost 50 rupee ($1) per person for the day. But it’s too risky to contemplate jumping in and maybe catching a stomach bug or something worse. In addition, women are only allowed to swim between 5-6pm each day and we must purchase unrevealing swimming costumes (the one’s that go down to the mid-thigh). We are also restricted with the clothes we wear every day – no shorts or singlets are worn in Buldana even though the temperature reaches beyond 30 degrees. Here is a very conservative society where both men’s and especially women’s bodies are covered up – long pants, loose tops, scarfs. Mostly the women wear their long saris.
However, between all these restrictions, we have been able to find something that works for all of us – we joined the local gym. Women are not normally allowed to join the gym, due to the high (and expected) risk associated with Indian men behaving badly towards women and causing an incident, but after a conversation or two with the gym owner, Steve has managed to get all the girls and me signed up (again we are wearing clothes that cover our bodies). Working out at the gym has been a blessing for releasing the daily frustrations associated with what I have shared above. I also found a yoga instructor who takes hourly group lessons on Tuesday and Thursday nights – he only speaks the local language Marathi throughout the yoga session so I have to keep one eye open on him at all times to know what yogi move to perform next, but when he says in his monotone drooling voice “relaxxx” “relaxxx” I close both eyes and enjoy the feeling of merging into the wooden floor.
We don’t have a washing machine either at the apartment. So we have a local helper. Her name is Uwjula and she comes to our apartment each day and does the hand washing around the side entrance of the apartment. Uwjula also comes in to clean the kitchen and mop the floor. And since Dacey found an orphaned pup up in Buldana city area Monday week ago, he has been a very good reason to give the concrete floor a wash down each day (lots of little puddles of accidents).
This orphan pup, Roadie Monday, was found wandering around in a deathly state. We could see that his days were certainly numbered. My guess is that his mum and sibling pups died somehow or that he got lost and the odds were not stacked in his favour. Long story short he’s had four injections, endured three baths, and had copious amounts of flea and tick powder poured over his scrawny little body. He’s now acting like a playful pup and starting to bite at our ankles and chew things! He’s put on weight and he’s growing. He has been a playful distraction to our existence here in Buldana, and looking after him has given Dacey a purpose and a sense of the power she has in the world of animal rescue. I’m still not certain that we have done the right thing for Roadie though, as Indian street dogs need to go out and live Indian street dog’s life. He may be healthy now, with a soft pudgy tummy, but he is a dog of the streets and the reality is that he will have to be street smart to scavenge for food scarps and learn how to deal with other domineering street dogs and the wretched clean-up pigs.
Uwjula’s parents have offered to take him off us. They live in a village not far from Buldana city. This sounded good until one of the volunteers Bohoka told us the reality of Roadies life in a village. Roadie will be on the street and since the village is located near the open defecation area, he will live off human faeces along with the other street dogs and no one will want to be near him. Understandable. And another slap of reality. We’re yet to make the decision as to when Roadie Monday will depart his ‘rehabilitation’ stay with us. And I’m not telling Dacey the harsh reality of his future either, especially when she wants to take him to Spain with us! But it breaks my heart if I allow myself to think too deeply about the reality of his future. I think I’m going to parade this cute dog around the neighbourhood and get the kids to fall in love with him so he could be better looked after. Fingers crossed.
Each night our sleep is interrupted, not from Roadie Monday crying as he’s stopped this now, but with the sounds of street dogs fighting and incessantly barking, squabbling clean-up street pigs, and the sound of the Gods: mooing cows right outside our bedroom window. We now leave our bedroom’s ceiling fan on (full blast as the other options don’t work) to help block out these piercingly annoying animal sounds and have learnt to fall asleep to the sound of the clicking and rickety fan hovering above. The power cycle dips too during the night and the fan slows down and its hum lowers when less power comes through the night. Steve wakes up each morning thinking it’s raining on the roof. Power cuts are common here. What worse, the electricals in our apartment seem to be alive, even the hot water flowing from the tap in the bathroom is electrically charged!
But we (well most of us) are grateful for what we have here, and the relative comfort. None of it is perfect, far from it, but this is life in rural Buldana. It’s also an opportunity for acceptance, for our mindsets to be challenged and prised open to allow a small insight into this different world and to gain a completely different perspective. We need to remind ourselves that we are not here in Buldana forever, just for an extended stay. When we see how the locals live in their small homes and huts, we are brought back down to earth. And when the girls ask me “why did you want to come here?” I give them that reason – mindset, perception, experience. Their eyes roll, tongues scoff and they move away from me with their young and foolish rage. But one day, I’m certain, the dirt and grime of Buldana will stay under their skin and after some time for digesting this place and its ways, they will come to make sense of it and will be grateful for the experience.
It also needs to be mentioned here that I am enormously proud and inspired by my children for how they have managed to adjust, accept and make this unfamiliar and confronting rural Indian place they find themselves in bearable and liveable. They take my frustration to a whole new level, and are often unwilling to listen or to compromise. But they’re only 11, 12, 15 and 16 years old and knowing that they show amazing resilience in tough living.