India grows heavy and claustrophobic after a few years of being the independent, vocal woman. The strong mask I need to don to keep safe, it grows into fetters. Images build up of those free women in Europe. Enough money has built up in the savings account so I can afford a return ticket. West is not new to me. I went there to university.
I am already backpacking in North India. Mother puts together the visa papers for me. Certain things like visa documentation require stability, structure, a home address and bank access. Thankfully other things are still free, like taking a Himalayan walk.
Austria to me resembles a cake. Viennese buildings I could slice into pieces and swallow the sweet concrete. The colours of buildings are pink, yellow, blue, green. Not light enough to be pastels, not dark enough to make a statement. Just right to make cakes with. Everything is beautiful — the neat roads, the pretty pots of flowers in balconies, the wild flowers in the Alps. The Alps even. Take out the crazy heights of the Himalayan range, shoot all the wild animals, chase out all the people except a few and add flowers in replacement. There are the Alps for you. I should mention the difference in attitude of the people towards mountains. While us good Indians we visit spots of interest, sit down in a group, eat, dump plastic and head back home, the western approach is different.
But when they see a mountain, they take out one or two sticks and start to use their legs. They like to climb three or four mountains a day. Sometimes they hurl themselves down at breakneck speed from the mountain top: I think they call it ice-skating.
Overall I liked Austria. If I wanted to live in a rich country, be middle class and have a suburban house, I would pick Austria. But I doubt if Austria would pick me. Still I have some family there through my boyfriend. It is a soft beginning to a backpack trip.
Italy, Denmark and Germany follow. Time goes by, two months and a half. I grow, I change. I became narrower in the sense of needing fewer items to feel that my bag is enough. Backpacker’s disciplining. I became wider in that places stopped to matter. I could go anywhere, come out of any place.
There were some low points in the trip. Something else came at other times that brought sweetness. Overall it was a great experience.
Two things stood out for me in terms of culture shock.
The doors were spectacularly unfamiliar. I like doors that you push or pull and they open. Here my knowledge stopped. The Germanic race, they specialised in doors. They liked doors to open in, out and at 20 degree angles. They liked doors to morph into windows.
To open without being touched, they put sensors somewhere around a door to detect movement. Well-hidden always; I presume for the reason of aesthetics. I remember I took to a little dance every time I saw a door.
It was not just the doors, it was also, for example, the coffee machines that confused me. It was a machine world. Before you decide I am the simpleton, I want to interrupt. I see a cultural difference. I see the Germanic people as a masculine race, machine-oriented, intellectual, direct, on time. I see Indians as a feminine mind — family, care, incessant talk and natural design.
Another unexpected experience was the prevalence of racial judgments. Yes, in a street of light-skinned people to be the brown person in travel-rags is to stand out. What I did not anticipate was the extent of fear or hatred I felt at times. Especially when I was asking for a service in a shop. Once I had the experience of being denied entry to sit in the restaurant car of a train. I was told to go for a takeaway. It could have been a communication problem between Indian and European English. However, the incident stank so much of racist discrimination that I returned to the restaurant car and took time to lose my temper.
Being an Indian, I expect strict obsequiousness in people who provide me services. Jokes aside, thank god for the typical Asian hospitality. We don’t seem to mind so much the hierarchy of putting the customer first. I think any person behind the counter in shops in Europe has to be first apologised to and then approached carefully to find out the price of a pair of shoes. These incidents around race were so pervasive as I backpacked along the hinterlands of the continent that I was forced to the conclusion of having this choice: should I choose sexism in India or racism in the West?