Life is exciting and your anticipation levels are on overload as you edge closer to your first trip to a developing country.
It looks stunning and amazing and so exotic.
In the last few weeks before leaving home you are constantly on the go. Vaccinations, travel insurance, changing money, pet sitters, redirecting mail and all the wasted hours completing those last minute urgent jobs at work before finally switching on your ‘Out Of Office’.
You’ve been so busy you haven't really had the time to understand where you are going.
You race to the airport, queue for ages at baggage check-in and customs, watch time drag in the departure lounge and eventually board your flight, exhausted but excited.
Everything is now how it should be, drinks, food and movies, cattle class, but still a bit of glamour.
Airport connections like Singapore and Bangkok are easy to navigate, they are western friendly. There's lots of food you recognise and some that you don’t, mixed in with retail therapy of mainly western luxuries. You can truly relax at last, travel is great.
Then you land at your destination.
The first thing you notice is that you will have to walk across the tarmac, no sterile skybridge here.
As you descend the plane steps you are hit with either a blast of intense heat or cold, strange odours drift in the air and an unusual cacophony of sounds assault you.
Everything is so very
different to home.
Walking across the tarmac towards a drab maintenance building you suddenly realise, it’s actually the terminal!
Inside, long plain corridors slowly squeeze you and your fellow passengers tighter together until you round a corner and step into full blown bureaucratic chaos.
Dim back corners and searingly bright pockets of light all play tricks on your sleepy eyes while you scavenge in your hand luggage for something to protect you from the freezing air conditioning, or remove layers of clothing from the lack of cooling.
Clutching your precious passport and hopefully correct paperwork, you scan the cavernous hall for any clues in English.
The only option appears to be the mile long queue.
While waiting forever, a person, who you presume is an airport official, continues to wander up and down checking that everyone has their passport and paperwork filled in.
So why is it taking so long?
When it’s finally your turn you see that everything is manual, with multiple people examining and discussing your forms.
It can be the difference between a friendly or a stern face that determines your initial feeling towards a country and its people, and it’s the same the world over, people have good and bad days and some are just friendlier than others.
It’s not a blight on you or the country if your immigration person is curt, but it is a godsend when they are warm and inviting.
After a good five minutes of scrutiny, relief and pride washes over you as everything is declared correct.
THUMP goes the stamp and, with a wave of the official’s arm, you cross to the other side of the counter, unlike some poor souls who are sent back to the building’s dim corners to rectify a minor paperwork indiscretion.
Your heart goes out to them knowing they have to go through it all over again.
You are confused as to
where to go next
Officials wave in multiple directions as you blindly choose a conga line to follow and magically discover your way to the luggage carousels.
Luggage collection is the same at any airport in the world, it’s just a big collection of roulette wheels.
First you have to work out the correct wheel, then hope your lucky number comes up.
Thankfully, your luggage appears and everything is accounted for.
As you walk past the last semblance of order, succumbing to a final bag check, you notice through the grimy glass that there is a riot outside.
People are pushing up against the low slung barriers, waving, calling and jostling.
There was nothing on your home government website about this, you wonder what has happened.
As you step outside it hits you!
Everyone is jostling to carry your luggage, bundle you into a taxi, send you to their hotel.
There is no riot, they are all there after your money!
If you are on a guided tour, you’ll have the luxury of searching out a person with your name on a card or iPad, and they will shepherd you past the touts.
Solo travellers, if you haven't organised anything inside the airport, will just have to grit your teeth and start negotiating.
Find the most trustworthy face and put your faith in them. After all, they only have to get you to the tourist area and it will all become easier.
As you sit back in your taxi or minibus and head into town, you can relax, that is until you notice that everyone is staring at you.
The pedestrians, traffic police, shop keepers, they all stare and they look menacing.
Suddenly, everything seems dirty.
The shops are ramshackle, daunting alleyways appear between dilapidated houses and there are so many people everywhere.
Nothing looks like home, nothing looks comfortable, nothing looks nice.
You are suffering from jet lag and sensory overload.
There are no golden rules for avoiding culture shock.
The only practical suggestion is accept that
you are feeling it
The first few hours in a developing country, especially when you are tired, can be intimidating, but go-with-the-flow as best you can, it will quickly become exciting and intoxicating.
The sooner you attempt a meaningful conversation with a local, the faster your culture shock will recede.
Even if you can’t speak each other's language, an attempt at charades or just a smile goes a long way.
Start with one of the immigration officers or an airport official. Continue with your baggage attendant, taxi driver and then the hotel staff.
The more you converse, the easier and more fun it will become.
Sure, some are trying to eek a living out of nothing and amongst intense competition, which can make exchanges like getting from the airport to your hotel a bit more intense, but throwing out an air of friendliness rather than fear goes a long way to softening the deal.
Most of the time, they are only trying to give you the best service they can with their limited means.
If a local seems wary, don’t forget, there are bad travellers who demand, get frustrated, argumentative and then belittle.
A simple smile with every negotiation
will often soothe everyone's concerns
Of course people stare. Why shouldn’t they, you stare at them! It’s just that there is only one of you and lots of them.
Often, it’s just plain old curiosity, so smile or nod hello and wait to see the biggest grin or shy smile flashed back at you.
After checking in, if you are still unsure, hesitant and wondering if you made the right choice, grab some rest then take some short forays out of your room.
Wander around the hotel grounds and chat to the staff. Step out into the street and buy a snack, take photos, just sit and watch as everyone passes by. Don’t lock yourself in.
And often a good night's sleep sorts out the uneasiness and if not, as long as you immerse yourself in the journey, something will click when you least expect it.
Now there will be excitement, awe and wonder at everything around you, no matter how strange or different it is.
Also, to help you feel settled in a new country, it’s a good idea to avoid jumping hotels every day, especially at the start of your journey.
It’s amazing how quickly seeing the same faces and returning to the same room goes from discomfort to familiar.
For me, even after travelling to Nepal all these years, I can still get a few moments of,
"why am I here?"
"what have I got myself into?"
It takes a little bit of immersion to help lift the veil and see the beauty behind the grime, the person behind the stare.
Travel to a strange land is one of the most rewarding experiences in life.
It opens up a whole new world of discovery, friendship and understanding, breaks down barriers, and teaches tolerance and acceptance.
When you travel, make sure you share stories of your life with the locals, you’ll be having too much fun to feel culture shock.
Oh, and dealing with sellers, beggars and taxi drivers, more about that another time.