I wrote about culture shock a few weeks back. It hits everyone differently. Katie was disoriented but liberated when she realized that she was no longer a member of the tourist majority in Mallorca. My friend Ben started bobbling his head while people were speaking after he spent six months in India. These moments of realignment – or, more frequently, the tremors of adjusted detail – give the traveler a new space in which to define herself.
Gregory David Roberts’s Shantaram provides a literal example of this redefinition. The novel’s protagonist leaves Australia with a forged passport bearing the moniker Lindsay; he becomes Lin-sang when his Bombay guide has trouble pronouncing his English name; he becomes Shantaram when the inhabitants of his guide’s home village decide to give him a Maharastrian name. His name means “man of peace,” a contrast to his violent past, and the protagonist explicitly states that “the man I am was born in those moments.”
Shantaram is not a subtle work – two pages earlier, “Lindsay” commented, “My culture had taught me all the wrong things well.” – but it contains some excellent advice for travelers who venture out of their element.
When Lindsay confronts a particularly awkward situation – say, his host’s father insists that the visitor pat his prominent “tummies,” and repeated this request despite polite refusals – he notes, “Sometimes you have to surrender before you win.” He then asserts that “surrender is at the heart of the Indian experience.” Surrender in some form – to circumstance, to strange-looking currency, to a radically new sleeping schedule, to communicating through a series of drawings – is at the heart of any travel experience.
My most vivid moment of surrender came on a Sunday during spring in Argentina. I was supposed to be taking a walk with my friend, Sergio. Most travelers – especially control freaks whose unfamiliar environment renders them powerless – build routines, fulfilled expectations, safe zones. Sergio and I had a pattern. I could relax with him, and his family, because they felt familiar. I knew what to expect.
So when he asked if I’d like to go for a walk on Sunday morning, I said yes. When he mentioned that his mother would be joining us, I was surprised, but affable. When we worked our way out of his barrio onto the main street, I was concerned – his mother, Ophelia, was walking in the middle of a major road, which is particularly dangerous on the route to the truck-heavy campo.
Before I could ask Sergio what she was doing, we had turned the corner, and stepped into the middle of a large procession. People filled the road for blocks behind me. A quarter-mile ahead, a pick-up truck carried a statue of the Virgin Mary and blasted prayers over a loudspeaker. I punched Sergio in the shoulder – this was a pattern, too – and considered my situation. I hate crowds, loud noise upsets me, I’m not Catholic, I had no idea where we were going, and I had no escape plan. I was, in a word, rattled. Sergio gripped my arm, told me that we were walking to Toay, the next town over, and urged me to follow his mother, who was hand-shaking and elbowing her way up to the statue, laughing a Santa Maria. I took a step forward and began to mouth the prayer, learning as I went along.