The Spoked Traveller | Disconnected. What is culture shock?
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Disconnected. What is culture shock?

Disconnected. What is culture shock?

“How are you feeling after your trip?”
Me: “Disconnected.”

Some call it culture shock, but that’s just a fancy buzzword for feeling disconnected, aka: feeling like an alien that’s just walked off the ship. Home is now foreign.

After being away for six weeks, I need to talk, but I’m not sure to whom. So, I will write it here.

So much has happened to my psyche, so many experiences with strangers — fleeting connections, and some longer — that when I come home, my world is whirling with all these moments and changes. Home feels still. Too still. The routine life and world has moved on, as it should, for my friends and family, but in a profoundly different way, my head and heart is somewhere else.

I have to work harder to have these connections, moments and experiences when I get home. I know this, that’s natural, but it doesn’t stop me from feeling a million miles away from everyone, mentally.

After six weeks in Nepal and Bhutan, two unbelievably different countries, I am still grappling with what I saw and felt. Bhutan is unbelievably clean, well-mannered, and quiet, which is fundamentally different from its neighbour, Nepal. Nepal is crowded, often dirty, and politically chaotic (a few years ago their King was assassinated–and that is just one of many crazy incidents). No two places could be more different, and yet, I loved both for completely for these reasons.

Bhutan operates under a constitutional monarchy–the King abdicated his throne for democracy–something that makes the Bhutanese love him even more, if at all possible! The country is carbon negative–which means they consume more carbon that they emit! Heck, you are not even allowed to swim in any lakes or rivers–or even hike mountains over 6,000 meters: “people live downstream from these places. We don’t want to become another Nepal,” said my guide.

And yet, I’ve never been to a place where I’ve felt so monitored. You must buy a prepaid, pre-organized itinerary from Bhutan before arriving. As a traveller, I love wandering, finding the strange things and people. But in Bhutan, I only met locals via my guide. I stayed at a farm house that was reorganized. When I asked to go hiking on a trail I discovered during the trip, something in the area we were visiting, a short two hour hike to a monastery, my guide was hesitant. “It’s not on your plan, I don’t know.” In the end he acquiesced, but it took some prodding.

In Nepal, it’s so different. Someone massacred their king a while back! Many hate the monarchy, but they also hate what democracy and too much change has done to the country. And yet, I fell in love with the people. Hard. I had many travel moments in Nepal, seeing a rhino for the first time up close and wrinkly, canoeing in the rain through the jungle etc… but this is my favourite. On a trek near Namo Buddha, about 40 kms away from Kathmandu–and yet so rural and quiet, I met a local man as he was walking home. I gave him a twoonie and tried to explain the polar bear and queen on either side. Eventually, he asked if I would like to have warm milk from his cow at his home (my local guide translated). “Of course!”
As his wife heated the milk, I broke my Cadbury chocolate bar in tiny pieces. Looking over the terraced fields, watching the fog roll in, we ate chocolate and sipped our milk in silence. Every so often he looked over at me and smiled. He smiled with his eyes. It was a kindness and purity that stays with me now as I think about it.

The disconnect feeling is also about home: Canadians have so much choice. Everything from the food we eat, our choice of employment, freedom to travel to other countries, our freedom of thought … it blows my mind how I can do anything I want. “I’ve been turned away from Canada three times,” said my Nepalese bike guide. Assuming he wants to immigrate, Canada won’t let him in. He talks about selling his first mountain bike to get VISA papers for the US, only to be turned away. “These are dreams for us Nepalese…to travel.”

Nepalese just endure. I see this the way that the Nepalese navigate their bikes, scooters and cars around the rubble, the dust, and piles of ruins from the 2015 earthquake. Over 10,000 people died. I met a guide who walked for a week to get back to his village. Escorting his guests with him, the group walked past cracks in the earth and dead bodies everywhere. I cannot imagine. Can you?

It will pass. I’ll get back into a routine and this will become my normal again. But for now, I remain yours, alien Melanie.

What travel moment or place has made you feel otherworldly and disconnected? Tell me.

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