Experiencing My First Culture Shock

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In 2016, I did a semester in Galway, Ireland as an exchange student. Before leaving, we were warned several times about something called the 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.”

In Ireland, I never experienced those feelings of disorientation because the country is very western and pretty much what I had expected. It was easy to adjust to the culture, to start saying ‘how are you’ to random people on their morning stroll and ordering a pint of Smithwick’s in the pub.

And even after the exchange period, I didn’t even think about culture shock because wherever I went, it was easy for me to adjust and navigate through the customs and norms of the different countries.

But that was when I was traveling in Europe. Now I’m in Southeast Asia – and things are a bit different.

Bugs, Dirt and Worn Out Towels

From Koh Samui we took the bus back to Bangkok and then flew to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. We were welcomed by the business city of magnificent sky scrapers and the taxi drive from the airport to our hotel into the middle of the bustling city center felt exciting – something so different after the small cities and islands of Thailand.

But then we checked into our hotel.

“A New Hotel!” the sign said, and the name of the place even had the word royal in it. But when we got into our room… I’ve never cried because of accommodation but now I did. Partly because I was so very tired after many days of energy consuming travel, but partly because of the shock of how much worse the room was compared to the thai standard we had learned to know and deal with.

Why it was a shock, you wonder? Well…

The bed sheets were filled with holes and dirt that doesn’t come off anymore. The walls were dirty, the paint was peeling off, the towels felt and looked like they had been used for 10 years already. The wi-fi didn’t work, there was a smell, we had no window in the room and worst of all – there were so many bugs who liked to spend their time crawling on the beds.

I wanted to check out from the hotel the same second we had checked in, I was sure I couldn’t take it for the three nights we had booked at this place. However, my partner convinced me to wait a moment, that we would consider everything after we had eaten some food.

Realizing the Social Norms

Food helped me take a breath, to gather my thoughts. The friendliness of the locals also helped a great deal. We decided to look around the nearby city quarters, check out the Chinatown and even hop on a tourist bus to see the city. For a few hours, everything was okay and I managed to forget the hotel room I didn’t want to return to.

But then the evening came and I started noticing more things that didn’t feel quite alright. How there were almost no women on the streets, only some other female tourists and a few Muslim women with their husbands and families. How no one asked me what I wanted, only what my partner wanted because he’s a man. How I wanted to avoid eye contact with the men on the street because it didn’t feel safe.

It felt confusing not to see what you’re used to and realize that in this city there are different social norms that steer the society.

After a one-hour hop-on hop-off bus tour we hopped off in the city center and went for dinner at the busy food street next to our hotel. There, I was again faced with things I had not been expecting.

Noise, Always Noise

I was overwhelmed with what I saw, what I heard and what I felt.

I saw people who had lost some of their limbs; a man with severe burn marks on his face; another with a physically distorted body – all sitting on the ground begging for money from the tourists walking by.

For me, it was so hard accept that I couldn’t do anything to help them.

And if the local people weren’t there begging, they were doing everything in their power to try to sell me food or other products (or mostly my partner because he’s a man and the culture in the country is very dominated by men). They were ringing bells, yelling, honking, shoving menus in our faces, some of them walking after us persuading us to eat at their restaurant. It was so primitive – to use noise to attract attention, because if they get your attention it’ll be easier to sell you things.

I wasn’t enjoying the city at all – how could I? Kuala Lumpur was filled with noise, always noise wherever we went, whether it was noise made by people or the honking cars. Or there was always people trying to get your attention – there wasn’t room or silence to sit down and think.

I just wanted to get away from everything, I just wanted to find a quiet place.

For a while I thought I wasn’t fit to travel, that I couldn’t do it – I wasn’t even having fun.

But after a couple of day of negative reactions to everything around me, I realized what was happening. I was experiencing a culture shock, something I had heard about years before.

It explained why I had so much trouble adjusting to the new country.

Peace Through Understanding

When I realized this, it became a bit easier to understand the awful feelings and thoughts inside my head. This was a natural reaction when exposed to something completely new – and the most important thing was to know that even this feeling of disorientation will pass. By understanding it became easier to sleep in the room (after getting rid of the bugs); we started going somewhere less crowded where there weren’t bell-ringing or yelling locals trying to get my attention, and I got used to seeing more men than women on the streets.

Still, I felt very happy happy when we traveled North to Georgetown in Penang three nights later. This is a small city with less sound, less tourists and better accommodation. This place is also chance to breath out, to realize what has been happening inside my head and give Malaysia a new chance.

Experiencing a culture shock was awful and for a moment it felt like traveling wasn’t anything for me. But after realizing what was happening, what I was experiencing, I thought that at the same time, the rollercoaster of feelings and thoughts about the city and its culture was a valuable lesson in the process of learning to know myself.

Now I know one of the possible downsides of travel and how I react to these things. I also know that I can deal with rooms without windows, I’m okay with taking a shower above the toilet, and I know to walk away from areas that are too touristic for my own good.

And the most important thing – despite the heavy shock I’m still on the road, still backpacking. I’m ready for the next adventure, the next town and the new people we’ll meet on the road.

The Great Thing About Traveling Slowly

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We’ve been on the road for almost two weeks now. It isn’t a very long time, for sure, but it feels like we are now getting into the groove of traveling. We are finding our routines, figuring out how we want to spend our days on the road.

In the mornings, I write. It’s been relatively easy to get going with my morning routine of writing although I’m no fan of writing before I’ve had breakfast and a cup of coffee. However, nothing beats the feel-good after a rewarding writing session.

(Lately, I’ve been practicing writing adventure/action scenes – it’s tough because I’m more for the relaxed or deep-talk-kind-of scenes.)

After I’m done writing, the rest of the day is free for whatever activities we feel like doing. For the most part, we do what tourists do: walk around, say “no thanks!” to tuk-tuk drivers and when the heat of the midday gets unbearable, we step into one of the many 7/11 –shops with the greatest air conditioning, pick an ice cream flavor we haven’t tried before and eat it outside the shop before walking on. We visit temples, try new fruits like mangosteen and sometimes exchange a few words with other backpackers.

A New Perspective on Traveling

However, as we have travel plans into October which means we’ll be on the road for a few months more, the perspective on traveling changes. The days aren’t about wake up as early as possible to see as much as possible like they usually are on short city holidays because we have time. We have days upon days! We’ve been in Thailand for two weeks now and we still have 1,5 week to go before we hop on another plane. That means we can stay a few nights longer in every city we visit and take the time we need to get to know places.

In other words, we are in no hurry. And because we don’t have to count every hour of the day, we really get to see what we want to see.

What made me think of this was an evening a few days ago when we were still in Chiang Mai. We decided to visit one of the many temples of the city, a temple called Wat Chedi Luang. We went to the area, paid 40 Baht as a supporting fee to the temple and started walking around the area.

First we visited one of the viharns, assembly halls, which are usually the golden, colorful, pompous even, buildings – but which I rarely find fascinating. The reason to this is that the viharns are very often built in the 20th century which makes them very new and fresh and I am more for the old buildings and ruins.

Therefore, as visiting the viharn with all the other tourists was a small disappointment, I was beyond excited (I might even say I was momentarily breathless) when I saw the real thing. The Wat Chedi Luang.

Taking In The Quiet, The Calm

It was already in the evening and the sun was about to start setting when we came to the old temple. The ancient layers of stone, the carvings, the details put into the chedi were all beautiful – partly because it was well done, partly because the evening sun gave it a wonderful color and partly because I was awestruck by the fact that this temple was built in the 14th or 15th century.

Many of the tourists who also found their way to the chedi, were happy to just walk around it once, take a photo of it and then leave. We, however, decided to sit down and enjoy the peace and quiet of the temple area – we had the time.

An hour flew by as we sat on the white bench, watching other tourists walk by, take a selfie with the chedi and then leave. We also saw a young man sit down with his sketchpad to draw Wat Chedi Luang (he also took almost an hour to draw the temple), some stray dogs and many of the monks go on about their daily business.

We took in the quiet, the setting sun and the beautiful warm color of the chedi as the sun shined on it. As we sat there, it felt as if I could feel the temple, the serenity of it.

There were so few who took the time to actually sit down and look at the building, to take in every detail of it, I really wonder what they can remember of it. Of course, they have the photo to remind them of the temple – but can they feel it as I do even after days of seeing it? I wonder how many historical buildings, artefacts and paintings I’ve looked at (probably numerous) without really seeing them.

It’s time to change that.

As there is slow-food, there is also slow-traveling. It’s about getting into the groove, about feeling things rather than only looking – it’s almost like mindfulness, finding yourself in the moment of now.

 

The First Week of Travel – Heat, Traffic Jams and Empty Pages

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As I’m writing this, heavy raindrops beat the roof of our guesthouse room on an otherwise silent street. It’s the first proper rain we’ve had during this first week in Thailand – and I welcome every drop of it because rain helps calm things down: the traffic, the people, the mind.

Thanks to the weather, this is the first time I actually find the time and place to sit down and write how my traveling life has come to a start.

First Reactions to Bangkok

We arrived in Bangkok almost a week ago. The city was hectic. As a citizen of Finland, leaving a country of five million people to enter a city of eight million is somewhat of a shock. Especially the traffic jams felt insane: the way drivers have the courage to switch lanes although there’s no guarantee it’ll work out (but it always does), and how the scooters and motorbikes crisscross through the endless lines of cars…

It’s a lot to take in.

In addition to getting used to the traffic and the number of people, the heat has taken a great deal of energy. I know this kind of weather (the tropical heat of 35 degrees Celsius) is normal in Asia, but in Finland, it’s nothing we are used to. Therefore, dealing with the amount of sweat and the liquefied feeling of one’s body and mind has taken some time as well.

But even a Finn gets by in Bangkok. One simply needs a great deal of patience and the ability to stay calm in the heavy masses of people.

Finding Time To Write

So, I’ve become used to all of this: the people, the traffic, the heat, the way Thailand works and functions. But what I haven’t become used to, is writing while traveling.

Honestly, it’s been difficult to get any writing done. It’s a shame as I have been hoping to be able to record the whole journey in my diary and in these blog posts, maybe even let the experiences give some color to the stories I’m planning on writing. However, the pages have stayed empty.

During the few weeks of sailing, I was able to write during the windy and rainy days when we stayed in harbor. Here however, a little rain or wind doesn’t stop us from stepping to the streets and finding a nice café to order an iced latte from or find our way to a local restaurant. We’ve been active most part of the day – in other words, there hasn’t been any particular time of the day (or weather) that would have suited as writing time.

It’s been difficult. So many thoughts, vivid pictures of events, feelings and ideas that have been going through my head and nothing has been recorded – not properly. And that’s why I’ve realized that if I want to write, I simply need to decide when and where I want to write – and also what I want to write.

(It may sound obvious to someone but for me, it has clearly taken some time for the thought to become something worth to think about.)

Writing Routine for Traveling

So.

During this year of blogging, I’ve been an active advocate of routines as a skill for time management and efficiency. And I believe in those same routines even when I’m abroad.

If I want to stay in touch with my writing, I need to hold on to my writing routines. It was already difficult to get started with this blog post because it’s been over a week since I last opened a Word-file. For me, it’s a long time.

Writing is about routines, about persistence and continuity, and taking a week of from writing can be good but it can also be bad. Therefore, if I want to be a writer, I need to hold on to my writing routines and keep my ‘creative muscles’ active.

For me, it probably means writing in the morning either before or after breakfast but before we get going on our day and leave the guesthouse we are staying at. I will try to go for my usual 1,000 words per day five days a week and hopefully, in a few weeks, this has become a simple routine for me even though the cities, villages and countries will change every few days or so.

Dedicating a few hours five days a week to writing instead of exploring the cities we visit is a trade-off I’m willing to make, easily. This way I’ll keep up with my writing and let the travels influence my writing, something I’ll most likely value in a few years.

We’ll see how my plan works out. It’s a good thing I already have routine from the past year – now I simply need to learn a new twist to it: how to keep up with my writing routines while traveling.

 

A Traveling Writer

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Before I get into traveling and writing, an announcement: this blog celebrated its one-year birthday on Monday! Yay! Thank you, reader, for being here – it does mean a lot.

But now – let’s start the second year of blogging!

As we sold most of our things in June and packed the rest in four boxes and two backpacks, for the past month, I have been a writer without a desk. Or, at least I’ve been a writer without my usual desk – the white, steady desk of perfect height on which I wrote the last 30,000 words of Yellow Tails and my very first NC-17 fanfic, among many other things.

For the past three weeks, I have been a writer and a traveler.

But you know what? It hasn’t been that bad being a traveling writer. This was something I kept writing about in my journal every now and then for a few months before the Great Departure, wondering how I would keep on writing without my usual routines. Would I be able to keep on editing Yellow Tails? How about writing fan fiction I’ve enjoyed so much – could I still write and be active on that writing forum I decided to return to?

A Prolific Sailor

The first two weeks that were spent on a sailboat were the first test for me to try out being a writer while traveling. Sailing is usually the type of activity that keeps one continuously active – you’re steering, adjusting the sails, cooking food (which is a challenge on a rocking sailboat), navigating, fixing things or just focusing on the sea around you. There isn’t much time for anything else.

I was prepared for writing only in the evenings, maybe squeezing out a few hundred words on some current writing project. However, this sailing trip was somewhat different. The weather was almost always against us – most days the wind was too strong or from the wrong direction which meant that half of our time on the boat was spent in harbors waiting for calmer seas.

For the traveling (or the sailing) writer, this was excellent news.

I was surprisingly prolific during those harbor days! I started publishing a short (around 2,000 words) series of fan fiction on a writing forum and wrote about 3,000 words on a new one. In addition to that, I wrote a blog post and an article for a sailing magazine.

Although we were four people crammed in a small space, the wind kept howling in the mast and the boat was continuously rocking because of the waves, I managed to be creative and efficient in my writing. I did just fine.

An Hour A Day

This experience calmed my worries about the travels we have ahead of us. Many trips are filled with activities that begin early in the morning and end in the evening, keeping the traveler active 12 hours a day. We, however, won’t be in a haste while we travel – we plan on taking the time we need. This means that I can squeeze in at least an hour of writing time in the morning (maybe in a nice café?) or maybe an hour in the evening, depending on the day.

Of course, every day cannot be a writing day because of traveling from one place to another or because of something else – but at least I know I will have some writing time almost every day. This makes me happy because it means I’ll be able to keep my passion alive and my mind calm.

I hope to be able to make another update on being traveling writer in a month or two, just to tell you how traveling goes together with something that feels like the opposite of traveling (although, now when I think about it – I will be traveling both physically and mentally because isn’t writing always like taking a trip somewhere in your mind?).

On Sunday, me and my partner fly to Bangkok, Thailand. It will be a 15-hour flight and I plan on taking my laptop with me on the plane – I’ve never written fiction on a plane (only some academic notes for my studies) so we’ll see how that works out!

The Idyllic Villages We Pass By – An Update From Sea

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Hello.

It’s day eight at sea. For the past week, we have sailed along the eastern coast of Gotland, visiting small fishing harbors and idyllic villages. We’ve had rain, we’ve had sun. Incredibly hard winds, followed by non-existent winds. My socks have been dry but they have also been completely wet.

It has been a ride – and at the same time, it feels as if I’ve been on holiday. A different kind but nevertheless, a holiday. Every new village and harbor we visit gives something new to see. We’ve seen some incredible nature (that reminds me of Norway, Ireland and Greece at the same time) and met some nice pub owners.

One of the best things to do in a new harbor after a long day of sailing is to eat ice cream. So simple, so enjoyable. However, finding ice cream can become tricky – these small idyllic villages we stay in for a night or two have their own way of doing things. In one of the harbors, the nearest grocery store is four kilometers away and only open until 6 PM. In another, the flea market that sells ice cream is open only when the owner feels like it.

Despite the challenges in ice cream hunt, these small places have been nice – as long as we stay there for a short amount of time. Otherwise, the place can start feeling too small. It’s a relief to know, that we are only passing by. Many of these people, however, are staying here all year around. I wonder how they do it.

The Italians, who serve pasta carbonara at their restaurant in a small fishing harbor. Of all the places, how did they end up there?

The owner-lady of the tiny grocery store where every item is still registered manually by number series. Is this her life work? What will happen to the store when she retires?

The woman who instructs a yoga class at her house every Thursday at 7 PM. A slice of something exotic in an otherwise traditional Swedish society?

I realize that I live a very different life now than they do. It takes time to adjust to the thought.

But before I have time to think about these people too much, we move on to the next place. The people stay in their idyllic houses, keep on their day-to-day lives while we raise the sails and head out to sea.

(Although, next up we have a 30-hour sailing trip ahead of us to the next island if the weather treats us nicely. That island is supposed to have a colony of seals – we’ll see if it’s true.)

Goodbye To All Things Familiar

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The Finnish Archipelago at 8.35 AM on a Tuesday.

I love sitting down at a random place to write: whether it’s writing notes in a notebook, a journal entry or a blog post, writing it somewhere else than home makes the whole thing much more enjoyable.

(I mean, it’s a raw fact that writing isn’t always pleasurable – it can be a pain in the butt. And still so incredibly rewarding.)

Therefore, I’m excited to be writing this particular blog post on a ferry that travels in the Finnish Archipelago. Together with my partner, I am on my way to a very small island.

Utö, the island we are going to, is the last island in Western Finland. After that come the international seas. And that’s where we are headed.

The Two Realities

The past couple of weeks have been extremely tough. First, my partner lost a family member. A week later, my grandfather passed away. So many, too many devastatingly sad things have happened in a short period of time.

At the same time, I have become a Master of Science, and me and my partner have been preparing for this big huge trip we’ve been planning for the past two years.

We have been going through our things – selling them, donating them, throwing away the things we no longer need and that cannot be recycled. In a way, we are more free now. We have emptied our apartment, sold our furniture. Last night we slept in our sleeping bags on the floor with three blankets to soften it.

The mind alters between two realities – in one, it is dealing with death. In the second, it is dealing with life.

Death waits for no one, neither does it care about carefully made plans. The timing of these two deaths has been so odd as they’ve happened precisely at the same time as we are planning on embarking on our journey.

But we don’t let Death make us wait – we don’t alter our plans because it paid a visit. Therefore, despite the devastating happenings we have continued making our plans and preparations for our journey.

It may sound harsh but for me it sounds like celebrating life, like I’m aiming on living a fulfilling life on this planet.

The controversy of the two different realities that take turns in my mind has been confusing. At the same time, life ends as it goes on.

I miss those who have gone onward and at times my chest fills with grief – and at the same time I feel excitement, pride and happiness for things to come.

From Ferry to Sailboat

So, at the moment we are traveling towards west to meet up with friends and join them on a sailboat (it’s a familiar one from before). From the little island of Utö we aim towards Copenhagen where we plan to be in two weeks. After that, we’ll see what happens.

We have all our belongings with us – everything we think we will need in the coming months are packed in two backpacks and two day-time bags. We have said goodbye to all things familiar and look forward to experience something quite new.

We mourn those who have passed but at the same time we remind ourselves of the good things that come.

I hope to be able to update you along the way from Utö to Copenhagen if I find wi-fi to do so. But just know that I am on the road (or at the sea) and –

I am celebrating life.

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(From now on, the blog posts may come on other days than on Thursdays. I aim to post once a week but as I enjoy these happening right now posts, I’ll probably post when I have the opportunity to sit down, write and, when finished, press ‘publish’. Maybe in this way I can transfer some of the travel feels through this blog to you, reader.)

A Five Star Experience

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Every morning from Monday to Friday, I take about thirty to forty-five minutes to write my journal. I reflect on how I feel, the thoughts that are running through my head and the overall mood of the day. However, for the past three days, my morning writing sessions have looked like in the picture above.

Instead of writing at our white work/dinner table at home, I have been sitting at a brown table for two. Instead of drinking my morning coffee from the grey and blue Keep-Cup, I’ve been drinking a beverage made by someone else.

As you might guess, I’ve been out of town.

A Five Star Experience

I went on a short trip initiated by my mother, and I got to choose the country, as long as it was in Europe. I didn’t want to fly and I didn’t have a need to travel very far – therefore I opted for a spa holiday on the other side of the Gulf of Finland, only a two-hour cruise away from Helsinki: the city of Tallinn in Estonia.

The hotel we stayed at was a five-star Estonian-Russian hotel. I don’t think I’ve ever stayed in a five star hotel but I can tell you that the place was excellent.

When we arrived, a concierge carried our luggage to our room, telling about the hotel and where we could find the spa and the restaurant. The building was old and the rooms where small but high in ceiling, at least five meters straight up. Every day, there was a new pillow mint and a bottle of water waiting for us when we returned from walking around the city.

The service was amazing and the spa was great. Because I had wanted a spa holiday, I got to choose two different treatments. On Monday, I enjoyed a whole body scrub and on Tuesday, I fell asleep during a head massage.

The hotel breakfast was healthy and good, and the staff attentive and helpful. The hotel receptionist was happy to book a table for us every night in a different restaurant, saying politely: ”Consider it done.” And on the last day when we checked out, he gave us both a bottle of water to go so that we wouldn’t go thirsty on our way back home.

But none of these things listed above became my favorite parts of the trip. Instead, it was something else.

Caffeine Confusion

Every morning after breakfast, I took my journal, walked to the lobby and sat down to write down my feelings, thoughts and reflections on the day that had gone and the one that was ahead. The hotel was quiet as the tourist season starts later in the Spring and I wasn’t disturbed by any hustle or bustle of the usual hotel life.

Every morning, as soon I started scribbling down words, the same concierge who had carried our luggage to the room the first day, would walk up to me and ask: ”Can I get you anything, maybe a coffee or a tea?”

The first morning I was so taken aback that I just said no thank you and smiled, probably looking flabbergasted by the question. But the next morning I was ready, and asked for a coffee. The third morning, I didn’t feel like drinking more coffee than I already had, so I decided to ask for a cup of tea. The conversation went something like this:

The Concierge: ”Can I get you anything, maybe a coffee or a tea?”

Me: ”Yes, please. I would like to have a tea. What different flavors do you have?”

The Concierge: ”I can’t remember them all, there are so many. There’s green tea, Earl Grey, black tea…”

Me: ”Do you have something without caffeine?”

The Concierge (looking bewildered): ”Without caffeine…?”

Me: ”Yes, without caffeine, you know, like…”

The Concierge: ”You mean decaf?”

Me: ”Yes! Decaf.”

After a moment, the concierge is back with his tray and puts on the table some milk and sugar and…

Me: ”But this is coffee?”

The Concierge: ”It’s a decaf coffee. Didn’t you want…?”

Me (realizing the mistake I had made): ”Oh, no, it’s okay. It’s decaf, that’s the important part. This is okay, thank you.”

The Concierge (smiles and laughs, still confused by the situation): ”I hope you enjoy it.”

Well, I did enjoy it. It was the first time I drank a decaf coffee and I thought it was as good as a regular cup, and I told it to the concierge when he came to check up on me later. I’d say the whole thing ended well.

(And now I know how not to order a tea without caffeine.)

Lessons Learned

Although the trip was, well, interesting to say the least, the hotel made an excellent impression on me. On most of my trips, I’ve opted for the three star accommodation because the city and the activities have been more important than the place I’ve slept in. Isn’t the city, the architecture, the cafés and the cultural experience more important than the place where I sleep?

However, this hotel was one of the things that made the trip as good as it was. The people working there, the service, the spa treatments, the food… Everything was in its place. Although I was obligated to go on this trip I really had no need for, at least I learned this:

Sometimes it really is worth every single penny to invest in accommodation while traveling because it can become the thing that makes the whole trip into a memorable experience.

(Although this time it was my mother who paid for the trip. But you get the point.)