On Tourism

Our first week in India, it was hammered into us that we are not tourists, we are students, and must project this as much as possible. This is in part for safety reasons. If we use what little Hindi we’ve got, and dress in a way that’s culturally appropriate (and maybe even, *gasp*, Indian), we’re much safer and the likelihood of people not taking us seriously is much less.

That being said, I have clearly had many experiences as a tourist in India. They are awkward, exhilarating, and fun all at once.

Me in front of the Golden Temple in Amritsar at sunrise.

My first real experience with tourism was in Dharamshala. I may have mentioned it in the previous post, but Dharamshala is actually FULL of tourists. Or rather, McCloud Ganj is. There are two parts of Dharamshala, and McCloud Ganj is the “upper” part of the city, the space where the Dalai Lama’s temple is. The streets all throughout the city are packed with street vendors trying to sell all kinds of Tibetan, touristy, kitsch and flat-out souveneire trinkets. It was the first place in India that I’d gone that I was, as a non-resident, not necessarily the minority. (There were still more actual residents of McCloud Ganj than tourists – I sincerely hope.)

There were many times, as I was walking through the city in my half-Indian half-Western wear, that I felt like the other tourists were judging me. There was definitely competition for authenticity – as students, we’re told that we have more of a right to be in a place, but as tourists, they were making their certain pilgrimage to the site very well known. Many tourists would walk around in half-casual, half-yoga, half-hiking gear. Either that or they would be wearing their hippie clothes, which many Indians find horrendously disrespectful. (It’s a cleanliness thing/perception of hippies.)

It was there that I was really hit with the difference between being a student and being a tourist – when I’m a student, I’m there to learn, and to experience the culture, to be as much a part of Indian culture as possible. When I’m a tourist, I’m just there for a very brief period, I don’t really talk to any locals unless I’m buying something, and I feel like I get a little shutter happy with my camera. It’s about the sights, which, unlike my usual interaction with Indian culture, is so outside of myself that it’s hard to believe it’s a part of my life.

Last weekend in Agra was an especially intense tourist debacle.

The self-conscious tourist.

Agra is basically just for tourists. I didn’t like much of the city itself, and everything that you can find in Agra (other than the Taj Mahal, of course) you can find in Jaipur. Except in Jaipur it is less expensive and getting around is less crazy. The quality is often better in Jaipur as well. In Agra, people expect that foreigners are tourists that don’t know much about Indian culture or how much things should cost, etc. And that’s easy to see, when you’re at the Taj Mahal and people are wearing short skirts and tank tops.

(I am, of course, jealous of them in those clothes – Agra is ridiculously hot.)

In no way do I mean to imply that seeing the Taj Mahal was not worth it, or to cheapen the experience. It was an amazing experience.

But being a tourist is, for me, a very uncomfortable experience. I don’t like having a guide – usually I can find cool stuff on my own, and read up on the monument before I go/while I’m there. I also feel like it’s much more peaceful, to tour things without a guide. I generally feel much more relaxed.

I can’t put my finger on what exactly bothers me about the tourism industry. A big part of it is worry that, when local economies become dependent on tourism, if suddenly the draw to tourism stops, the local economy suffers a major fall – sometimes past the point of recovery. Another part of tourism that bothers me is the commodification of culture. I’ve seen it in the American West – towns that are defined by things like Walldrug, ghost towns that people don’t live in, but are full of sidewalk stands selling their “authentic western” artifacts to people passing through, and the tourist stands of “Cowboys and Indians” lore and trinkets that people can grab on their way through South Dakota. Of course, the image of the Western is very much a part of real Western culture, but it seems to me a gross simplification of a very touchy issue, especially if you talk to any Native person living on a reservation.

These are all things that I’ve thought about and observed in the American context; in India, I’m witnessing some similar (though decidedly different) trends.

Yezmin with the tourists as a background.

Whenever I go to places that are for tourists specifically, my friends and I are bombarded by people selling crafts at very low prices. Many of the crafts that I’m approached with on the streets (Rajasthani puppets, hand carved wooden elephants, prayer wheels, mini Ganeshes, it changes based on where we are) were once very much a part of local culture, but are now reserved for special occasions, if used at all. The puppets are a very good case study. One of my friends’ host family is reputed to have said “No one cares about the puppets anymore.” And yet, that aspect of culture is being preserved, fiercely, and marketed to tourists. The puppets are beautiful, fun, and I would love to bring one home. And yet I wonder how much some of these trinkets that are being hawked are comparable to the dream catchers or beaded necklaces that you can buy at the roadside attractions in South Dakota – not so much authentic, as an artifact that was once authentic and traditional and is now a symbol of culture that has passed.

I haven’t done the research to back up these claims, as I haven’t really had a moment to do anything other than schoolwork, being with friends, or traveling. These are just feelings and thoughts, think of them as research questions, ponderings, that are not based on solid fact, but on impression. Soon I will have more researched, studied impressions of tourism.

I know that I’ll have more ideas about tourism because it’s what I plan to study in November. The program that I’m on has, as a major component, a month-long Independent Study Project, where all the students pursue a topic that they find the most interesting. I’ll be studying ecotourism in the Himalayas, and whether it’s a truly viable, sustainable option to traditional tourism.

Ecotourism is defined by the Ecotourism Society as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of people.” It tends to focus on:

*Local Culture
*Wilderness Adventure
*Personal Growth
*Tourists learning about new ways to live sustainably on the planet.

What I’m particularly interested in is how people can maintain culture in the wake of their culture being a spectacle – in other words, how people maintain their authentic/meaningful culture while they are constantly being gawked at by outsiders/travelers.

And the Himalayas, as an ideal trekking spot, is one of the best places to do that.

This has been a LONG entry, and for those of you that finished it, thank you very much! I feel honored.

This is Abbie, signing out.


Catching up from my weekend as a tourist

Woah, so remember when I used to keep a more regular blog? Yeah, let’s work on making that time return. My woeful absence from this blog has been a testament to just how much we’ve been on the road. I am going to try to be better at keeping in touch! If you want to send me a letter, I’ve edited the “About” section of the blog to include my mailing address. I bought a bunch of stationery, so I anticipate that I will be writing and sending letters later this week.

As many of you know, last week was a major excursion. I’m so thankful that I was able to come to India through SIT, because we’ve done so much more than just living in a university setting. So far, we’ve gone on excursions around New Delhi, to a Basti (slum), to two different villages, up to Dharamshala/McCloud Ganj (the home of the Tibetan government in exile), and to Amritsar to see one of the holiest, if not the most holy, Sikh temple.

Gate to the Himachal Pradesh State Government

To get to Dharamsala from Jaipur was a very long journey. We had to leave the program center at 3 pm, to board a train at 4:30. The train ride itself was 15 hours. Once we reached the station, a tourist bus came to pick us up and take us the 3 hour journey up the mountain to the city itself.

As much as we were in Dharamsala, we didn’t spend much time in the city itself. Most of the academic parts of the excursion (in other words, most of the excursion) was spent either at the headquarters of the NGO we were visiting or on our field excursion to a nearby village. We went to Dharamsala to learn about the work of the Chinmeya Organization for Rural Development. Honestly, they reminded me quite a lot of Grand Aspirations. The model of the organization is to go into villages across India, find supporters of social change, and teach them how to empower people in the village through women’s and children’s self help groups, personal financing, education, natural resource management, and a myriad of other initiatives.

I found the work that they were doing to be invigorating. In the original presentation, I thought that the man who presented to us was fairly frank about the downfalls of the CORD model. My main argument against the way that it was working was how slow social change is happening.

I’ll talk about this more in a different post (I want to write a comparison of the two villages we’ve been to so far), but we were able to visit one of the villages that CORD has been working with. Probably the most powerful experience of this trip so far has been talking to the women’s self help group. it was a long, arduous process, in which so many things were lost in translation, but the women were amazing. They invited us to come back to their village for the next day’s local festival, and upon hearing that we are from America, half-joked that we should take them with us when we go back.

But more on that later, I promise.

The last day was spent really getting to know CORD as an organization, and how their base runs programs out of the building. We got to see their medical services, the different rehabilitation and educational rooms for children with disabilities, and the traditional looms where women can come to make shawls and scarves to sell.

As a part of this excursion, a handful of other students and I got the opportunity to see the Ashram near the program center, and to participate in puja – Hindu worship. I didn’t really take any pictures of the temple itself, or of puja, because that’s incredibly rude, but take my word for it – it was gorgeous.

On Thursday afternoon, our academic excursion ended. We were taken further up the mountain, through the city of Dharamsala, to the Tibetan settlement of McCloud Ganj. This is where the Tibetan Government in Exile resides, and it is also the home of the Dalai Lama and a major Tibetan monastery/temple.

Unfortunately, the city is overrun with tourists. This is entirely understandable, because it’s a beautiful city, and the Tibetan monuments, temples, and government buildings are very moving. But the street vendors were very intense – where we were, we couldn’t really go anywhere without a small street shop or stall catering to the ultra-hippie, somewhat-Buddhist tourists. Switching from being a student in India to a tourist in McCloud-Ganj felt bizarre.

Megan is awesome!

Thursday evening, my friend Megan and I shopped madly for presents for friends, ate pizza, and went out to get coffee. The next day, I decided I was done with the materialistic shopping madness that had seized me the evening before, and decided to get up super early so that I could go to the Buddhist monastery where the Dalai Lama teaches regularly.

Here are some of my favorite pictures from the Great Tibetan Adventure:

I wasn’t able to take too many pictures within the monastery because, like I said earlier, it’s incredibly rude to take pictures in such sacred spaces, but the sights were amazing.

House of butter lamps in the Dalai Lama's Monastery

These colorful mantras lined the mountain road we explored.

View from the Dalai Lama's monastery.

My friend Sara and I trekked down the mountain after a quick coffee break to check out the Tibetan National Archives, which hold the largest collection of literature on Tibet and in Tibetan in the world. They also happen to be in the midst of the Tibetan government buildings. It was a 30 minute hike down a rather steep mountain, and it took us a while to figure out where exactly we were, and where we needed to go. But the settlement itself was absolutely worth it.

Gate to the government settlement.

Front of the National Archives.

From Dharamsala, a group of 13 of us went on to plan our own journey to Amritsar to see the Sikh Golden Temple. Later on Friday, after Sarah and I hiked 45 minutes up some very steep mountain to barely make it back in time, we departed for a 3 hour bus ride back to Chakki Bank. From Chakki Bank, the 13 of us went in a cramped tourist bus to Amritsar – a 5 hour ride. We got in and checked in at around 11:30, and then had to figure out plans for the next day.

There are a couple of monuments in India that you should see either at dawn or twilight – the Taj Mahal and the Golden Temple. So most of us left the hotel at about 6 am to make it to see the sun rise over the temple. And am I ever glad we did!

We had just enough time in Amritsar to go to the temple, out for breakfast, to the memorial of a massacre from India’s revolution days (the one with the fountain in the Gandhi movie – the exact name is escaping me at the moment), and then out to lunch. The memorial park was very sobering. 2,000 peaceful protesters were shot down by British troops. The park is now considered sacred space, and is kept in an accordingly lovely fashion.

Getting back to Jaipur was a long process, and one that didn’t entail nearly enough sleep-time. Thankfully, when I got back to my host family on Sunday, all of us were lazy. I had a very relaxing day (with about four naps), and went out for dinner and a religious ceremony with the family. It was the one year anniversary of the death of a relative, and so we were celebrating her life through traditional Indian music and amazing food.


I’ve got a couple of posts that I’ve been meaning to write. The first was about our visit to a Basti (Indian slum), and the second was about our visit to Laporia, an Indian village. It’s been so long since our Basti visit (was that really two weeks ago? woah) that I’m not going to do a post on it. We only spent an hour and a half there anyway. I would really like to do a post on Laporia, because it was an incredible excursion. I think I’ll do a “Tale of Two Villages” post, and discuss my experiences in both villages.

I wanted to go more into how it feels to be a tourist vs. a student, because there are some interesting thoughts there, but frankly it is far too late here for that kind of business. I have to get up early tomorrow, and should really get as much sleep as possible.

More posts soon! Promise!