Thursday, February 23, 2012
To See and Understand as Much As Possible
Traveling through India on this 25th anniversary of Wildland Adventures I am reminded of a social science survey presented at an ecotourism conference I attended 30 years ago in which the #1 priority for active American travelers was: "To see and do as much as possible." However, in order to help facilitate the most meaningful travel experiences we often have to help our guests find the right balance of "seeing and doing" that also allows for "experiencing and understanding."
Of course, every country and each trip present a diverse variety of sites and activities, but the deeper understanding and life changing experiences come when we are open to exploring our destination and ourselves more openly, to take time to interact more intimately, allow ourselves to absorb and contemplate, and be prepared to accept the vagaries that life on the road away from home present as unexpected adventures and learning opportunities that will enrich our lives with stories to tell back home.
India especially needs this kind of approach to travel. I'm thinking a lot about how we can continue to develop our trips here so you experience this "empire of the soul" at a deeper level. First, you have to manage the assault on your senses and preconceptions of reality—all of the senses like constant honking horns, putrid smells and rich exotic scents of spices and nature's perfumes, dust and grime, demanding touts and shopkeepers asking "Where are you from?" to engage you in conversation and "friendship" to become their best customer, and pitiable beggars most of whom are part of a mafia collecting money for their pimps.
Beyond what your eyes, ears, nose, taste buds, and touch tell you, very little of India is as it appears, and no traveler here returns unmoved. So, how can we experience and understand India more? First, it takes a good guide, not only one familiar with history, architecture, and natural history, but who also engages in conversations about politics (and most are very open to castigating Pakistan), the caste system, gods and goddess that influence daily life, education, women's rights, the legal system, community issues, and using our daily observations as opportunities to expound upon daily life. In one discussion we had with Sanjay about one of many news articles concerning violence against women, he explained that India is trying to change. Section 498A of the law states that if a woman dies within 7 years of marriage the responsibility lies with the family of the husband to prove it was not criminal. In fact, if death was due to violence, all the family goes to jail until innocence is proven. There have been lots of improvements for women in India, but truth be told real change will require generations.
We always try to incorporate a meal or at least tea in a local home where we can experience local family life, sharing ours with theirs, such as one revealing conversation I had about dating, life as a single woman in the US compared to in India, arranged marriages, and raising children in this fast-paced modernizing democracy balancing long-held family values, religious beliefs and cultural traditions with our more familiar material consumer world of the west; at lunch in Amit's uncle's he gave us a tour of the house and in their son's room we saw the ever-so-universal video game Grand Theft Auto and all the gaming accouterments of any middle class teen.
How else can we "experience and understand" more?
Allow time between site visits to relax and absorb the experience of the day. We recommend upgrading rooms or otherwise spending as much as you are willing pay for accommodations on a custom trip because India's luxury properties, especially the palaces, forts and havellis are so characteristic of the cultural heritage and offer a real respite from the hectic life of the day.
We plan a few overnights in a rural community outside of the bustling city where you can walk around to experience local village life. We often visit a social service project or charity revealing social issues pertaining to women, the poor, handicapped, and how they are being addressed. Instead of paying anything to beggars on the street, we often visit a social service charity at a local temple that feeds the poor where you can make a donation.
We prefer heritage hotels and small ecolodges that are locally owned and managed where you can interact with the local staff to learn about their life and local community. At Kanha Jungle Lodge, we met Vinod, the young man from the local community that Wildland and our guests sponsored in a guide training program and who now he leads Wildland guests when they visit the lodge. We changed his life, and now he's a spokesperson in the community for the benefits of tiger tourism and conservation. Also, at Kanha Jungle Lodge, the managers Dimple and Harun with their amazing young 6 year old son Jay, are Amit's cousins who run the lodge is if we are guests in their home—and indeed we are!
There is typically at least one opportunity to learn how to prepare Indian cuisine on a Wildland Adventure in India.
Visits to temples, shrines and mosques not only present opportunities to learn about the diverse religions and associated sects of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Islam and other religions, but also the nature of worship in daily life, funerary practices, and the relief that the hope of morning puja gives to common Indians with financial, social or other personal struggles.
Music and dance is another way to appreciate any culture, and in the case of India there are many opportunities to appreciate traditional performing arts from classical sitar, the desert sounds of Rasjasthani people, and Kathakali the ancient classical dance from of Kerala which is a mix of dramatics, vocal and instrumental music, dancing and mime.