India as an Anti-tourist
Once I was told that when people return from a trip to India and they are asked about the thing that caught them the most, Taj Mahal is rarely amongst the answers. Before planning the journey to the unknown land that first enchanted me as a small child with its fairy tales about beautiful Indian princesses, monkey kings or Mowgli, I didn’t really know what to expect. Only one thing was for sure: I wanted to see no tourists and no attractions. I wanted to meet the local people, not tourists with selfie sticks nor European hippies who travel to find their “spiritual self”, none of them at all. I wanted to see everyday life in India, experience something entirely different.
But how is it possible to avoid tourist clichés? The solution requires almost the skills of a secret agent, but don’t worry, anyone can do it: try to dress and look like locals, talk to them, act like them and just walk, improvise, get lost, wander around without always having a destination. This is what we were doing with the small group I was travelling with in South India for almost a month. In this review, I’m going to show some of the best moments that happened to me when I was placing the focus away from the attractions recommended by tourist guide books. These are the moments I would have probably missed if I had been busy buying souvenirs or trying to find the best angle for a photo.
- Meeting with Chili Field Workers
We encountered these nice ladies by accident on our way to Hampi. The main motorway we wanted to take was under construction so we had to improvise. Finally, we chose a smaller road full of potholes which meant sitting in a bus for plus three hours while outside the heat was just as usual, 40°C. However, I didn’t mind it at all, the landscape and the friendly workers we met by accident made it an unforgettable journey.
- Being Invited in the Middle of the Jungle
This happened while walking in a small village in the middle of the jungle. A nice woman waved at us from her balcony and with her non-existing English speaking skills invited us in her house.
She showed us around being especially proud of her kitchen and family photos. In the end she drove us to the neighborhood just to show us to her mother, an 80-year-old lady. This made us smile, as we were formerly informed that to many Indians, we were probably the first white people they saw in their lives. Probably this was the only reason why she found us interesting enough to have us over.
- Tasting Tapioca in the Middle of the Jungle
While driving on a small road through the jungle we were stopped by little houses where a woman waved at us again and invited us in her really tiny garden. She lived with her daughter there, in a small shed and she was very keen to give us -her guests- something by all means. She pulled out some tapioca roots, washed and prepared it for us. It tasted awful, like raw potatoes but we ate all of it, making her truly happy and content.
- Listening to the Fishermen’s Song at Dawn
“The early bird catches the worm” proved to be true. The sun has just begun to rise when these men were already doing their job in a very traditional way, accompanied by chanting rhythmic Indian melodies, moving together as one.
- Participating in a Traditional Indian Wedding
Visiting churches in India does not equal silent walks and prayers among sculptures and frescos. It is much more fun, and if you make it there, they welcome you as a family member at a wedding. However, it is also possible to experience a form of discrimination if you are of a different religion because “non-hindus are not allowed” to visit the ‘holiest’ places.
To be honest, getting assimilated in Indian culture is not only essential because of these moments. There is also a “dark side” of tourism as well. If you are a typical white tourist, living and travelling in India –which is, by the way, the number one cheapest country on Earth- costs the triple for you. This is why wearing Indian-like clothes is highly recommended. Also, wearing shorts, mini-skirts or even sleeveless tops is extremely disrespectful towards the religious and in this respect, quite conservative Indian culture. So is sitting in a way that your sole is facing another person, for example. For some reason, to Indians sole is the dirtiest part of the human body so showing it towards someone equals showing your “rear end” –which is obviously not the friendly gesture you wanted to make.
These are just some of the mistakes that many tourists make. But why should we care? Well, these are all signs for local people that reveal our little knowledge about their culture and habits so Indians can immediately make use of any situations. All in all, being natural, friendly and confident is the best way to feel “home” in a country this faraway. Also, I believe that I couldn’t have experienced such things if I was travelling with a tourist group who just run from attraction to attraction, from city to city. True moments need time, randomness and open-mindedness.