A few years back we were trying to fall in love with the treacherous landscape of Spiti and had our bookings in home-stays in the villages around Kaza. Places like Dhankar, Tabo, Hikkim, Demul, Kibber, Langza, and Komik are well about 4000 metres, the air is rarefied and breathing isn’t easy, and the houses are spread over an undulating terrain. These are places which cannot be visited once the winter sets in and this could be around mid-October. Even the goats and donkeys have to stay in enclosures and fed by the locals. The local hosts were gracious enough to welcome us into their homes and cook some delicious meals that cannot possibly be savored in bigger towns. No, not even in Kaza.

‘How do you manage your supplies once the snow sets in?’ I asked.

He replied with a twinkle in his eyes, ‘We need to stock everything essential. We also have lovely little greenhouses built by the NGO here and we can even grow green vegetables to keep ourselves fit. But still, if at all it is is necessary, I have to walk down to Kaza and see if my problem can be solved there.’

While being driven from one of these villages to another we happened to meet a group of visibly disturbed tourists. We were having thukpa and they were asking the restaurant owner to cook them butter chicken. One of them turned to me and said, ‘We are terribly disappointed by this trip. Too expensive and all we get to eat is stuff made from leaves. There are too many places where we have to walk. No internet. No convenience store to buy my brand of shaving foam…’

The fellow would have gone on for another few minutes had I not asked him to stop. I said, ‘But this is Spiti. You’ve come here to see and experience life as the locals live. Right? You were certainly not expecting home-stays here to have bath-tubs and large screen televisions showing you the latest Hollywood flicks, were you? Sir, I can only ask to forget your life in your metro town, stop looking at your smartphone for business calls, and have long conversations with the locals.’

Those tourists did not understand a bit of what I was saying but I knew by then the problems of travelling without having switched off your urban mindset. There are quite a few like the tourists we met in Spiti and all of them want things and experiences that they are accustomed to but in a different setting. This is certainly not travel as I see it. Listen, if you are not open to new experiences, you might as well visit theme restaurants in your own city or go to events like Bhutan Festival where you can even get yourself clicked wearing their traditional dress.

If you are in Spiti, be a Spitian

Well, be a Roman in Rome, a Korean in Seoul, a Thai in Bangkok… and I’m sure get a drift of what I am saying. But to travel to Shillong, for instance, carrying a bagful of Maggi noodles because you assume that food might be a major obstacle in your enjoyment, makes travel too a task. The problem with this attitude is that it brings about changes in local perceptions in ways that can be extremely destructive. This attitude forces the local population to bring about changes that they feel will make the tourist feel comfortable… and as a result if someone wants to taste Khasi dishes in Meghalaya, one would need to search carefully because the towns in the state will have most eateries serving butter chicken, dosas, dal-batti, and aloo-parathas. The authentic experience goes for a six.

We are planning to go to Auroville, Puducherry, and Chennai this month and do you think we will be wise tourists to go looking for aloo-parathas and dal-makhni in these places? We will want to eat all the idlis, vadas, dosas, sambar followed by coffee as the locals prefer. A good traveler would not ask, ‘I need a nescafe!’ This would be blasphemous.

Being adaptive

There are umpteen adverts in the newspapers that mention proudly that their bus tours across Europe will have only Indian tourists ‘so you can be comfortable in your conversations’ and that they will be serving Indian meals throughout the trip. Some of them even talk about Indian cooks who travel with these groups. Come on, why in blazes would you want to lick on a large piece of jaggery after having a sumptuous dal-chawal meal as you stand before the Eiffel Tower in Paris?

The wrong sort of traveler. #indispire #ResponsibleTravel

The wrong sort of traveler. #indispire #ResponsibleTravel

Being adaptive during travel shouldn’t be an option, but be mandatory. Why would I want to sit in a restaurant in Seoul and expect their menu to have bhindi and gajar ka halwa? Why would I have fish-n-chips in London and ask for garam-masala and ground roasted cumin powder to be sprinkled on it? While having jacket potatoes in York would I mutter: ‘This doesn’t taste like our own aloo with heeng-jeera at all.’?

I remember sitting in an eatery in downtown Amman and waiting for my order of pita bread with hummus and a plate of falafels, when another tourist from India walked up to me and whispered conspiratorially, ‘Walk a couple of hundred yards to the left and there are two wonderful Indian restaurants. I know you must be starving for arhar dal and tawa chapatis.’

I looked up in surprise and said, ‘No. I have that stuff all the time in Delhi. I intend to have falafels and hummus every day during my trip. Thank you, but you must try the dishes I have just mentioned before you leave Jordan.’

The truth

It isn’t just food that is making travel destinations look alike. During our recent trip to Darjeeling we walked from one of the city to the other and what we discovered on foot was priceless. From wall paintings in streets where tourists never venture to having conversations with school girls to discovering the heart and soul of the town was possible only because we walked and did not opt for point-to-point cabs. Where is the fun of discovering a city if you sit in a cab and reach the Japanese temple there in ten minutes or reach the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in another ten minutes? You step out of your cab, click a few pictures and then get back in to hurry to the next ‘tourist spot’… the fact is that these spots have a lot to be discovered but because they are inundated by too many tourists in a hurry they are called ‘touristy places’. The fact is that there are no touristy spots… they are all there because a city wants you to walk up to them and discover it.

Yes, we demand the food that we are accustomed to, we travel from point-to-point in cabs, we throw disposable plastic all over, we don’t stop to talk to locals, we hardly have the time to take detours and short-cuts that only the locals will tell us about, we go by what paid articles tell us… and then we sit back and say, ‘This place isn’t as good as I thought it would be.’ I remember we walked down to the Happy Valley tea estate, walked through the sprawling tea gardens on our way to Mirik, walked around the lake in Mirik… and were surprised that there were no tourist hordes anywhere. They were all busy zipping around in cabs or relaxing in their hotel until evening when they would come out and jostle with each other on Darjeeling mall.

So, are we destroying the ecology and ingenuousness of cultures and food by not being adaptive enough when travelling to a particular place? Yes, I guess we are just evolving into cab-fanatics who think they are travel enthusiasts. Yes, we are evolving into find-your-own-city in a distant city sort of travel enthusiast. Yes, we are click-click-click tourists who wouldn’t know what they have clicked when the trip ends. Yes, we are just an irresponsible pack of fundoo tourists who have messed up the classical definition of tourism and travel.




Arvind Passey
03 December 2018