Monday, 31 December 2012

Not your idea of sightseeing

Some thoughts on what sightseeing means to different people in different parts of the world...

‘This is not the western idea of sightseeing’, Katrin told me recently, ‘just to sit in cars and look out of the window while being taken from point A to point B. Western people like to walk, to trek, to look at the plants and the trees, to take in the air....’ 
She was right, for, from what I had seen of the ‘west’ holidays really meant  doing one thing – a skiing holiday meant really going skiing, a sun-bathing holiday meant just lazing around all day on some beach, a cycling holiday meant just cycling for days on end,... In any case, a holiday meant taking time out to do something one wanted to do, that one had deliberately chosen out of many possibilities; it could be even something as simple as sitting in the garden and reading a book.  Of course it could also mean spending a whole week just going from one exhibit to the other in some obscure wing at the Louvre in Paris or carefully studying the paintings in some Dali exhibition at the Tate Gallery.  And even when one went on a sightseeing trip to a new place, it is normally less hurried and more focussed on finding out more about the things or objects that one had come to see, about which one had already read up and prepared oneself for. And if one travelled to another country, tasting the local cuisine and getting a feel for the local culture, language and ways of life was almost as important as taking in the sights.

But that is not what most Indians, till the other day, thought of as a holiday.  Well... if I think of my own childhood, then it is clear that a sightseeing trip in India for many middle-class Indians till some time ago essentially meant going to a new place and then going on a whirlwind tour of the sights to be seen there – that is, being ferried from sight A to sight B in a car or a bus, getting off to look around for a few minutes and take some pictures (so that one could boast about it later), listening (without actually hearing)  to what the guide (if there was one) had to say about that place and then ticking off that particular sight as seen. There would be essentially no time to take in the air, to hear the birds sing, or to find out anything more -- one had to pack in as much as one could into one day, to make the most of the holiday, because they were often quite expensive. One also did not normally bother to look for restaurants where one could taste local food, most often one brought a packed lunch along that one ate while sitting on some bench somewhere before pushing on.  It was somewhat like being compelled to ‘finish a course’ – one had to tick off all the mandatory sights starting in most cases, with the Taj Mahal or the Qutub Minar and the Red Fort in Delhi, and then being able to tell Fatehpur Sikri apart from the Purana Quila, for all time to come.

And since these holidays were supposed to be of some educational value for the kids, in the evenings, children were encouraged to make notes on the main events of the day so that they could later be transformed into essays titled ‘My holiday in Rajasthan’ or the like.  And even if children went taken to Disneyland, they would be expected to write an essay about what they did there after they got back. And since the travel itineraries were finalised much before one left home there was very little scope to change or curtail something at the last minute, even if it started to pour with rain on a day when one was supposed to spend essentially outdoors or if one of the party fell sick at the last moment.  With the result that often one landed up dragging unwilling and sick children up and down monuments all day, and being more tired at the end of the holiday than when one had started out.

Many Indians went and still go to hill-stations like Nainital and Shimla for a holiday or for their honeymoon, but what does such a holiday comprise of? – Staying in a nice hotel,  dressing up in thick winter gear including coat, boots, gloves and cap (specially bought or acquired for the occasion as if going an expedition to the Everest) only to be taken uphill to some point  where one could see and feel the  snow,  get some photos smiling sweetly while  gingerly holding some snow in one’s gloved hands or while sitting atop a mountain mule or a yak shrieking how scary and cold it is, warming up over lunch, coming back to the hotel for a siesta and spending the evening doing useless shopping in the Mall.

And this picture has not essentially changed very much over the years even though many middle-class Indians have now started to go to distant places on holidays. Besides the shopping holidays in Dubai and the beach holidays in Phuket, holiday packages to Europe offering to show you 15 countries in 12 days are becoming increasingly popular. And Indian tourists who avail of these package tours spend most of the nights travelling in big tour-buses, and the days looking at the various sights; they are mostly served familiar Indian food for their meals.  At the end of such a whirlwind tour, one has spent a lot of money buying presents for everyone back home,  is left with lots of photos, videos and some confused memories of what one had done and what one had seen, so much so that it is hard to differentiate the Leaning tower from the Eiffel tower. But the general idea is still the same – pack in as much as you can into as few days as possible, and then, once you are through with it, you are eligible to join the elite club of the much travelled people who have seen the world!

It is only recently that Indians have started to go on holidays just to the beaches of Puri or Goa (earlier they would be combined with visiting the temples at Puri or going to see the sights at Old Vasco). But I am not sure many Indians like sitting in a beach all day, just reading a book, or just taking in the sun. If they go at all, they have to make sure they can play cards and there is enough of food and drink at hand; many even convert these beach outings into some kind of a picnic on the beach. I suspect many men actually go to the beach to ogle scantily dressed women, even while making sure that their own wives and children are all properly covered up. Others do it because they think by doing so they would be joining an even more exclusive club which includes foreigners. Adventure and trekking holidays are becoming popular among Indians but I guess many think it is cool not because of any real conviction but because many foreigners seem to think so too. Our obsession with what foreigners think and do, and the sacrosanct rule that ‘what they do must be right and hence everyone else must also follow suit’ seem to be the guiding principle that influences most of our thoughts, opinions, as well as our likes and dislikes.

 But what about the foreigners themselves – are they as worthy of emulation as we think they are? After all many of the ones who want to go to India on holiday want to do so for rather esoteric reasons – because they want to live in some Ashram and attain spiritual enlightenment, or go to hear the Dalai Lama, or go on some Ayurveda wellness cure in a houseboat in the backwaters of Kerala, or do some yoga course in some mountain-top location. Others have more concrete reasons: go to see the Taj Mahal, enjoy the sunset over the sea at Goa, look up the tigers in the Gir forest, go up to the source of the Ganges in the Himalayas,... In other words, many foreigners come to India because they are looking for something, and they believe they can find it in India. Many foreigners have asked me for recommendations for an Ashram and have been really surprised when I have told them that I did not have the foggiest idea, what is more, that I have never been to one (not counting obvious places like the Sabarmati Ashram) and that most other Indians also haven’t either.  They find it hard to believe that most Indians don’t see India as a particularly spiritually elevating place, that for most of us it is just home and we try to live our daily lives there as best we can.

But given that I had some idea of what Katrin was referring to by the ‘western’ idea of sightseeing, why did I get it all so wrong? After all I have been living in the west for a while now, I should have known. Looking back, the problem was she had done her home-work too well. The Lonely Planet guide that she had studied  so thoroughly before arriving in the northeast had painted Arunachal as a paradise for trekkers, as a beautifully enchanting location for nature lovers, the home of the white tiger and many other species of plants, animals and birds in the various national parks scattered all over the region.  No wonder she was so upset when she realised that Arunachal Pradesh was rather large and that in the tiny corner of the Changlang district of Arunachal where we had entry to, there was no way one could  get out of the car and go on a day-trek all alone through the forests to look at the trees and to feel the air on one’s skin, without having to worry about having to meet various dangerous types of animals and humans on the way. She should have figured that we were in the wrong place when we had real trouble even finding a map of the region for her – leave alone a map that she could have used to navigate her way alone through dense forests to her destination.

I had got it wrong because I had not factored in the Lonely Planet guide into my calculations. Like most Indians who do not bother to check out anything themselves but rely on others who have done it before for information about a place, I had imagined that Katrin would totally depend and be guided by what I had written to her about the area in my various mails to her in preparation of her trip. And what is more, since I had never mentioned anything about sightseeing in my mails, I had imagined that we could just leave it out altogether and get on with our work. The essential problem was that since she was in a foreign land for the first time, and that too one that had been so highly recommended as a holiday destination, for her it was like being on holiday but for me, since I was at home, I was not on holiday.  After all, a person is normally not on a holiday when he/she is at home. 

Really if you think about it a bit longer, no matter how you look at it, it is somehow all wrong – the Indians go to Europe to look at monuments, the Europeans come to India to look for something in nature or in the ambience, but they all go back home not one bit wiser about what that other place is actually about.  Reminds me of a comment a friend of mine recently made while attending the Hornbill Festival in Nagaland:  ‘This is really crazy what is going on here, he wrote, the audience mostly consists of two mutually exclusive categories of people, the foreigners desperately taking photos of the exotically dressed up Nagas saying ‘Look, finally we have seen some real tribals’ and the Nagas also using their posh mobile phones to take photos of the foreigners exclaiming ‘Look, these are all real foreigners’ but no one actually trying to make contact with the other by saying something as easy as ‘How do you do, brother, do you also speak English?’ It was if the whole Hornbill Festival was nothing more than a mere photo opportunity for everyone who was there...what a waste...


  1. Atanu Bhattacharyya9 January 2013 at 21:20

    a strong write-up depicting the mind sets of Indian travellers
    Atanu Bhattacharyya
    Assam, INDIA

    1. Thanks, Atanu, for your very kind comment. Things are changing slowly I think but it is still so much out of sync...