~ Sunday, March 10, 2002
Why Development Tourism?
Thirty years ago a holiday for most people meant a beer and a beach. Then the hippies came along, broadening (or should that be expanding) their minds through travel to the exotic East. Like or not, we're all hippies now and the trails through India and South East Asia swarm with the West's young and not-so-young, searching for "experiences". For some this means hurling themselves down white water rapid where as others prefer the Himalayan views. And for a few it means exploring a different culture. Not everybody has a good time doing this - all they seem to encounter are touts and conmen. But what do you really expect if you don't speak the language and know little of local customs in the first place?
And what do the host countries get from this? Well, some people get very rich. However most of the population never see that money. they dream of a cash kick start they could use to change their lives. But hey, their poverty keeps your travelling costs down and adds a little local colour. So we have the Developed World (or North) seeking experiences and the Developing World (or South) seeking cash directed to where it is needed. On top of which, both sides need to come up with an alternative vision of globalization as the current one seems to be just Economic Imperialism Mk II.
So what am I suggesting? A different form of tourism. One that is responsible, sustainable and equitable. where those in the North visit the South on its own terms and give as well as take.
What It Is Not
It may help to first describe what it could be mistaken for:
1. It is not backpacking. Basically low budget sight seeing, few backpackers spend long enough in one place to adopt the language and customs. They make few concessions to the cultures they are in. For instance in India, you may have adopt different clothes and abstain from cigarettes and alcohol to meet local standards of respectability.
2. It is not volunteering. Thousands of idealistic people from the North go every year to sink wells, build schools and dig latrines. They get the warm glow of having done good. But how much do the local people benefit from this? Much experience has shown that the best people to plan, build and maintain these facilities are the locals themselves. Poverty is a complex problem and it is not solved by the band-aid of voluntary work. Volunteers are often simply a well-meaning nuisance.
3. It is not professional development work. Some individuals stay in communities long term and work with those communities, sharing their trials and successes. Most Northerners simply do not have the time to commit to this intensive vocation.
What It Is
Having said that, Development Tourism contains elements of the above three roles. You will see some sights, you will get your hands dirty and you will learn the facts of everyday life in the Developing World. Now lets talk more about the positives.
1. Responsible. You learn the language and the customs. You live with the people in their houses and wear their clothes. You are a guest and behave as such.
2. Sustainable. These people's lives carry on after you leave. Don't try to be an expert or a saviour. Respect the environment. Live simply and know your limits.
3. Equitable. Give some money to projects that can really help: health, education, and income generation are good places to start. think of it as part of your holiday expenses. And tell people what it's like out there or they'll never know.
That was all a bit serious, eh? So what's it been like for me. I'm in the middle of a three month stint in India, mostly staying at and writing about rural development projects in the North of the country. I have been delighted and shocked - seen children dance and grown men cry. There has been much generosity and kindness shown me and I've developed a great respect for India and its inhabitants. But enough about me. What experience do you want?
For one example of Development Tourism see here.
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In England, rites of passage are monochrome. The bride is in white, the mourners in black. It's as though at moments of emotional stress, the cones in our eyes fail and we're left with night vision, in the dark. This observation came to me on the back of Pramod's motorbike. While we were whizzing across town on a series of errands, we kept encountering a funeral in progress. It began with men carrying the body down the wide streets, banging drums as they came. The body was covered in sheets of white and gold, garlanded with orange flowers and the occasional satsuma. It looked like a Christmas stocking for the Grim Reaper. In the end, they were the body by the river. Or more exactly in the river as the monsoon was months away and what had been a broad shallow expanse of water was now sand. You use wood to burn a body and wood is expensive. The fire was only small and I made a mental note to cease using the riverbed as a beach in future.
Pramod's bike was unusual. It was the only motorbike I had ridden that had been fitted with stabilizers. This wasn't because Pramod was six or hadn't got his motorcycling proficiency badge. It was because Pramod was unusual too. As a child he had been hit by the double whammy of polio and a collapsing building. He now practiced and taught various forms of acupressure and ran primary and secondary schools in the surrounding villages in his spare time. Unassuming in manner, he was nevertheless intelligent, determined and something of a networker. He knew useful people in restaurants and internet cafes. He bought me lunch a couple of times, which was nice until I saw the size of the apartment he lived in. Overwhelmed with guilt, I attempted to pay my way after that. On this particular day we had been to the secondary school. It was run in a disused seal factory (the kind used on pipes, not the kind with flippers). I had given the children a geography lesson that had been scuppered by my lack of artistic ability.
Me: (Pointing to my fine rendering of South America) What is this?
Child: Er, a carrot?
We had then taken some photos of the pupils. The blokes were a bit camera shy but came forward readily enough. By contrast, the girls were very keen to be immortalized in all their glory. Unfortunately they seemed to have difficulty in completing their preparations in the nine hours before sunset. Calls of "Jaldi" (hurry up) were answered with "Ek minute". Forty-five ek minutes later they were ready and the posing began in earnest. I was even persuaded to join in a group shot, holding a red flower in a sensitive manner. I just hope that Pramod is never driven to the thought of blackmail.
I was staying at an ashram in town that Pramod had once taught at. It's mentioned in the Lonely Planet and so attracts a steady stream of visitors - at that time there were three level headed Danes, a nouveau-hippy couple from Oz and a Japanese organic farmer. The ashram takes in orphans and pauper children from the surrounding villages and gives them and food, shelter and an education. The children were energetic, curious and impossible to control. And therefore surprisingly normal. The whole enterprise was run by Dwarkoji. A certified Great Man, he ran two such ashrams and a host of smaller projects in the villages. I knew he was a Great Man because he had letters from Marlon Brando and the Dalai Lama. These two have a lot in common: one is the reincarnation of Buddha and the other looked like Buddha during his Apocalypse Now Barrage Balloon phase. Or to be more accurate six king-sized, all-you-can-eat Buddhas with a side order of fries and megalomania.
Whilst I liked and respected Dwarkoji, I also found him a little wearing. It wasn't because of his opinions - although these ranged from the admirable to the strange. Any great individual is bound to have a couple of wonky toys in the box - otherwise they are not really trying. Just as any record collection worth its salt should have a Billy Ray Cyrus or Stone Temple Pilots CD lurking behind the critically accredited Massive Attack, Marvin Gaye, etc. No, it was his habit of answering any question with a lengthy story involving himself, Gandhi, Buddha, Mohammed or Christ. And preferably all of them. This was fine when plumbing the depths of the human soul but it made simple tasks - say, discovering when the water tank would be fixed - a major hassle. I soon realized that it was also a cunning rhetorical maneuver. By the end of the parable, you had often forgotten what your original point was. I tried adopting the same strategy myself but I have not met Gandhi - or even Marlon Brando. In fact, the best I can do is a comedian on Channel Five that I was at college with. And that just doesn't carry the same rhetorical weight.
Anyway, one of the Danes got invited to a wedding. And by extension, we were all invited. Now my host in Lucknow had shown me pictures of his wedding and it looked like the last days of Studio 54. Without the drugs. Or the sex. Or the disco music. In fact, all it had in common was the stunning clothing and chaos and that was enough for me.
Most marriages in India are of the arranged kind. Unarranged marriages are known as "love matches" and those that engage in them can expect ostracism and abuse from their relatives rather than a nice toaster or some colour co-ordinated bedding. Marriages are arranged by the parents and most Indians I spoke to seemed happy with this. Having seen the sweaters my Mum chooses for me, I would be far less comfortable with the thought of her powers being extended to spouse selection. N.B. "Arranged" does not mean "forced" but there but there is a strong social pressure to conform. The other thing to note is that the dowry system still flourishes in India. The bride's family are expected o provide the groom with a radio, a motorbike and whatever else the little prince desires. And they have a strong incentive to do so. the bride goes to live with her beau's family and the dowry is basically a bribe to keep the in-laws sweet. On effect of this is that boy children are favoured above girls. Another consequence is that unsatisfactory brides are abused - in a few cases this culminates in 'bride burning'. This is not much talked about but does occur. "Hi everyone, meet Reena. What happened to Surita? Oh, Things didn't work out so I murdered her in a callous act of material calculation. Pass the daal will you, darling..."
Hindu weddings kick off late - at around the time where most English weddings would have degenerated into an inebriated free-for-all. We arrived at the wedding house at 8pm. We knew it was the wedding house because its covering of fairy lights made it resemble an oblong Christmas tree. Having shaken a few hands, we were ushered into a brightly coloured marquee, full of plastic seating. At one end was a raised platform containing two red and gold thrones-cum-armchairs that even Julian Clary might consider garish. We were given boxes of tasty sweets and the room gradually filled with women in gorgeous saris. They sat doing what women do at weddings the world over - competitively compared clothes and gossiped about families. Whilst women, children and westerners sat in the tent, the blokes stood around outside doing what blokes do at weddings the world over - competitively compared salaries and gossiped about sport. At around 9:30, the soundsystem playing Hindi music at deafening volume was turned down slightly and the crowd turned to face the road outside. A parade of light was approaching. People waving huge torches came down the street, followed by some kind of carriage. All the men went to greet the wedding party and the parade disappeared from view. I looked around the marquee. It was pretty full. Was the ceremony a women-only affair? I might pass as an extremely ugly woman but Aussie Paul had a beard. Having traveled on a fair few Indian buses and trains I should have known better. The men swiftly returned and began to fill every available space in the tent, displacing such wasteful luxuries as oxygen. Once everyone was inside, the groom entered and sat on one of the thrones. With a crisp business suit, a bejeweled turban, and a neutral expression, he looked like a Maharaja in enduring a testing meeting with his marketing department. After a suitable interval the bride arrived with her maids. The bride wore a rasta's dream of a sari - a riot of red, gold and green. Her glazed expression and evident difficulty walking seemed to imply she'd been given something slightly stronger than tasty sweets but that may have just been wedding nerves. And the mountain of gold she was wearing didn't help either. She was literally dripping in the stuff. From The chains coming out of her nose it looked like she'd caught a nasty cold off Jimmy Saville. None of that gold was reflecting a smile though. And this was the freaky thing. Everybody else was deliriously happy but the two key participants were completely deadpan. In the West a weeding is supposed to be the couple's day. In India it is arranged by and for the family with the bride and groom simply discharging their filial duty.
The bride was given some prashad to anoint her intended. the brief food fight over, they garlanded each other with saffron flowers and exited. All the action was caught by a video camera with some sort of stadium floodlight attached to it. At one point it scanned the crowd and temporarily blinded me. With that and the pounding Hindi music reaching Mary Chain levels of distortion, I began to understand why the bride might looked disorientated. Even hardened terrorists crack under this kind of pressure. At this point our driver (who had been itching to leave from the moment we arrived) threatened to go without us. So, pausing only to push start the jeep down a muddy hill in our finest wedding threads, home we went. We missed the second part of the wedding ceremony, that takes place inside the family home, but I think that was for intimates only anyway.
It is easy to understand why the bride isn't always cheerful. Women get a tough time in India. Some of the girls at Pramod's school had been promised in marriage since they were nine and would go to their husbands as soon as they reached sexual maturity. In poorer families, the wives not only cook, clean and care for the children but hold down jobs to supplement the incomes of their feckless menfolk. They could expect to bear up to eight children and widows, unlike widowers, are not permitted to remarry but instead must depend on the charity of their offspring. To add insult to injury, the Hindu faith does not allow women the opportunity to escape from the karmic wheel of existence. Moksha is a men-only club. Consequently, most of the lower caste women I met were as hard as nails. Even the 7-year old girls at the ashram had attitudes to put Missy Elliott to shame. At one point, four of them chased me round the building Benny Hill-style whilst threatening dire retribution if I failed to supply them with satsumas. like any red-blooded man, I valiantly locked myself in my room and stuffed bananas in my ears until they went away. However, once the women realized you weren’t out to rob or mess with them, they could be a lot of fun. Most of the projects I visited were run by men but the actual work was done by women. India's most undervalued resource is its female population.
The next day, I was back on the back of Pramod's bike. Where the funeral procession had been a couple of days before, we passed a long line of mothers in saris and daughters in salwar kamiz. I asked Pramod where they were going. He told me there was a women's activist meeting going on down the road. They were getting organized.