The other day I was trying to work on my boring arabic assignment, where I had to write about my last vacation. Needless to say, I can hardly remember the last time I was actually on vacation (Special Olympics or the Venice trip aside when I was too sick to fully appreciate how wonderful the Carnival or the company was).
Therefore, I decided to write about my fictional (and in reality ever-postponed) trip to India. The moment I had to talk, though, about what I did during this supposed trip, I kind of blocked. I went to Goa, sure. I swan in the sea. I went to New Delhi and I saw the Taj Mahal and ate pilau rice and chicken korma. Then I went to Varanasi and I did the dusk-till-dawn boat trip and then I took a train to Jaipur, I visited the temples and I …. rode elephants? Of course, I then flew to Mumbai and I… went to the Mall? Or did I also spend time volunteering with orphans? The more cliché my ideas became, the more I sounded like a tourist guide.
However, if I really went to India (translation: if I ever get hired, save up money, find entertaining company and get my – seemingly forever-lost – good mood back), would I really want to follow the same ol’ route and try to come in touch with my inner spirituality, meet a yogi or help the “poor poors” of the country? It sounds as pretentious as somebody going to Mykonos, getting drunk, having one-night-stands with random strangers, taking pictures with the pelicans and telling me afterwords “sure, I’ve visited Greece! What a beautiful country”. What do we truly want to get out of a trip abroad, apart from visiting the same sites that we could see in pictures or documentaries from the comfort of our couch, avoiding the over-crowded streets and the sweaty heat of a country in the far east side of the world?
Personally, what I would truly like to do is rent a house in Mumbai with a view to the ocean and then spend a week or two roaming the streets and doing what the locals do: grab lunch, have a beer, go to the movies or whatever a normal middle class person would do… I would like to act like a local and discover the contemporary India with the good, the bad and the ugly side. Otherwise, I am just going to get caught-up in the pleasure land that tourist agencies have constructed over the years to maximize profits by luring tourists with good prices and controlling their behaviour by creating an absolute dependency on their services and guides.
At the end of the day, traveling is supposedly a way to see the world, not an overview of a handful of places, nicely matched to every tourist group’s needs: poor children, tough favelas, docile geishas, tea parties, camels, ancient palaces. All these things make tourists feel special in two ways: they are privileged to be there and not be from there. It is these same people who will treat locals and animals and whole communities as pleasurable spectacles in exchange for a handful of dollars (Africa is always a good example, as are the tribal people from the Andaman islands who became the main attraction in a human safari in exchange for food).
However, I still wonder if not going to the “main attractions” of a country (and I strictly refer to buildings, parks and other public spaces) is missing out on a unique experience. Maybe I should wait till I find a good local friend who could show me around and describe in his/her own words what these walls mean to the people of the country (because to me they will probably mean things like “beautiful!”, “wonderful!”, “colourful!”, “ancient!”, “exotic!” – but that is not the reason the locals still taken care of them).
So, maybe I will postpone big trips till I am ready in every sense to have a meaningful experience. In the meantime, I will let myself study more and think more and learn more, so if – or when – I go there I will be able to truly take advantage of every minute and understand how this foreign land functions and how these people see themselves. And also let my skin burn under their wonderful warm sun.