Sunday, June 1, 2014

White Tourist Privilege and Other Thoughts on my Vacation to India & Bali

Here are some thoughts on backpacking! I am back teaching in Sansai and will write more on that later! Much love and apologies for the long hiatus in blog writing!

Privilege and Reciprocity:
It seemed ideal: travel through India for 2.3 weeks and Bali for 1 week - it was a dream life. Yet, I found myself thinking "do I even enjoy traveling?" more than once during my trip. Now, I do not mean to discredit the privilege of being able to travel for an extended period of time, as I know that puts me in an extremely privileged category - nor will I discount the amazing experiences. However, I found that I much prefer living abroad than just passing through. For me, connections made and relationships built make traveling (or living) abroad meaningful, exciting and interesting. As a backpacker, those interactions are limited and instead I am just the tourist, seen for what I am: a white privileged female who can afford to traverse around a foreign country on a vacation. 

Although aware of my privilege back in the states as well, it does not hold as stark a role as my skin color, citizenship and privilege do in my experiences abroad. No matter how 'ethical' or conscientious I attempt to be, these aspects will always play a significant role while I'm abroad (as they should). 
Wherever I was in India or Bali (just as I am in Thailand), I stuck out like a sore thumb, radiating privilege. With fleeting time in each place, connections made were minimal and my abroad skills of building relationships were nearly useless. Keenly aware at every corner of all the other tourists and how we (and I) were being perceived and observed, I wondered what it meant to be a sustainable tourist. Seeing another culture and world was thrilling and wonderful, but comes with a great deal of baggage - all too often ignored I think. What is the value in a few weeks in India or Bali? How could I be an ethical consumer while in these tourist locations? Is the only value in tourism an economic gain for the host country? Is there any way for reciprocal tourism?  What is the value of travel? Questions I do not have full answers for, but am certainly wondering about - among others. Any thoughts appreciated. 

And I did, of course, have a wonderful time and am truly blessed to have been able to see both Southern India and Bali! 

Upon first arrival, into the small south eastern city of Chennai, I was a bit overwhelmed. Though the city reminded me of Accra, Ghana - the attitude of hospitality, speed, smells, and exhaustion caused me to be tense and nervous, as they were unfamiliar. After a nights sleep we were on our way to the next city, with not much to do in Chennai. Unsure where we were staying night to night or what our exact itinerary was, my friend and I were able to change original outlines of plans and do what we wanted to. 

We were in Southern India - Kerala (Munnar, Kollam, Kochin) and Goa (Anjuna, Baga). The south is much slower than the north, which was a good introduction as it was not quite as overwhelming to the senses (I believe, based on hearsay). Honestly most of my thoughts on India, the things that stuck in my mind, are the people I met. That is what matters to me. Food was tasty, places visited were beautiful, site seeing was site seeing...and then there were the brief encounters in which I shared moments with people and stories and that is what made these trips more powerful.

Highlights from the trip (pictures at the bottom for the lazy or time-crunch readers)
  • Kollam: Riding in a houseboat in Kollam for 24 hours, with a 2 hour canoe ride in a river village. This came with a delicious meal and a hilarious cultural encounters.
  • Trying out all kinds of transportations was a fun, exhausting aspect - we saw much of the countryside this way. From taxi rides, to trains, to buses and planes - we covered a lot of miles across southern India. Though buses with open windows up windy roads were not my preferred choice of transport. 
  • Munnar: Probably the most beautiful place I've ever been in my life. Munnar was rolling hills of incredible mountains and tea plantations. Pictures do not even do it close to justice. We happened to be stuck in Munnar an extra day because there was a strike and no buses were running back to the city that night. 
  • Kochin: My favorite part of Kochin was Tia! Tia was the 9 year old girl who lived in the house we stayed in. When we booked our sleeping place, we didn't realize it was a homestay, but I was so glad for that experience. Immanuel's Homestay, was Immanuel's house, and downstairs lived him, his wife, his mother and father, three children and an aunt. Tia, the middle child, was bright and full of energy. Her English was fantastic and she would always follow me and my friend after we left calling out to us "Goodbye!" or "Ohh have a good day!". One morning we had breakfast with her and she told us her favorite subject was "English, of course!" Her energy was infectious and getting to know someone was great.
  • Goa: Twice in Goa in found myself paying for a service (nails and henna) that ultimately was not great quality - yet, each was performed by a young woman who shared her story with me and that made it much more worth the cost. These are two of my favorite experiences from Goa because they allowed me to understand more about the culture and connect with someone.
    • Lolita, a 19 year old young woman on the beach, approached me and asked if she could paint my nails. After deciding to go ahead and do it, she sauntered off to get her 'supplies'. A plastic shopping bag with a few nail polish shades. Filling my water bottle with ocean water, she washed sand off my feet and painted some haphazard polish on my toes and then convinced me to do my fingernails as well. During this encounter, I asked Lolita about her life. She revealed to me that she was married and six months pregnant. We spoke about what her husband did for work, if she was happy and if she was excited to have a baby. It was minimal, but made me so grateful for sharing stories, giving voice and connecting to people. I wished her luck when she left and enjoyed a great red colored manicure and pedicure for a day or so.
    • Sar, a 24 year old young woman who worked at the market, was trying to get me to look at her clothes. Most market hagglers were pushing me to look and she was no different. I said, "I'm just looking for henna". "I do henna!" she exclaimed excitedly. After agreeing on a price, she did a beautiful henna job on my hand and foot. Her younger sister threaded my eyebrows after they convinced me it absolutely had to be done. As I sat with Sar and her sister for over an hour during the henna and threading process I came to know more about her life. She shared with me that she married at 14 years old, had 3 kids, a 10 year old, 7 year old and 4 year old back, with a husband whom she was ambivalent about. "He drinks too much and then is not nice," she told me and then asked about my husband. I told her I didn't have one and she said I better get on it because I was getting old. These are the experiences that make me desire to travel and connect to people. Sar explained to me that she lived 26 hours north of Goa but traveled for market season and stayed 45 minutes away.  She and 7 others rent a small cement room in a large compound of many market sellers. Her smile was warm and the henna art was absolutely beautiful. I felt blessed to meet her, if only for an hour. 
Both Sar and Lolita re-affirmed my desires to helping give voice to those not often heard. Where ultimately I wanted to instill a love of learning in as many people as possible, giving voice is part of that process. The reciprocity in telling each others stories back and forth was so important to me. 
    When I am back in Sansai, Thailand and enjoy a meal with P'Oh, the woman at the ice cream store, even though her English and my Thai are very limited, we find common ground in discussing heartbreak, love, relationships, body stigma - a lot of times its through a few words in each language and the rest is done by body language and gestures. All of these make me so glad for connections and so passionate about continuing to connect to so many different people around the world. 

Bali was a bit too touristy for me, but I filled my belly with delicious food and my time with dear friends, laughter and conversation. My favorite day was a trip we took to a beautiful rock temple and coffee plantation. The coffee place has civic cats that eat the coffee beans and poops them out - that coffee is some of the most expensive in the world! 

And now for some pictures!

Oh ya, and my parents visited and that was AWESOME! :) Matching shirts

A Southern Indian Meal! :) Much different than Butter chicken!

Munnar, India 

Munnar - with friend, Cody Gohl

Still Munnar, India

Tea Plantations are what make these bushes so cool!

more tea plantations!

Rock Temple in Bali!

Viewpoint in Bali

beautiful day in bali!

Bali with Molly!

Seeing my parents was absolutely amazing. As you can see these places were absolutely stunningly gorgeous. My happiness is very clear in all the photos!

Much love to everyone. Will write more on getting back into teaching and last semester goals. Started back at work two weeks ago. 

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