Hippy-dippy traveler culture in South Asia (Himal mag)

Rohit Khare (rohit@uci.edu)
Thu, 24 Sep 1998 12:02:07 -0700

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Karma Cola, by Gita Mehta is a far funnier skewering... but this is just
as true.


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Analysis - Himal South Asia (May-June)

Travellers and Neo-Orientalism

by Sigrun Eide Odegaard

I asked him where he was going. He shook his head; his hair danced. "Just"—he raised his eyes and said with drama—"travelling."—Paul Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar, 1975

This is an article that discusses what I call the "traveller culture" in India and Nepal. It is basi- cally a reflection upon some paradoxes in this transnational culture of Westerners travelling with the Lonely Planet guidebook in their backpacks. A guidebook which has a crucial role as a trendsetter in this traveller culture. In order to avoid talking about a traveller culture in abstract essentialised terms, one has to embed the concept in social activities, and that I have tried to do.

There is a gap between travellers' actions and the norms and representations they themselves think they communicate and represent. These individuals do not look upon themselves as 'tourists', but as 'travellers'. A general view of tourists among travellers, is that tourists travel only for short time and in organised groups. They thus only have access to "front stage". Travellers, on the other hand, have access to "backstage", as Ulf Hannerz points out in Global Culture—Nationalism, Globalisation and Modernity.

A well-established subjective identification as travellers differentiates them from "ordinary tourists". Since they want to travel "backstage", travellers seek authentic otherness. This drive for authenticity instead of the reproduced (understood as produced for tourists) make travellers seek destinations off the beaten track, where there are no tourists. Lonely Planet gives a lot of information about "untouched areas" (as the opposite of "tourist ghettoes"), where one rarely will see large groups of travellers together and "where the local people remain friendly".

Travellers are individuals, and their individuality is often one of the reasons for travelling the way they do, contrary to "tourists". This does not prevent travellers from conforming to certain unwritten rules and values. As a traveller, you also start behaving like a traveller, dress like a traveller and go to the same places as other travellers. This indicates that there is a kind of standardisation and conformed fashion among travellers within this particular travellers' universe, and this is what I mean by traveller culture.

Travellers with a Lonely Planet
Basically India is what you make of it and what you want it to be.–Lonely Planet Travel Survival Kit: India

Next to the shared values already indicated, travellers in India and Nepal carry in their backpacks the Lonely Planet as a travel survival kit. It gives travellers detailed information about places to visit, low-budget places to stay, and where a traveller will meet other travellers. This book is best described as the travellers' bible and as it has become the guide to Nepal and India, it also adds to the conformisation and standardisation of travellers' values.

On the way to one of the roof-top restaurants in the Paharganj area in old Delhi, one passes many restaurants mentioned in Lonely Planet. In these restaurants, some travellers read their Lonely Planet and plan their next train journey, while others discuss where to go and in which hotel it is best to stay after getting there. Some have just arrived, which can be seen by the quality of their trekking boots and the latest edition of Lonely Planet they are thumbing. Next to the newly arrived, there are those who never left.

"India is not a place you simply and clinically 'see'; it's a total experience, an assault on the senses, a place you'll never forget," the guide points out in its introduction; the traveller in India will never be quite the same person after the "total experience" of the country. There are those who refuse to use this guide book, in their hope of getting even closer backstage. But, with or without Lonely Planet, travellers tend to end up in or around the same places.

Travellers are transnational and many "do" Asian countries "on a shoestring". Although there are many common features among travellers as a whole, the visited countries, as well as travellers' presumptions about the countries (in this case India and Nepal), influence the "total experience" they acquire. In their search for spirituality and non-materialism, many travellers have a tendency to romanticise what they see and experience. They end up not seeing the countries as they exist. Despite their norms and good intentions, travellers are representatives of the well-established Western tradition of Orientalism.

Orientalism and Nostalgia India as the Spiritual Centre
East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.Rudyard Kipling, "The Ballad of East and West"

In a world where the discourse on the East has been dominated by Orientalism and romanticism, travellers have been brought up to perceive India and Nepal as non-materialist, spiritualist paradises. "There is possibly no other country where religion is so inextricably intertwined with every aspect of life," Lonely Planet says about India. Together with the religious and spiritual aspects, maharajas' palaces, elephants, fakirs, and the mysticism of the East, are emphasised by those selling India and Nepal in the international market, as well as by the travellers themselves when they go home. The essentialism I refer to is more pronounced in the travellers' narratives given upon return, but is also present while travelling.

There are many different reasons for choosing Nepal and India. The search for a Shangrila is still very present among many of them. In addition to such a spiritual search, there is also the urge for finding something radically different. Whatever the different motivations, they are often related to the longstanding Western tradition of Orientalism, understood as the Western essentialised knowledge about the exotic Other.

Among the long-time travellers I met and travelled with, there were not many of the "postmodern" kind who are not concerned about the authenticity in the culture they visit. Dominant were those that regretted the destruction they have wrought on other ways of life, and the idea that Western cultural imperialism has "Westernised" every place. Many travellers list the places they just must visit before they are "destroyed", and many experience disappointment in finding destinations already "destroyed" or "Westernised". About Goa, the lost hippy paradise of India, Lonely Planet reports plaintively: "There's also a large contingent of Western package-tour visitors who arrive by direct charter flight and stay in the beach resort complexes that have sprung up in main centres. Even the Indians from outside Goa have begun to come here in ever-increasing numbers."

The famous Sri Rajneesh Ashram in Poona and export gurus invited abroad, led to notions about India as a spiritual Shangrila. India became "a living museum of religious humanism, yogic health practices and new age phenomena" (Ronald Inden, Imagining India). Rishikesh, in the northern Uttar Pradesh, is termed the "yoga capital of the world", and is on the itinerary of many travellers.

Whether you are interested in yoga and meditation or not, for many they have become compulsory if you want to consume authenticity in India. Lonely Planet therefore provides information on Rishikesh, although it adds, "Studying Hinduism has, naturally, become somewhat commercialised at Rishikesh". The traveller is cautioned about unauthentic Hinduism, while in the next breath recommending one of the ashrams as a relaxed place where "you don't have to attend the yoga class (6 am) or the evening lectures".

This indicates a well-known and accepted fact that most travellers are not that deeply interested in "studying aspects of Hinduism". Why go to an ashram, then? A Norwegian girl I met said she went to a Rishikesh ashram because everyone else she met went there. It hadn't been so nice, she told me, even though it was cheap and food (although awful) was included. It was boring at night, and she and her friends had to climb over the fence to get in and out of the ashram after the evening curfew. What was important to this Norwegian was to do what everybody else does while travelling in India; authenticity of the spiritual experience was not important.

Eastern spirituality is a Western construct, an essentialism that today is very much inherent in any traveller's mind. Does their dreamy image of India mirror what is there, or is it a land of their imagination? Veena Das, in Assessing Cultural Anthropology, argues that it is the Brahmanical imagination that managed to shape the European representation and master narrative of India. This master narrative and essentialism nevertheless proved useful for the Western-educated Indian elite, who, in the struggle for independence, had to base an indigenous nationalism on values different from those of the colonial power. The Gandhian emphasis on ahimsa (non-violence and vegetarianism) clearly shows the transformation of Orientalism into a way of self-representation.

This Western mythologisation of an eternal spiritual paradise is not limited to India/Nepal only. Tibet has been a very useful place for the West as a source of adventure and mysticism. In fact, the West has reduced Tibet to its own picture of Tibet, and forced upon it its longing for spiritual life and escape from the material world. There is, therefore, no need for the real Tibet, writes Tsering Shakya in Samtiden, because Tibet is reborn in Western fantasy and psychedelic experiences, as the Shangrila. This again, he suggests, may be the reason for the Western world's lack of interest or engagement in what is happening in Tibet today. Similarly, is there a need for the real India in a traveller's vision?

Where Competence Counts
Many travellers feel great frustration after coming to India and Nepal, when it finally dawns upon them that the spiritual lands of their imagination do not exist. "It's not an easy country to handle, and more than a few visitors are only too happy to finally get on an aircraft and fly away," Lonely Planet points out, adding, "and the most experienced travellers find themselves at the end of their tempers at some point in India. Yet, it's all worth it." The guide states that it is legitimate to dislike India at certain points of your travel, although, "Love it or hate it, you can never ignore India".

India poses a big challenge to the traveller, a place for the bravest of the brave, where skill and competence are crucial values for his survival in a jungle of cheating Indians. The guide is full of advice on where to go for a "little respite from the hardships of life on the Indian road" when travellers—it assumes—find themselves "at the end of their tempers".

At the beginning of my travelling career, I met a French couple who had travelled in both countries. Compared to their acquired competence, I found myself somewhat handicapped with my more theoretically based competence derived from studying anthropology. Due to their earlier experience, my French friends didn't stay in the touristy Thamel area of Kathmandu, the mecca of all travellers, but instead at a rock bottom place called Peace Guesthouse, where I also later moved. Their experience and savoir faire made them automatically leaders among the travellers.

"Competence with regard to alien cultures itself entails a sense of mastery," Mr Hannerz writes in his book. This has a "narcissistic streak in that the self is constructed in the space where cultures mirror each other". For travellers in India, the crucial thing is to have the skill and competence to handle India. There are many stories about travellers who fail, and Lonely Planet is also full of examples. The reason why people fail, though, is not their own responsibility. Most often, it is blamed on the natives who don't understand, or rather, are stupid. One of the first things I learnt from my French friends was that Indians are "stupid". This seems to be a general view of Indians among many travellers.

What people tell each other in the recommended restaurants and cafes, is how to avoid being cheated by Indians. The picture of the Indian as the Other that one has to watch out for is as present among travellers as the essentialism mentioned earlier. Lonely Planet is extraordinarily explicit in its information on how much things would cost, so as to prevent the traveller from being ripped off. Travellers are socialised into the idea that cheating is inherent in the local culture. There is always the warning against cheats, as with this information about camel safaris in Rajasthan illustrates:

However much you decide to spend, make sure you know exactly what is being provided and make sure it's there before you leave Jaisalmer. You should also make sure you know where they're going to take you. Try to talk to other travellers for feedback on who is currently offering good, reliable and honest service.

This paranoia sometimes makes travellers behave strangely. They are obsessed with the idea of not paying more than the local price, which is a result of their obsession with competence and skill. The constant vigilance against being ripped off by the locals is what gives the travellers in India that fatigued, suffering India look. There is always bargaining and the first question asked is, "How much?". A reluctance to pay more than the local price, and preferably less, makes one wonder if travelling like "free passengers on the global track" is the main purpose.

"They grew filthier and more fatigued-looking as I moved down the cars," wrote Paul Theroux in The Great Railway Bazaar. He noticed that in the third class compartment English was the only language spoken, because there were only hippies travelling third class. Whether it was the money saved or the idea that travelling third class was more authentic is hard to say. But as no locals travelled third class, if they could avoid it, the authenticity of the experience was lost.

Third class exists no more, so all travellers these days travel in second class. It is very rare to hear about someone travelling first class, though. That is tantamount to admitting that you could not cope with the masses. Travelling second class on today's Indian trains is the same as travelling "backstage". As Lonely Planet points out, "It's India for real on the trains."

Traveller is Traveller and Native is Native
It was then that I learnt, perhaps for the first time, how thoroughly the notion of travel has become corrupted by the notion of power.–Claude Levi-Strauss

Are travellers really willing to immerse themselves in other cultures? Lonely Planet, the guide book and bible, is written by travellers for travellers. The information and values communicated throughout the guide reveals paradoxes and contradictions when it comes to this "immersing into a culture".

Take the example of food. There seems to be a great aversion against local food and thus no immersing into the dietary habits, even though many travellers emphasise that they love Indian food back home. Food is a potential topic of complaint whenever travellers go on treks, safaris or rafting trips, and the guidebook is quite explicit in its dietary guidance. For example: "The minimum price for a basic safari is Rs 150 per person per day. For this you can expect a breakfast of porridge, tea and toast, and lunch and dinner of rice, dhal and chapatis—pretty unexciting stuff. For Rs 250 you should also get fruit, mineral water and some relief from the rice-dhal-chapati tedium."

Natives in Nepal and India do not necessarily make a difference between tourist tourists and travellers. They make a difference between tourists with money and tourists without. Also, to the locals there are good tourists and bad tourists. It is possible that tourists coming for shorter periods often may be more polite and easygoing than travellers, and thus more popular among the locals.

Contrary to their illusions of being innocent wanderers, travellers in India and Nepal may sometimes articulate their "bad" attitudes they themselves ascribe to tourists. This is often the case with the traveller's reluctance to accord natives' point of view any relevance at all. One tendency, as already pointed out, is a romanticism of natives' values, often a result of an imperialist nostalgia and a radical culturalist attitude. Another tendency is more imperialist than nostalgic: the opinion that the local culture is crazy, stupid (or what not), rather than only different.

Despite all the good intentions in using cultural relativity to come to terms with the natives, the travellers tend to treat Nepal and India, as The Other Societies, on his own terms rather than theirs. Travellers tend to dress as filthily as they like, as this, too, is part of the travellers' identity. Rarely would they dress in the same way back home. The neocolonial attitude seems to be, "This is only India/Nepal anyway".

Indians and Nepalis do appreciate it when they come across someone wearing clean clothes, and they wonder why so many travellers insist on looking so undignified. Travellers, for their part, still expect to be treated with respect. Behaving according to norms and values of the travellers' universe, they don't care if this is offensive to the natives.

Transnationalism and the New Tribe
Travellers go to the same places, eat at the same kind of restaurants, and mostly remain within the communitas while on the road. The Lonely Planet strengthens this traveller communitas. In that way, they are part of a third culture, even though this may be contrary to most travellers' intentions, and the way they represent themselves. This communitas is in many ways closed and does not encourage engagement with the Other, the locals.

As the travellers proceed from place to place, natives have no chance to contest their self-representations. The natives' point of view is not considered important. Low-budget travelling and the fatigue experienced by longterm travelling in countries which, according to Lonely Planet are "an assault on the senses", may also be a factor that undermines these cosmopolitans' role as bridgeheads in a global culture.

Travellers want to look upon themselves as different from tourists. But this idea is an illusion.

S.E. Odegaard is associated with the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, Oslo.