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Is backpacking in India a beaten path?

Taj Mahal, India

Taj Mahal, India

Responsible travel sometimes means getting off the beaten trail

India is a vast and beautiful country, filled with world heritage sites, throbbing megalopolises, sacred pilgrimage routes, tropical beaches and snow-capped mountains. But along with the ubiquitous tourist draws such as the Taj Mahal, the forts and palaces of Rajasthan and the intricately carved temples of Tamil Nadu, India is home to a very well-trodden backpacking trail.

In a recent blog entry, Authentic travel in India, I wrote about crossing the cultural divide and really getting to know the country you are traveling in. Sara C., who commented on that blog, said. “I spent two months in India in 2008, and by the second month of my trip people would routinely assume that I was an expat living fully within Indian culture. This was because I didn’t dress or carry myself like a backpacker and made an effort to learn local customs and connect with the people around me. Most of the backpackers act like backpackers – they aren’t really interested in getting to know Indians on their own terms or really connecting at all with the culture beyond platitudes.”

Read the rest of the discussion, including the comments!

Getting to know “the real India”

This entry was inspired by Sarah’s comment and also by by a video I saw at TBEX 10, the travel bloggers conference in New York City. The video, We are backpackers, is a short snappy celebration of backpacking. You can see it on Nomadic Matt’s Travel Site. In the blog post about this video, called Why I’ll never stop, Matt says seeing the video “refreshed, renewed, and re-inspired” him to keep traveling. It had the opposite effect on me.

I get that backpacking is a great way for young people to see the world and the astonishing variety of cultural difference. But I don’t think immersing yourself in the backpacking culture, and sticking strictly to the backpacking routes and hangouts, as outlined in Lonely Planet and other travel guides, is the best way to get to know a foreign culture.

Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India

Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India

Aside from the benefits of getting to know a foreign culture — such as increasing your knowledge, self-awareness and perspective — there may be other good reasons for taking the road less traveled. As I said in my Authentic travel in India blog post, the backpacking culture injects a foreign element, and the (usually) poor people of that culture morph around it because they know that, in spite of appearances, these young people come from rich countries.

There is a dark side to backpacking in developing countries. Drug use is one issue, and all the negativity it attracts. And there’s another, which my friends and family in India have brought to my attention. Some poor people in developing nations feel conflicted contempt for backpackers who wear dirty clothes and stay in cheap hovels because they think they are experiencing the “real” India or Thailand or wherever. They won’t express it directly of course, because these are usually the same poor people who are trying to make a living off of foreigners. Which is why they’re conflicted.

I feel sure the poor people of these nations would give anything to have the wealth and opportunities many backpackers were born into in their home countries of Canada, Sweden, Australia. So they don’t understand why rich young westerners want to come to places like India and pretend to be poor. In fact, even the poorest of the poor in India take pride in their appearance and would never let themselves look like some of the slovenly backpackers and hippies I have seen.

If the only local people you meet while you are traveling are the people serving you beer, you are not really getting to know the people of that culture.

Shore Temple, Tamil Nadu, India

Shore Temple, Tamil Nadu, India

Finally, there is perhaps another even more ominous reason to get off the beaten path: an editorial in an Indian newspaper following the German Bakery bomb blast in Pune in February 2010 suggested that terrorists might be consulting popular travel guides when planning attacks. During the Mumbai attacks of November 2008, the popular tourist hangout Leopold’s Cafe was targeted.

I try to see everything in life as a learning opportunity – what is this event or experience trying to teach me? And for me, these attacks on Leopold’s and the German Bakery are confirmation of something I already felt, which is a growing aversion to “traveler’s haunts” as I call them – places like north Goa, Pushkar, Hampi, Manali, Dharmasala and Pahar Ganj in Delhi.

The longer I spend in India, the more I prefer to find the places that are less affected by the influx of tourists. And maybe that’s part of the process, and part of the magic, of travel. The more you go, the more you want to know.

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22 Responses to Is backpacking in India a beaten path?

  1. Andi July 14, 2010 at 9:22 pm #

    I was just at Leopold’s!

    Well, I agree with what you said, but I can also see that most people before they start traveling are not really sure which country pulls at their heartstrings the most, so they must set out to find the one place that makes them want to stay for an indefinite amount of time in order to get to know it and its people better. I’m lucky and I’ve always sorta known that Latin culture is what I’m most interested in.

  2. Sara C. July 15, 2010 at 3:59 pm #

    Thanks for the shoutout!

    I’ve written a post about the topic on my blog, Itchy Foot Adventures, which you can check out here:

    http://itchyfoot.tumblr.com/post/816343968/backpacking-and-authenticity

    The upshot is that I feel conflicted about it. I’ve had fun staying in party hostels or spending a few days in Pahar Ganj. But my travels have been so much richer for my time not spent on the Gora Trail.

  3. Sara C. July 15, 2010 at 4:01 pm #

    I also remembered that I have got to do more writing about my experiences in India – writing that post I remembered a whole story that I never wrote anything about at the time, but which ultimately changed the way I see the world…

  4. Mariellen July 15, 2010 at 4:05 pm #

    Sara, that is a story I would love to read! I hope you write it. India changed the way I see the world, too.

    btw, I know backpacking can be fun and has its charms, but there is so much to be gained from making an effort to cross the cultural divide and really get to know the people and the place. That’s where a lot of the transformational magic lies, if you ask me …

  5. Satu July 20, 2010 at 5:13 am #

    I think you can’t go to India and not be transformed some way! I completely agree with getting out of the backpacker hangouts at least every now and then. There’s so much more to India than Goa, Manali and Pahar Ganj. Actually I think a lot of Delhi residents would never voluntarily go to Pahar Ganj!! I remember a young woman in Delhi warning me about Pahar Ganj: “don’t go there! You’ll get cheated!” There is a lot to see in India outside the backpacker places and it’s a very different India too.

  6. Nisha July 26, 2010 at 6:37 am #

    I read a lot of blogs by ‘foreign’ people who visit India. As an Indian, I can say, I agree with you. there is a lot more than 4-5 places you have mentioned.

    Besides, going abroad from time to time, I am still exploring my own country. There is so much to learn, know & tell the world. Multi lingual, multi-cultural and multi facet… it fascinates me also, let alone outsiders.

    I believe, some people come here only to put a tick mark to their list of ‘places visited’ and they hang out in already known places and take back the same views as their predecessors have already done.

    To learn about a place & its culture, it’s very important to mingle with locals… of common people in their day to day life and we come to know of lot of hidden treasures. :)

  7. pinoy boy September 23, 2010 at 5:52 am #

    I have to agree that most of the backpacker nowadays are in for the fun of becoming a foreigner in an unknown territory. although, it doesn’t mean you cannot go to the touristy places because in the first place, they won’t be touristy if those places weren’t spectacular. i am planning a trip to india real soon to see the wonders and to heal myself from the troubles of the modern world. Cheers everyone!

  8. Tours and Travels in India February 24, 2011 at 6:53 am #

    Thanks for giving information about back oacking in India.Also the images given this blog is attractive.

  9. Manu August 14, 2011 at 4:06 pm #

    Its just great to see such a beautiful Blog on backpacking in India

  10. Mariellen August 14, 2011 at 4:49 pm #

    Thanks Manu! I know how you feel about backpacking :)

  11. Rakesh April 24, 2012 at 1:57 pm #

    no matter how much they think of “understanding” India, I have never read any foreigner portray the correct picture of India. most of them just make sweeping meaningless biased prejudiced judging racist statements. nothing more than that.

    “The poor people of these nations would give anything to have the wealth and opportunities many backpackers were born into in their home countries of Canada, Sweden, Australia.”

    Are you stupid? Sorry. You ARE stupid.

  12. Mariellen April 24, 2012 at 2:18 pm #

    Rakesh, There is no need to be insulting. I am sure if we met in person you would not talk like this. As a matter of fact, I think I have average-to-above-average intelligence; though the type of intelligence I have is more on the creative rather than rational / analytical side.

    I can imagine that it is frustrating to read foreigners trying to come to grips with India. India is a daunting, fascinating and enigmatic place to most of us. But would you prefer that we ignore you, and not visit and spend our hard-earned dollars in India? A lot of people depend on tourism for their livelihood, as you must be aware.

    I can assure you that though you may find me doltish, I am well-meaning. My heart is in the right place, though perhaps you don’t find that my words are.

    But instead of just insulting me, why don’t you raise yourself up and teach me, and the many thousands who read this blog and are genuinely interested in learning more about India?

  13. Mark Sequeira April 24, 2012 at 2:48 pm #

    Mariellen,

    My momma always said, “stupid is as stupid does.” You are promoting another culture and learning, rather than slumming through foreign lands and your post was spot-on.

    Thank you for highlighting that ‘backpacking culture’ CAN BE just another form of narcissism in the form of enlightened travel. It can also leave a poor impression for the next group of backpackers. I have luckily hiked a lot of places in Northern Pak, etc. that didn’t have many visitors at least dropouts, druggies, etc. so we were always well-respected and in turn, always respected, those we met on our travels.

    Your observations of India are your observations and you are right to hold them and to express them. Saying that doesn’t mean it’s true in the absolute sense or that your intention was bad.

  14. Mark Sequeira April 24, 2012 at 2:51 pm #

    Thank you Satu! I agree!

    <>

  15. Tracy April 24, 2012 at 2:57 pm #

    Thank You Mariellen for this wonderful post. I am sorry you were called “Stupid” as I know how much you love India and it’s people as I do.
    I do want to tell that person who called you stupid and said
    “I have never read any foreigner portray the correct picture of India. most of them just make sweeping meaningless biased prejudiced judging racist statements. nothing more than that.”

    that he might want to investigte further on that since I have read SO MANY blogs from expats who absolutely Love India and say only wonderful things about it.
    Many who travel there every single year and do spend their hard earned money in India as well~

    Namaste~

  16. Chris Chopp April 24, 2012 at 3:21 pm #

    @Rakesh Your comments are akin to those who find an article online, click on it and then read the accompanying article, and then go to the comment section, and then read some of the comments and register so they can leave a comment too and then write “who cares”.

    No one is forcing you to read a foreigner’s website full of ‘sweeping meaningless biased prejudiced judging racist statements.’ One has to assume you derive pleasure in negatively critiquing articles about India the way so many Indians do as well, as if no foreigner could possibly understand India in all it’s infinite complexity. Oh sorry, was that a sweeping generalization of Indians or just the truth?

    Can’t wait to read your India blog so we can get pointers. When is that launching?

  17. Rakesh April 24, 2012 at 3:44 pm #

    I won’t get into arguments for anyone with an access to internet can write anything he wants to on his blog without knowing what he is talking about; it’s all futile. I’ll try to be crisp and short.

    background: 22 years,electronics post-grad.; well read, well traveled across South Asia, Western Europe.

    My take on foreign writers who think they get what India is:

    — everyone writing on travels in India: are too bland and prosaic. all they write about is: dirt,crowds,cheats, thugs, spirituality, poverty, more poverty, and some more poverty. Hell! if you don’t like it, don’t bother coming, and nobody cares if you complain. I have seen far more abject poverty in many so called classic european cities (i thought of naming some, but that will again begin an another debate). But poverty + India sells; its exotic.

    — everyone writing on anything apart from travels (history, politics, and yes, Gandhi!): always too much distorted, cold, and negative. and though they might not realize – racist, demeaning and mocking. they write as if they all are saints, and try to impose their own morals upon us. and this includes most of the western media groups — never impartial and all jealous.

    It is irritating to read so assured and sweeping but fallacious statements by such people who judge India according to their cognition and prejudices.

    Although this may sound rhetoric, you can not understand India unless you were born and raised here. Your statement: ‘But would you prefer that we ignore you, and not visit and spend our hard-earned dollars in India?’ — you won’t find any indian marking such remarks about a country he frequents. there lies the difference.

    Keep traveling.

  18. Mariellen April 24, 2012 at 5:49 pm #

    Rakesh,

    You have proved to me that you just want to fight because you didn’t answer my challenge to teach. Rather than clarify you just want to critique. I would be very interested to see your writing about the places you have travelled.

    btw, you made a lot of the kinds of sweeping statements you say you abhor in the above comment.

  19. Mariellen April 25, 2012 at 8:44 am #

    Interesting timing for this discussion. Patrick French just published this article in the Hindustan Times, about the history of writing about India. http://www.hindustantimes.com/News-Feed/ColumnsOthers/Writings-on-India/Article1-844271.aspx

    He writes, “Despite this, there is a growing antagonism towards the idea of foreigners engaging with India, a latter-day literary swadeshi predicated on the theory that Indians should be doing it for themselves, rather than listening to what outsiders have to say. It is a view that arises out of a justified sentiment, namely that for too long India had to endure books by foreigners which distorted its culture and history. But today, the denouncers of the foreign hand on the keyboard are more often than not vigilantes in search of a crime.

    Literature should not be constrained by parochial rules of engagement, self-censorship or the pious, self-affirming orthodoxies of social media. Creativity should not be stifled by finger-wagging. Let the “Who should write about India?” question be consigned to the dustbin of history. Let Xuanzang go free, to write the books he wants. Let India accept the rest of the world, as the rest of the world accepts India.”

  20. Sayan April 25, 2012 at 9:45 am #

    I have been following this blog for sometime now and will throw in my two cents.
    Oh, before that let me say that I have traveled extensively in India, Europe and USA :)

    I agree with you Mariellen, it is easy to critique others but offering solutions/knowledge is more meaningful and difficult. That is why, Rakesh is prone to making the same mistakes that he is accusing others. By the way, I really liked your statement, “In fact, even the poorest of the poor in India take pride in their appearance and would never let themselves look like some of the slovenly backpackers and hippies I have seen.” – Very true !!

    Rakesh- I think we Indians should analyze our strengths and shortcomings objectively without comparing ourselves to any country. The hypocrisy is not in foreign writing – the hypocrisy is in our culture where one hand we tout our thousands of years of culture and philosophy but conveniently ignore the fact that the same ancient wisdom exhorts us to strive to be better citizens of the planet, be compassionate towards others and nature. Instead of criticizing poverty, help fix it. Every complains about a problem- what can you do to fix it? If you are doing something- get together with others and increase your outreach.

    I think every culture is hypocritical at some level and many societies are struggling with the concept of basic human rights and equality of opportunity. We in India have to come to terms with it too. I think rhetoric and ranting is just like the grandstanding of politicians everywhere- only cheap talking points no actual results in the lives of people on the ground.

    anyway, I thank everyone including Rakesh for this opportunity to learn and helping me to collect my thoughts on this issue :)

  21. Mariellen April 26, 2012 at 9:36 am #

    Wow, Sayan, of all the great comments I have received on this blog (I am blessed), yours is just about the most generous, the most inspiring and the most insightful. I appreciate your thoughts very much, and love love love that you said, “I thank everyone including Rakesh for this opportunity to learn and helping me to collect my thoughts on this issue.”

    Agreed, Rakesh is the reason we all started thinking and talking about this issue with such fervour and depth. He is our teacher, in a certain way (though I could still do without the persona insult).

    This conversation is a lot like being in India itself: up and down, emotional, frustrating and then, bhoom, the sun comes out, someone does or says something exceptional, the beauty of the universe is revealed and you feel that moment of exultant revelation, like something inside you opens up and you catch a glimpse of the abode of the gods. India.

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