Travelling as a tourist in the third world is a double curse-for the poor host and the rich visitorby Hilary Rubinstein / May 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
I have always believed, as a kind of truism, that foreign holidays-especially outside Europe and North America-are good for us, that they broaden our minds. Following a recent visit to India I have been having second thoughts. Travelling in the third world as a tourist from the west may have the opposite effect. Far from developing our understanding, it can highlight unwelcome truths about our character and reinforce our prejudices. More seriously, the role of the tourist in these parts of the world is inescapably patronising.
It was not my first visit to India. I had been there four or five times before, including six months in the RAF at the time of independence. I love Indian culture and food. I admire India’s success in persevering with democracy when so many of its neighbours have long since lost their free press and the right to protest. I appreciate the ubiquitous good humour among the destitute. On a three-week holiday in Kerala and Rajasthan, I had many experiences to savour. But I have to admit that I was delighted to be home again-and won’t mind if I don’t return to India, at least for another ten years.
The first home truth I was forced to acknowledge was that I have no taste for Hinduism. I appreciate some of the outward manifestations of the religion- magnificent temples, fine carving and so on. But over the years I have suffered from the compelling need to try to understand the rudiments of Hindu mythology, and if possible, empathise with the Hindu faith. No longer. Dervla Murphy’s book on her Keralan travels, On a Shoestring to Coorg, tells how her five-year-old daughter suddenly announced: “I think I’m too young to understand Hinduism. Will you explain it again when I’m eight?” I am still too young, and suspect that I will still be too young when I am 80. Is it a sign of maturity or philistinism that I have given up the struggle?
I deplore in myself a growing intolerance of beggars. Goodness knows, they have plenty to beg about-especially when you recall that many are in servitude to mafia-like gangs who require them to bring in a daily quota of rupees in return for the barest bed and board. All visitors from the west complain about that harassment. It must harm the tourist trade, but the Indian government have far more urgent matters…