Not long ago, my sister embarked on an extended traveling adventure with the goal of experiencing science in a variety of cultures to develop new educational curriculum in sustainability. This 3 part article series is about her experiences in India. Enjoy!
I had been in India 3 weeks before I discovered Bamboo Village. Prior to leaving, I had read in the Sivananda Ashram copy of the Lonely Planet that the Wayanad wildlife area is the most beautiful place for wildlife sighting, in Southern India – even “ask an Indian!” I had 16 days left so decided to start heading for a town nearby named Sultanbatheri – a place from which a jeep or trek into the forest, one can experience a variety of wildlife and – possibly (gasp) Tigers! I set off via train then local bus. We went winding through the mountains and brisk hill stations of Coonoor and Ooty, monkeys watching and eating on the side lines like the road were a parade route. To my delight these places were breathtaking – and the routes afforded wonderful views. Also, I started to see something I had never seen so far in my travels in Kerala and the south – environmental propaganda signs. I was wishful that they would have a solid law backing the “no plastic in Nilgiri Hills” proclamation, but soon found that they did not. The gorgeous rolling tea and coffee fields were lined with the usual plastic bags and bottles. India has an issue – the tap water is perceived to be unsafe to drink therefore, bottled water is sold everywhere – even in restaurants. Containers are discarded and can be seen everywhere you go. Just as in my Kerala backwaters boat tour – floating plastic debris among lily pads and invasive plants – and there doesn’t seem to be an end to it.
There was something else I noticed in Varkala – a now popular tourist destination. The small beach-side community was rumored to be a great place to visit only a half-decade ago – very unlike Goa, a large beach known for party tourism. In Varkala, parties were still small, but the number of shops selling beads, handicrafts and the hotels is rumored to have quadrupled in the past few years. Tourist restaurants that serve “multi-cuisine” dishes dot the cliff-side. It is a resort town now. At the Ashram tucked inland, presumably away from tourist destinations, signs were posted all over forbidding us to walk to the nearest town, in addition to an early curfew. It seems tourists and locals don’t mix well – there is an Us and a Them. What caused this divide? Disappointed by these experiences, I had given up on the possibility of seeing or being a part of a real Indian community in India. My experience has reinforced the sad notion that tourists (even meditating ones) are collectively a disease that ruin any normally functioning community with their cash-in-hand ‘needs’ for English speaking guides, bottled water, imported food, handicrafts, parties, drugs and worse. A seedy element arises to accommodate these other-worldly desires and the place is ruined forever. Furthermore, a separation develops between the ‘real’ village and the tourist area and this dividing border floats inland and up and down the coast to gobble up Indian lands and replace with resorts and vacation houses for westerners. This is one perspective anyway – I am sure there are more.
As a long term traveler, I’d like to experience the real deal – and I’d like to be safe doing it. I’m all for laying on the beach and drinking Pina Coladas for half a day, but when I go somewhere, I’d like to see and be a part of the culture – to live amongst, to eat the meals, to attend local happenings. I can even compromise my feminist ways and cover my deathly seductive knees and shoulders for the benefit of everyone’s modesty. I can even shush up and put my camera away for awhile. Sure, I can walk into a village and announce, “I’m here to experience your community in a healthy way – please carry on with your normal day to day activities and by the way – who can put me up and feed me and tell me about the place in English?” As a woman alone in a country where the local women aren’t treated well – the news papers full of recent abuses and rapes (and western women are seen as sex-hungry-thanks, Hollywood) I decided against it. Also, due to the propensity of many Indian men to shamelessly look you up then down, then up again, and proceed to stare at area of their interest to their hearts content. I have enough experience with this by now that I experimented with various methods to deter the gawking. Findings: A finger up the nose fishing for a live one will receive a stare with smile; while scratching one’s bum has no altered effect. When their curious daze is interrupted with a loud “HELLO!?” they think it’s their lucky day and come over for an awkward conversation). Defeated, I was heading for the Tigers – what else could I do?
On the rumbling bouncy bus, with wind in my hair, I decided to talk to the ‘other white person’ on this bus (a surprising rarity – in most places I can look around at the crowds and be the only westerner – I think India is just that populated). I asked where she was going. She is a French woman headed to an Eco-tourist place outside Sultanbatheri – where I was also alighting. I thought about it and decided the Tigers could wait. Together we took another bus and then a rickshaw for an additional 40 minutes on backroads and were finally dropped off at what seemed like a deserted and then re-inhabited factory in which all the workers had gone home for the day. Bamboo was everywhere – cut up and in various sizes and shapes. A man motioned for us to go upstairs and we followed him to find the fruits of their absent labor – lamps, hangers, window screens, vases, and much more – all made from bamboo. Later the whole thing was explained to us by Daniel, Babraaj, Sivaraj and others that make the project run. Bamboo village, from what I could assess at that moment, is a project to save a village by educating tourists through an in-person experience while using visitor funds to support the community as a whole, but as it turns out, it is so much more…
Nicole LaCount is a traveling science teacher who is based in the Bay Area, California