An unsettling holiday

Three weeks ago I lost the use of a word.

Ask me how I felt about my recent holiday in Rajasthan [see Magic Carpet, greyhares blog, 22nd Jan, 2011] and out would come ‘fascinating’, ‘spellbinding’, ‘enriching’, ‘educative’; but ‘enjoyable’ – no!

The problem was that any feelings I had of enjoyment had been drowned by those aroused by my being incessantly badgered and harassed for money. India is a magical place with energy and dynamism coupled with a rich culture and a long history.
For sheer splendour there can be little to beat the Taj Mahal – and the fort in Jodhpur and the palace at Udaipur run it a close second. But memories of these were tarnished by waves of shop keepers haggling, street vendors hawking and the destitute begging. And the pressures were intense, far exceeding any I have experienced elsewhere, for example, in Nepal or Morocco. I found coping difficult.

A lot of preparation goes on before a holiday. Time is taken reading guide and phrase books, planning clothing, researching and acquiring the necessary medicines and vaccinations, as well as physical training for the more ‘active’ walking or cycling holidays. I had never thought to prepare myself for the pressures of intense begging, but now I have started. My hope is that when or if I go back to India or visit equivalent parts of South America, my trip will be that much less perturbing.

These are my plans. First, and in retrospect, I now realise that the organisation of the recent trip itself was bound to attract trouble. Arrangements were such that each week and at the same time, two or three coach-loads of easily identified rich tourists would arrive at the exact same sites. It was inevitable that there would be crowds to greet and prey on us. Indeed, on the occasions when we went sight- seeing alone, as we did in New Delhi before joining the tour proper, molestation was rare. In future, programmed, coach-bound, site seeing is definitely out.

Second, I failed to distinguish between selling and begging. Sellers were plying their trade and when they overstepped the mark for the most part they seemed to expect (and respect) rebuke. But repeated reprimands escalating from the polite, to the firm, to the ‘strongly’ assertive (raising one’s voice) are actually hard work and unpleasant. This approach does require resolve, and I now know to use it with more confidence.

Third, and much more disturbing, is how to handle begging?  How to tackle pleading by women and children who live on the streets or in the slums, survive on rubbish-tip pickings and are emaciated, ragged and destitute? The advice we were given locally was to ignore them, not to look them in the face and not to give (‘it encourages others’!). In effect, we were pressed to treat them as ‘nothings’, to de-humanise them. I followed this advice but now realise that my de-humanising was morally wrong, emotionally taxing and unforgiveable. There is no way that I can change the sort of societal systems that exist in India but when faced with beggars in the future I will make eye contact, offer something material (say fruit) and before leaving their community will donate to the local charity that is addressing their welfare. Dehumanising others actually dehumanised me and is something of which I never want to be part of again.

My trip to India was at one and the same time fascinating and unsettling. So while the country was full of splendour, it also gave me insights that revealed my own emotional values. Being deprived of enjoyment was such a waste but at least I now feel better prepared for the next time. Moreover, use of the word as it relates to my recent trip is coming back.

2 comments on “An unsettling holiday
  1. Carolyn says:

    Having read ‘Magic Carpet’ and the comments left by a reader I was lost for words, so after a week of being a bit miffed and I guess annoyed I felt I could not just , not respond. So here goes, I thought the comments made by the reader were unfair and at worse picky and pompous. Planning a special holiday once a year with smatterings of luxury is nothing to be apologetic about, and why not enjoy that luxury and an experience on a train journey that is indeed Indian and part of our history.

    So now I have read this follow on artlcle ‘An Unsettling Holiday’ which honestly highlights the contradications and uncomfortable feelings aroused when visiting places such as India. Visitors to other countries who try to ‘get in with the locals’ and ‘slum it’ (innit) might find that by doing this is bordering on patronising and perhaps maybe a bit offensive to local people.

    I don’t know… but a writer who conveys an honesty, integrity and compassion and through that encourages the reader to explore their own values and feelings has for what my opinion matters, has got it right.

  2. Andrea Tarr says:

    I really enjoyed reading your piece about India, Joe. I’ve never heard anyone speak of their experienceof a holiday in that country in such a thoughtful way.

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