This may be a contradiction but I love to travel and I hate being a tourist. My best travel memories are sleeping in the living room of someone’s (if not my own) extended family or sitting cross-legged on a mat around a cooking-fire. I prefer to be somewhere as an invited guest or for a purpose like work or study. The visits to tourist places should be a capstone on some other experience where I feel grounded in the place by companionship, having a role that makes me feel genuinely connected, and earning the embrace of the locals.
I know that my travels are a luxury and a unique privilege of my citizenship, education and social status. Not many people in the world share this ease of movement and opportunity to explore. It’s particularly rare that someone with my skin color is able to venture out anywhere across the globe. I am reminded of this whenever someone is surprised to learn that I am an American or when I am the only or one of few people of color among a group of travelers.
My time in India is in full blown tourist mode. I am staying in hotels, going around in a tour bus with a camera strapped to my arm, and descending upon various sites on a packaged itinerary in a troupe of white people of various nationalities. It is not my preferred way to interact with a country, least of all a country where I have a personal connection and origins. I end up feeling a deep sense of sadness, as I gaze out of windows at the villages and homes flashing by in the countryside, where in my heart I feel that I would so much prefer to be.
I chose to travel in India this way only as a convenient last resort. Without ties or information about my family here, I had few options, especially when it became apparent that for much of the time I would be on my own. I’m independent and resourceful but getting around seemed at best daunting and at worst potentially unsafe as a single woman. So I held my nose and signed up for a tourist package. The itinerary included much of what I expected to see and it would be a welcome relief not to have to negotiate all the complicated logistics required.
I am seeing spectacular things that would be hard to manage alone – wild and rambling game reserves, bustling but remote mountain towns, tea plantations and factories, and off the beaten path temples and restaurants. Still, the distance from normal everyday life and the warmth of family and friends who live here sometimes makes me feel profoundly sad and alone.
I am not only the only Desi in my group, I am the only person of color. It’s strange to have India filtered through the lens of the observations and exoticism of white people. Although I am learning much that is new to me, some of it is also intimately familiar. But I end up feigning ignorance about things, so as not to become inundated with questions for which I only know half the answers. Besides, there are infinitely patient and far more knowledgeable local guides to explain the intricate web of deities, customs and restaurant menu choices.
I’m very used to being the odd one out in life and never entirely fitting in, it’s sort if my dharma, but I still get melancholy about it. I’ve made a lovely new friend who is bunked up with me because we are the only women on our own and I am enormously grateful to have her on this adventure. But apart from talking to her, I’ve become much quieter than usual and am most often caught up in my own thoughts. Writing these posts has become not just a way to offer updates but a vital outlet for me to express things that might otherwise leave me in despair.