Posts Tagged ‘privilege’

We backpackers look like dirty clowns (pictures added for previous post!), with washed-out, faded multicolor jumpsuit-like outfits, excessive jewelry, pendants, and leather accessories. None of these items would be worn at home, but we keep buying. All of it looks hippie, but with a strange, vague Asian twist. Wearing a combination of clothing that is neither “Western” nor local sort of suggests that we’re free from it all, blissfully living in an imaginary world where we don’t have to care about what other people think. This is really fun, but even this is a great privilege.

Backpackers want to spend less money than other backpackers, but love to go shopping. We like competing over who has had the most unusual and authentic, locally immersed, experiences. We usually unsuccessfully strive for a non-commercial connection with locals and love telling stories of the unexpected and close calls. Backpackers don’t really like other backpackers in theory (perhaps of fear that conversing too much would make painfully apparent that our trip is not as unique or unusual as we wish it was?), but are drawn to each other in any concrete and practical situation: for advice, for company, for commiseration, for sharing the wonders and joys of travel.

But in all its limitations and silly fantasies, it is a beautiful expedition: it is seeking the good life (…so much easier to love all of humanity when you can’t understand what people are saying!), a quest for adventure, an attempted escape from getting stuck in routine, a search for unfamiliar and uncharted lands, maybe even like fulfilling a childhood fantasy of joining the circus.

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What Backpackers Like

-Billowy pants and shirts in muted colors. This is in stark contrast to India’s preference for bright, vibrant color in all of their textiles. Are the muted, dusty colors a manifestation of the backpacker’s desire not to look rich?

– Frizzy, wild hair. In one sense, it’s just not the backpackers fault. It’s so dusty that anyone’s hair will billow up, dry up, and stiffen into a strawy mess. Dreads are popular of course, and that colored string wrapped around a single strand of hair with a bell at the end of it. Remember those? I think I had something like that in 5th grade.

– Little shawls, intended to cover up scandalous tank tops.

– Linen shoulder bags

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Beach bums

After almost three weeks of travel, we might have fallen into a rut. There were some patterns emerging. In Puri, a backpacker beach town, for example, this was basically what our day was like:

– wake up around 8 am
– have a really long leisurely breakfast, reading the newspaper and playing cards
– walk on the beach (but you can’t swim – no bikinis in sight)
– return to our little room for a while and read
– stroll along the backpacker road and view a few Kashmiri trinket shops
– have some lunch, also very relaxed
– go to the internet cafe for up to 4 hours
– go back to the room, hang around a bit
– go to dinner in one of the relaxed garden restaurants playing Bob Marley and catering exclusively to back packers (delicious fresh fish)
– go to bed around 10 or 11
During our three day stay in Puri, we didn’t venture a mere 500 meters from the white backpacker area.

Hmm. Sounds like a great and relaxing vacation, but what are we doing here? Why are we traveling? We both felt a little ambivalent and regretful of our own behavior. This place had basically been created for people like me: it placed no demands on me and catered to my every, particular Western need (cornflakes, toilet paper, faded baggy clothing…. Caleb has been fantasizing about creating another blog: “What backpackers like”).

I try to cut us some slack, by arguing that we have been traveling at a very fast pace and that traveling is exhausting. (So, now my great privilege is exhausting me??) I’ve started thinking about what a sustainable traveling life looks like. Is there a way to engage with our surroundings in a way that is sustainable for me, so that I don’t burn out, but continue to feel energized?

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From Koraput, hilltop seat of our brief visit to stardom, we descend to Balugaon, a fishing village that is on our map (definitely not in our book) because it is a stop on the express train to the state capital.

Lake Chilika in early morning.

On arrival, the town is a strange place for us. We get off the train at 6:30 am to find that the tea served at the roadside stalls, our lifeline and default activity when in need of regrouping, tastes funny. It is hard to express the sense of betrayal when this discovery comes to light, but eliminating the main outlet for caffeine and comfort has a distinct effect on morale. The main road seems to be on a major trucking route; noisy and dangerous traffic constantly terrorizes our humble passage on foot. (more…)

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From my journal two weeks ago:

I find it amazing that even though I have only just set out on this journey, I have already left a place behind. I want to carry Chennai with me; I will haul the authentic feelings, perceptions, impulses, consciousness of that place as I recognize my tendency of reaching for abstractions and generalizations to make this experience more packageable, more portable, and more impartable. I have to decolonize the part of my brain that sees it all as a mess, restrain and admonish the lobe that identifies problems and dreams up solutions.

I am not sure how to do this yet beyond acknowledging these motivations as things I carry, for better or for worse, that I pack and unpack when I leave and return to the haven of my room and reflections; they are things that take up room in my luggage like anything else, and like anything else they take up space that could otherwise be filled with other essential tools and toys of a travelling mind or body.

After sleeping in nine different towns and two trains in the 13 nights since that entry, I am used to the refrain from rickshaw drivers as they see us carrying packs near the train or bus station: “Coming or going, coming or going?” And I am still haunted by the problem of fishing authenticity out of constant migration. What am I trying to accomplish as I live for a short time in these places?

In Pondicherry, I buy Indian rubber monsoon sandals and a longi, but it would be laughable for me to harbour illusions that I can fit in. Am I trying to elevate myself above the status of interloper? Is it possible to overcome my reductive mind and cultivate a type of temporary belonging that does not hinge on pretending, but rather on me acting as my imperfect self? This probably is not possible, since my thoughts and actions inherently exist firmly in the greater narratives of labels such as white, Western, tourist, etc. (more…)

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Of Tribes and Tribulations

Deepak, whom we met on the train, led us to the temple in the village of Koraput, his home town that is deemed too minor to be listed in our comprehensive 1000+ page India travel guide book. We were only transferring in this village, killing time before our overnight train to Balugaon left in the evening. Across the street from the temple, there was a crowd gathered for some sort of festival with a performance going on. I asked if it was okay to watch, so Deepak organized some plastic chairs for us, then he left, promising to see us off at the train station in the evening.

Koraput dancers

We were distracting. Now, instead of watching the stage, the audience was watching us. Minutes later, distinguished middle aged men stepped down from the official reception area and asked us to come up to where the important people sit, an elevated viewing area. They greeted us as if we were special honored guests and asked us where we were from and why we had come to the Koraput District Tribal Dance Competition. They were so thrilled that we had come, that it was difficult to explain that it was all just a coincidence, that we just happened to walk by. From their glowing faces and their emphatic grateful gestures, it seemed that we were what they had been waiting for. A miracle had taken place; we had arrived in Koraput. (more…)

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