Tombs, Camel Safaris and Cycles of Dehumanization

What follows is a bit of a short story. By that, I mean the longest thing I’ve written in a single post. So grab a cup of tea or coffee on this fine weekend and enjoy the messiness of tourist adventures.

1.

I’m kind of a buzzkill when it comes to tourism. We joined a throng of tourists taking in the view of India’s most famous attraction, a place we were told is ideal for romantic couples: the Taj Mahal. “It’s incredible,” Becca said, taking in the sight. “It’s a tomb,” I responded tactlessly. Wah wah.

It is truly a remarkable place. The beauty, the artistic brilliance, the architectural feat has earned the Taj its status as one of the seven wonders of the modern world. And all I can think is how it smacks of empire.

What kind of self-importance is required to invest unfathomable resources in the building meant to house the decaying remains of you and your deceased wife? How many slaves, I wonder, were killed toiling under oppression to create this masterpiece? How much poverty flourished on the margins while money poured into a king’s grandiosity? Like I said, buzzkill.

2.

We don’t really like tourism. When the masses of Europeans with matching hats and pasty white legs shuffle off buses and into the attractions, we do our best to steer clear, avoiding the lines, the rows of souvenir stands, and the overpriced entrance fees. We walk away from the ticket counter – ticket-less – and make our way around the fort, the mosque, or the palace to catch glimpses of what we’re not paying for and to appreciate the outside of these architectural wonders, contemplating hundreds of years of history. What we consistently find on the other side of the wall are heaps of trash and children playing on the dusty ground in front of their ramshackle homes made of tarps.

Whenever I am playing the tourist I know there is always the other side of the wall. Whether it is the Indonesian staff working 20 hour days on my cruise boat, the slums on the other side of the island on an exotic getaway in the Dominican Republic or the brothels down the street from the Taj, I know they are there, and I can’t help but think about them. Sometimes I wish I could simply turn a switch and forget about it.

Tourism is messy. And in our world of inequality, the ramifications of tourism are complex. Adding to the depressing reality of inequality is the spirit of dehumanization that takes control of tourist towns and reigns over all of us in every interaction.

This isn’t a tourism trip. That’s why we are typically planting ourselves in places for 2-3 months, volunteering, and investing in relationships with people around the world. We have quickly learned that the 1-3 day site-hopping across country is not our thing. As a result most 3 week tourists probably saw more places in India than we saw in 6 months.

3.

Our friends told us to remember to have fun, though, to take breaks from the volunteering and service and to enjoy adventures and attractions during our travels. We decided to take their advice; we decided to take a whirlwind 4 day vacation that included a 19 hour train ride to and from the desert city of Jaisalmer, India; we decided to be tourists.

Fifteen hours into the journey to Jaisalmer from Delhi, the landscape turned to desert, the dust flowed in through the open window, settling on everything in our Sleeper Class car. Like every mode of travel, cars are divided up among classes. AC (air conditioned) 1, AC2, AC3, Sleeper Class, and General Seating. Beds are available in all but general seating. Sleeper Class, along with lacking air conditioning,  has a steady flow of traffic of chaiwallahs, pepsi-sellers, and the occasional Hijra or musician passing through with open hand.

Jaisalmer - Train Ride

“Good morning!” Someone shouted later, interrupting my sleep, “Yes, 30 minutes from Jaisalmer. Where are you staying?”

“Oh, we have a place booked,” I replied, rubbing the sleep and the desert dust from my eyes.

“Yes, we have one hotel only 150 – 200,” he responded, ignoring my response. “You sleep, then read this.” He pushed a brochure toward my face.

“Oh, thank you, we have a place booked,” I said, not taking his brochure.

“Okay, first sleep and then read this,” he repeated, thoughtfully encouraging me to continue my sleep he interrupted.

“Okay.” I took the brochure as he walked away.

I slid off the top bunk and sat down next to Becca, irritated.

“So, you are going to my city.” I heard the voice before I could see its owner. He walked up the train car behind me and sat on an empty bed in our section. He looked to be nineteen or twenty, but his teeth were already stained with red betel as if he’d been chewing it for years.

“Where are you from?” The usual first question.

“U.S.A.” I said.

“The pound is sound,” he replied enthusiastically. I looked at him confused, still waking up. By the time I realized he was referring to the British Pound, he had continued talking, telling me about Jaisalmer and all it has to offer. He was upbeat and friendly, giving me suggestions about what to avoid as a tourist in his city. I tried to engage. I tried to be friendly, but I couldn’t help thinking, wait for it.

And soon enough the offer came – follow him to a hotel and we’ll get a great price. Don’t go into the old city where it’s expensive and where they “make you give them reviews on Trip Advisor.” Make me? I wondered.

“Oh, no thanks. We’ve got a place booked,” I told him.

“Where are you staying?”

“We’ve got a place. It’s in the old city,” I said.

This is what I’ve come to expect as a tourist and I hate it. I expect to be approached with a friendly smile, seemingly genuine interest in my personhood, light conversation, all the while waiting, just waiting until the moment comes when I’m proven right that it is all a ruse, an act, an attempt to get business in the guise of friendship. I hated this game we were playing. I resented him for it, and in the same moment felt guilty for resenting him. I know he’s trying to make a living.

4.

We arrived at our hotel in the ruins of the old city, put our packs down in our air-conditioned room, and settled into a cushioned chair on the roof. I drank milk coffee – the real stuff, not the Nescafe trash that dominates the market in too much of the world – as we waited for our banana pancakes (more like banana crepes) and enjoyed the stunning view. Our gregarious host brought us our first of many plastic bottles of cold water – a treat in the desert heat.

Becca and I hate plastic water bottles. We try to minimize our waste in life, but we also know there are times when it is difficult to avoid. Plastic water bottles may feel like an arbitrary line, but to us it feels wrong to put water in a plastic bottle and sell it, so it’s a line we try to hold. Usually we have had the benefit of water filtration systems that keep parasites out of our stomach and allow us to avoid the plastic bottle. But our hotel likes to pamper their guests, so I bit my tongue and guzzled the refreshing water, wondering what happened to all the plastic bottles shipped to this desert town after tourists like me departed.

“Is there water here?” I asked the hotel owner. “I mean, why did people settle here? Is there a lake or a river?”

“There is a lake.”

“Does that supply the town with water?”

“It is getting smaller and there are water shortages here,” he told us. “It is getting a little difficult.”

After our delicious welcome crepes we took a cold shower to cool down and rinse off the 19 hours of dust and grime from the train. Apparently no water shortages at this hotel.

Jaisalmer - View from Hotel

5.

We walked around the old city like tourists do, glancing at books and scarves and camel statuettes and Jain temple tours.

“Oh, no thank you.”

“No, thanks.”

“No, thank you.”

Shopkeepers did their best to keep us close, to enter their shop, to point out something we might like. A slight glance, a moment of perceived interest and they pounced on the opportunity for a sale.

“Yes? You like?”

“No thanks,” I said again, walking away.

Sometimes I wonder how many tourists respond to overzealous salespeople. Apparently enough to give them reason to operate this way. For me, the moment I’m zeroed in with their intense attention is the moment I walk away. It’s the same reason I won’t step in a Teavana shop. Well, that and the manipulation. Maybe it’s because I have a hard time saying ‘no.’ I have to get out of there before I give them all my money.

Some salespeople are just damn good. We started walking away from a shop of supposed camel-bone back-massagers, hand-made table runners and pillow cases, and more giraffe statuettes when a woman engaged us in English.

“All these are hand made,” she started. “They are made by women who get employment from this work. It’s very hard for women here, but this work gives them opportunity they wouldn’t otherwise have. Look at the pictures of them working.”

It’s a conversation that is hard to walk away from. And here is the thing: more than plastic water bottles, we hate dehumanization. We don’t want to simply walk away. We want to look people in their eyes, engage their conversation, hear what they have to share, treat them like, you know, humans. But the more shops I pass the less I want to acknowledge the presence of shopkeepers.

“People ask me why I do this,” she continued. “At all these shops you will see men talking to tourists, and the woman sits quietly behind him. But I can talk to tourists. It is very hard for women here. I like your country. Where are you from?”

“U.S.A”

“Yes, America. That is a much better place for women.” She told us of the hard life of women in India, especially in rural places. She was determined to defy expectations. After 10 minutes of conversation, Becca and I tried to move on.

She showed us the wares again, reminding us of the women who make them.

“I guess we did want to get gifts for Neha and Suresh,” (two of our five friends in Delhi – the two who work at our B&B and clean our room and make us breakfast) I said to Becca. “Might as well get them here.” We found a pillowcase and a wall hanging we think they’d like, handed her our rupees and escaped.

“I think we just got worked,” Becca said.

“Oh, most definitely.”

6.

We continued down the cobblestone street on the way out of the old city and approach four women sitting on a stone platform with jewelry spread out on blankets in front of them. They were stunning in their exotic jewelry and gypsy-esque saris that Rajasthani women are known for.

“Take pictures, it’s okay.”

Oh, no. We’d been warned about picture-taking in Jaisalmer. They will say it’s fine, and then demand money once the deed has been done. I hate that kind of thing. Don’t tell me about a transaction I’m making after I’ve already made it.

Before we could do anything they were adorning jewelry on Becca: earrings and a silver chain that draped over her forehead. One woman took off her bindi and stuck it just above Becca’s nose.

“Take a picture,” they repeated.

“Let’s go,” I said to Becca, tired of the game.

Becca turned to the women as I walked away. “My husband is telling me we have to go.” Sometimes we take advantage of patriarchal norms.

“Oh, okay,” they replied, giving her a knowing nod. “Come back later, without him!”

Becca smiled and walked away without making promises – another lesson early learned by tourists.

7.

We strolled past a hotel outside the old city on our way to a high-point with a view of Jaisalmer below. A young man approached us from behind. “Hello!”

“Hi,” I nodded to him, tired of engaging.

“Why don’t white people like to talk to Indians?” he asked

Perfect. It’s not Indians we don’t want to talk to, it’s that we’re tired of being constantly singled out as potential business. We’re tired of people being friendly, only out of hopes of making a few rupees. I want to say all this to him, but he doesn’t give us time to answer. He has our attention and continues talking.

“I said ‘hi’ to one man, and he just says, ‘f***.’ Why did he say that? ‘F***’ is all he said. My father said not to worry about it, you can’t expect everyone to be nice.”

A lot went through my mind in a short amount of time: No one likes getting sworn at; rude tourists suck – they give westerners a bad name; I can relate, and sometimes I want to swear at people who feign interest in me; I wonder if he made that up; I wonder if this is his line to get people to stop and talk to him; if so, it’s pretty brilliant. Who can walk away from that?

“Do you want some tea?” he asked.

While walking between the Rajasthani women and this place, Becca and I lamented the cycles of dehumanization in tourist towns, how we hated being treated like business, how people need to make a living, and how we want to treat people with kindness. We followed him into the hotel, up a couple flights of stairs, down a long hall to a bedroom and turned on the tv to the Bollywood music video channel.

“Is it okay if I smoke?” He asked, sitting on a bed and lighting a cigarette.

He continues talking to us about business, about their camel safaris, about his interest in people from other countries and other cultures.

“I like meeting people. Sometimes people come and we can do business, but friendship is also good.” I wanted to believe him. I wanted to believe that friendship was really a motivating factor, but I couldn’t let go of suspicion.

After about 20 minutes he disappeared down the hall. The tea was taking a long time, and my fear of being in an awkward situation where money becomes the heart of the relationship – all the more expected after the generous show of hospitality – intensified. I realized we were stuck in a bedroom in the back of a hotel, and my mind wandered to all sorts of ugly possibilities.

He came back with the tea and finally made his offer I had been waiting for: a place to stay, a camel safari with his family’s camels. We already had one booked, we told him.

It was true, our hotel had set up a camel safari and overnight in the desert (more on that disaster soon).

“No problem,” he smiled. “Sometimes if there is business, that’s good. I have to ask. But friendship is also okay.”

He walked us to the roof and showed us a stunning view of Jaisalmer. We thanked him for the tea and tried to politely depart.

“I have one thing to ask.”

“Okay,” I replied hesitantly.

“Please sit down,” he said, motioning to three chairs.

Here we go, I thought.

He proceeded to tell us of a week he left the hotel in the hands of some untrustworthy people who exploited the guests and overcharged them. They gave him low ratings on Trip Advisor, and he was asking us to give him a positive review.

I almost laughed, thinking of the warning we got on the train, and felt a bit relieved. Sure, we can give a review saying we didn’t stay there but they seemed friendly to us when we had tea there. Fine.

We shook hands and again walked away from that messy mix of hospitality and business.

“Do you think it was really someone else who was the reason for the bad reviews?” Becca asked me.

“Who knows,” I said.

8.

On our way back to the hotel we stopped for a 40 rupee glass of freshly squeezed lime juice. We sat on red plastic chairs on the cobblestone street and watched the juice seller wave an orange, white and green flag depicting a lotus flower.

“BJP” I asked him?

BJP is the political party in India that gave the established Congress Party the greatest opposition (they have since enjoyed a sweeping victory in the elections, with the equally adored and reviled Modi taking the Prime Minister’s seat). They are known for a history of religious (Hindu) militancy.

He sat down in a chair next to me, holding the flag disinterestedly as we talked politics.

He wasn’t a religious fundamentalist, but felt the country needed a change. With some interruptions, Congress has held the power for most of the last 60 years since independence. It’s time for someone new and BJP has successfully painted itself as more moderate than its history would suggest.

We chatted a while longer about life in Jaisalmer. I left refreshed by the juice and the easy conversation with someone who wasn’t concerned with getting something more from me.

9.

The next day was our big day – the main draw of our visit to Jaisalmer. We were going to be tourists – like real tourists – and indulge in a camel safari, complete with dinner and a cot under the stars, far from the lights of the city.

I was excited, mostly about the stars, the vast desert sands, and the quiet. I had visions of connecting with God in that deep stillness.

“Are there any costs while we’re out there?” I asked our hotel owner. We had already paid the hotel for the safari. I didn’t mind extra costs, but I wanted to know what to expect.

“Only the few places you go before the safari – 100-200 rupees each.” That’s all,” He assured me.

I should have been more specific.

The safari was a package that included three stops by jeep to various ruins and temples on our way to the camp. We were the only tourists at each of these three sites.

At the third site, we drove past ruins of an abandoned village. Our driver didn’t speak enough English to tell us about it. We passed an old woman with two young children. They were the only life around for miles. We stopped down the road by some old buildings and I figured they’d be coming to ask for money. I felt fine about giving. I had sixty rupees change – about a dollar – and decided to give it all to them.

There is something in me that is happy to give when I have time to think it through, when I’m in control and can offer a gift through my own decision-making. I don’t like being put on the spot or feeling manipulated (oh, the woes of privilege and wealth, right?). Becca handed them the wad of money and we continued on to our safari.

We drove past two camels lying lazily, tied to a tree, and pulled up to a small complex of buildings – a kitchen and some bungalows for those tourists who choose a room over a cot under the stars. We were served tea and walked to the camels where two boys – 9 and 11 years old – were getting our camels ready.

Jaisalmer - Camels

We hobbled on as each boy grabbed the rope attached to a camel and began leading us away from the complex. The boy leading my camel looped the rope around his body, over one shoulder and under his other arm so that he wouldn’t have to hold it with his hand.

Awesome, I thought. My camel safari entails child-labor, walking in front of my camel while I sit high above on a saddle between the camel’s two humps. Not exactly what I expected.

Within ten minutes of departing the boy leading Becca’s camel confided, “The man who owns the camels often does not pay us. But you can give us tips,” he assured us. Child exploitation. Even better.

The boys started calling us Maharajah and Maharani, King and Queen. Fantastic.

They were friendly, asking about our country and our lives, telling us about themselves. They laughed and bantered as they led our camels along slowly on the hard, dry ground toward the sandy dunes. We stopped for a break when we got to the dunes to watch the sunset. They encouraged taking pictures of them, pictures of us, pictures of us with them, on and off the camel. They explained they often like to sing at the camp. I had heard about the singing on these overnights, but I imagined traditional – professional – Rajasthani musicians and dancers, not kids.

Jaisalmer - Camel Guides

As the sun sank below the horizon, we climbed back onto the camels and made our way past the complex to our dinner and cot under the stars.

I wondered if other tourists would join us at dinner, having taken other trails on their own camel rides. I hoped they would; more tourists meant more people to spread the attention of any entertainment, and spread the expected tips among us.

I would be disappointed.

We trotted up to the place marked out for our camp. Our jeep was parked nearby, and our driver was preparing a small table set for two. They explained that he would drive to the complex and bring the food back for our dinner. The boys announced they would be leaving for home.

Thankful to avoid the child-entertainment I gave them each 100 rupees, shook their hands and said goodbye. 100 rupees is admittedly not a lot. It’s less than 2 dollars, but when you’ve spent 6 months in India, you get used to low prices and learn to operate within them. Tipping is tricky. In fact, there is no tipping system. Most places that Indians frequent would never expect a tip, while heavily touristy areas might hope for one – depending on the origin of the traveler. As a result, I never know what to tip.

The three non-Americans had a brief discussion in a language we don’t know. The younger of the boys left with our driver while the older took a seat next to Becca, apparently not going home.

He began telling us about the difficulties of life for he and his family; how his dad was injured, leaving him – an 11 year old boy – to care for the family by working. He proceeded to tell us about this great guy from France who had enjoyed a safari, listened to their songs and gave them a 1000 rupee tip. He told about another person who gave them a 500 rupee tip.

“Mmm. That’s really nice,” Becca said non-committal. I sat behind tight-lipped and frustrated.

He then asked about our last stop at the ruins.

“Was there a little girl there?”

“Yes, there was,” Becca said.

“Did you give her money?”

“Yes, we gave her a little money.”

“How much did you give her?”

“It doesn’t matter,” I cut in angrily from behind. “Why are you asking these questions?”

I was tired of this. Tired of these situations of faux-friendship and money and manipulation. Tired of being a tourist. More frustrating was that I didn’t know what was expected. Had I known going in – ‘most people give the guide, the driver, the cook, etc. each a 200-500 rupee tip,’ I would have felt a little better. But here I had nothing to go on except the well-practiced, possibly true story of an allegedly exploited child in a town that has gotten very good at using all angles possible to get well-paying business, all angles possible to survive.

All these factors went through my head as I agonized over what to do. The boys should be getting paid out of the money we’ve already given for the safari. The tip is on top of their payment – the payment they say they sometimes don’t receive. Is it true? Is it my responsibility? I was angry at feeling manipulated and self-critical about squabbling over a few dollars with kids who clearly have less than this couple who can afford splurging on a camel safari in the desert.

And all of this succeeded in perpetuating these cycles of dehumanization – them treating us like wells of money while we growing feelings of suspicion and contempt – the kind of feelings that keep love out of the relationship.

They returned with our food and sat by our fire while we ate our lentil, rice, and vegetable dinner in silence. The boys refilled our plates from the metal tiffin containers as I grudgingly accepted their service.

“Do you want us to sing?” they asked hesitantly. They could see I was upset.

“No, I’m feeling tired,” I said curtly.

Becca gave them each another 100 rupees and re-thanked them. We laid down on our cots on the soft, wavy sand and looked up at the stars as our three hosts walked in the direction of the complex.

I was a flood of emotions: livid at the manipulation, hating my penny-pinching, lamenting the world of exploitation, critical at the destruction of the whole tourism industry and my participation in it, and feeling mild self-pity for a ruined night under the stars – a night I imagined full of peace with just me, Becca, the sand, the stars and the Spirit.

Becca wiped the tears welling in my eyes and we set our hearts and minds to letting the frustrations wash off us and embrace the hours alone under the stars.

It was a mostly sleepless night. At one point Becca woke me with a start, pointing to lights in the distance. It turned out to be a car passing on a road far from our camp, but it was enough to make us half sure we would be killed by marauders by morning. The wind continually whipped through our ears, and the cots slowly received a dusting of sand.

Jaisalmer - Desert Sands

We watched the sunrise and were taken back to the complex in the jeep, served dry toast and milk tea before heading back to the city. We slapped a 500 rupee note in the driver’s hand, walked up the cobblestone steps past the jewelry sellers and back to the hotel. We showered and gobbled up more banana pancakes before departing for the train station and our 19 hour ride back to Delhi.

 

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