I have a bad attitude sometimes, particularly regarding sightseeing and the tourist experience. It’s a necessary and often rewarding part of the trip, but we’re both learning that we don’t really like sightseeing. It often seems like the many of the things we see are significant because someone with dollars in their eyes decided to make it significant. Either that, or the significance that is experienced by others is lost on me.
Maybe I am shallow or cynical or unsophisticated, but I will be just fine if I don’t see another “important” image of The Buddha for many years. The same is true for many temples. Long before we reached
Another example occurred just today at the
(photo of the Blue Iris Stone is from this travelouge)
I have to wonder though, am I being cynical and shallow or am I being realistic? We’ve seen it happen before in tour groups – the guide makes a big hairy deal about something and the group eats it up and prepares the cameras without thought. This is where the tourist experience blends a little too closely with dollar signs. Tour groups need sights and the more the tourist is convinced that they are seeing something significant, the more likely they’ll actually find some significance. So, from my perspective, a strong percentage of what a tourist sees is filler – something to make the tourist feel like they are having a great experience in between the things that are really impressive and important to them. I think this gets to the heart of why I loath tour groups – too much filler and not enough time to independently figure out what is significant to me.
The tour guide is very in tune with photo taking opportunities as well. He has surely observed the hoards take pictures of a sight and assumes that everyone should have one – including me. Sometimes I snap a quick picture just to make friends but at the same time I’m thinking “If you really want to know what I want to take a picture of, it’s the grotesque and barely alive condition of your toenails, Mr. Tour Guide.”
It reminds me of
All this is leading to the realization that I don’t like sightseeing. I yearn for reality or a historical and observable connection to the reality of a city or country. Modern history is endlessly fascinating. The spread of Communism in
I will gladly continue to see sights and learn about history, but I’ll do it recognizing that there is a curiously real, entertaining and interesting aspect of tourism and tourists that can be quite rewarding to observe, even if the sights are not.
We went into deciding that we would laugh and find humor in the situation - no matter what. Being in
It started with a nice surprise - a minibus with 8 well-travelled and youngish Italians and some a few rows of spare seats. Italians are so fun and full of life.
Anyway, after sitting in ridiculous
Prudence is a very nice and gentle tour guide and it was hard to conspire against her. We huddled together to plot our resistance - we would not be taking the tour and we would demand to get back on the bus and proceed to the Great Wall. Stephania was our leader and the negotiations began while each of us used the bathroom and returned to the sidewalk by the bus, sure not to be lured into the fold.
Somewhere along the way, it was discovered that an espresso machine was present and the discussions were moved to ensure that Italians could get an espresso fix in the midst of the overthrow. A lesson in espresso-making ensued.
Prudence put up a valiant fight for our time spent in the factory, insisting on 40 minutes, then 30, 20 and finally 10 before capitulating completely and allowing us to board the bus to the Wall. Stephania was our rock and the insurrection was complete before too much time was wasted...and there was much rejoicing.
I encourage all travelers to call bullshit on the factory tour scheme when they travel - you will rarely find it on the itinerary before you buy the ticket, yet it will waste time that could be spent at the actual destination. If the group is small, ask about interest and organize your mutiny - remember that you are paying for the experience. Viva la Résistance!
Oh, and we saw the Wall too...
By all accounts, the Yangtze cruise was an amazing experience and one that exceeded our expectations. It also reminded us how much we value our independence as travelers.
We’ve often witnessed large groups of people being led around popular tourist sites by someone holding a colored flag and possibly a loudspeaker slung across their shoulder. These are usually groups that arrive by bus and travel together as part of a package tour. For the first time on the trip, we became part of one of these groups, and it sometimes made us want to scream.
At least once each day, we would be led off the boat and onto a bus where a government-employed tour guide for the day would provide information about the sites and answer questions. Upon arriving at a destination, we would disembark the bus and follow the flag to a meeting spot, where more details would follow. Sometimes, you could break away, other times you had to stay with the group, all being herded through the tourist area as if we might get lost or hurt ourselves without the flag being in sight at all times.
After traveling independently for so long we came to resent the flag and all for which it stands. We mocked the flag and joked about how we wish we had a flag in all parts of our lives. We called ourselves The Fellowship of the Flag. The flag became the symbol for all the things that we eschew about dependent travel. Once, upon being told where and when to meet the group Sachi looked at me and said “There is something about being told when and where to be that makes me sick.” I know how she felt.
The flag does offer some security I suppose and the flag bearer is often a knowledgeable and friendly person. However, as we discovered at
Unfortunately, our flag bearer was a control freak. All we wanted to do was be on our own and return at a specified time to catch the bus – but this guy would not let us. I asked him for information so we could leave the group and he would blatantly ignore me and only say “it is a highlight, I’ll take you there”. Then as Sachi asked “Can you show it to us on the map?” He just stared at her defiantly in the face and puffed away on his cigarette. You could almost hear him saying to himself “independence in NOT a virtue”.
We and a few other Western couples attempted a break-away while waiting for the geezers in the group to ascend the steps but he stopped us in our tracks saying that he needed to “make an important announcement" – more waiting. In the end, we spent about two-thirds of our time waiting around with the flag Nazi and one-third actually exploring the scenery. He made us feel as if we were 5 years old and he was the sage grandfather who held the sacred knowledge of the mountain. This grandfather never uttered a word of wisdom, except where to go to catch the next cablecar.
Somehow we have made it through over 12 countries just fine without a flag leading the way and if we have a choice, the next twelve will be flag-less as well.
Among travelers to
Should we be riding around on elephants? Isn’t the elephant being exploited? Is it inhumane for elephants to be used for tourism?
Of course we all wish the elephants could live in the wild and be undisturbed by humans. However, for about the last 4500 years, elephants have been captured, domesticated and used for transportation, labor and even warfare. For thousands of years, the elephant has been living with and around humans and over that time we humans have learned the requirements for ensuring that the relationship is stable and productive. One of the outgrowths of these years of domestication is the role of mahout, which is the elephant’s trainer- an essential and vital role for the elephant and human. For the last three days, I learned a little about being a mahout and his relationship with the elephant. These are mahouts with their elephants at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center:
The mahout has a unique relationship with the elephant- one that can last decades. When an elephant is born into domestication, it is assigned a mahout who will be responsible for the elephant for the mahout’s whole life. In fact, some elephants outlive their mahouts (elephants can live 80+ years) and the elephant is then often passed down to the mahout’s son. As you might imagine, a strong bond develops between the mahout and the elephant that goes beyond trainer and animal. When I asked about the nature of the relationship, it was described as companionship. The elephant seeks the company of the mahout and feels at home with the mahout on his back- they are a lifelong team.
As I experienced, the relationship is not one purely of hugs and treats. As dog owners know, a dog seeks to be the alpha (dominant) dog in the family and if it perceives that it has reached this role, it will become less trainable and try to dominate the humans. The same basic idea is true with the elephants. The mahout must maintain a relationship with the elephant that ensures that the elephant is not dominant, but submissive to the mahout. A dominant elephant can be lethal.
How do you dominate an elephant? Unfortunately, is partially through pain, or at least the threat of pain. Elephants are incredible heavy, strong, willful and tough animals. In order for the mahout to be able to train the elephant, he must have some way to send positive and negative messages. Along with voice commands and touching, the tool of choice for mahouts is an ominous looking pointed metal hook called an ankus. This hook is used to guide the elephant and to correct poor behavior. Though it seems a bit barbaric to the layperson, this evolved over many years and ensures that the elephant and mahout have mutual respect.
For hundreds of years in
Today, many elephants have found a new home by working in the eco-tourism industry. Elephants that are sufficiently trained and mild-mannered can now be supported through tourism. By offering rides through the jungle, elephant shows and elephant education, the mahouts and their elephants can support themselves without the logging industry. For many elephants, working conditions are greatly improved and as more tourists come to
So, to return to the original questions…
Should we be riding around on these animals? Isn’t the elephant being exploited? Is it inhumane for elephants to be used for tourism?
Of course, this is a personal decision. I realize that many readers will not ride an elephant on principle alone. However, I hope that I’ve provided information here that illustrates a bit of the complex circumstances of the elephants in
We've been discussing the authenticity of tourism and how we negotiate what is real and what is pseudo-real.
The picture above is a scene we saw twice today outside of very tourist places. It is a man and boy, performing a Rajasthani folk dance, dressed in the traditional garb.
Their business is posing for pictures in exchange for a tip.
It's interesting to see, but I don't necessarily think it's something that makes me feel like I'm experiencing an authentic part of Indian culture. Being so bombarded with all things touristy, I get a bad taste in my mouth about the cheapening nature of goods and performances designed for the tourist audience. Over time, it is easy to start feeling that anything "for tourists" is inauthentic and not interesting to me. Lately I wonder if I'm missing something because I've become skeptical or even cynical about what represents an authentic article vs. another well dressed scheme to help tourists depart with their money.
The more places we go, the easier it gets to seperate the wheat from the chaff. Doing the tourist things is an inevitable and important part of the trip, but a little skepticism can be healthy, so long as it doesn't become complete disenchantment.
As an alternative, we seek out things like the Mumbai train station, which is as real as it gets. Also we saw the Taj Mahal today and it is surely the authentic article. Live and learn I suppose, live and learn.
I'm not sure whether to say I'm amazed, bewildered, upset or fascinated by the way things work in India.
The difference between home and here is so great and there so many examples that it's hard to describe it except in huge generalities, but here's one example...
After planning a 4 day trip with a driver, we backed out after 1 day. Despite multiple email and phone confirmations, we found out at 5pm that we had no room reserved for tonight. I asked the driver this morning about the hotel and found it was impossible to communicate with him (again, despite confirming an English speaking driver). So, being fed up, we cancelled the whole trip and started over from square one.
We found a hotel and booked a new driver through a gov't tourist office within an hour. The guy above was a huge and honest help and we are now set for the next few days.
Oh and despite everything, we changed our flight to have an extra week in India (now leaving April 2nd). We're gluttons for punishment I guess.
Today reminded us of two things: how luxurious it was to stay with Dina in Mumbai and yes Sandra, where the hell is Mervyn when you need him?
Every possible tourist activity falls into one (or in a few cases, several) of those categories. Satisfaction comes from doing something that is more extreme and interesting and new in one of these six ways. Tourist activities cost money, of course, and the amount you’re willing to pay is increased by what extent it fulfills one of the six categories (and correspondingly limited by the total amount of funds you’ve got at your disposal).
I'm digging Travis' perspectives. Read more here.
Thanks to Geeky Traveler for the link.