PLACES (of the earth & mind)

The Paradox of Developing World Tourism: Memories from India

Girls in Black. Pushkar, India.

I love this picture, but it brings up a less-than-friendly encounter I had in the small city of Pushkar.  I did not choose to stay in Pushkar because it was such a hot bed of tourism, and instead found a hotel in the nearby Ajmer instead.  When I did take a day-trip to the fabled city, I was immediately approached by several young people, insisting they be my “guides” to the city.  I turned down one offer after another, preferring to see the city on my own, and also because at that point I had become exhausted of people asking me for money for something that they initially seemed to be doing out of the kindness of their hearts. More on this later.

So these two girls approached me and I asked if I could take their picture. They were so incredibly striking with their black veils, charcoal rimmed-eyes and painted mouths. After I took the photo, they asked me if I wanted a Henna tattoo, which I politely refused, not wishing to spend the $1.50 I was sure they’d charge me at the end (which is more than the lunch I was about to eat). Then one of them grabbed my hand quite firmly and pulled it to the other one who immediately started decorating it with Henna. I tried to yank my hand back but she had a tight grip. When I finally did retrieve my hand, I was so frustrated that I walked around Pushkar clutching my purse and talking to no one.

This brings up a few points. First, as a Western traveler in certain countries, and particularly in India, you are constantly bombarded by requests for handouts. It can start to seem like you are marked. While we wander about the globe, we look for that picture-perfect encounter with a local that does not end with a request for cash. We long for an un-developed world not constrained by the dictates of our very consumerist culture, and are turned off when that consumerism follows us wherever we go. We’re irritated by the hustle, and yet, that hustle is a direct result of the developing countries trying to catch up to the status of the developed economies. In other words, we created the game, they just play it.

Secondly, another realization came to me over the course of the day as I looked at the photo I’d taken of those girls. It was this: I expected to get a gorgeous photo of them—for free—yet I was irritated that they tried to get money from me for a Henna tattoo. They could have declined to pose for my picture unless I paid them. After all, I bet hundereds of tourists try to sneak shots of them every week. The photos of my trip are, after all, the most precious souvenirs I took away from the sub-continent. But I wanted them for free, and couldn’t be bothered to spend the buck-fifty to buy what they were selling.

I relayed this story and realization to an Irish photographer. I told him that from then on, if I took a photo of someone who was selling something, I would give them some change. It seemed like a fair trade. He said I was ruining it for the rest of the tourist-photogs, and now all the Indians were going to start charging us to pose for pictures. 

I’m not sure what the answer is. I don’t like the idea of commodifying every little experience in a journey that is supposed to be about revelation and learning. Looking at this picture, though, I do wish I’d let the girls Henna my hands—I might have taken away something wonderful from the experience.

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