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SOMNATH BATABYAL
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Somnath Batabyal is a backpacking social theorist. When not travelling, he teaches at SOAS, University of London.

Poverty tourism and the paradox of the ‘traveller’

've recently returned from a 12-day conducted cultural tour around Assam during Bihu. I grew up here during the language agitation, and as a Bengali, much that was beautiful was shielded from me by overprotective parents. On this trip, I learnt a lot about the joyful music, the delightful food and the infinite hospitality of the Assamese, but being my first attempt at group travel, I also learnt a thing or two about tourists. In Assam, it's possible to travel for days and not see any other travellers. Except those you are saddled with and whom you get to know intimately.

There are few contradictions to understand about western tourists. The first is the obvious one: they hate tourists. There is an increasing segment of the mobile population that would prefer to be considered as travellers, wanderers or nomads. Tourists are those others: easily distinguishable from "us" by being louder, less sensitive, more litter-producing and in bigger buses. We, the adventurous, prefer to go off the beaten track, visit the lesser-known places and meet people who still don't know about the tourist dollar, and won't try to "cheat" us with their knowledge of our riches.

On the other hand, these adventurers smirk at the "bad" service when breakfast looks funny, when nothing resembles eggs or coffee, and the waiter doesn't seem to understand English. Why are coffee and eggs not on the menu? Because "off the map" means not used to tourists. Why doesn't the waiter understand English: Why don't you speak Assamese?

Another curious thing about tourists is in the realm of photography. It is a recent phenomenon for western tourists to have cameras pointed back at them. The hitherto inert object of our gaze, delighted with seeing their image frozen in your magic box, now owns a camera phone.

"It's a prestige thing," one of the guests ventured, trying to work out why she was being so incessantly photographed, "to have a picture of your white friends on your Facebook page."

Terabytes of global footage line his North London home, with no further use in mind. In fact, I slowly began to realise, by then the reels and memory cards had already served their purpose. The filming was an end in itself: to put a safe distance between viewer and viewed, to counter the passivity of travel with a feeling of productivity.

Perhaps so: rather like the prestige you'll gain by putting up exotic faces on yours.

ne from our group was addicted to filming. When he wasn't filming, he was worrying with his wife about whether the batteries would be charged for filming later. What did he do with all this footage? Absolutely nothing. Terabytes of global footage line his North London home, with no further use in mind. In fact, I slowly began to realise, by then the reels and memory cards had already served their purpose. The filming was an end in itself: to put a safe distance between viewer and viewed, to counter the passivity of travel with a feeling of productivity.

At some point on the tour, the local press became interested in our unlikely group of foreigners celebrating Bihu. We had been enjoying a sedate afternoon learning about Assamese culture in the home of an erudite musicologist, when three television crews landed up in the living room, thrust cameras in my co-travellers faces and interrogated them about England. Some enjoyed the reversal of roles. Others, our own amateur film maker included, strongly objected. "They just came in and pushed cameras in our faces, without asking," they complained without a trace of irony. "It totally took over our afternoon and I felt uncomfortable. I wasn't dressed to be on camera."

How often, when we photograph "picturesque" poverty, do we think that it might not be how the subject wanted to look, or what they'd wanted you to see of their house? Who cares? Looks good to me.

One last paradox. Tourists might be able to deal with geographical change, but temporality must remain the same. You might be able to leave your family behind you, your eating habits, maybe even your internet connection, but one thing that appears impossible to discard is one's sense of time. We might have just had an extraordinarily magical impromptu musical moment, the drummer may well be over 80 years old and performing for us something more energetic than most 20-year-olds can pull off, but didn't you say lunch would be at one? It's already half past.

Historian Sumit Sarkar has eloquently written on the coming of the clock to India and how it disrupted a rhythm and pattern of life, bringing in its wake a certain kind of tyranny: punctuality. The tyranny continues.

Somnath Batabyal is a backpacking social theorist. When not travelling, he teaches at SOAS, University of London.

 
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