By Arnesh Ghose
It’s a common joke that wherever you go in the world, you will always come across an Indian tourist. But although Indians might be voraciously vacationing for generations, we still haven’t graduated to becoming travellers
If there are two things my family is passionate about, it would be holidaying, and making travel plans. As far back as I can remember, we travelled for every vacation. And when we were home, almost every other week, elaborate holiday plans would be made to places we were dying to visit. Family dinners would roll into hours of discussion and debate —back then, over travel guides, and notebooks where everyone would have jotted down interesting must-check-outs they came across in travel shows or conversations with friends — and, most of the times, plans would be made to fruition. That’s one thing I do love about my family — travel plans are serious business. Which is why when I come across “Goa plan” memes, I laugh at them because I can’t remember making a single plan to Goa, or anywhere, for that matter, that didn’t happen. Nothing stands in between me and me boarding that flight for a holiday.
Having said that, the word holiday does not adequately describe what my itineraries look like. For starters, exploration is paramount. I am not a big fan of hitting all the tourist spots like they are some kind of a checklist for the photo album. As a true-blue Frost-ian, I am all about the road less traveled by. I will run away from crowds, hunt for local experiences, embrace the food and wine of the place, make mistakes, go somewhere I shouldn’t, find secret bars and caves and that-one-man- who-serves-that-one-thing-on-that- one-specific-day-of-the-week. I am always looking for the end of the road, the edge of the cliff, that one slice of the beach where I have only myself for company. So, I am not an easy person to travel with, and most Indians don’t travel like that.
Indian tourists travel in herds. It is possibly something that gets my goose most often. This has happened to me too many times, when I am abroad. I could be enjoying a late brunch, or a drink at the hotel bar, and a long bus will drag up at the entrance of the hotel, and a boisterous crowd would tumble out of it. It is a common sight to see an extended Indian family or groups of families travel together. I refer to them as “Bhelpuri Buses”. And honestly, it is not an exclusively Indian feature. Americans travel in packs too. As do Koreans and the Japanese. And, while they have their own bundle of idiosyncrasies (although, when it comes to Koreans and the Japanese, in my experience, other than being extremely camera-active, they are quiet, polite, and ultra-respectful), Indians and Americans do share one commonality: a unique sense of entitlement. While US Karens are whining about how the pool isn’t temp-controlled or the bedsheets aren’t soft enough, Indians walk into hotels with a vengeance for “paisa vasool”. Firstly, we believe everybody is out to cheat us abroad. I once came across an Indian couple in London haggling at a Starbucks, converting GBP to INR on their phones, and finger-wagging the barista about how their cappuccino is more expensive. At one point in the altercation — I kid you not — the woman actually blurted, true to desi aunty form, “Kya hi hai ismein? Doodh aur coffee hi toh hai. Iske liye so much money you want!” Next, we carry-forward our condescending attitude towards the service staff in our country, to other countries — and think we can get away with bad behaviour. While our aye-chotu-paani-la-ness might fly in India, making the same annoying noise gestures to get the wait staff’s attention — loud finger snapping, or the infuriating “tsk-tsking”, a sound I don’t even know how to produce and expecting them to come scurrying along in other countries, might not. In Brussels, I once watched a family of 20 fight with the hotel restaurant about why their breakfast spread didn’t have Indian options. Later, after two of the family’s gents had tsk-tsked the wait staff and snapped their fingers with a “hello, madam?” for their double-egg omelettes, the restaurant manager walked up to the table, and in crisply French-accented English told them to not make “rude noises and please keep your volume down, merci beaucoup”. I had befriended the restaurant manager during my stay. After that day, Jean-Pierre decided to be stonily formal with me. He used to bring a fresh pain au chocolat to my table every morning, along with a wink and bonjour-ça-va. That stopped too. I miss him.
Next, Indians are perpetually in a rush when they are travelling. Whether abroad or in India, there is a constant chalo-chalo-der-ho- jaayega about us. This happens mostly because we primarily care about tourist spots. When you travel to tourist-centric cities in India, it is common to have rickshaw drivers to hotel front-desk personnel offer to give you a tour of the hot spots for a certain price. This has become the Indian way of travelling. There is no research into local history or culture. There is no exploration, no immersion, but rather cookie-cutter itineraries that everybody flocks to. So you have the photographs and the bragging rights, but did you really get to know the city/country you were at? Because of these set tours, and fixed timings, set hours for certain spots, Indian tourists are constantly running from one “point” to another. But an experience from two years back makes me wonder if that is a baby boomer phenom. I was in Paris, and a young Indian couple, late Gen Zs, asked me if I could take a photograph of them. I hate doing that, but begrudgingly agreed. Conversation ensued. What have you been up to, I asked. Eiffel, what else, they replied. I stared at them. But you are in Paris, I half- screamed. Yeah, but we don’t like old buildings and museums, we just wanted photos of the Eiffel, they half-squealed. What about the pubs and restaurants, live performances, and nightlife, I wingman-ed the city. French food is horrid, we are vegetarians anyway, can’t find good Indian food anywhere, and daaru is so overpriced, they rattled off.
I thought of Jean-Pierre. It would have killed him. I miss him again. But that interaction, and the kind of travel content I see on social media, makes me wonder if the younger generations are necessarily doing a better job than the oldies. While younger Indians are chiller tourists, are they not a little too obsessed with Instagrammability? If I cared, I would have asked that Indian couple why they wasted their money on Paris if they would have been happier in Dubai (my seething judgement is obviously seeping through but who cares?). Because, more importantly, Paris was wasted on them. Like, some years back, in Valencia, an Indian tourist asked me if I knew a good Indian restaurant in the city. Which actually brings me to the two key factors that separate a tourist from a traveller: curiosity, and the desire to experiment. To become a traveller, it is important to first shed the desire to crawl back into comfort zones while in a new city or country. Don’t walk into a restaurant in Kottayam and order murgh makhani and naan, and expect it to be filled with the soul of Khan Chacha. Don’t go to Goa and hunt for veg biryani. My second day in Bangkok, I was in alleys and bylanes of the city, pointing at food I didn’t know and gesturing “how much money” with my fingers like a street thug. It was an exhilarating experience. Food, seeking out familiar company, and travelling with family are comfort zones that will always hold you back from truly experiencing a new culture. And that is something I respect in American and European backpackers.
It is such a wonderful quality to be able to completely immerse oneself in cultures and countries so far from their familiar and familial territories. That is what will help you experiment, explore, and walk down roads that are not on Google maps.
Reproduced with permission from Mansworldindia.com