Monday, July 30, 2012

The Itinerant Mendicant: From the outside looking in

Who doesn’t love to be a tourist? To go out and see the world, returning home with tales of the strange and the uncommon? And yet, there are some among us who would have none of this. They will travel, yes; but refuse to play the tourist. Not for them the routine of travel for merely a week or a fortnight, whether in groups or with a friend or two in tow. They refuse to move from one scenic site and monument to another. They refuse to engage in that universal marker of the tourist, the capturing of photographic images. Anything (and everything) that marks out the tourist, this group will avoid, wearing this refusal to participate as a badge of honour. A medal, that proclaims to the world that they are different and special. Quite unlike the crowds, they are the wolves that hunt alone.

These lone wolves seek to make their experience of travel different. They would distinguish themselves from the tourist, by calling themselves travelers, and indicate the difference in their manner of going about the whole experience of experiencing the outside world. Rather than spend short periods of time, capturing impressionist vignettes of places, they would rather spend prolonged periods of time. They would prefer to get into the skin of the city or other locale of the place that they are visiting. The object of the experience for this bunch of travelers is to see the city through the eyes of the local. Privileging this way of experiencing the foreign requires them to, either befriend a local, and then follow that local through the paces of their regular life; or turn oneself into a local, participating in the rush or sway of local life. In the course of this strategy of experiencing the foreign, one either does not make stops at the usual tourist-haunts, or if one does, one tries to use this tourist space in a manner that would be different from the regular tourist. Thus for example, rather than visiting a church to gawk like the rest of the tourists, one would rather turn up for the mass that the locals attend, experiencing in this process the building and its sacred art through the filters of faith.

As interesting as this strategy may be however, one can entertain certain doubts about the extent to which these travelers manage to achieve their cherished desire of seeing the non-native, or the foreign as an insider. How much time does it require for us to get ‘inside’ a society? Even more crucially, are we not making a certain error of assuming that a society is one happy whole that shares a common vision of its world? Every society has its outsiders, people who refuse to participate in the common consensus. In doing so, these dissidents fragment this idea of an inside and make the space of the insider particularly difficult to identify. It turns out then, that no matter how hard the traveler may try, s/he is still, almost always, on the outside, looking in.

(A version of this post was first published on 27 July 2012,  on The Goan on Saturday, the first of a regular monthly op-ed column.)

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