Friday, January 10, 2014

Reflections on being a tourist in India

I have been in Pondicherry for a few days now and once again am feeling grateful to be here and humbled by all I have to learn.

Pondicherry is a tourist destination, right on the ocean.  It is also home of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram.  We are staying in one of the ashram guest houses.

The sea side guest house.  It faces the ocean, but our room is in the back.  Every morning we've been walking along the ocean after we do yoga.

It will take me at least one separate blog to share a bit about Sri Aurobindo, so for now I'll just say that Sri Aurobindo was a political activist, Indian Yogi, and spiritual master whose spiritual practice was grounded in Yoga and meditation.  He was also the founder of Auroville, a utopian community right outside of Pondicherry. We spent the day there yesterday and will return tomorrow.  I may spend part of April there.

Before my trip to Pondicherry, this trip felt mainly like a visit to friends who happened to live in India.  Now I feel like a tourist, and that brings up all sorts of questions that I am struggling with.  I'll share some of the questions and my rambling thoughts, and invite you to share your thoughts through comments.

First let me say that some of the things people had warned me about I have NOT found to be true.  I was told that the first thing I would notice about India was an odor.  While the open air fish and meat markets certainly have an odor, in general I didn't notice any strong smells.  I was warned that many people would be begging.  Again, there has been some of that, but that also exists to a somewhat lesser degree in many American cities.  However, one of my traveling companions gave one of the beggars money, and was immediately surrounded by others with outstretched hands.

It is impossible to ignore the poverty.  There are people sleeping in the streets. Not every street, everywhere - but I've seen a couple each day I've been here, and sometimes more.  There are many people who seem to be eeking out a living by sweeping the streets, selling trinkets to tourists or other types of labor.  And Pondicherry is exceptional, because many of the people are ashramites, and they get their needs met in return for working for the ashram.  

The streets are filled with dogs who appear to be near death, and many of the stray cows seem to be in a similar condition.  

At the same time, I am constantly reminded of the richness of this culture!  There are reminders of the ashram everywhere, and we've been going to collective meditation at the ashram in the evening.  Most people we interact with are very gracious, and I feel very welcome here.

So what is one to make of all this?  The history of India is extremely complex; it has been invaded by one group after another since the beginning of recorded time.  This is part of the reason the culture is so diverse.  Pondicherry itself "belonged" to the Dutch for a while, then was taken over by the French, who built a bustling city here.  Then the British came and burned it all down.  I don't remember how many times it went back and forth between the French and the British, but  it was more than once.  And of course, that is only recent history.

So, if one could turn back time and let India belong to India since the beginning, things here would be much different.  But that can't be done.  And of course, then India wouldn't be India!

As an American, what are my choices?  I can stay home and ignore it or complain about how we contribute to the terrible conditions here.  I can come here and belittle it, focus on its shortcomings and look down my nose at the people.  Or I can come here and learn.  I want to stress the learning, because there is MUCH to be learned,  I can be respectful to the people I interact with.  I can spend some of my tourist dollars here.  I can share with those in my circle my love and respect for this amazing culture.  

Maybe that's all a justification for being just another American tourist, but as I said before - I am glad I am here.

Most of these pictures were taken from the car as we were moving along.  I don't feel comfortable walking the streets here, snapping pictures of typical street scenes.  That makes me more of a tourist than I feel comfortable being.

Leaving Chennai.  There are a lot of tall buildings, a lot of construction.  Sometimes it's hard to tell the construction sites from the demolition sites.

This brave woman was trying to sell something to drivers at one of the rare traffic lights where the traffic actually stopped.

Out in the countryside!  Lots of green things growing.  Little villages every few miles.

We saw mile after mile of these trucks parked along the side of the road.  Just going one direction, not the other.  No idea what it was all about.

On some of the road, flowering bushes had been planted in the median.

These cows are the lucky ones, with shade trees and pasture lands to enjoy.

A typical village scene on the way to Pondicherry.

Arriving in Pondicherry, which had the feel of a tourist town as soon as we entered the outskirts.

Walking along the ocean is a popular pastime for all of the tourists.  In the evening they close the street to traffic and don't reopen it until around 7:30 in the morning.

This statue of Ghandi is right on the ocean, close to our hotel.

This woman was sweeping the streets of Pondicherry with the straw broom you see on the ground next to her.  I asked her if I could take her picture, and she graciously assented.

High waves here, and yet we see small fishing boats every morning.

Morning rush hour in Pondicherry.

More Pondicherry rush hour.

Street art.


  1. Harlene, one of the wonderful things about you is that you approach everything with grace, as an opportunity for learning. (Learning something, anyway... remember our days at the Labs? You honed patience, tact, and thank god for your sense of humor...) I'm sure you are the Beautiful American. Now on a really important note, how about the shopping? When can we see your new clothes?


  3. Harlene these pictures are fantastic, thank you for sharing! Many of them look to me, similar to scenes I saw in Haiti, particularly of the brightly colored vehicles, the amazing vegetation and color away from the city, the street art, etc. I have never felt badly about being a tourist in other countries, because I can only imagine it increases understanding and compassion and awareness, which then hopefully translates to other parts of our lives. I appreciate when people from various cultures find ways to make their surroundings beautiful through color and art, even in the midst of the chaos of the cities. The gift of authenticity, in all of its highs and lows, and remaining after so much strife throughout history, is to me quite apparent here. I know these tourist issues are complicated, but your consideration surely brings forth goodwill! Brooke