Trying Really Hard To Like India

Step 2: Escaping Backpackers, Traveling in Style, and Once Again Coming to Terms With Rampant Poverty
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Sept. 28 2004 1:30 PM

Trying Really Hard To Like India

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A fishing boat, surrounded by the day's catch, on a beach in Kerala
A fishing boat, surrounded by the day's catch, on a beach in Kerala
Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

I have a problem with backpackers. The problem is that wherever they are, I don't want to be.

Partly, it's that I don't go somewhere like India so I can hang out with a bunch of 19-year-old German dudes (though I'm sure they're lovely people). Also, it's that I look at all these backpackers … and I see myself. And frankly, I don't like what I see.

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For one, I'm not properly bathed. And for another, I've got this massive, geeky pack on my back, which dwarfs my torso and bends me near double under its weight. (Because of this, I have, I'll admit somewhat irrationally, refused to use a backpack on this trip. Instead I've brought a wheeled carry-on suitcase, which has worked quite nicely. Just try to call me a backpacker now! No backpack here, Heinrich!)

But above all, I hate the ambience that forms around a backpacker enclave. The ticky-tacky souvenir shops. The sketchy tour guides. The rabbit warren hostels. And the way the locals start to eye me like I'm nothing but an ambulatory wallet.

There are two ways to escape the backpackers. The first is to get off the beaten path, wander around, and discover a private Eden not yet ruined by backpacking hordes. This takes more time than my vacation will allow. So I've opted for the second (much quicker) method: money.

Yes, the simplest way to find solitude is to buy it. Thus we've arrived here at the Casino Group Marari Beach Resort.

This idyllic spot is on the west coast of India in the state of Kerala (the setting for The God of Small Things). The resort's lovely bungalows are tucked between groves of palm trees. The beach is wide, empty, silent. Each evening the sun melts down into the Arabian Sea. By day we lounge around a heated pool eating big plates of samosas. Nearby, in the recreation area, an older Italian woman is playing badminton in a bikini.

Wait, you say, why bother to go to India for this? If a beach resort's all you want, there are plenty back home, right? I assure you this is different for several reasons, such as ...

The food: Each night, we enjoy delicious Indian specialties, prepared by actual Indian chefs, in India. (Pause to lick tandoori chicken from fingers.) You just can't get that at home.

The cost: We're paying about $70 a night for our bungalow. Pretty much anywhere in the States—for a luxury resort with a private beach—you'd pay at least quadruple that. Consider the fact that Sir Paul McCartney once stayed here. When I can afford a hotel Paul McCartney stays at, you can be certain it's a bargain.

The sheer solitude: You'll rarely find a beach this nice that's also this utterly empty. There's nothing here (as my pictures attest). Several hundred yards away are a few wooden fishing boats, which haul up their catch on the beach each afternoon. Also—and I swear this is somehow charming (remember, it's hundreds of yards away)—you'll see a few village folk squatting amid the tides. This is because they don't have indoor plumbing.

The world beyond the hotel gates: Walk outside your beach resort in Florida … and you're still in Florida. Walk outside your beach resort in India and … oh, man, you are unmistakably in India. Lots of heartbreaking rural poverty. Lots of sad-yet-edifying tableaux (which is no doubt what you came here for, correct?). It's sort of the best of both worlds for the tourist who fancies himself culturally aware: Live right next to the picturesque misery—but not in it.

Before you condemn me to hell, please see again Step 1: Making Peace With Poverty. Again, unless you're Gandhi—and you're not—you can't come here without diving head first into a salty sea of unpleasant contradictions.

For yet another lesson on this theme, take our last night at Marari Beach. We somehow end up drinking in the bar with a thirtysomething American woman—let's call her "Debbie"—who is six stiff drinks ahead of us. Between sips of some tropical concoction, she delivers a slurry monologue explaining that she has come to India on business. Her business: designing doormats. No joke.

One of Kerala's big industries is coir—a textile made from coconut husks. On a bike ride we took around the village (yes, "the world beyond the hotel gates"), we could see into huts that had looms and people weaving coir into simple mats. These mats get trimmed and finished (by some big export factory) to Debbie's design specs. Then they get shipped to North America and end up in some middlebrow home-furnishings catalog where you can buy them for $26.99.

Debbie is drinking heavily because her job here is wicked depressing. She buys in bulk from the big exporter, who pays a shady middleman, who (barely) pays the villagers here. The villagers can make about three mats per week—all of excellent quality—and for this they get paid a few cents per mat. The middleman of course takes all the profit.

Debbie, goodhearted human that she is, is on the verge of drunken tears as she describes all this. She knows the whole thing is grossly unfair. And that she perpetuates it. But if she wants to keep her job with the American firm she works for, and still make deals with Indian exporters, there's not a damn thing she can do about it.

And unless you have carefully avoided buying any products made by Third World labor—and chances are you have not—you're really no better than Debbie. Let's drink to that. Believe me, Debbie already has.

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