Not enough food to go around…

It’s estimated that 30% of the world’s malnourished children live in India and that over 60 percent of Indian children are underweight or stunted as a result of this malnutrition.

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The Global Hunger Index ranks developing nations based on specific criteria believed to indicate hunger and vulnerability to hunger. Alarmingly, India ranks number 62 out of 81 progressing countries on the scale.

Despite increasing tourist numbers in India, and consequently, increasing external funds circulating the country, India remains a developing nation with a considerable poverty crisis on its hands.

Travellers to India frequently recount this level of poverty and often witnessing it right in front of you, rather than as numbers on the news or a website, can be both confronting and moving. As a result, we often feel inclined to give money to beggars on the street, particularly women nursing children, as we see them in need of our help. But this dynamic by definition, precipitates this inequality, for we become ‘Saviours’ trying to fix the problems faced by the ‘troubled Other’.

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Nonetheless, there are ways that we can help combat poverty and malnutrition in India in ways that promote self-sufficiency and equality between ‘us’ and ‘them’:

  • Donate to charities that are committed to educating people on the ins-and-outs of sustainable living (i.e. don’t just give someone a potato, show them how to grow potatoes)
  •  Don’t give money to children on the street, buy them some food and watch them eat it. This way the child is fed and the money doesn’t end up in the wrong hands.

When thinking about travelling smarter, we must remember we are visitors to this culture not saviours. After all, what makes one human better than another?

Hands vs cutlery…

Something as simple as the way we eat our dinner couldn’t possibly differ that much across the world…could it?

But, being told to ditch the knife and fork and opt for the “handy” way of munching on your dinner in a place you are already unfamiliar with could certainly ignite some degree of culture shock in travellers. Culture shock can leave us feeling lost and deprived, confused and anxious.

It should be noted though that for many, learning to adapt the way one eats may not be seen as too drastic a change and thus the process of adjustment, as dictated by the “u-curve”, will be smoother and faster for some travellers over others.

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Similarly, depending on the purpose of the traveller (that is tourist, sojourner, immigrant or refugee), and the amount of time one intends to spend in the country, the pressure to overcome this culture shock and assimilate more fully into the new culture, differs.

Here are some basic rules given to me by an Indian co-worker to help you travel smarter and hopefully overcome the worst of that god damn, culture shock –

  • With your RIGHT hand, scoop the food onto the flatbread (i.e. roti or naan)
  • Don’t let food touch your palm or your fingers touch the inside of your mouth
  • Use your thumb to “catapult” the food into your mouth

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After all, isn’t travelling smarter about engaging in self-reflection and being respectful of the culture we are immersing ourselves in?

Selling India short: More than meets the eye…

In my previous blog posts I have focused on two aspects of India I considered highly visible – the Taj Mahal and butter chicken. Sadly, in doing this I fear I have essentialised India for this classic monument and its cuisine.

When considering a new place (that is, somewhere foreign to us) essentialised aspects like this serve to narrow tourism interests and experiences to these key concepts. For instance, Indian cuisine is no doubt considered by many abroad as central to the culture of the country. Tourism activities such as this “Eat like a Local: Mumbai Street Food Tour” capitalise on this idea, but also imply that this culinary experience mirrors that of locals in the area.

One does wonder though, how eating like a local can set you back over $50AUD in a country where locals usually eat for less than $1AUD. Ultimately, this faux experience framed as an authentic experience leaves us disappointed as we failed to experience the real essence of a place.

Similarly, when considering tourists’ experience of the Taj Mahal we can identify a feeling of deception from the photos we witnessed of this majestic landmark before our travels and the actual experience. The pictures we see of this building in tourist brochures show an empty foreground, alluding to the unsuspecting traveller that they will also experience the grandeur of the Taj Mahal in this same intimate capacity.

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However, in reality, majority of the year the complex is swarming with thousands of tourists and locals every day, not quite the peaceful image one was suspecting from those brochures.

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Travellers’ reviews of their experiences at the Taj Mahal are also not always filled with awe and wonder. Many travellers feel the amazing architecture of the building is quashed by the inflated tourist ticket price, incessant rip offs and potential theft.

From reconsidering India in this new light I feel I must apologise to her for somewhat oversimplifying her monuments, cuisine and most importantly, people. When contemplating a foreign place, one must not forget that larger social and political processes are at play, underpinned by various imaginative geographies that frame what we consider essential and visible to a place.

Indian Cuisine: A Language of Spices.

I am a huge fan of Indian food – the spicy-ness, the variety and the hands on approach you just have to adopt when eating it. But whenever I’ve had Indian food (that is, in a restaurant a long way from it’s birthplace), I can hear my Uncle telling me; “this is not real India food”. So, what is real indian food then?

For me, the quintessential Indian dish is Butter Chicken.

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So naturally, I want to know where the best butter chicken in India can be found. But I’ve come to realise, however, that like lots of good, hearty dishes, the best are nearly always home cooked.

To make these home cooked meals possible, markets are scattered across India, supplying the country with everything and anything they could need to prepare these delicious dishes. A small street in Delhi called Khari Baoli, hidden amongst the chaos of the city, is actually Asia’s largest wholesale spice market.

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The market has been going for over four centuries, with some shops run by the same founding families for over nine generations! Famous for its spices, nuts and herbs, Khari Baoli also specialises in salts, dry fruits and chilis.

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Like most good things, this one hasn’t stayed a secret, making it’s way onto the tourist trail for those visiting Delhi. Thousands of tourists can be seen wandering around the narrow alleys of the market shopping up a storm of spices.

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I love to think that despite the language barriers undoubtedly present between tourist and merchant, the two citizens are able to communicate through the medium of food. The tourist as an ‘outsider’ seeks to understand the vernacular foodways of the Other through replicating the dishes they have encountered on their journey, shifting from ‘outsider’ status to somewhere ‘in-between’ and edging closer to that cosmopolitan ideal.

After all, the goal of travelling smarter is to feel at home anywhere in the world, isn’t it?

Is the Taj Mahal now just a photo opportunity?

Not many people couldn’t tell you what country houses the Taj Mahal. An iconic national symbol, the Taj Mahal sees millions of visitors each year.

But if the incredible Mughal architecture or outrageously elaborate statement of love wasn’t enough to make you want to visit India and see the Taj Mahal, what else could be? Oh, that’s right – ‘that photo’.

As is done with other monumental sites, including the Eiffel Tower and the Leaning Tower of Pisa, tourists feel almost obligated to take ‘that photograph’.

Screen Shot 2015-03-17 at 6.15.02 pmTo be fair, ‘that photograph’ doesn’t always have to be the cliché tourist shot, it could also be that photo that makes it look like you were the only person there, the wisest of travelers that knows how to beat the crowds whilst the rest of those suckers rough it altogether.

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There are even blogs dedicated to tips for how to get ‘that photograph’. That one photo you’ve already worked out a killer Facebook caption for, or the perfect Instagram filter.

Whether or not the Taj Mahal remains appreciated for its true beauty, or serves more as a photo opportunity for some, its value as a national symbol of India is not in question. So recognisable even outside of India, that if you walked down the street in Brisbane, saw a restaurant called ‘Taj Mahal‘, you would not have to think about what cuisine could possibly be on the other side of the door.

It is these strong associations which have allowed the symbolic value of the Taj Mahal to persist through time and space. Whilst its true value may no longer be as appreciated as once before, never will a time come when this beautiful building does not encapsulate everything that is chaotically alluring about India and her culture.

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