What are the travel travails for a Westerner in India? Globetrotting journalist and author of Mappillai- an Italian son-in-law in India, Carlo Pizzati is now a bonafide, Aadhar-card holding resident who has made a little seaside village in Tamil Nadu his home with his wife for over a decade. Here he tells us how the Western travellers can break into India on their travels. Excerpts:
What is the biggest draw for the Westerner to travel to India beside it being budget-friendly?
Depends if you’re a Milanese metrosexual aristocrat who comes here so he can feel what it’s like to be really poor; a stressed out bank executive trying to lock that difficult yoga asana and discover the wonders of Ayurvedic enemas; a tired Israeli soldier post military service dropping acid in Goa; a philosophically-prone German student on his path to illumination, or maybe your average nostalgic Brit from posh Notting Hill who secretly thinks the Raj brought good things after all. The major draw is still a spiritual allure. Yet, slowly, more so-called Westerners are discovering there’s a touristic India which you can enjoy without necessarily “finding yourself,” whatever that can mean.
Could you elaborate on the various categories of Western travellers in India?
In “Mappillai” I describe the yoga-people, of course, but also the businessmen who have to deal with bribing and the regular executives working for international corporations who hang out at the post-colonial exclusive clubs, along with the NGO idealists and Mother Teresa-type voluntourists. There’s room for everyone in India. This is the great appeal of a country that let’s you be whatever your fervid imagination tells you that you are.
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What tips can help the Westener to navigate worries about health, hygiene and safety?
Well, the blogs and feedbacks are probably true, in the sense that they reflect the fear of people who are not acquainted with India’s intricacies. I argue that one should read a few good books on the culture before travelling here. And that those who are moving to India should mandatorily take a cross-cultural understanding class. Some universities offer them. It really helps in the long run. Having said that, India could step up its hygiene by teaching more efficiently a few basic and simple rules of behaviour.
What is the best part of being a traveller from the First World in India?
Having lived here 10 years, I’m no longer a traveller, in India, but I remember those days, back in 2008. I’ve written about it in the prequel to “Mappillai,” my memoir “Technoshamans”. I think the best part, especially in Southern India, is the pervasive sweetness of people’s smiles. Later you may learn they don’t mean the same thing as in the West. But who cares? It spreads some very good feelings just to see men and women share so generously their smiles. It’s contagious.
What was the first impression that India made on you when you landed a decade ago?
At first I was scared. Of dengue, malaria, jaundice, leprosy, elephantiasis! You name it, I dreaded it. Then I had an intense night, the first one, of profound, heart-breaking nostalgia for the dramatic essence of the West, while listening to a Mozart requiem on my earphones. The morning after, my first in India, I instantly felt at home, here. Relaxed, at ease, happy. This feeling has never completely left me.
What does India lack for the traveller landing from the West and what does it offer you can’t get there?
I’m not sure what it lacks, aside from some order. Yet, so many things have changed from 2008 until today. India is so up to date with apps and internet sites to organise your travels. In some things, like digital payments, it is often more advanced than some Western countries. Of course the reliability is still not there. You may get to your hotel which you booked on line and find out your room was given away to someone who paid more! Then you have to learn how much to complain and in which way. So, yes, service is still lacking. But I think it’s a matter of very few years in learning the process. India has improved impressively since I first landed. And what it has to offer is a greater sense of harmony. Yes, of course, cloaked in caste conflict, religious tensions, social envy (on the rise), but, in general, there’s a feeling people are able to keep their anger in check a lot better than in the West. It is so refreshing to live in this society if you come from the litigious attitude of some Europeans in winter time!
What destinations across India would you recommend for a traveller from the West and why?
I’m partial to the South, because that’s where I live. I think seeing the Mylapore temple in Chennai at sunset can be memorable, along with the Mamallapuram Rathas. But then one should also venture to the Chidambaram temple of the invisible shivalingam, and Thanjavur, Tranquebar and that jewel known as the Gangaikonda Cholapuram temple. I know, hard to spell, harder even to pronounce. But completely worth it. And then, of course, Chettinad for its food, Victorian mansions and more. But Kerala, although already too exploited touristically, is still worth a visit. Kochi during the Biennale, Munnar and its tea plantations, the backwater cruises, a stint of panchakarma. I’d still go. Then I think an area completely worth the trouble is the North-East, from sailing the Brahmaputra, climbing up to Nagaland, to discovering Khasi traditions in Shillong and then venturing into the fascinating Sikkim and the well-known Darjeeling.
What should a travel kit contain before travelling to India?
I admit when I first came to India I brought with me a water sterilising pen… nothing more useless and ridiculous than that, of course. I think the concept of a travel kit before travelling to India is outmoded. You can buy most things when you get here. Maybe you have your favourite mosquito repellent flavour in your country. Okay, bring that one, if you really must. The advantage of arriving here and going shopping for clothes right away is also that you’ll look more like a local and stand out less. Indiana Jones and Crocodile Dundee are such a tired trope of an old generation. Dress normally, please.
All images have been provided by Carlo Pizzati.