Why Gethin Chamberlain’s views on Goa are ill-founded

Yesterday, while browsing through the travelogues on Guardian, I stumbled upon Gethin Chamberlain’s article, ‘Why Goa is looking to go upmarket – and banish Brits and backpackers’.

Chamberlain unwittingly paints Goa to be a place weary of hedonistic hippies, and parsimonious travellers, with the government now aiming to clampdown specifically on British tourists and backpackers.

While the Goa Government has been keen to raise the bar on the quality of tourism, Chamberlain, through his article is careless to imply the move is aimed specifically at British nationals.

North Goa 7800

My first thoughts were; indeed there has been an unprecedented influx of the frugal, drug mongering, carousing visitors along the Anjuna, Moira and other popular belts – however a majority aren’t from the UK.

Infact, according to data tabled in the house by the tourism ministry, top arrivals to Goa’s sunny beaches in 2010 and 2011 were from European countries, namely Germany, Finland, France, Switzerland, Russia and Sweden. Others from Britain, Israel and the Middle East.

The steady decline in visitors from the UK is evident after seeing a 30 per cent fall in visitors to Goa, highlighted in an article by local Zee news network.  On the other hand, Russian arrivals have seen a sharp increase by more than 200 per cent.

As you read further into the article he says, ‘Tired of being India’s answer to Blackpool, it wants to go upmarket.’

Now, anyone having visited both places will say the comparison of Goa to Blackpool is unfathomable; to say the least it’s like comparing apples and mangoes.

Matthew Barham, having visited both places says, ‘Goa and Blackpool can’t really be compared.’

‘Goa is a historic and in large areas unspoiled. Its natural beauty displays its rich historical Portuguese roots in its architecture, local culture and predominantly Catholic heritage,’he added.

‘My experience of Blackpool is that of a tatty seaside resort constructed 150 years ago during the boom period of the industrial revolution, and is localized around a single concrete promenade that features low-brow seaside attractions that haven’t been updated since the 1970s.’

Its true in recent years, Goa’s natural beauty in some areas has faded due to over populated areas, beaches strewn with rubbish and public transport infrastructure that make it impossible to explore, unless you are willing to spend the spare dosh on taxis.

Nevertheless, UNESCO heritage sites, baroque style architecture of churches, and temples has not stopped the young, international and worldly travelers seeking inspiration and enlightenment in the small island.

While Mr. Lobo is discerning on the type of tourists he aims to attract, he is not far from the truth when he speaks about its declining image, and Goa’s plans to go upmarket. Although, it is a bit sinister and lazy of Chamberlain to base his conclusions on a single testimony of the shack owner. He could have interviewed a few more locals to deliver more insight as opposed to solely draw a conclusion based on an interview with the owner of the Shack Welfare society.

This isn’t the first time Gethin Chamberlain has got his facts wrong. In 2009, he wrongly reported 2000 people were released from the Sri Lankan government’s internment camps for Tamils. This was incorrect, and a correction followed stating the number was 5153 and more, according to the United Nations.

Another article written in context with the ever increasing numbers of rape across India read, ‘If girls look sexy, boys will rape. Is this what Indian men really believe?’

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The views reflected in the article were based on interviews with five waiters at a restaurant along a seaside beach, presumably unemployed. Why, of course, these would be anything but, shocking. Having been raised in Goa, this was not the mentality of the many men folk and peers I went to university or played sports with.

If I were to put this into the gang crime context in London, this is the equivalent of  myself walking up to a row of council flats in a dodgy suburb of London and asking the young unemployed  if they would murder another for their belongings.

The response is obvious.

Chamberlain is an example of a western journalist reporting in an eastern country where his views are visibly inaccurate on many levels. When trying to paint the picture of a country abroad, it’s ludicrous to compare Goa to Blackpool; and the government’s aim to ban British travellers is disingenuous.

For those who read this, even well-heeled travellers will have a misinformed view of the place and its people, when in truth, the facts state otherwise.  So while the Goa government is well meaning in implementing new laws for tourism, could there have been a misunderstanding in Chamberlain’s reportage?

As Edward Said pointed out in his book Orientalism, ‘Western study of the oriental countries was political intellectualism meant for European self-affirmation, rather than for objective intellectual enquiry and academic study of Eastern cultures. Hence, Orientalism functioned as a method of practical, cultural discrimination applied as a means of imperialist domination, producing the claim that the Western Orientalist knows more about the Orient than do the Orientals.

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Note to travellers: Common misconceptions about India

It’s more than a week since I arrived in England, from a three-week holiday in India. Friends and colleagues alike have been curious to know more about the holiday. Some having travelled before love to engage with their experiences, citing mostly great weather, historic sites, friendly locals, beaches and succulent kebabs. Others, still wary, wonder if you’ve been attacked by a stray dog or have contracted an illness.

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Dona Paula, Goa

Not surprisingly, a question that tops the list is “Did you have Delhi belly?” For which my answer is invariably ‘no’, and leaves them looking rather baffled.

I often wonder where, how and on what basis were these preconceptions founded upon? Was it the hippies of the yester years, travel guides like Lonely Planet or just a matter of the accumulated historical assumptions of the West about the East, the kind Edward W. Said has catalogued in his book ‘Orientalism’.

Certainly, India is a nation of 1 billion people and still growing, lacking in rail networks, infrastructure and basic amenities. However, that doesn’t imply, if you travel to the sub-continent, you will be ill.

My travels from Goa right through South India on trains, buses, and rickshaws took us through some of the most taxing roads and rail networks. Nevertheless, we encountered friendly locals, smiling faces, delicious train food for as little as 65p, and grubby loos if you were in a sleeper class. I can almost assure you 2AC for a higher price, is much more luxurious and the experience will be different.

Through my journeys and interaction with people in different places, it was not uncommon to hear fellow travellers whine about the lack of hygiene, poor sanitation, and strange men. While some of it stands true, others I believe are misconstrued ideas about the country built over a period of time.

For example – the term ‘Delhi belly’ is pejorative and borderline racist, and originates from travellers to India who have sustained themselves, understandably on cheap street food for lengthy periods. The term implies that there is a natural link between upset stomachs and life in India – when, of course, the link is as a result of the travel habits of frugal visitors. ‘Delhi belly’ will always carry a vaguely judgemental connotation that is as false as if I were to give up home cooking for a diet of McDonalds in London, and then blame the resulting upset stomach on some innate quality of the West.

Apart from ‘Delhi belly’ there are a few other misconceptions I’ve had to deal with in recent weeks, which I hope to clarify in my blog here:

# 1 Accommodation is filthy

People travelling for four – six weeks are on a budget and would naturally like to maximise value for their money. Who wouldn’t? I have several times while travelling across Asia. However, one has to recognise the price that comes with staying in budget accommodation (i.e. 1 – 2£ per day)  – will be having to put up with lizards, frogs, salamanders, scorpions, beetles and perhaps even snakes to keep you company at night.

Be warned, sometimes mattresses are often infested with dreadlocks from another backpacker, and if you are wise enough – a sleeping bag and mosquito net will be indispensable to your travel kit.

That said, not everywhere in India is like that. Infact the country is home to some of the finest hotels and unique ‘themed’ earth resorts, cave houses, tree houses, and bamboo beach huts. My advice is book in advance to avail of good deals. If you feel like you have the money to spend, go indulge yourself and try something new.

Earth Huts, Banasura Hills, Kerala
Earth Huts, Banasura Hills, Kerala

# 2 ‘I’m on a journey to self-discovery in India’

It is common practice among most westerners to assume India as home to a place for ‘self realisation’, ‘self-discovery or embark on ‘truth-seeking’ journeys. Perhaps, it’s movies such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel or even life experiences and blogs by previous travellers such as Abigail Butcher and Mariellen Ward that have inspired others.

Several travel websites like IFRE Volunteers Abroad are responsible for creating this delusion ‘travel to India and it will expand your soul’. This can be quite commonly witnessed along the beaches in Goa at several ashrams and monasteries – Sun worshippers, people dressed in Indian tat, practising yoga, and on herbal diets akin.

As expected, as a tourist for the first time you want to immerse yourself into the experience wholeheartedly for fear of missing out (aka F.O.M.O.)

However, because of the endless propaganda in the west from holiday websites and tour operators – to think of the country as a place solely for spiritual journeys and troubled people, is frankly misleading. At worst, it’s a fallacy, if you travel to India – its all going to be okay.

Certainly, it is a spiritual country, with many religions, beliefs, monasteries, festivals and cultures, however, its blasphemy when you try to combine that with alcohol and drugs.

Sunset in Allepey, Kerala

# 3 Will I get Ill?

There is no shortage to the variety and quality of food one can find whether its North, South, East or West Indian cuisine. With all its shortcomings, India can still proudly boast of some of the finest ‘tandoor tikkas’ and vegetarian food in the world.

Like in any country known for their signature dishes, India has several – Tandoor tikkas, parathas, naan, masala dosas, fish curry, samosas etc.and the list goes on. However if you choose to drink water from unhygienic sources or consume food from unreliable eateries covered in flies, you are asking for trouble.

Obviously, you would like to steer of foods like rare steak or meats. Unless, it’s a place recommended by a local or its often frequented by other locals

Leo Batchelor, who visited India for the first time and has Crohn’s disease, ate everything from vegetarian biryanis, grilled fish, and samosas on trains. He said, “I feel better than ever. A little bit of spice goes a long way for the experience.”

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Leo devouring a vegetable biryani

# 4 Why is India so poor?

I’m often left dumbfounded when someone asks me ‘Why is India so poor? Either you consume too much television media; or solely rely on western media films like ‘ Slumdog Millionaire’ to shape your opinions.

I’m not going to defend the country’s worth, by arguing about the number of billionaires or how entrepreneurs such as Tata and Wipro, have been responsible for creating jobs in a recession struck European economy.

Undeniably, our politicians are corrupt and bureaucracy and red tapism is inevitable. Our leaders don’t camouflage the poverty by building favelas or high-rise walls or evicting people to other regions. Plain and simple, it’s evident, what you see is what you get.

And in big cities, people sleep rough, just like they do in London and New York. With a growing population of more than a billion people, without a welfare state and social housing by the government, this doesn’t stop people from being optimistic and trying to make ends meet.

# 5 Indian men stare

You are in a country that encourages conservative dress if you choose to travel by public transport. If you decide not to honour this, you will have to put up with the consequences – endless staring from men. I did.

The reason being, many Indian men are still not used to anything other than women dressed in a saree or a salwar kameez. You can get away with it in cosmopolitan cities, however in rural areas and public transport platforms, be prepared for some stares.

Now one might question, the way Indian actors are portrayed in Bollywood, however, that’s another argument in itself.

# 6 Is it safe?

Which brings me to the next question – Is it safe? To be fair, I don’t feel safe walking the streets of London.

At best, we didn’t encounter someone who stuck a knife in our face demanding valuables. That said, I am speaking strictly for places we visited in South India.  At the time, we were travelling, news about the rape in New Delhi was relentless, both from local and international networks. What called for intense media attention was the victim’s death.

In late November, eleven year-old had been raped in Jubilee Park, on her way from school in London. However that didn’t make the international news headlines. Rape cases dealt by police officers in London are just as bungled up, as the ones in North India. So what makes people think London is safer than India? More recently, acid was thrown on 21-year-old Naomi Uni, by a stranger, when she was returning home from a late night shift.

My experience living in different countries over the years has been one where you have to take responsibility for your personal safety.

# 7  Entry-fees to public monuments is unfair to tourists

When visiting palaces and museums in South India, the disparity in entry fees for Indians vs. Non Indians is obvious. During our visit to Mysore Palace, the entry fee for Leo was  £3 (240 INR) and for me 30p (40 INR).

Understandably, its something many European visitors don’t take too well, with many stating it’s chauvinistic. However, if one were to compare the annual average British income i.e.£ 26,500 (2223135.35 INR) to the annual average Indian income i.e. £716.02, (60,000 INR) – the difference is beyond belief.

Secondly, the locals are taxpayers. Given that some of the tax-money is used for the upkeep and refurbishment of these areas, it’s only too fair for them to have easy access at reasonable rates.

Lonely Planet has endlessly argued this topic in their blog: Should foreigners pay higher prices?