The other day I was reading through a blog, written by a nice couple who were traveling around the world, sharing their experiences with their readers. Naturally, that is the purpose of having a blog (other than the fact that you can earn some money out of it, but that is obvious, too).
On this couple’s blog post, they talked about their experience living 3 weeks in an Ashram in Rishikesh, the world’s center of Yoga. They also mentioned how India is unique to them and different from other places they’ve traveled to.
No matter how many times I read the articles, I could not get over the fact that it seemed as if this couple had no idea what they were talking about when it comes to India. Of course, it’s their blog and they are allowed to write whatever they feel; for them and many others blogs are a platform to share travel experiences, but that is exactly what I am wondering about: Can we, as bloggers or website owners write whatever we feel? Even if it may present false and superficial images of the cultures and the places we visit?
I decided to express my comments as a blog post. Before beginning, I must mention that this is my personal opinion and I am picking on these guys only because I read their blog recently; however, they convey messages that I have seen in so many other articles on the internet. I thought that it would be pointless to link to each specific post, simply because it’s a general thought about the way we travel, and about what we write in our blogs.
Places we visit aren’t exactly chicks in bikinis
While I was reading the post, I felt a little bit uncomfortable with the attitude that they held towards “India”. As I read, the “attitude” grew clearer to me, especially when I read a sentence that made me kind of jumpy. It went something like: “Lay back and let India come to you”.
Although this is only figurative language, it expresses a chauvinistic attitude, wherein they are unaware of what they, like many others, presume “India” to be during their vacations. This phrase implies that India has to actively satisfy you.
I’m aware that many of us who come to India find it extremely fascinating in every possible aspect when it comes to travel (and not only travel but spiritually and culturally, too). This is where your inner alarm bells should go off.
This is the point where you may feel that you have figured everything out and that everything you see, smell, touch, and hear is accessible to you. You might even think that you actually know it all, just because you are fascinated and charmed. Buddhists identify this process of getting attached blindly to a certain object or idea while possessing it, with the famous term Trishna (thirst, crave).
Much like other popular tourist destinations, India suffers from being stereotyped. On the one hand, India is perceived as a third world country that is severely underdeveloped. On the other hand, many see India as an exotic country unlike any other, with mysterious secrets to be unraveled. This romantic outlook about India had begun way back. Take a 19thcentury example: Annie Besant and the Theosophical Society who “discovered” a 14-year-old boy, Jiddu Krishnamurti, from Chennai to be the “world’s teacher” -the messiah. Of course, he had to get some “proper” education to fulfill such grand expectations and Annie Besant took custody over him.
The bloggers were so thrilled when they wrote: “We even learned some Sanskrit phrases” while staying in an Ashram in Rishikesh. Having seen this in their blog post, you may conclude that staying in an Ashram in Rishikesh, like doing Yoga, eating in local restaurants using your hands, and attending Pujas (prayers) on the Ganga River, will draw you nearer to the roots of Indian tradition.
I hate to ruin the party, but learning Sanskrit isn’t rocket science it’s much harder! It’s as if you expect to learn complex physics equations in one visit to a science museum.
Describing the sophistication and complexity of Sanskrit in a single blog post is difficult. The complexity of the language is reason enough to make the blogger’s statement sound absurd. One thing is for sure- a lack of knowledge and blitheness, mixed with a sprinkling of arrogance (factors often found hand in hand) are key to imposing such a false impression.
None of what you do or experience in India (nor any other place you visit) will make you closer to the culture and/ or to the “locals”, as long as you keep on perpetuating your preconceived notions of what you think you know about India! These presumptions won’t assist you in discovering the beauty of traveling or in delving deeper into the local culture if that’s what you wish for.
In other words, if you think “India” is here to reveal secrets from underneath “her” clothes, trying to tempt you with the beautiful sounds of Sanskrit mantras, with its ancient wisdom of Yoga, bright candle lights on the Ganga, crowded and colorful markets, the magnetic aura of ‘Karma’ and ‘Dharma’ and all the other romantic fantasies and ideas you may have, you are mistaken.
If you expect to just lay back and watch as these mystical wonders open up and offer themselves for you, I can only say that you are far removed from reality! The worst part of it all is the false expectations that you pass to others with your notions and the fact that you misinform readers as well.
The Myth of Karma – another example for seductive India
Karma isn’t simply “What goes around comes around” although it may be convenient to think about it this way. There is no “Karma police” (although I’m a Radiohead fan).
The doctrine of Karma has been under discussion throughout the entire spectrum of Indian philosophers for centuries, and like all great philosophical questions, there is no definite answer. Yajnavalkya, the great Upanishadic sage, had the following answer to his disciple’s question about the meaning of Karma: “Let’s go to the forest to discuss that”. Why go to the forest if the answer is as simple as “What goes around comes around”? Because this question is a tough one, and the forest is the only place that can propagate such difficult philosophical questions.
The forest is a domain of transformation in the Indian consciousness and challenges everything you perceive as valid. It is a place of doubt and critique, wherein knowledge can be obtained only by leaving the familiar and safe (both mentally and physically).
“What goes around comes around” is heard everywhere. The “forest”; however, is where the journey into the enormous challenge that India can offer us as westerners begins, and it is not exactly trying to tempt us to step in.
Get Undressed too and step in the Forest of traveling!
The good news for us, if you want to explore, is that we should get undressed, too. This is where the challenge of travel begins! This is when lovemaking begins. You might feel vulnerable in the beginning as you realize that none of what you see is meant for you.
Once you realize that you aren’t the center and there is almost no way to understand or figure out the entire context of what is seen or heard, then that you start questioning what is there. Question marks are the best travel guides, whereas exclamation points will infinitely alienate you. Respecting other cultures doesn’t mean you have to blindly take everything in without understanding. On the contrary, questioning can be the best way to show respect, so long as it’s not patronizing.
Then you will be traveling with the same attitude as Yajnavalkya’s disciple, and you won’t be satisfied with the cheap, cliché, and worn-out explanations of Yoga, Karma, Dharma, and other unfamiliar concepts. Some of these aren’t even clear to many Indians! The difference is that for Indians those concepts are part of their cultural DNA, whereas for us it is at most an intellectual challenge.
Avoiding this confusion is the true challenge for travelers entering the “forest of traveling”. Where we can safely ask questions and truly learn, inevitably, this traveling process will impel us to ask the same questions about ourselves.
This would be the point where you reduce the almost unavoidable objectification and misconceptions of a place you visit a minimum, which should be an obligation if you intend to publish your impressions of your travels in a blog.
Responsible traveler and travel bloggers
One of the clearest definitions I found about the responsible traveler concept which can also be applied, with minor adjustments, to responsible blogging was from Responsible Travel
“Travel is all the enlightening, life-changing clichés it promises to be. In 1967, the International Year of the Tourist; the United Nations recognized that tourism is “a basic and most desirable human activity, deserving the praise and encouragement of all peoples and all governments”. We agree. Quite simply, if you do travel, be aware that the choices we make while away do have an impact.”
Mariellen Ward, the owner of Breathedreamgo blog ( an excellent one! ) wrote on her Facebook timeline recently after the terrible gang-rape incident in Madhya Pradesh:
“I have mistakenly given the world the impression that I think India is a safe country for women to travel in — and I have to take responsibility for that…”
She was the only one we have found to be aware enough of her words’ potential impact, and she was the only one who had the integrity to post that sort of comment.
Responsible blogging requires an acknowledgment that the impact of our travels is not constrained merely within the time we travel, but continues through impressions published online/offline. As it has been said before and should be repeated often lest we forget: words do have power.