The foothills of the Himalayas in Himachal Pradesh.
After a week of running to the embassy, the regional foreign officers, the police, and so-called “cultural centers,” my stubborn performance of the wandering back-packer begins to collapse. Whether or not there is an authentic “India” to find, when one goes looking for it, they don the guise of the backpacker, one who struggles to find an authentic travel experience, who fluctuates between a constant fear of the unknown and a constant fear of the same old known. Backpackers are the natural enemy of the tourist. We gaff at the “fat white old men” like punk rock kids at a football game claiming that the jocks all look the same, while we, in our ripped black T-shirts and converse, high-five against conformity.
In backpacking, a similar game is being played. We all wear photogenic props: backpacks larger than our bodies, unkempt flock-of-seagulls hair, stubbled beards. We are known to “toke up” when the time is right, we are promiscuous, adolescent milkers of our youth; with adulthood just over the horizon, we are not-yet ready to hand over the world for the cage we must one day crawl into. When we get diarrhea on the road, we are grateful for it. When we get Dengue fever, we obtain bragging rights. When we get a cut or shiv, we stand-by for infection. We don’t mind used needles, we like things being shit and the shittier things are the better. We seek to hide within the grime, the seediness; we straddle between the whatever, and the why not? We get our passports and credit cards stolen. We get bit by rabies-infested monkeys. Our narrative grows and grows.
That is why, on my first package tour, riding through the mountains of Himachal Pradesh, I feel something of a coward. How has it come to this? How have I so easily exhausted my resourcefulness, letting the whim of the tour guide shepherd me from one ugly religious monument to another? It is clear I have betrayed my people, my self, my dignity and the overly romantic self-image in my head, where I appear as a brown Brad Pitt. My only redemption is when the air-conditioning on the bus leaks freezing water onto me all night and we have to sleep with the windows open, inviting all types of disease-ridden mosquitos. See, my backpacker companions, this is still travel, right?
Besides being famous for the Beatles and their drug-induced Enlightenment, Rishikesh is mostly just a beautiful city and not much else. Adjusting already to my role as a package tourist, I sneer past the low-life British backpackers with their dreadlocks and smell of piss and pot.
Dharamshala is by far the most interesting place along the Himachal Pradesh route. The home of the Dali Lama and the Tibetian exiles, this is perhaps the one place in India that does not bargain for prices. At least, this is my first impression, until I run into all the Hindus who had moved into Dharamshala just to sell “authentic Tibetan” knick-knacks at extremely high prices. I do my good deed for the year by dealing only with the Tibetans–it is their cultural heritage isn’t it?
After three days in Dharamshala, the bus back to Delhi breaks down, one day before my flight back to the States. The toxic fumes of a nearby factory and the swarm of mosquitos make this especially unbearable. After hours of watching the Indians weld together parts underneath the hood of the bus, I am in need of a restroom, and two minutes later I am accidentally mooning a family of shop-owners who speak no English and perhaps have never seen an American, let alone an American returning to nature in their fields. When the bus starts running again, the Israeli traveler next to me shoves his legs in front of my seat, and the entire night becomes a battle for more personal space, of which there is no clear victor.
Package tourism. I don’t see much of a difference.