Lost in the Clouds : Tourism in Meghalaya

How not to save Living Root Bridges?

Having been in the Tourism Sector in North East India since 1997, I feel I do have a little to say regarding the topic and the direction it is going. This piece of writing may offend some, may wake up some, or may even turn some against me; some may even think I write out of jealousy: let it all be – I point out things because they are in the context of the topic.  When I write or speak I do not try to say I know best, I believe in debate, strong views and discussion, therefore I often say what I feel, in the belief that it will not only make my own mind think in the broader perspective but also hope that others will think.  It is not a put down to others who are doing things differently, it is a question, as I believe others can question me.

Mr. Avner Pariat, a contributor to Raiot,  did an interview with Patrick Rogers, purported in many articles as a ‘one man race to save the living root bridges’, in the article Patrick puts forward his views on what he is doing:  ‘The living root bridge project’.  Those who read posting on Facebook, will realize that I have said some things regarding the project, as well Mr. Patrick has personally said things about me.

However, he should note that what I wrote about the project and my wordings were a universal we/us and I, not he in particular.  We all in our daily lives are involved in some level of exploitation, whether it be purposefully and with conscious thought or otherwise, unconsciously exploiting.  In the entire article about the Living Root Project I put forward my views about the situation, Mr. Patrick did not choose to see it in that light, he wanted to see it as a personal attack on him, which is the sad reality.

As I have been in the travel and tourism sector for more than 18 plus years I have travelled most of North East India, taken many foreign and domestic travel groups to remote villages, introduced them to interesting ceremonies and festivals.  In all that time, I can say I have done my very best not to exploit the local people in places that I visited.  Often when one is a new visitor to a village, the kindness and goodness of the villagers means hosting you for free.  I have seen and experience some of the most giving people while travelling in these villages.  My belief, and what I would tell them was: ‘listen, I am making money so, so should you for what you have given us.’  Even to the point of just leaving something on the table, when they insist it is ok.  I have done my best to explain to them that the transaction of money is a reality in this day and age, but should not be the main focus or the motivator; service and their own natural way of taking care of the guest are what are important.Kudeng Root Bridges (15) copy

I can say I have stepped away from many a place when money became the main motivator.   Mr. Patrick insists that he has nothing to gain from the Living Root Project, bless him for his philanthropist ways, but evidence points elsewhere.  In this day and age the internet is a mass of information.  I hate to keep bringing Mr. Patrick up, but it is the example that is so out there, that one cannot help but point it out.  Along with his insistence that he has noting to gain, he is promoting trips to the Living Root bridges, which is not for me to question, so are many others. But why say he is not gaining anything. He is raising funds from a gofund site to cover expenses, again non of my business, but who are the people sponsoring him, are they people who have been to the area, understand, or do they just believe and think it is a good thing, therefore sponsor him.  It is much like the missionaries who are paid a nice salary from abroad to live in countries like India, sponsored by rich old ladies and others,  in churches who feel good because they are helping save the lost souls of a third world country, meanwhile up the street from them are criminals, drug abusers and satanic worshipers, who will be left to go to hell.  By setting himself up as the savior of the living root bridges he is putting himself out as an ideal leader to these places for foreigners.  In much of his notes he says he is working with village councils, with headmen and so on, I wonder why his first example of a bridge that he has GPS’ed and measured and points to as the example of how he is doing the rest, is a bridge between Kudeng Rim and Kudeng Thymmai, yet neither of the headman of those 2 villages, who I know personally, have been informed of his project or that he did the work there.  Beyond that, the young man who took him there is from Shnongpdeng, a village that has just recently jumped in what they imagine is tourism, but in reality are locals from towns and cities coming for picnics.  So the young man (I don’t grudge him, he is acting as a guide) that accompanied him to the living root bridge prior to a couple years ago, having lived all his life in Shnongpdeng and only a couple hours walk from this bridge, had never been there.  It was in fact with me and a group from South India that he first visited the bridge. Now he is taking people all the time from Shnongpdeng.   Another young man from Padu, who opened his home up, and took Patrick to several bridges around the area, emphatically told us about the visit and that at the end of it, he was not even offered a little donation for his time or the food he offered to his guest.   He had even asked Patrick why he wanted to see the bridges, ‘was it for research or otherwise’ and was told that he was just personally interested.  No mention of the ‘Living Root Bridge Project’. This is from the young man calling me not me asking him.Kudeng Root Bridges (2) copy

Tourism is not just a photo-opportunity

So here we are at the point I want to make about tourism, travel and opening up new places to supposed tourism.  Without the understanding of the local people who are we in the industry to say they should go into tourism, and what in fact do they understand about it and its long term affect.  I am not saying I know it all, but I do however feel I have a little insight.  A prime example is Mawlynnong, I stepped away from MTDF (Meghalaya Tourism Development Forum), with one of the main reasons being the things that occurred in Mawlynnong and the way people were exploiting the areas.   Some of us, spent our own money and gave our time going to Mawlynnong many times, helping raise money to help build a small ‘village’ guest house, getting donations from hardware stores in Shillong to build toilets and showers, not knowing that behind the scenes others were setting themselves up to make money from the village.  Now, I am not saying the locals have not benefitted, more power to them, they learnt a lot in a few short years, how to get schemes, how to get projects, how to get the world to talk about them, imagine a ‘Cleanest Village in Asia’ tag, without any competition.  What happened in Mawlynnong, most every corporate leader would drool at the USP created in such a short time.  A living root bridge not belonging to Mawlynnong, suddenly became theirs, to the rest of the world, the word Mawlynnong, living Root Bridge, and Cleanest village became synonymous references.  Oh the power of media!   Once again I inadvertently toot my own horn, but is it not amazing that Mr. Patrick personally writes to Tim Allen, a BBC photographer, who stayed in Mawlynnong in 2006, and asks questions about the living root bridges, why because he brought BBC to do a documentary and took photos that spread on the internet.  Yet Tim Allen himself on his blog, points to me being the one who introduced him to Mawlynnong.  When BBC wanted to do a documentary on the living root bridges they first approached me, but due to a change in the director of the documentary they later approached somebody else, who that director heard of.  My initial proposal to them was to visit the many bridges that exist through out War Khasi and War Jaintia not just the ones that became popular in Riwai and Nohwet and Nongriat but to travel, learn the significance they had to the different village the historical value of them.  However they did not, they choose instead to do a very limited documentary: not uncommon in these commercial ventures where budget is the main driving force, why travel to distant bridges when you could set up scenes in easily accessible ones.

Campsite copy
Morningstar Sumer on the left

Please don’t misinterpret some of my mentions of myself, and pity me, or think I am defending myself. I cannot but mention myself in the scenario even if I did not want to.  I have been taking travelers as small groups, individuals and couples to one particular village for the past 4 years or so, with a very good friend of mine, Morning Star Sumer, who in my estimation is the real person who is involved in saving the living root bridges, but when you are not a foreigner, not savvy on the internet in self promotion you don’t get the publicity.  He has personally introduced me to many of the bridges, and other interesting stories around the areas. Morning Star Sumer has quietly been travelling, at his own expense and time, encouraging the headmen, the villagers and so on. But who would care about that, if you are not a self promoter you don’t get anywhere.  We travel to many of these villages Mr. Patrick says he is working in and visit with headmen all the time.  They understand more than we might want them to as outsiders.  I am often impressed by their openness, but let me state one thing, and it is a beauty as well as a flaw of the many people: they are enamoured by the white man, and often seem timid and in awe of what they are doing.  Me, yes I am white, but I walk the line between being a local and outsider, having been born in Mawlai, so they are less in awe of me then others.   I also know my privileged position of what I call, reverse discrimination:  meaning I am looked up at for the colour of my skin rather than for what I am, the general assumption of the many people, white equals good, rich and christian.  Even if we are neither or some of them, their judgment, is that first.  It has taught me over the years to not judge a group of people by stereo types, no matter how glaring some are at times, but to rather judge people by the person themselves, I like you for you, or a dislike you for you: not for what colour your skin is, or what community you come from or for what country you come from.River in War copy

My own personal opinion is with empowerment comes self realization.  When you empower the people to understand tourism and travel, its good points and bad points, whatever happens after that is in their hands not outsiders.  The decisions they make are made by them through the help to understand, of others. We are talking of people who have rarely travelled out of their own area.  Is it not obvious that why the world is only finding out about the living root bridges now, is because nobody from those areas were travelling out to other areas and ever thought to mention they had such a thing, nor people from other areas were travelling to those areas much. When we were children in the 70’s our father travelled extensively in War Jaintia, yet we never heard of the bridges.

If I am going into a new business that I do not have knowledge of, I would welcome people who are already in that business to give me advice, ideas and thoughts.  Once I decided to start that business I would not want to blame them for things that happened, it would finally be on me to take the blame:  if I succeeded it would be because of what I did and if I failed it would be because of what I did.  The danger is when somebody is not empowered they can blame others for things going wrong, but will quickly take the praise, even if not deserved, if things go right.  We need to put both sides of the coin blame and praise in the stakeholder’s hands. An example from another sector is when the agriculture or horticulture department introduces a product and encourages a village to plant things, coffee being an example, without empowering the villages to market it.  How are they supposed to know how or where to  market coffee, if they are not taught?   If you build a guest house, set up a home stay or otherwise, who is going to come and stay if you are not capable of marketing it, or do you depend on the people from outside to send people who may not be appropriate to what you are providing.  Empowering means teaching, educating then putting it in their hands.

The government is quick to put places on brochures, without really knowing what the place has to offer in infrastructure.   It was not but, 10 to 12 years ago that lakhs if not crores were spent on the caves of Meghalaya, beautiful brochures and promotions, of that money how much has the promotion of caves helped the local population living near caves.  Mostly it has been professional cavers coming for expeditions; a good thing, but certainly not beneficial to the local people in general, might it not have been more appropriate for the geological department to be part of cave expeditions rather than tourism department.  Now it is the Living Root Bridges, Meghalaya is no longer synonymous with ‘abode of the clouds’ or ‘caves’ it is ‘Living Root Bridges’. The living root bridges will be mapped and promoted by the local villages if only it was in their hands and understanding of how to host people coming. What I believe will happen, by mapping the bridges by an outsider and putting it on the internet, is the myriad of travellers just showing up on their own, walking through the villages, but not really giving benefit to the people in the villages and in reality possible creating more disturbance than it is worth.

The government will preach tourism as the best option for unemployed youth, give schemes and loans to already well off persons to build guest houses and resorts, but what are they doing on the ground to help the ones who really could use the help, the ones that can really host a traveler in their home, but don’t understand the concepts involved, because all they see is ‘resorts’ that bring in local young people wanting to get away from their parents home to do things that may not in general be socially acceptable.

Just 4 km from a Bed and Breakfast my wife and I built, in Lynkein, Hima Mawphlang,  with our own money and sweat, is Keanean Guest house, a supposed Micro Tourism Project of Lady Keane College: having a nice signboard with the necessary offering of who opened it in the presence of whom, all the big shot were there to open it, yet most days you drive by, months after opening, this Micro Tourism Project is locked.  Yet we 4 km away, we didn’t even get an invite to the opening; nor have we ever had a foot fall from the local MLA, who is also Parliamentary Secretary for Tourism, certainly would not get The Chief Minister to ask how we did it.  No, why?  I leave that out there in the clouds of the state promoted as the ‘abode of the clouds’.

Or the locals they see a home stay built with cement, two stories and know that they could never achieve that; nobody points out that they could just clean up a room, a nice bed, put a decent toilet and Walla, the second step on the way to authentically host traveler who in this day and age is searching for such places.  The first step, being, how to get the right people to know about it. Certainly not, in my estimation, via the myriad of internet booking agencies pounding on every hotels, home stay and Bed and Breakfasts door to control the booking procedures, so that eventually the traveler has no choice but to book through them; not wanting or taking the time to search learn and understand that the real experience is in the small establishments, where really, it is the real traveler who should come not the tourist, who often is directed there by these cooperate thinking, number filling internet booking agencies, who really should realize these are not the places for them.  We are not selling something we are not, we are selling an experience.  No, the government will give tax breaks, subsidies to well off people to build anything from a ‘home stay’ to a 5 Star hotel for what, so that rich people can spend their money in a expensive hotel, hire an expensive car from the city, drive by the so called authentic village, or heritage village, take a few pictures and pay an entry fee to a gate keeper.  Where is the real benefit to the local population sitting on the sideline watching all this happen in front of them, now of course finally able to take a picture of the original picture taker, because at least they have a mobile phone with a camera now.

(images by James Perry)

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James Perry Written by:

James Perry was born Mawlai, Meghalaya. He grew up going to Class 6 in Mawlai in a Khasi Primary School. His parents returned to Canada in 1977. James returned to his birth place in 1995 for a visit, circumstances after that led him to marriage and stay in Meghalaya. He has been leading travellers from all over the world to remote areas of North East India since 1997. It is only in the last 5 years he and his wife have been working on a Bed and Breakfast in Lyngkein, Hima Mawphlang. James and his wife have a strong belief in travel in a sustainable manner. The philosophy and belief is empowerment for a sustainable future.

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