(Tourist) Guest is not God

My ideas and concepts of travel are not something I came up with overnight, nor have I come up with them without thought or experience. The actual concept of the Yes to No Campaign has only come to light in the last few months, but subconsciously festering in the back of my head for years.  We are promoting travel/tourism to people who really have not travelled themselves.  By that the implications are numerous, there is no empathy from the hosts side, nor is there a real understanding what the real traveller wants or desires, thus there is no real understanding in the end what the host is able to offer, rather the hosts are in some odd way manipulated by what the expectations of the not so real travellers are.
By festering, I mean I have gone through phases in the Travel Industry.

It was in a village bordering Khasi and Garo hills, inhabited by a group called the Lyngam.   An older German couple had heard about this area and wanted me to take them there; I had taken and travelled with them through much of Nagaland and parts of Assam on two previous trips.  Most trips I have made with people were  often to places I had never been myself.  I would have to do research prior to going, meet local people who could translate for us and guide us, none of it, to me was about seeing anything in particular, it was about the experience.  This couple had already made me wonder whether I was doing the right thing taking people to places unknown to outsiders, but then I convinced myself that I was at least doing it slowly, quietly, as sensitively as possible.

The words used by many travellers I  took on trips were: ‘tribal areas’, ‘untouched, ‘backward’ and so on; that is what they were searching for. We would go to villages in Nagaland, bordering on Myanmar and if they saw anything remotely modern, it was a turn off for them.  When satellite television was coming in, and a family still in a thatch house could afford a dish, it was almost, to these travellers a no no.  How could ‘they ruin our perfect picture of a tribal house by putting a dish on the roof’?  This and many other things really hit me hard at that time.

For me, culture is about change, and we have no right to grudge a person having what we have, nor grudge change, it is what makes life special. I asked such clients, if they had a Television in at home, of course they did, along with all the other modern conveniences.  But somehow they should be able to travel and come to a place that we, should, metaphorically, cover with a white sheet and take it off for display of these ‘tourist’ in search of that ‘tribal’ experience.  That the villages should stay stagnant for ever, so they, the travellers, could leave the luxury of their homes for 2 weeks, rough it a little??,  go back home and show pictures of all those backward places they had travelled, sipping a nice glass of red wine while they showed their slides on a large screen, the ‘artefacts’ displayed on the table and munch on  popcorn fresh out of  the  microwave, while all their friends marvelled at the adventures, and horrid conditions they must have sacrificed themselves in.

It was in that village that I coined the phrase, ‘Tread softly, lest you destroy that which you so desperately seek’.   We were at the end of the motor able road the couple wanted to go to a village another hour or so by foot, to, of course see how the local tribes lived.  The night before, in my own local research and discussion, I found out that it was a market day where we were staying, the village they wanted to go to an hour away, would be barren, as all the residence would have come to the market day.  So the couple decided to wait till evening time and walk back with the villagers from the market.  What struck me is this: they went back to the room we had arranged at a Catholic mission, read and slept all day, while I sat, visited and was fascinated by the market. From nothing, slowly the buses came in, the trucks the people walking, all coming to buy or sell at the market day.  The tea and rice shops started bustling; I mingled, nibbled on local delicacies,  chatted with the people, finding all kinds of information about the area and the culture.  Here the couple who was looking for culture, did not even come out of their room to wander the market, why??,   I suppose it was not in the realm of what they termed a ‘tribal experience, backward group or what they had already envisaged as the ideal picture for their camera.

YES:  Yes, we will be hospitable; yes, we welcome you; yes, we will host you; yes, we will feed you well; yes, we will offer you what we have, and yes, we will host you on our terms. Yes, to control of numbers to ecologically and otherwise sensitive areas.  Yes, to local guides, small business, shops and eating establishments.

NO:  No, we are not able to host you on your terms:  no, we cannot feed you what you get in your home state or country; no, we cannot give you everything you demand; no, we will not be pushed around.  No to large Resorts and hotels.  No to last minute unplanned bookings.

I have been in North East India for more than half my life.  Born on the outskirts of Shillong, in an area called Mawlai, I went till Class 6, with my main language being Khasi, English only a subject and most of my friend’s local Mawlai boys and girls.  Not much separated me from the local kids, except that I could not rub enough dirt into my white skin. Even if I could speak, mingle and even know all the swear words in Khasi, I would always be white and different.

When my parents left Mawlai, after 15 years, I was dumped in an environment that by all outward appearances I should be comfortable with, now I was with the majority, white. But it was a different culture with different values and all my new  acquaintances came from a regular Canadian background. Here I was, speaking English with an accent most could not pin point, unsure of myself in this new social situation.  In time I adjusted, but somehow never fit in to the norms.  After 17 years, I had a chance to return to visit my birth place, not knowing that that short visit in 1995, would lead me to a new life in this part of the world, along with a new path.  I had spent my life since my last year of High School till I was thirty moving around much of North America, never quite settling down nor desiring a career.  When asked in high school what I wanted to do with my life, I did not answer with the normal desires of my peers, I said: ‘I never wanted to have a career.’

With this very brief history of where I come from, I suddenly immersed myself in the business of travel, never with long term intentions and never in the same way many others wanted to or wanted me to, From the very beginning I was never quite convinced that taking people to places as: quote – tourist, was the right thing to do. When a friend who I started Cultural Pursuits Adventures with wanted to add, eco, into the name – I rejected it, on the premise that I had no right to say I was an eco-adventure company.   After seeing so many western tour companies and now Indian tour companies misusing the word eco, eco-friendly, eco this and eco that, I am glad I stuck to my belief.  Even to this day living off Grid for 7 years, with no connection to the Meghalaya Electricity grid, I cannot claim to be eco-friendly.  I can only claim to do my best, no underlying pretence of being the saviour of the environment or the world.  It became and is then my belief that it is only through individual effort and example that we can make the most sustainable impact.

After opening MaplePine Farm Bed and Breakfast with my wife, convincing ourselves that it was time to take a chance and do something we believed in, and run it the way we want, not by what is expected.

Over the years we have come across every type of visitor; from the humble and gentle, who would barely hurt a fly to the audaciously demanding ‘customer is God’ type. It is only in the last couple of years that we have somehow managed to get to what we envisaged in the beginning.  We have put up with those who believe that once one opens a place, involved in the hospitality side of an industry that they have the right to demand what they want and we do not have the right to say what we offer and live by what we offer.   We have stood by our belief that once we state what we offer we do not have to go beyond that.  Yet over and over again we get people who would say: ‘since you are taking money, you have to give us what we want’. I somehow have not been able to get my head around this concept.   I do not go into a shop that sells certain items and demand that I get something else that they do not offer.

After the many nights of people demanding snacks at all hours, turning loud music on till late at night, drinking till they could not stand up.  After all we were new to the ‘hospitality’ industry. We decided no more!  Enough to the concept: that ‘guest is god’ and that we should stop everything and do whatever they wanted.  If they wanted breakfast at 10 am we should wait around and give it to them at 10 am, if they suddenly decided at 12 noon that they wanted lunch, we, with no prior notice should prepare it for them.  Each time my explanation that we were not a restaurant nor a hotel that were looking for this business; we were a Bed and Breakfast, offering and stating what we could offer, no more no less.   ‘Yes, but you have to give it to us’ ‘yes but you can make an exception for us’.    The basic assumption is that because we are supposedly in the service industry, no would not be the answer in any circumstance, somehow we ought to accommodate the demands. An example out of many:  A group of young men had settled into some drinks after snacks (we have a simple rules that we give snack in the evening but you have to order ahead of time), so at around 8, just before dinner, they decide they want more snacks, When my answer to their request was ‘sorry, no’ – their response was: ‘are you serious’,  as in:  ‘you can’t say no’.

The concept of the Yes to No Campaign is that it is voluntary and only an idea of possibly how things could be.   Even while building MaplePine Farm Bed and Breakfast, many local people would and still assume that we must have received some large sum from the Tourism Department or some subsidy.  Why else would somebody build what we built?  Most people don’t want to believe that we made a decision to invest in something different, and invest in the long term.  Numerous investors would have put up the resources for us to start a 5 star resort, put a wall around the property and offer an exclusive all inclusive property to rich clients from other parts of India and the world.  I don’t doubt that we would be sitting quite rich by this point if we had followed that model.  But would it have made our life better, happier more satisfying??, that I belief to be, a no.  We are also happy that banks refused our request for loans, because building the way we wanted to  build, is considered a temporary structure.

One thing we decided when starting MaplePine Farm Bed and Breakfast was that we were not in the business of convincing others what they should do; we were in the business of doing what we felt best for us and for the travel industry in general, not to make a quick buck.  We committed to the fact that we were ready to help others in any way we could, advice and offer input based on our own experience, but we were not going out of our way to tell people what they should do.  We have come to believe that Empowerment is what is necessary, for people to take it on themselves to do something, by asking questions, researching and dreaming.

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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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