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Dhotis in Denmark
A calloused man in cotton dhoti, waistcoat and Gandhi cap walks into a travel fair in Pune and shops for a foreign holiday. He approaches a travel agent and in Marathi asks how much Switzerland is going for? The agent gives him the once-over. She thinks she's being had. "What's your budget sir?" she inquires. "Two lakhs. Is that enough?" The lady hands him some brochures, taps him for requisite information, and privately kicks herself for being dismissive of a demographic that has lately been bringing home considerable bread - the rural tourist. If urban India has its bespoke travel arrangements, pastoral India has its package tours, and if the suburbs are starboarding out to Greece, the hinterland is hightailing it to Rome. Travel agents count 10 approximate years to the beginning of what they call a 'trend' - a classifiable, accountable outflow of tourists from agrarian India to the wide world - wanting nothing more than to take in the sights. The estimate more or less calibrates with the average age of the rural tourist - 60 years. People in the field (both travel and the other kind) say that only after a man has worked his way up the material order - building his house, raising his children, buying his first non-utility vehicle, sundry gadgets and assets in property or gold does he finally decide a foreign holiday will do nicely. It doesn't matter that he has seen almost nothing of his own country. "Impute the spurt in outbound travel to the upper-middle class villager's improved finances in the last decade or so, " says K Chandran, who runs one of the busiest agencies in Coimbatore, called Empire Traveline that covers Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. "They save well, and save enough, and then don't know what to do with their money. " And so travel agents hold out seductive options within the pleats of brochures.
The pop imagery of cities like Bangkok, Cape Town, New York, Paris and London have infiltrated hamlets in Rajpipla, Gwalior, Erode, Sangli and Sirsa via films, advertisements and more recently TV travel channels. It was only a matter of time before the villager took the bait. "But he was long immobilized by the fear that international travel was beyond his reach - he considered it too expensive, or thought himself culturally incompatible. That's when the agencies arrived. Canny agents tunneled into a tight community with the help of influential members like village leaders, presidents of social and business groups, headmasters and politicians. They used them as passport prophets, to proselytise the others, even if it required the initial investments of a few junkets. They inveigled the locals in their dialect, holding out East Asia or the Middle East with the assurance that the agency would get them there - it didn't matter if they didn't own a passport, couldn't speak English and had never placed a toe outside their district. As long as they had money - and it turned out, they wouldn't need too much of it either - they were good to go.
"People from small towns and villages won't be swayed by full-page newspapers ads. They're more likely to buy the advice of an acquaintance, " confirms Nalina Pothuval, owner of GNS Travels, one of the first to take groups abroad straight out of Kochi and not Kerala's capital, Trivandrum.
When they do eventually tilt, it's often towards countries in the neighbourhood. "First-time travellers are often quite anxious about being at such a distance from home, " Pothuval says. "So they first opt for closer locations like Singapore, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Dubai and Bangkok. Round two is Europe, America, New Zealand, Australia, and farther out. "
"We can never travel with the entire family because someone has to stay behind to look after the fields, the house and feed the cattle, " says Brij Bajpai, a tobacco farmer from Gorakhpur, UP, who says he's seen the world - by which he means Dubai, Singapore and the East Coast. "My sons and I take turns travelling with our wives every year, and we usually holiday after the harvest. This year, my youngest son will travel to Mauritius. "
Their anxiety over crossing the oceans and camping on untried ground for over a week is somewhat mitigated when travel agents band travelers from the same state, if not the same district, to maintain a sense of fellowship and familiarity. Pothuval recalls a tour operator who nearly had a civil war on his hands when he took a mixed bunch of Malayalis and Kannadigas abroad. They fought throughout the way and one group tried to eat the other off the buffet table.
Mangesh Pandey, a tour escort in Gurgaon, warns of the dire consequences of taking a group of Haryanvi cattle lords to Bangkok with a bunch of Surti jewellers. "One group won't make it off the plane, " he says grimly.
It's certainly no picnic for a travel agent taking a group (sometimes numbering upward of 100) abroad for the first time. The problem begins from the time a villager is required to show proof of a sizeable bank balance for trips to the West (Rs 4-5 lakh) and China (Rs 1. 5 lakh). But the trouble is that most rural Indians would probably only have Rs 4, 000 in the bank, but property and jewellery worth crores. However, on the advice of the agent, by the time a villager graduates from his East Asian vacation to an American sojourn, he has already started fattening his bank account.
Agents have by now found a way around technical posers;what they tend to have trouble with is the inevitable clash of civilisations... and for the inexperienced travel escort, that's when the applesauce hits the fan. Experienced personnel brace themselves for it. Pothuval knows that all firsttimers, particularly country-bred travellers, have to be instructed in the how-tos of a new place, including fundamental but crucial lessons in using the shower, the toilet, and locking the room door. Of course, crises are inevitable.
"Accustomed to sleeping on the floor, or on hard cotton mattresses back home, some people refuse to sleep on a bed if it's too 'springy'. They bed down on the hotel floor instead, " she says. "Then there are some who prefer to bathe outside the bathtub, finding alternative use for it as an extra large bucket. They fill it up, stand outside it and bathe with a tinpot they carry from home. One gentleman claimed bathing under a shower didn't clean him as well as his thorough ritual of pouring water over his head with a lota - which he proceeded to do even if it cost him $100 to have housekeeping mop up the flooded room. "
But no matter how preemptive the escort, not every disaster can be averted. Chandran remembers the small-town couple that mistook the blinking fire sprinkler in the hotel room at Ramada, Bangkok, for a spy camera and sought to destroy it. They set off the sprinklers and had to fork out Rs 1. 7 lakh in room damages.
"It's often difficult to convince intractable village veterans to adapt to the local culture, " says Pankaj Shah, director of a multi-city travel agency called Gem Tours and Travels, with offices in Indore, Surat and Jamnagar. Shah says rural and small-town customers contribute to 20 per cent of his takings and the figures are growing every year. It only means he needs to steel himself for more of the unexpected.
He recalls a tourist from Maharashtra who insisted on wearing his dhoti, Gandhi cap and plastic slippers up a mountain in Switzerland. Alien to icy weather in dusty Satara, he thought he could brave it, but he returned with frostbite and severe body ache. "If the men won't part with their dhotis, the women (particularly Gujaratis and Marwaris) can't be separated from their gold," Shah complains.
Veena Patil has somehow succeeded in not only getting the women to stow their leaden jewellery, but to incredibly swap their Kanjiveerams for twillweave denim. Patil is the managing director of a family-run outfit called Kesari Travels that has long served rich farmers, landowners and sugar barons from Satara, Sangli, Chandrapur and Osmanabad.
Now it's the wives' turn. "About 30 per cent of the women on our women-only tour, My Fair Ladies, come from villages and small towns in Maharashtra, " she claims. The average age of these women is 40 to 55 years. "This is how it usually works: their husbands travel abroad on agro-tours or for trade fairs and they want their wives and mothers to have a bit of fun as well. So they gift them a trip on our all-woman tours. " Most of the women have seldom travelled without their families and their apprehensions cause some to break down crying. That's when tour escorts like Patil have to double up as counsellors on the journey.
But once the women taste travel, they're sold on it. Many return to cast their net farther. Patil claims it turns their personality around. Sunita Matte, the sarpanch of Khadakwasla, a village near Pune, had her first outing to Mauritius three years ago. "She started out in a salwar kameez and large tika. She made her second tour to another country in jeans, and her third in a skirt. 'Don't go any further, ' my staff teases her, " Patil laughs.
It may be good business for the agents, but it's a revelation as well for those who pay attention. Patil talks about the ease with which rural women handle their new cameras and cellphones;their keenness to sample the local culture with women they now call friends, and away from the appraising eye of the village men. In new lands, they reinvent themselves.
Touring men too find pride in orbiting the planet. "They return from a trip abroad feeling superior to their peers, " reports Chandran. "Some even go so far as to place ads in local newspapers that read 'Arrived after successful completion of trip to America'. " With a photo as proof of said holiday.
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