Three quarters of India’s billion-strong population live in rural villages. And yet, this is a side of life in India most travelers never get to see in any depth, if at all. We land at the international airport of one-or-another of India’s sprawling mega-cities and move along well beaten routes between destinations – other cities or sites of cultural, spiritual, historical, or natural interest.
India’s villages, though ubiquitous, are not easily accessible to outsiders. While travel by state bus or shared vehicle is not difficult to get, it usually represents a degree of discomfort most travelers avoid. And then there is the issue of language. While English is spoken nearly everywhere in urban India, it is rarely encountered in the rural villages.
Unlike most tourist destinations, little is gained from simply seeing a village and moving on. Discovering village life is as much about culture as viewing the Taj Mahal or attending a Bharatanatyam performance, but it is subtler and requires a less hurried approach. The way to experience village life is to linger there, to observe how people spend their time, understand what things are important to them, and feel the ways in which they interact within their community.
Social scientists (and quantum mechanicians) have long recognized that the mere presence of the observer cannot help but to influence the outcome of their experiment. Nowhere is this axiom truer than in the villages. Place a big, sweaty white guy in a small rural village and the chances of life going on as usual are infinitesimal. Still, if one moves easily among the people, and without a large entourage, there is always the possibility of glimpsing scenes of candor and great beauty. One cannot reach what is true; but one can at least face in the correct direction and extrapolate forward.
We have had the good fortune to visit a number of remote rural villages in Maharashtra and Karnataka over the course of the last week-or-so, first with NGOs from whom we are gathering knowledge about improved bio-mass cookstove technologies, for our Darfur project, then with our friend TB Dinesh.
Dinesh is a brilliant guy, and an amazing central node in an ever-widening web of fascinating, engaged people. He arranged an outing for the diwali holiday for a group of his friends that included artists, weavers, technologists, and service-folks. The journey had two principal aims. The first was to look at the work being done by Shramik Abhivrudhi Sangh, an NGO doing sustainable livelihood work with sheepherders, weavers, and textile artisans. We spent two days in the company of the NGOs prime-movers, Father Joseph and Gopi, meeting with the beneficiaries of their projects. The second purpose of the gathering was to discuss a new paradigm for travel – one that might make available the more subtle aspects of Indian culture to small groups of responsible travelers. It is not entirely clear, at this point, how much progress was made with respect to this objective, but the ideas were interesting to hear, especially while we were actually staying out in the villages.
I’ll keep everyone advised as Dinesh’s group continues to develop its ideas and its network. In the meanwhile, you might want to check out these interesting websites: Airline Ambassadors, Ethical Traveler, MadNomad, and Backpack Nation.