It is strange how frightfully busy one can get as the months pass by, seemingly with no regard for anyone or anything.
February was one of those times. Moments set aside for pleasure reading, writing, and simply being with myself were pushed aside for exams one week, and travel the next. As time moved quickly forward, I found myself struggling to make time for much meaningful self reflection, let alone time to write a blog post. However, enough of my excuses. Aside from this mere busyness, I’ve found that my time while studying abroad has engaged me in completely different ways than when I am at my home university.
There is a strange urge, while abroad, to travel as much as possible and document as much as one can. One’s downtime is no longer filled with student organizations, general body meetings and jobs (due to lack of access, availability, and visa status), but now is filled with elaborate travel plans— off to Hampi, or to Varanasi, or to Bhopal, or to Dehli. As result, travel is crammed into weekends and moments, and passes by in quick bursts. In these fast paced environments, I often find myself unsure of what to see and at what pace to genuinely, and meaningfully experience the place that I am in.
This question, and other questions of travel are ones which I have been investigating during the duration of our semester (in part, facilitated by the incredible professor of our travel writing class, Nazia Akhtar). What does Travel (with a capital “T”) mean, what is my personal definition of travel, and how are these definitions interlaced with tourism? In searching for answers to these bigger conceptual questions, I often find my self facing a complicated and important truth that many authors, theorists, and foreign expats have faced before. That is, that there are no clear answers to these questions, and that our understanding of travel is tied to a deeply harmful, racist legacy of Orientalism that, especially when traveling in South Asia, colors most of our preconceived notions and our interpretations of everything that surrounds us.
As a white women from the United States, it is imperative for me to actively confront moments in which I can see histories of imperialism and colonialism clouding my judgement of what surrounds me, and to constantly engage myself and my peers in these important reflections. My mind is often consumed in these thoughts.
This mode of thinking is crucial in the context of the aforementioned fast travel I’ve experienced. During our CIEE excursion to Hampi, our three-day trip was jam packed with “must-see” locations, at many of which we spent brief 30 minute chunks. Though I did find great delight in visiting many important sites of the 14th century capital of Vijayanagara Empire, like the Lotus Mahal and Elephant Stables, I found that I was dismayed that, when at sites at which I knew there was a wealth of information, we were given distilled snippets of history, 5 minutes to take photos, and quickly ushered to a next “must-see” site. This quick-paced, click-and-go, type of tourism felt superficial. As a trained museum educator who has an intense interest in historical education, I found this quick commodification of ancient history troubling— why are speed and group photos valued over educational experience or cultural awareness?
While the extremely lucrative aspects of tourism are the clear reason for this, it comes at an evident cost: that foreigners can travel to any location, take some sub-par phone photos of extraordinary monuments, and leave with very little understanding of the culture they just breezed through. Though this type of tourism is now one of the more accessible forms of travel, (prepackaged, planned deals are often easier, affordable, concrete ways to travel to places that have historically been unaccessible for those not of extreme wealth), it is perhaps an inevitability of capitalism that in the tourism industry, history is short changed for actual change (read: money). Sorry, bad pun.
There are no clear solutions to this problematic development of tourism, but there are perhaps small forms of resistance that can help one maintain one’s sanity. Namely, wandering away from the group, talking to people from the area about their lives, families, and histories, and taking one’s sweet time to take in the beautiful syncretic architecture to one’s heart’s content.
Anyways, during these fast travels, I have found that photography has been my closest confidant, capturing moments and places to which I felt I couldn’t give enough time. Below, find some select photos from Hampi that I think give a nice summation of our trip.