Guilt Trips

Kai Friese interrogates the colonial fantasy that lives on in the sententious philanthropy of ethical tourism in this excerpt from the Chronic Life magazine in The Chimurenga Chronic.

[Research material : Article brief & reading list]


Escape Narratives

Suspicion in the Oriental is a sort of malignant tumour, a mental malady, that makes him self-conscious and unfriendly suddenly; he trusts and mistrusts at the same time in a way the Westerner cannot comprehend. It is his demon, as the Westerner’s is hypocrisyE.M. Forster, A Passage to India

One hundred and fifty years ago today (give or take a month) an Indian prisoner ‑ Life Convict 276 ‑ in the colonial penal colony on the Andaman Islands escaped his British jailors only to find himself dying of starvation and thirst, at the mercy of a fierce jungle tribe. I read about it in a Scottish magazine, Chambers’ Journal, of 1860: Doodnath Tewarry had been sentenced to ‘transportation for life’ for the crime of mutiny and desertion; he had been a sepoy for the British but changed sides during the rebellion of 1857. And the naked black men who had just despatched the last of his fellow escapees and wounded him with three arrows belonged to a tribe of the Great Andamanese, the largest of the indigenous communities of the islands.

For some reason that he was never able to explain, they spared him, tended to his wounds and allowed him to share their nomadic existence in the tropical forests. And finally they even gave him a wife, a 20-year-old woman of the tribe, named Leepa.

But before a year had passed, Tewarry found his own personal salvation in another betrayal ‑ slipping away to warn his former British captors of an imminent attack by the Andamanese tribesmen. It went well for him: the British were able to slaughter their attackers and the mercenary Doodnath was rewarded with a free pardon and repatriated to the Indian mainland. The light-hearted narrator in Chambers’ Journal remarks with an indulgent smirk that “the wretch left his beloved Leepa, it seems, in an interesting condition.”

“Given a choice I prefer the backstabber to the backpacker – at least he wasn’t a tourist”

Some 34 years ago a young British traveller named Stephen Corry “found himself in Nepal and Mount Everest…with no money and no support”. I learned this from a profile in the Botswanan newspaper, Mmegi. It continues: “Corry had to rely on the local people for sustenance. His voice deepens into a growl when he talks about this period, which he calls a watershed:

‘This was a turning point in my life. My interaction with the Himalayan tribespeople overturned my preconceptions. There was no superior or inferior being. I was just a human being like them,’ he said.

Before his interaction with the Himalayan tribes, he had always believed that British civilisation and development was the best.

‘I lived with people who had no electricity or cars and yet they lived very fulfilling lives. They had no schools but they were very intelligent people. I became even more thirsty to understand and learn more about the tribespeople of the world.’

Corry got his wish too, returning to England where he now heads Survival International, a venerable British NGO that calls itself “the movement for tribal peoples”.

Given a choice between these two grotesque adventurers, I know I prefer the backstabber to the backpacker. He might have been a treacherous serial deserter and a terrible husband. And he certainly played his part in a little genocide. But at least he wasn’t a tourist.

The Ethical Tourist

A humanitarian is always a hypocrite – George Orwell, ‘Rudyard Kipling’

I see him sitting in airport lounges, rustling and squeaking demurely in his survivalist attire, all pockets and hypertrophied trekking boots. He has a harmlessly solipsistic air about him, and is usually immersed in the communion of a cappuccino and a pious book. It could be Deepak Chopra or Paulo Coelho, Three Cups of Tea, or something about Tibet. And yes, he’s usually Western, mostly white. But these days he could just as well be Indian. Hell, except for his taste in literature, he could almost be me. An appalling thought.

In truth, this spectacle hardly rouses me to rage ‑ more a melancholy nausea. But it’s a reaction strong enough to merit some reflection. Fortunately (or unfortunately), because my job once involved a routine review of international travel publications, I have had pause to unpack the cultural valise of my tourist caricature. And I’m beginning to understand why I dislike him so much.

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