Our large, white Jeep curved along the winding Indian Himalayan road, the jagged gravel sinking below the tires into the monsoon mud. I sipped on my guava juice box while dancing to Bollywood music, bouncing on the carpet-covered seat. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw it. A beautifully painted elephant being lead up the mountain by a group of men in tattered, dirty clothes. I was so excited to see my favorite animal outside of a zoo, but what I did not know was that elephants used for tourism are anything but free.
When I travel, I always look up sites to visit and places to eat, but not often how to be a responsible tourist. Last summer, I spent three weeks on a service learning trip in Dharamshala, India with Global Leadership Adventures. Before this trip, I had never thought about how often popular activities I do as a tourist affect the native people or surrounding environment. Not only did I learn how to be more respectful to the people I met, but also how to show respect to the culture and natural beauty India had to offer.
Other people’s travel pictures on Pinterest rarely show what is happening behind the scenes to make tourist opportunities possible or how they affect a community. I had seen dozens of pictures of tourists petting and riding elephants in busy cities like Delhi or Mumbai, but never the way the elephants are treated when not adorned with paint and jewels. Liz Jones of the United Kingdom’s The Daily Mail exposed this well-kept secret to show the abuse and injustice involved in using elephants for tourism. She visited Guruvayur Temple in Kerala, southern India, an elephant training camp lead by wealthy businessmen and politicians, where elephants are chained, starved, and beaten in order to become obedient so that they may be ridden and perform in festivals and parades. While not all elephants are trained this way, it is nearly impossible as a tourist to know how a particular elephant was trained. From my local mentors, I learned that some Hindus believe using elephants for profit is disrespectful because they are considered sacred incarnations of Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu god of wisdom. Had I not known what was going on below the surface, I would have unintentionally supported animal cruelty and offended my local friends, who were nothing but welcoming to me.
In 2009, Clare Sisisky, Collegiate’s Director of Responsible Citizenship Initiative and Director of Strategic Planning, traveled to Bangladesh to help the U.S. State Department with teacher training. In a rural area, she lead a workshop for teacher professional development, in which each local school could send two teachers. Only male teachers and male principals attended. However, because she was dressed in a local-style outfit, she was able to become closer with the locals as well as gain their respect. She says, “[dressing respectfully] allowed the local people to see me as a peer and colleague rather than merely an outsider or tourist.”
“If you are interested in doing more than being a tourist, being very mindful of clothing is essential and can really help your credibility in a professional setting.” -Clare Sisisky
Had Sisisky not dressed in local, appropriate clothes, she would not have gotten as many invitations to tea and even to weddings during her stay in Bangladesh. Being respectful to the local culture and social practices helped her “gain credibility as a young Western woman.”
When returning to Nicaragua during the summer of 2015, Ellie Fleming (‘17) was excited to work at a local library and bookmobile. Her plane landed on July 19th, Nicaragua’s Liberation Day. Knowing nothing beyond that it might be difficult to get from the airport to where she was staying, she had no idea what to expect. To understand the day better, she researched what the celebrations would look like and the politics behind the historic celebration. Ellie recalls, “That day is one of the most memorable from my trip, and I think it could have been very different if I hadn’t been willing to educate myself about the topic and immerse myself in the culture.”
Tourists have the power to learn about the local culture, beyond tourist sites. It is important to be educated about where you are visiting and the people there so you do not offend locals and have more opportunities enhance your cultural immersion. With summer vacations just around the corner, think about how your actions affect the people and environment around you and how you can make your experience as a traveler more engaging.
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