Experiencing my first goat traffic jam is one of the things I’ll always remember about Khandar. So is the little girl who, since I told her I wanted to help because I needed the exercise, has come into my office every day to let me know that her family is chopping fodder in case I want to join. And if “chopping fodder” didn’t bring to mind a swirling metal contraption with three sharp blades that makes the tedious task at hand about as efficient as it could possibly be before, it certainly does now. Again – thanks to my time spent in Khandar. While the beautiful scenery and sights are one reason to visit Khandar, the opportunity to connect with local people and experience daily life in a place that is likely very different from where most tourists come from should be an even bigger one.
In ways big and small, visiting Khandar shows both outsiders and locals that “daily life” can mean radically different things to different people. For example, visitors will notice that the roads are different here. The idea that streets are appropriate for certain types of traffic (cars) and not others (goats, for example) does not exist here. Getting stuck in a crowd of hundreds of goats, cows, or sheep, or behind a line of camels may be mundane to locals, but for visitors it’s a novel (and sometimes hilarious) experience. And while most visitors will probably have experience with buses, few will have ridden buses where people hang off the back and sit on the roof when space runs out inside.
Another way in which this manifests itself is with food. Where I come from, restaurants advertise “farm to table” dining as if that were not true of all food, “seasonal” ingredients are a mark of distinction, and green markets charge high prices for “local” fruits and vegetables, which in reality still come from hundreds of miles away from the city. Khandar’s food culture is far less self-conscious, but also far more true to the ideals of those buzzwords. Here, the intense flavor of the tomatoes and onions that are served with most meals is testament to the fact that they were picked earlier the same day, often by the very same people who made the food. And while foreign foods like pasta aren’t available in town, the constantly shifting seasonal diet, on an unwritten schedule that has developed over millenia, keeps things interesting enough on its own.
When I told some of my coworkers that most people where I come from aren’t involved in food production at all, and many (including me before I came to India) have never been on a farm in their entire life, they looked incredulous. How do people eat then? We started talking about the ways in which food culture is different between rural India and the urban U.S., which inevitably transitioned into talking about the economy, politics, and… a Google street-view tour of my neighborhood to prove the lack of farms. (“The whole thing is your house?” someone asked me at the sight of my 22-story apartment building in New York).
Sitting behind the backside of Ranthambore National Park, Khandar also offers a better picture of what the park actually means. Talking to locals, I learned that the National Park’s creation in 1980 forced the relocation of a number of villages that had called the land home for generations. The communities that were relocated had practiced pastoralism as a means of livelihood, but suddenly found that the land they had walked was off limits to them. In response, most switched over to sedentary agriculture, but lack of traditional agricultural knowledge has hindered their prosperity ever since. While maintaining tiger habitat is important, interacting with Khandar residents makes clear that natural and human landscapes are linked in complicated ways that can’t be extricated by top-down conservation policy.
One blog post can only scratch the surface of the ways that living in Khandar has shifted how I see the world. Udyogini’s homestay program, which I have been working on for the last nine months as an AIF Clinton Fellow, aims to foster the type of meaningful, responsible intercultural interactions that such shifts start with. While celebrating Khandar’s traditional “sights,” we also challenge tourists to go beyond them by interacting with day-to-day-life of inhabitants of Khandar. Importantly, tourists looking to visit a place like Khandar should recognize that these interactions are a two-way street: just as I have learned more about the world by living in Khandar, I’m sure the people I’ve met here have had their worldviews subtly shifted by interacting with me as well. These interactions create the transformative potential of travel, which too often gets lost in mainstream tourism experiences. By bringing community tourism to Khandar, we hope to create these opportunities for both guests and hosts.