As we inched along the rutted dirt road through fields of Bajra, I still wasn’t really sure what I was headed towards. My coworker had told me an hour earlier that we would be attending a huge party in the small village of Banpur because someone in the village had won a student election. I was recovering from a particularly intense bout of food poisoning, so I was not very enthused about the idea of spending a late night out, and I didn’t really understand how a student election result warranted a multi-village blowout either. But trying to be a good sport, I went along anyway.
When we got to the party, it seemed like all eyes were on me. As one of few foreigners who has set foot in the village, I wasn’t surprised. I had already gotten used to stares in my first few days in Khandar, Rajasthan, where I will be stationed with Udyogini for the next eight months. But aside from the staring, I found my inability to adequately communicate with the villagers frustrating.
The difficulty of interaction between people of different cultures may seem like a fact of life, but my Fellowship project revolves around facilitating cultural exchange. Udyogini has tasked me with leading their effort to start a village homestay project in our area. And while few foreigners pass through Khandar, on the Eastern side of Ranthambore National Park, only an hour away lies the main Western entrance to the park, which sees a large and increasing number of tourists every year, most of them from abroad. This represents a huge market of potential visitors to the Khandar area, if only there was something for them to do.
Before Ranthambore was designated a national park, villages were scattered throughout, full of people who used the land for their livelihoods. But in 1980, these villages (including Banpur) were moved outside of the park’s boundaries, some to the area around Khandar. Many of their traditional livelihood practices, like grazing cattle, were banned within the park. The national park deprived these communities of their livelihood, and today the same communities are bypassed by the lucrative tourist trade centered around the park. (“Rathambore Tiger Reserve,” n.d.)
The village homestay program I am hoping to operationalize, will bring tourist revenue directly to families in need of a secondary source of income besides farming. In doing so, it will right some of the wrongs that were created at the inception of Ranthambore. For the first time, some of the communities displaced by the park will benefit directly from the economy it has created, not only bringing material benefits, but also giving them an incentive to preserve the natural environment that draws tourists (Karanth and DeFries, 2015). Additionally, the program will facilitate cultural exchange between two very different groups—the rural poor and international tourists. These interactions will reshape opinions and spark new interests, creating less tangible but equally impactful change.
The idea sounds great on paper, but my various interactions at the party showed some of the challenges that a Khandar homestay program would have to overcome. At one point in the night I responded “teekay” to a woman who told me her name. This prompted ten seconds of confusion as I said the phrase a few more times trying to get her to understand that I was only saying “okay” in Hindi. Finally, the woman turned to my coworker, Rivika, for guidance. “Theek hai.” Rivika said to the woman, who immediately cracked up in laughter at my apparently unintelligible pronunciation of the phrase, which was to my ears indistinguishable from what Rivika had just said.
After leaving the party, Rivika reminded me that many people in the village have probably never met anyone who doesn’t speak Hindi as a mother tongue, which clarified to me how such a seemingly small mispronunciation could cause such confusion. Knowledge of English in Khandar is almost nonexistent, illiteracy is common, and few international tourists who visit the area know Hindi. Having someone on staff who can interact with both guests and hosts will be essential for the comfort and safety of homestay guests. But finding someone who fits these qualifications, preferably a local, will be difficult, and likely require investing in training.
A few minutes after the theek hai incident, we went into the village leader’s house, where women brought us food. My co-workers had warned me before leaving that with the state of my stomach, I shouldn’t eat any of the village food. But when I tried to politely decline, the woman serving me did not seem to understand. She was insistent, and Rivika had to step in with a long Hindi explanation of why I did not want the food. While the matter was cleared up, it seemed like the woman’s feelings were hurt.
Improvements need to be made in sanitation, water, and food preparation before international guests can reasonably stay in the area. While these material upgrades are important, teaching homestay hosts how to use them properly, and why they are necessary in the first place, will be just as essential. My interaction at the party shows the misunderstandings that can arise out of different notions of healthiness between different cultures. To avoid conflict, these cultural differences must be understood and accepted.
These challenges come in addition to the normal work of getting a homestay program off the ground: applying for permits, devising a fee structure and way to split up earnings between hosts, designing activities for guests to partake in, readying living spaces, and building partnerships with other tourist operators. To succeed, my work must straddle the worlds of rural villages and international tourist networks, prioritizing the needs of villagers while creating an experience that tourists will enjoy. It will surely be a difficult task, and I will need the support of other Udyogini staff members and the villagers themselves to succeed.
But the party did not just show me how the difficult the process of starting our homestay program will be. It also showed me a glimpse of what can be gained. Sitting in the main house, talking to women and children in my extremely broken Hindi and their extremely broken English, I felt privileged to be able to interact (however poorly) with people who were so different from myself. And leading me around their house and the fields outside of the village, I could sense the pride that these villagers felt in showing outsiders what they have created from nothing, since being removed from their lands in the forest so many years ago. When I did eventually taste some local bajra on my next visit to Banpur, I did like the taste, but the smile of the woman who served it to me when I told her so, was even better. Building an infrastructure that will allow more such genuine interactions to occur, while decreasing poverty and encouraging environmental stewardship, seems like a worthwhile goal.
“Ranthambore Tiger Reserve.” WWFIndia.org, n. d. Retrieved 17 Oct. 2018. https://www.wwfindia.org/about_wwf/critical_regions/national_parks_tiger_reserves/ranthambore_tiger_reserve/
Karanth, Krithi K. and Ruth DeFries. “Wildlife Tourism in India: New Challenges for Park Management.” ConservationIndia.org, 27 Nov. 2015. Retrieved 17 Oct. 2018. http://www.conservationindia.org/articles/nature-based-tourism-in-indian-protected-areas-new-challenges-for-park-management-2.