I wondered if the Taj was worth visiting – after all I’d been before. Yes, for me it was well worth visiting – but this remains my favourite photo from my first visit.
Did you know the Taj Mahal gardens are only a tenth of the size they were in the days of Shah Jahan? Designed primarily as Gardens of Paradise, they planted fruit trees for harvesting and which contributed towards the upkeep of the Taj Mahal.
The trees – in the gardens now – are not of Mughal origin but a legacy of the British. During the British Raj, Lord Curzon initiated the restoration of the Taj Mahal after it had fallen into disrepair and made renovations to the lawns and surroundings.
Most tourists are local
Visiting the fifteenth century Taj Mahal for the second time was just is great as the first time. As you know it’s a mausoleum, built on the south bank of the Yamuna River in Agra.
A combination of Indian, Islāmic and Persian styles it was commissioned by the Emperor Shah Jahan and he dedicated the building to the memory of his beautiful queen Mumtaz Mahal. The Emperor died 23 years after the tomb for his wife was competed and he too is buried there.
Some of the facts I heard while there were:
Over 1000 elephants were used to haul the construction materials.
Over thirty different types of gemstones decorate the Taj
Many types of marble were used – from Afghanistan, Sir Lanka, Saudi Arabia, and China.
The marble walls seem to change colour over the day – in the morning it seems pink, white during the day, while in the moonlight, it apparently seems golden.
I saw the Taj from about four different places: from beside, and on, the river; from the fort; from nearby gardens, and inside the walls: my favourite view is from the river.
In India, architectural heritage is often linked to the major religions of the country: Buddhist stupas and monasteries; Hindu and Jain temples in many styles – many share structural characteristics such as stone columns and horizontal blocks carved with sacred imagery or decorative motifs sculptures of the vast pantheon of Hindu gods and goddesses are everywhere the various deities have many manifestations which becomes confusing as their names, like many Indian cities, are interchangeable.
Udaipur, Rajasthan, is a fairy-tale city with marble palaces and lakes – and I will blog about them later. In the meantime, here is a slideshow (23 pics) some of the local wildlife.
NOTE Seems the above UNEP link is broken or has been removed see this one instead about sustainable tourism
Waka play a big role in Waitangi
Chinese Nets – Keral
the author in Haridwar
looking for Manatee in Forida
Heather – the kiwiwtravelwriter
Tourism is one of the most powerful change agents on Earth and we consumers must vote with our wallets and support local people with local businesses.”
I blogged about this issue (first published in a newspaper column) some years ago and reprint it here. I’ve also written a small book on the same topicA Love Letter to Malaysian Borneo – and if you have read it I’d really value a review on Amazon or Goodreads. 🙂
Here’s that column I wrote . . .
What is an eco-tourist? Ecotourism?
Like Asians need rice, Italians love pasta, British their curry, and us Kiwi’s love fish and chips, I need to travel and being a traveller who writes means I get to visit where I want to go to rather than have to go the destination flavour of the month.
This means I’m often in places that are not on the tourist trail. As a slow traveller I can stay longer and get to know people, to absorb the local culture and flavour. This also means that although I don’t always sign up for an eco-tour, I practise many of the principles of ecotourism. But what is ecotourism – a word that’s often thrown around and frequently means nothing.
My understanding of the word and the concepts behind it are that’s it an activity that has minimum impact while providing maximum benefits to the locals.
I believe independent travellers are most likely to be the closest to being real eco travellers. They leave much of their travel money in the country while those who travel on tours often have paid for their whole trip before they leave home – giving very little to the country they are travelling in but adding huge costs – in water, sewerage, rubbish, roads.
Worldwide many places say they are providing an ecotourism experience but is that really so? It seems that as long as it has a nature component many claim it to be eco-friendly. That has not always been my experience.
Life on an Asian marine reserve sounds wonderful right? A great eco experience? Yes the natural sites and walks are fantastic; money spent on food and accommodation does stay with the locals providing it. Unfortunately, the big money is creamed the off the islands in diving lessons given by Europeans who come in for the tourist season then leave, taking the money with them. Because of the lack of a robust infrastructure, the rubbish – that travellers complain about – is bought to the island by them: water bottles are not refilled, plastic bags and straws are left on the beach.
Have travel agents sold us too narrow views of places to visit? Given us a list of sights we ‘must see’ or activities to take part in? This produces problems all over the world with buses arriving in droves, disgorging visitors and fumes to see wonderful pristine or historic sights.
It reminds me of Lake Louise in Banff, Canada, where I too was a body disgorged from a bus to see the great views. I have proof that I was there – a photo of me sitting alone with the lake and mountains as the backdrop – it looks idyllic. However I know that beside me, waiting for their turn to have the moment recorded, is another busload of chattering travellers.
The problems of being poured into these tourist funnels will continue if we rely on unimaginative travel agents (and of course not all are) and the forceful marketing of those who have invested in areas. While it is more economical for planes and hotels to have us arrive together and stay in the same places it also creates problems for them – not the least is the strong chance of killing the goose that lays the golden egg such as the warning in the child’s story.
This is not a new problem. Read books written years ago and the same complaints are made. Tell others you are going to Bali (or Timbuktu) and immediately you will be told “you should have gone there ten (2, 5, 50 years ago,) before it was discovered.”
So, what can we travellers do? I don’t know what you will do – what I do is travel slow, travel cheaply, and use local products when I can.
So, by combining the universal codes of pack it in packit out and take only photos, leave only footprints, along with getting off the well-worn tourist trails means I’m able to enjoy my travels with a clearer conscience.
The Kannur Beach House is a genuine homestay and owners Rosi and Nazir are your perfect homestay hosts: eating with their guests, at the communal long table, every morning and evening and willingly share their knowledge about local traditions, Malabari cuisine, and places to visit when they’re asked. As another guest said to me, ‘this is a little slice of heaven.’ I agree.
This has been a family home for about hundred years and around 2000 they built a replica building, alongside the original, to use for guests.
lagoon and sea
This is a must book beforehand stay as they have 6 rooms and many guests – who often have stayed with them before, and many like me, stay for a week or more – so, for much of the time they are full, which is of course a great endorsement. I will willingly return here to do all the things I missed out on – I was there for a week’s R&R over the Christmas period, so was happy to just, successfully, chill.
On the Malabar Coast in Kerala, and overlooking a brackish lagoon and Thalassery beach, this beach-house was perhaps the first in the region.
Kerala is a colourful mosaic of green hills, coconut groves, rainforests, , backwaters, and beaches. Interestingly, unlike much of India, most of the Hindu temples are not open to non-Hindu.
Watch this space for more stories about the Kannur Beach house, food, and of course, only in this area, Theyyam, a ritual dance glorifying the mother Goddess, and which is a mixture of dance, mime, and music.
‘Stir faster’ I’m told – it seems Indian cooking is not for sissies. Jacob, my tutor, said he’s not a good cook which didn’t sound promising, but then went on to say he’s a great teacher which was encouraging.
This hands-on cooking course takes one to ten days and there is no standing back and watching – it is a learn-by-doing course. I’m here for 3 days and a real asset is having Madhu in the kitchen. He is a great cook – he is also an expert in preparing everything we need: chopping, measuring, slicing, dicing, peeling, blitzing, and blending the ingredients. Even better, he cleans up after we’ve done the cooking and taken the glory!
But before the reflected glory, I’m still ‘stirring faster’ and now expect my right bicep to have developed centimetres and strength before I leave Kerala.
Jacob had introduced me to all the ingredients for my first vegetarian curry – and that’s a trick I’m taking home – this way nothing is left out of the dish.
All the ingredients are lined up in order of use – each container with the exact amount needed. This happens every time we cook – we know the name of the recipe, the ingredients, and how to cook it before starting. In keeping with the learn-by-doing method, we’re not given the written recipe until the dish is complete.
A lawyer for some twelve years, Jacob returned to this family land where, as a solo dad, and with his widowed mother, he farmed Haritha Farm for a while and, impressed by Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, Jacob stopped using pesticides. ‘I’m not an ecocentric or big crusader’ he tells me, ‘I’m human first and just thinking about the next generation.’
The 6.5 acres of land had been in rubber for some ten years and he has slowly ‘. . . turned back the clock. I’m recreating the old Kerala – a small holding which is self-sufficient, plus some to sell’. The land is now producing many fruits, vegetable, and spices, including coffee, coconut, ginger, banana, papaya, pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, turmeric, and of course jackfruit, a regional, carbohydrate staple. It’s also growing mahogany and bamboo. The bamboo is good for holding water and land as well as a cash crop for scaffolding. He calls it ‘do nothing farming’ and it seems to be working well.
Part of his self-sufficiency and diversified income stream, are four stand-alone bungalows set on the hill behind the main house which he built as homestay accommodation. Sitting on the patio up among the mature trees, birds and squirrels, I realise this is a different type of Indian tourism, eco-agro-cultural. Most cooking classes are show-and-tell, this is a dive-in-and-do-it course.
Over the three days I’m reminded to ‘cook slowly’, to ‘stir constantly’ and, to ‘always have a smile on your face.’ A pressure cooker is essential in an Indian kitchen and I’m also told, ‘cook for one whistle’, or two, or three, depending on the dish.
Evidently Kerala cooking is very much like the state – a fusion state he called it. Over thousands of years trading and the mixing of diverse cultures – Egyptians, Romans, Arabs, and Chinese – all who bought their religions and food. Coconut, originally from the Pacific, is an absolute staple in Kerala, while rice, another primary food was rarely grown here. Of course, the various churches, mosques and synagogues alongside Hindu temples also show its chequered past as a spice trader.
Pimenta Homestay is about 1 ½ hours inland from Cochin but a thousand miles away in atmosphere. Starting the day with freshly ground coffee, grown and roasted there, Jacob ensures his guests have an authentic experience of the culture and flavours of Kerala.
In between eating and cooking guests are taken to various places and saw activities in the area: this of course changes with the seasons. As well visiting farms and food markets, I also saw rubber bands being made in the middle of a rubber plantation; clay pots being made by hand; and the dying art of cotton-weaving. I especially loved watching men decorate trucks with a riot of bright floral motifs, miniature landscapes and messages such as, Save Oil Save India; Prayer is Power; and the common, noise inviting, Horn Okay or Horn Please.
Unlike many tourists’ tours around the world these day trips are personal with nothing for tourists to buy – just great interaction with locals who are rightly proud of their crafts. Well done Jacob, you exude generosity and warm hospitality along with the mouth-watering food lessons.
Some people chase fire trucks, others follow typhoons to get the best photos, while war journalists or photographers, because of their job, are often in the most dangerous parts of the world, but what about tourists?
As soon as trouble breaks out (dengue fever, earthquake, tsunami, or civil unrest) it’s tourists, often with group travel arrangements, who cancel their bookings, while solo travellers, looking for the differences, the culture and the food of another place, who usually continue with their travel plans. Is it ethical to go to places who have had an earthquake or other disaster? What about places with chronic poverty?
Do you indulge in dark tourism? Defined as travelling to places historically associated with death, has been around for ages. Concentration camps in Europe; the killing fields in Cambodia; the site of the twin towers in New York; and Pompeii in Italy, just to name a few. I’ve been to many places that could be considered ‘dark’. The Anne Frank house in Amsterdam; the Colosseum in Rome; John Lennon’s garden in New York, the motel where Martin Luther King was assassinated. I’ve also been to the 1692 site of my ancestors’ notoriety, Glen Coe in Scotland.
Of course, more recently I’ve been a constant visitor to my home city, Christchurch New Zealand, where 80% of the inner-city was lost due to quake damage. (See more that I’ve about Christchurch – as it was two years ago 2016)
Black or dark tourism is nothing new but when it’s recent many people think it is insensitive to go – or for novelists to write about it, comedians to joke about it, or films to be made. I believe it depends on the traveller’s attitude – are they chasing fire trucks or cyclones?
Think of slum tours in India, do they help the locals or not? It’s all about ethical travel – are you taking from a place, or are you adding something? Are in locals involved? Did they set up the tours with community involvement, or is it someone making money out of another person’s misery or are they interested and supportive?
As a travel writer I am often conflicted about taking photos – sadly, poverty and misery often produce fantastic photos.
In Christchurch tourism dried up just as if tap was turned off and the water stopped flowing. I heard and read many articles and blogs and sadly, advice given by uniformed travel writers, tourist companies or information centres, advising people not to go, there is ‘nothing there’ or ‘you will only be in the way’. In the beginning I know locals thought some other locals did ‘get in the way’ of clean-up work and considered them ‘rubber-neckers’ by other locals who felt their privacy, and misery, were being invaded.
However, ethical travel may just another word for green travel which is about leaving money behind in a community so can dark tourism be ethical too?
Perhaps travel agents and guide books sell us too narrow a view of places to visit. Along with our tickets they, (and guide books, blogs or articles) often give us a list of sites we ‘must see’, activities ‘we must do’, or places we ‘must’ stay. It’s not for nothing the popular Lonely Planet books have been nicknamed the ‘travellers’ bible’ as many won’t eat, visit, stay or see anything or anywhere until the guide book is consulted. Sadly examples of unintended consequences can be the six accommodation places are mentioned are full – while three, not in the book, and maybe better, are empty.
This is not a new problem. Read books written years ago and the same complaints are made by travellers and owners – some places over booked others empty. Tell friends you are going to Bali or Timbuktu, Christchurch or Botswana and immediately you will be told that you should have gone there two, five, ten, fifty years ago, ‘before it was discovered’, or in Christchurch, New Zealand’s case, ‘before the earthquakes’.
So, what can we travellers do? Well, I don’t know what you will do, but what I do is travel slowly, travel cheaply, support local businesses and use their home-grown products whenever I can – and this is even more needed after a disaster whether it’s man-made or a so-called act of God.
I asked on Facebook for people’s opinion about disaster, or dark tourism. One person sent me a link to a blog she’d recently listened to and believe its well worth giving you the link too – BBC World Service: The Why Factor. In it the reporter visited Auschwitz and the site of the Grenfell Towers disastrous fire in London. I’ve not been to either – and chose while I was in Poland not to visit Auschwitz. If I was in London I would also not visit the Grenfell Towers – I don’t need to be at either site to know how appalling the events were. Others of course will disagree with me.
My father was a fireman in Christchurch New Zealand when they had the worst fire disaster in our history – Ballantynes, 1947. He was so distressed about attending the fire and having to recover bodies, that our family were forbidden to give the store any patronage – I have broken this rule two or maybe three times.
The Christchurch earthquakes 20101/11 have produced things that also could be considered dark tourism. The Memorial Gardens at the site of the highest number of deaths, a memorial wall on the banks of the River Avon, and a museum exhibition – which for me triggered the smells of dust that hung in the air – and up my nose – for ages.
The owner of Beadz Unlimited (one of the many shops damaged inside the Christchurch Art Centre – and now in the historic New Regent Street) posted on my Facebook page where I was asking about dark tourism said ‘actually we desperately needed people to come and put money into the community because we were all hunkered down just trying to survive. It was a necessary evil.’ She did not clarify what was ‘evil ‘.
In the UK there is an Institute for dark tourism research and they have studied many facets of this topic if you want to delve into it! Wikipedia says “Scholars in this interdisciplinary field have examined many aspects. Lennon and Foley expanded their original idea  in their first book, deploring that “tact and taste do not prevail over economic considerations” and that the “blame for transgressions cannot lie solely on the shoulders of the proprietors, but also upon those of the tourists, for without their demand there would be no need to supply”.
New Zealand heritage haswebsite and touring map for some war sites in the Waikato region and its hoping to eventually have one for all NZ land wars and other fighting – perhaps some will consider this ‘black tourism’ too
What are your thoughts. Do you believe you are an ethical traveller – and why? And, do you indulge in dark tourism? What black tourism spots have you been to – after all it seems we all do that at some level.
I’d really love to start a conversation about all this in the topics – so before you board your next flight, or bus or train, will you please join in and add your opinion ?
If you are wondering where to learn (hands-on not just watch) Indian cooking, I can recommend The Pimenta in Kerala, India. (Just over an hour inland from Cochin) and I will be blogging about the homestay classes.
However, this post is about one of the many interesting places I visited with Jacob – the owner, and teacher, at the Pimenta.
I had seen many of these colourful trucks on the roads so was excited to see them being created. Bright primary colours are used to paint 3D flowers and birds, combined with homilies – save oil save india, save water save river, god is great are a few – and the men are very proud of their work.
Are you a glass half-full, empty, or full-glass person when travelling? My glass is full all the time – although on occasional days, minutes, or hours I have had an empty glass in a foreign country – they are usually associated with tiredness. A day off from being a traveller, what I call ‘my housework day ‘ usually fixes it.
My travel-house-work-day consists of taking everything out of my bag, washing, sorting, throwing away unneeded stuff, reading, plus an afternoon nap works wonders. It’s not possible to be a tourist for seven days in a row for a few weeks – just as if we had to work thirty days in a row in our regular employment. By the last few days we would not be performing at our best. Travel is the same – unless you only have a week, in which case you just have to suck it up princess (or prince) and make the most of every, minute, and hour of every day 😊
Those of you who follow me know I’m a great believer in an early and relaxed check in – I don’t want to have to rush to the gate and start that leg of my travel anxious – I use that time with my journal, social media, or a book – or now, my latest must-have, an audiobook.
There’s nothing like having a story read to you. I just shut my eyes and be transported somewhere or even learn something. I love that my local library has many, many, free audiobooks that I can check out no matter where I am in the world. On my recent travels to India I listened, en-route, to The History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters ‘ by Julian Barnes. I’m sure I found it funnier in the audio version than I would have had I had it open in my Kobo (e-reader) or had a paper copy on my lap. As you can see, I’m a promiscuous ‘reader’ in both form and topic.
During my last week in Kerala, India and feeling the heat, during most afternoons I lay on my bed, under the fan, having two more books read to me – I can recommend both. America’s First Daughter, a novel by Stephanie Dray, gave the added layer of a southern American voice and, A House for Mr Biswas by V.S. Naipaul also had a local accent. These appropriate voices added an extra something which I enjoy.
I recently read a long piece “25 Science-Backed Health Benefits of Traveling” and the first three benefits resonate with me … my immune system is great because I eat everything everywhere! My mind is pretty sharp – I was in the winning team at a pub-quiz a couple of weeks ago – and my stress levels are low. Are these because my years of travel have added these health benefits? I don’t know. It’s a bit like the Mark Twain question asking if travel make you broad-minded or do broad-minded people travel? So, am I healthy because I travel, or do I travel because I’m healthy?
Who cares! I’m going to keep travelling – and writing – about travel for the foreseeable future: as I often say “I want to be like me when I grow up!”
Upcoming stories, articles, and blogs, in my to-do pile include, a cooking school in India; up to my knees in water feeding stingray in Gisborne New Zealand; ethical travel; a day at the Taj Mahal; and seven days relaxing over Christmas at the Kannur Beach House.