Wednesday 15 February 2012

Understanding traveler perspectives.

I believe that the difference tourism can make in communities depends on how well we understand them. This counts for the people you visit, but also for you, the travelers across the world. Why you travel, and how you experience the stories shared by people you visit, is important. I believe that your insights and perspectives on the trips you take can help in working with local communities as they seek to understand the people visiting them, just as you seek to understand those you visit.

Therefore, I would like to invite you to participate in the research that I am undertaking to understand travelers expectations and perceptions about destinations and experiences. I will be interviewing travelers from Europe who travel to South Asian and African countries with tour operators with a focus on responsible tourism. I will be conducting in-depth interviews with travelers from the Netherlands, Germany, France, Great Britain, Austria, and Sweden.

If you are a traveller based in any of the above countries, feel free to get in touch with me on mariska (at) theblueyonder (dot) com to be part of this interesting initiative. I speak English, German and Dutch, so feel free to converse with me in any of these languages. Please contact me to make an appointment to do an interview with you in the coming months. 

Monday 13 February 2012

Champaner, Gujarat

Sahar ni Masjid (Photo Credit: Madhu Reddy)

As we traversed the length and breadth of Gujarat, our feet ached and our spirits were slightly weary. So on the last day, when we were supposed to visit Champaner, all of us had second thoughts about actually making the trip.

I had first heard of Champaner through a friend who was studying in Ahmedabad and would make a quick weekend trip to Champaner when he wanted to escape the chaotic clutches of city life. I remember him telling me about the mounted heritage structures scattered across the dusty little town. I had immediately then drawn a picture of it in my head and it certainly did seem like place I would have liked to experience.

Out first stopover was at the Sahar ki Masjid which is a sandstone mosque with towering minarets etched with the most intense designs. My fellow travelers and I were the only ones in the mosque. That allowed me to seek my own space and as I walked pass the sturdy columns, the mosque took me back hundreds of years. The guide’s voice echoed in my head and his words brought forth an army of Jains, Muslims and Hindus who congregated at the mosque. The influence of all the three communities was starkly visible in the sculpted ceilings and doors.

The wind was chilly and as my fingers traced the shivering marble centerpiece, the artwork narrated tales of the skill and time which must have gone into creating the momentous structure. The guide says that there exists no documented evidence of this place ever having been used as a mosque. And the geography of the structure complies as one sees the wide open space where conversations must have nurtured between columns.

Our next stop was the Jami Masjid, another stupendous testimonial of the Mahmud Begada’s rule on Champaner when he made the city the capital of Gujarat. We were fortunate to have reached this Mosque just as a bunch of tourists were stepping out. As we paved our way through the stoned arch laced in lattice, the mosque came into view. It was lined by balconies and minarets and several local children who were perhaps on a school trip. Their buzzing bickering and colored outfits contrasted with the 15th century structure which rebelled with its symmetry and even use of sandstone.

The afternoon sun played hide and seek with the latticed windows and balconies and drew pretty patterns on the floor. Pigeons cooed away in corners of the murky mosque. Two men discussed employment options sitting inside the cool carved space before the window. Children streaked pass the columns leaving their shadows behind. The large dome with intricate carvings offered protection from the heady sunrays. Time passed slowly and quickly, all at once.

I was humbled by this feat of beauty which offered very limited utility in our current times but overwhelmed me with its powerful aesthetic composition. I am usually skeptical of history books and especially great rulers like Mahmud Begada. I always wonder about the lives lost, the struggle for power and the very need for a ruler to indulge in an extravagant expense of building a structure of this size and beauty when it could be used for the benefit of the proletariat.

However, in that moment, I thanked Mahmud Begada for commissioning this mosque and creating a structure which has stood the test of time and empires. I was indeed grateful for this piece of history which could remind us of a time and world that was. I smiled as I thought about the employment this structure must have generated, the art which has been preserved and the hub that it acts like for the existing community.

I sighed deeply as I felt my spirits rise and began walking towards the exit.

Saturday 11 February 2012

Learning to fly

I spied him through a corner of my camera lens, a bundle of nervous enthusiasm. He was clutching at the crisp white kites being handed over to him. He was off in a flash, tightly gripping the kites and the spindle of cord. I ran after him and caught up to ask, “Can I fly kites with you?” There was a shy nod and a gesture to follow him.

We dashed through the warren of dark and narrow alleys of Ahmedabad's old walled city. We traipsed over mounds of fresh dung, deposited by the old city's most numerous denizens – cattle. Very soon I was deep in the belly of another world. He gestured me to follow him into a barely perceptible doorway, while informing someone of a visitor at the same time. I had to keep watch to avoid slamming my forehead into the low-slung door frame, while my little new-found friend was already slithering up makeshift wooden ladder-staircases that connected the different vertical levels of this tiny household. He yelled a “hello” to his mother and summed up my visit in a breath, all the while climbing. In a few seconds we were in fresh air, looking out over the roofs of old Ahmedabad, in time to fly kites to celebrate Uttarayan.

The roof was host to a gaggle of kids and was alive with preparations to launch the first kites, and my friend was completely absorbed. It took only a few more minutes for the first kites to lift away against the backdrop of Ahmedabad's heritage monuments, and on cue, rooftop DJs who had dragged massive audio gear to the roofs got the mood going. Predictably, bowing to popular demand, this was a 'Kolaveri'-themed event, and humming away my little friend got to grips with his kite. Amidst yells from his mother to be careful on the roof, he tried to get his kite aloft.

But alas, his efforts only managed to break the kite's spine. The smile was gone and the enthusiasm went flat as he watched his peers regale themselves in grand aerial battles fought with 'enemy' kites flown from other other rooftops. An uncle quickly rigged up another kite for him, while his cousin got it aloft, but it clearly wasn't enough. My friend dashed downstairs. While I was pondering the consequences of this crushing childhood disappointment, I was served warm tea and breakfast including the Uttarayan kichchdi by the mother who assured me the boy would be back soon. And on cue he was back, fresh from a bath, dressed in his Sunday best, and his mojo – his favorite hat.

The smile was radiant on his face as he ditched his white kites for a sleek back one. He was onto to something, he had figured out how to get a kite aloft. It was now time for me to fade away, as I watched him get his kite in the air humming: “ooh lala, ooh lala, tu hi meri fantasy!

Friday 10 February 2012

Traveling with 'Z'

I travel alone. I like it. In fact love it. It’s my way to reconnect with myself while discovering those who are not ‘me’ in the land around me. I did think twice before saying yes to traveling in a group but figured one can always escape. Not only did I not need that escape chute, I thoroughly enjoyed and cherished the time spent with these newfound likeminded soles (catch the pun?). It’s sometimes not about where you go but how you go.

Meeting different people is one of the reasons we all love traveling. The people you travel with sometimes are just as interesting, just as authentic. The magical moonlight on the Rann and the sunrise next day could not have been in a better company. Even with the millions (well sometimes more than 10 seems like million to me) around me, my companions shielded the noise, the chaos, allowing me to have that little moment where one wants to be the only one to behold a sight that can leave a poet wordless. And then when you have had your fill of the silence, you turn around stretch your hands to hold the full moon, take some cheesy photographs, taste the salt beneath your feet and just huddle together trying to hold off the nip in the air. With 'Z' I discovered a land that seemed unreal for those moments.

Next day, ‘Z’ and I made our way to catch the sunrise. Our driver overslept, so we decided to walk at least a couple of miles to the Rann. The horizon, a mirage many a moments was still as a lake. The cold and distance played on my arthritic knees but ‘Z’ gently edged me on. I did not want to disappoint and kept up slowly giving us both space to enjoy the moments alone but together. Unlike the previous night, the land was enjoying its peace as well and so was I. We were the only ones around within miles.

As we made our way into the villages surrounding the Rann, my thoughts seemed to be echoed in ‘Z’. As we walked ahead of the group, we encountered kids running towards us. We were not comfortable with little children holding their hand out for a pen or some money. Uncomfortable, we made some quick purchases for things I am sure we really did not need but wanted. ‘Z’ and I were very proud of our acquisitions. As we lay them in the room the colors of the Kutch reflected in those patchwork bed covers. Today, they adorn my urban space, remind me when I least expect a glimpse of the simple beautiful people who live surrounded by the vast plains.

In the port city of Mandvi, we made our way into the ship building yards. ‘Z’ had been here before, writing and photographing the area. I had a heads up on what to expect and let the enthusiasm of a sailor returning to his favorite port take over my time. As I walked in the old town admiring the doors which gave me a glimpse of the people behind, I heard stories from ‘Z’ about the sailors who came

here, the land that absorbed the traveler, assimilated with the strangers making them their own. ‘Z’ has an infectious enthusiasm that rubs off on you, though a little loud at times but adorable nonetheless. As we meandered through the old fishing town, he found his passion. Now every cat in that town knows ‘Z’ and am sure the cats and their owners will remember us for the longest time to come.

I did have a chance to wander about on my own, leaving ‘Z’ wandering on to the boats making conversations with Zanzibarian’s who had made Mandvi home. I heard a familiar sound of my mother tongue and there was Ramesh perched on a ledge, taking a break from hammering some cotton between the wooden planks. He said I looked like somebody from Hyderabad. That was uncanny but true and the commonality of language led the conversation further. Away from home for the last decade he said he worked on these mighty boats. A boy from the interiors of Andhra farmland, he was happy working on boats that sailed the trade winds to Africa. I still wonder how he knew that I was from Hyderabad, had ‘Z’ mentioned it?

As we walked about in town buying some gifts for our host for the afternoon, ‘Z’ and I lost the others in the group. We knew our destination but not the path. But not to worry, seemed everybody in the town knew who we were and led us through the alleyways to our destination. While trying to navigate through town, randomly dropping into beautiful mansions one of which was a Jain dharamsala, which faintly had reminders of architecture from down south.

In the old market, I finally found someone who helped me buy this lovely vivid scarf that many of the Muslim men wore. I approached the colorful old man who insisted we stay in the background while he bargained for us. It turns out they the scarves come all the way from Karachi and one does not need imagination to know how it comes. ‘Z’ later learnt how to tie it around his head during a highway break. We seemed to have provided some much needed entertainment for the truckers.

Mandvi had more in store for us. ‘Z’ was originally from Mandvi. Family had moved to Mumbai in their grandfather’s time. Having tracked the current owners of the old ancestral home, ‘Z’ was invited and so were we by default to an afternoon meal. ‘Z’ perhaps was controlling her emotions as we all sat in the living room fringed by the original woodwork. Imagine discovering the house where your ancestors left traces, perhaps messages etched in the wood. We shared her connections and in that we will always be connected with her to the house. Her memories of discovery linked with us.

A Bohri ‘dastar khanna’ awaited us. Laid in the room next to the family kitchen, we all sat on the floor trying very hard to fold those unexercised knees and muscles. Famished after traveling through predominantly vegetarian land, we devoured the fresh fish and prawns. If the catch were any fresher it would have walked off our plates! The fish marinated in local spices, pan fried just fell off the bones. There was my ever-favorite Pomfret that kept me busy for a while. The prawns were cooked to perfection in rice, moist and succulent with the perfect burani to complete it.

‘Z’ was in heaven. You could see in the silence, a satiated smile that a teleportation had taken place. All it took was some fish in the meal to bring that joyous silent laughter and shine in the eyes. A thief caught in the orchard. As ‘Z’ enjoyed, oblivious to all of us like cat with a fish, we exchanged stories. The family of five brothers all lived together; from farmers to lawyers between them they had covered all occupations. There were children everywhere all around the same age. What joy to grow up with cousins, who are your first friends? As we made our way to see the house which in another 9 years will be considered a heritage house, the women of the house sat down to eat. We carried the babies, keeping them busy as the mothers ate in peace.

After a spent afternoon, we said our goodbyes to our newfound friends who will always be a part of the journey. In this new age, I know we will meet again, if not anything virtually exchange the changes in our lives. Through time perhaps our paths will cross again, their children grown and my shoes worn a bit more.

The land as intriguing as it was provided a backdrop to my experience. It was my interactions with ‘Z’ that made the trip. What I will remember from this trip are these human interactions that I hope I can maintain for years to come.

(Image taken by a studio photographer in Pavagargh)

Traveling with ‘Z’ is a story of who traveled with me. It’s a collective of a person, their traits and my adventures with them. ‘Z’ is not just one person but a part of all my four travel companions and what they shared with me. My memories intertwined with people who started off being semi strangers and ended as friends.

(photo credit: Anand Sankar)

Tuesday 7 February 2012

Responsible tourism events at ITB Berlin 2012

ITB Berlin has announced 2012 Responsible tourism networking and related events:

Responsible tourism clinics:

These are series of clinics where you interact with practitioners who run social businesses in tourism. Pose your questions on related topics and find solutions from experts.
07. Mar. 2012

Social Media for destination promotion: How to increase business through social media marketing?
Helena Egan, Director of Destination Marketing, TripAdvisor, will give tips and tricks on how best to utilise the power of reviews - for Hotels and tour operators alike on TripAdvisor

08. Mar. 2012

Power of Story Telling : How to use stories to promote your business?
- Zainab Kakal - Chief Enthusiasm Officer at The Blue Yonder

08. Mar. 2012

3) Moving beyond conventional tourism - How to develop innovative experiences ?

- Monk for a month
- Ethical Travel Portal
- Cape Town tourism

Experiences shared by suppliers in India, Thailand, Nepal and South Africa
09. Mar. 2012

4) Power of networking: How collaboration can bring more business ?
- Raj Gyawali - The Green Circuit

All the clinics will be at stand Hall 4.1/201(The Blue Yonder)

09. Mar. 2012 Friday

Venue: Stage of the Exhibition Area: Experience Adventure, ECOtourism & Expeditions in hall 4.1

Inspiring stories from destinations.

Listen to inspiring and innovative stories from destinations that are chosen from a collection of applications from around the world.

ITB-Berlin responsible tourism networking
Partnering : The Blue Yonder, The Green Circuit and Tripbod
Supported by: Pocket village
Media partner: Vision Travel Mole

1800: Welcome:
- Rika Jean-Francoise CSR commissioner ITB-Berlin

1810-2030 : RT pitches and networking
- listen to 2 minutes pitches from responsible tourism initiatives around the world and interact with those involved in sustainable tourism

Call for inspiring stories from destinations – ITB Berlin 2012

'Monk for a month': last years winner at ITB-Berlin 'inspiring stories from destination'

Let the world know what you’ve been up to in your local destination.

Share your inspirational story about the destination you work in and have the opportunity to present at the 4th ITB Responsible Tourism Networking in Berlin. This is your chance to WOW industry associates and potential buyers with real life examples of how responsible tourism is powering positive change in your destinations. This is our attempt to unite dedicated initiatives around the world to propel the Responsible Tourism movement forward.

This year, the event is organized by The Green Circuit, The Blue Yonder and Tripbod with support from Pocket Village. Our media partner will be VISION travelmole. For the second year, ITB Responsible Tourism Networking is inviting inspirational stories direct from destinations. Story submissions are open to anyone with an amazing tale to tell where they used tourism as a tool to find solution to local issues. Successful selections will be based on innovation and the stories power to inspire responsible tourism in respective destinations.

Last year’s successful entries included, Monk for a Month an initiative started by Ben Bowler: He says "to be able to present our programmes at the ITB fringe event Inspiring Stories was a brilliant way to get exposure to just the right crowd for our unique products. From that evening we have formed several highly valuable relationships, it was certainly a significant step in the World Weavers story."

Three successful entries will be selected to present their ten-minute story of local inspiration to kick off this years Responsible Tourism Networking Event at ITB Berlin on the 9th of March 2012 at 17:30 at Hall 4.11. In addition to presenting your story at the world’s leading travel trade show, selected applicants will be featured on the PocketVillage website; an intuitive search engine to find and enjoy exceptional travel experiences.

Entries are requested to reach us in either of the following formats by 29th Feb 2012 by email to stories (at) thegreencircuit (dot) net:

In words; no more than 1,500 words

Video; no more than 5 minutes
Slideshow; no more 20 slides
Podcast; no more than 5 minutes

Successful applicants will be notified by email by the 3rd of March 2011. Please mention the following information at the beginning of your story: Your Name, Email, Organisation and Destination. For more information, please get in touch with info (at) thegreencircuit (dot) net.

The Responsible Tourism Networking event will continue from 1800 till 2030 at Hall 4.1. This year ITB Berlin will also feature RT Clinics during the three trade visitors days , where experts will share their experiences relevant to building sustainable tourism businesses. This is structured in a way were attendees can pose questions and find solutions from peers. More information on this here.