Inscrutable India; she is beyond comprehension to me.
I have difficulty understanding Mumbai, how it functions, how it reconciles the extremes evident everywhere. My first inscrutable is why more than 500,000 rural peasants migrate to Mumbai every year. My second is how Mumbai absorbs them and keeps functioning.
We fly south from Mumbai to Mangalore, and, after a long bus ride, we reach the first of our two responsible tourism resorts in the interior.
Orange County Coorg is set in the midst of a coffee, pepper and ginger plantation. The area is lush and green, coffee plants blanket the area. Pepper plants, creepers, crawl as high as ten meters on trees; ginger plants occupy plots in between the coffee plants. There is a canopy of palm trees, deciduous trees and other strange breeds.
The resort is pastoral, our individual cabins are set far apart along with several restaurants, an activity center and open spaces arranged within walking distance.
The resort has just won a prestigious INTERNATIONAL award for its mix of eco-friendly technologies and commitment to local employment and involvement. It ranks in the top 5, 10 or 25 of most Trip Advisor and National Geographic categories.
We tour the recycling, biomass and chemical free organic gardens – they are proud of what they are doing; delighted to be recognized for being at the forefront of eco-tourism and anxious to show it off. Our friends who sustain acres of green-grassed golf courses in Palm Springs with precious water could learn a thing or two.
Every night there is a cultural display, music and dance by indigenous groups – inscrutable.
Villages around the resort appear poor but neat and tidy. Tending and harvesting coffee and pepper is grueling but provides much needed employment for subsistence farmers.
Of the more than 500 employees who welcome us at the lodge, some 60% are local. Work in the lodge offers a way out of village poverty for bright and ambitious youth. Service is enthusiastic, friendly and gracious.
It is a welcome change from the cacophony of Mumbai and offers some hope for the future. Tourism, and its trendy offshoot ecotourism, offers jobs, minimum impact on the environment, transferable and internationally viable careers, valuable foreign exchange and tax revenue.
This company tries even harder by adding a category-leading responsibility code to its business operations, ensuring that benefits spread beyond the four corners of its balance sheet.
Our next resort, Orange County Kabini, is also built around sustainable tourism. Again, the staff is more than 60% local.
Here the draw is the abundant wildlife of the Nagarhole National Park.
Two decades ago, there were three tigers, now there are 80+, there are several healthy herds of Asian elephants, Guar, spotted deer, crocodiles, wild boar and myriad other species. The birdwatching alone is world class; we see some 25 different birds on an early morning walk. We see one particular species of geese that flies from Mongolia to winter in southern India – somehow navigating through and over the Himalayas, rivalling our Canada Geese for distance and navigation skills.
Our guides manage to help use discover these magnificent animals from both a jeep and a large boat, sunset forces us back to the lodge.
We visit a village, always a bit artificial and forced but worth the time, especially when it is concluded with a chance to meet the local public school children; they get a break from classes, we get to amuse them. Our resort funds extra teachers and provide some essential services for both the school and the villages.
I find it a personal challenge to deal with the extremes of India. How can I as a privileged Canadian visit India, enjoy the most privileged comforts of its best resorts, experience the best it has to offer in all its facets and not feel presumptuously rich for having taken advantage without paying back something for the experience?
I choose our tour operator Odysseys Unlimited because they use local suppliers, hire local guides and carefully select local service providers. They choose resorts that have a commendable record and try, at least try, to ensure that we are responsible tourists. It may be small, and it may only end up assuaging my guilt, but it is worthwhile and worth a try. If we practise responsible tourism, we may make a small contribution to the development of a country and its people’s future, rather than drawing from its scarce resources.