One of my all-time favorite hobbies during quarantine has been getting on Google Maps and bookmarking random cool spots all over the world as I come across them. Whether it’s a charming, quaint village, a majestic mountain range with hiking trails aplenty, or even interesting historic sites, I figure, hey, might as well prepare for when we can finally travel internationally again.
During one of these bookmarking sessions, I had focused in on the Alappuzha area in the Indian state of Kerala, which is absolutely gorgeous if you haven’t heard of it. My mother is from around there, so I’ve visited plenty of times. Nonetheless, I figured there would probably be more to explore in the area that I hadn’t really considered before.
Sure enough, I found several kayak rental agencies, where they rented out kayaks, canoes, and even diving equipment for exploring the different canals in the area. Something I really enjoy aside from hiking is watersports, such as kayaking, rafting, etc., so this activity obviously piqued my interest. As I was looking through the different agencies’ pictures and Google reviews, I noticed a common theme amidst all of them:
The faces of the customers enjoying these activities and experiences were overwhelmingly Caucasian.
Now, let me start off by saying that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Caucasian people enjoying the natural beauty of India. I mean, sh*t, they know what’s up. From a cultural standpoint, White people, regardless of where they’re from, generally seem to enjoy outdoor activities, such as hiking, camping, kayaking/canoeing, etc. It’s something they’ve grown up doing together with their families and friends, and so, I really wouldn’t expect anything different when they’re visiting a foreign country.
What’s problematic is the fact that I wasn’t seeing locals from the area enjoying their surroundings. What’s problematic is that I wasn’t seeing that many Indian families enjoying these activities. What’s problematic is that I’d been to Alappuzha a million freaking times, and this was an activity no one in my family ever even mentioned to me.
Why is it that, despite the numerous times I’d been to Alappuzha, my parents had never once said “Hey, let’s go kayaking together as a family.”? How come, even though there were an abundance of lush, green national forests and parks dotting the entire Western Ghats region, that we never once did a camping trip to one of them?
As per my usual inclination during these moments, I called my mom to discuss it with her.
“Amma, did you know they have kayak rentals in Alappuzha?”
“Oh really? I didn’t know,” she answered, rather unenthusiastically.
“Amma, this is so cool! I’m surprised you never went when you were younger,” I exclaimed to her.
“No di, in those days only laborers and fisherman will go in kayaks like that. We never had a chance to do anything like that.”
Ah-ha, I thought to myself. The puzzle was starting to come together for me.
My understanding was that the reason my mother hadn’t really done any sort of outdoor activities like kayaking during her youth was because, quite frankly, those types of activities were never perceived as something dignified, to be enjoyed with your friends and families on a weekend. Unless you were a dirt-poor fisherman who only used a kayak as a means of transportation, there really was no other reason anyone else would be maneuvering their own watercraft.
That’s probably why, while many of us grew up listening to our White classmates talking about their summer camping trip, we could never relate. A month-long trip to the motherland to stay with extended family? Sure. A two-week trip to Europe? Probably. But a camping trip to speak of? Absolutely not.
If we take a moment to really think about it and connect the dots, this ties into the longstanding views that Desi people have held about the outdoors as a whole. We’ve been taught generation after generation that we shouldn’t go outside too much because we’ll get darker. And who typically ends up having to be outside in the blazing sun all the time? The working class.
Our parents often poke fun at how these crazy goray are always going out into a jungle on a so-called “vacation”. It’s like, they can’t fathom why White people would want to downgrade to vacationing in a primitive environment with limited resources, when they have access to far more luxurious options. Ultimately, being in the outdoors has always been perceived as a means for survival for working class, lower caste Indians; not as an exciting getaway opportunity for the middle or upper classes. Hundreds, of years of elitist, classist brainwashing, colonialism, and colorism has gone into this outlook on the outdoors, and undoing it is going to take a lot of work.
However, we can start that work today. With ourselves. I already am noticing more Gen Y Desis getting into camping, hiking/trekking and just going on all kinds of adventures in the wilderness, and this is something we should continue doing. We should normalize going hiking as a fun-filled recreational activity all by itself; even when the pandemic is over. We should make family camping trips with our children and even our parents a tradition.
Next time we’re in the motherland with our family, maybe we can try suggesting a group activity in a nature preserve or national park. We can even take the initiative by booking a guide to accompany the whole family on a hike. Let’s contribute to changing the narrative around being out in the wilderness.
At the end of the day, there is just too much beauty out there that Mother Nature created for the world to enjoy. And unless we consciously act against some of these long-held beliefs that have been passed down through the generations, we may miss out on sharing some amazing experiences with our loved ones.
So with that, let’s normalize being Desi and enjoying the outdoors!