Southern India – Toda Trek

Southern India – Toda Trek

Toda Village Trek
The Delights & Dangers of Cultural Tourism

“Snooty Ooty” and the Toda Tribe

From Mysore, we headed by minibus to the British Hill Station of Ootacamond, fondly known as Snooty Ooty. Hill Stations are where the British colonials headed when the lowlands heated up to 100 degrees+ in the summer. It was quite the climb, with 39 switchbacks on the final leg (the signs gave a running account of how many curves to go). Half way up, most drivers (including our’s) stopped for 30 minutes or so and let their radiators cool. Despite the narrow, switchback-laden road with sheer cliffs on either side, our driver was typically-optimistic, passing on blind curves and tailgating any vehicle he thought was too slow (which was basically all of them). We knew we had become old India hands when our traveling companions began wailing in fear at the driving, which we had hardly even noticed. On arrival, we dropped our suitcases at the local YWCA, and headed out with our daypacks for a trek up the mountains and an overnight stay at a Toda village.

Visit Unspoiled Rural Villages and Learn the Mysterious Ways of Tribal People!

In a nation with half a dozen major religions and dozens of major languages, what exactly does “tribal” mean, anyway? Maybe “a small band of people that wear colorful clothes, who live in obscure places, are usually poverty-stricken, and have some distinctive cultural and religious practices”? Now, we’ve done our share of stays at tribal villages in the past, with hilltribes in northern Thailand. And it has been both a wonderful and sobering experience – seeing what true poverty is — and how fortunate most North Americans are.

The promise of “tribal village”, is that the visitor gets to see the “unspoiled” remote village. See how the other half live. But of course, by doing the visiting, one is “spoiling” it for the next tourist that come along. And perhaps spoiling it for the tribal people as well. Our visit wasn’t described like that, but many are.

Operation Blanket Sale

We saw this first hand when we hiked up to the village. A half a dozen related families live in a clearing at the top of a hill. The little kids were dressed up in their fancy dresses, the village women had goods to sell spread out on a blanket, and were trying to get us to buy something practically before we’d even set down our packs. It was so rampant that the as we were getting settled into bed for the night, a villager rattled open the door and tried to sell us some blankets. With the exception of one family, all lived in concrete row houses. And they didn’t actually wear the colorful embroidered blankets they were trying to sell; they donned them when we took pictures.

Rural, yes. Isolated, not particularly

The village wasn’t really isolated – despite our having trekked to it, there was a road nearby — we walked out on it theCell next morning. Food came from town — these weren’t subsistance farmers. The village had electricity, indoor lighting, phones, even solar hot water heaters. Over the years, we have run the gauntlet of lodging experience from some of the best 5-star hotels in the world, to sleeping in bamboo huts with wood fires (inside) — for cooking as well as to keep down the insects. Built on stilts, these primitive village often feature pigsties underneath where the family pigs and other livestock are kept. It is an experience beyond value: seeing what “dirt poor” really means, and seeing (a little at least) how people can eke out a life with almost nothing for possessions. It hardens our hearts a bit when we see Americans in seeming poverty.

Anyway, we do know “how the other half lives”… and we’ve lived among them, interacted with them, ate with them, drank with them, predominantly through our volunteering with Heifer International. So, after reading Intrepid’s description of this village, and hearing Group Leader Nitin’s description, we were quite surprised at the reality of the place — the electricity, phones… so forth. The three-year-old on the right was familiar with cell phones and insisted on borrowing on of the visitors’ phone to “make a call”.

It turns out that Intepid tours are pretty much the only ones to visit the village, but they visit weekly. Intrepid claims to be sensitive to the cultural and tribal impact of their tours, but this village certainly seems to have been impacted.

So, what’re the impacts of these visits? Is the village spoiled for westerners looking for that “untainted” village? Was it spoiled for the villagers themselves? Is tourism good or bad for this village? Should Intrepid stop bringing tours to the village? Here are some points to consider:

  • Despite the initial “sales focus”, at least some of the villagers were genuinely friendly & interested in us. There was some English spoken, we could have simple conversations without involving the local guide. It is an exciting change of pace for them when the foreigners showed up.
  • The villagers have livelihoods besides the tourists – they raise oxen and have gardens; some of them work in town for wages. No doubt the tourists are a lucrative sideline, but it isn’t their only source of imcome.
  • Like tribal people in most parts of the world, they are rapidly being assimilated into mainstream Indian society, independent of tourism. The kids all go to Indian schools, and are taught in a non-tribal language (the local dialect and probably English). One of the village women had two years of college; another was taken an advanced policewoman course.
  • They want easier lives like everyone else – they had the chance to get electricity and phone service, and they took advantage of it.
  • Their only real experience of westerners are the Intrepid tours. Their experience is that tourists want them to dress up in their traditional clothes for pictures, and want to buy their wares. They have no context to know what constitutes appropriate behavior and what is pushy or aggressive in the views of westerners.

Enough sociological angst. The women were very eager to talk, and we had conversations as much as their very limited English would allow. I brought along a little photo album of family shots, and showing Scott and I doing various things. As always, that was a big hit. They were astonished at the underwater pictures of us diving. I’m not sure they even comprehended the snow. Sara, my 7 year old niece, was the star of the show – they loved her white-blond hair. Another big hit was the gardening shot showing Kathy with a basket of tomatoes, squash, leeks, etc. Something that is directly related to their life. One of the more interesting coversations was their question whether any of the marraiges in the US were “love marriages” – i.e. where people loved each other, as opposed to arranged marriages. All the women there said they had had arranged marriages (as do almost all Indians) and were astounded when they learned that this wasn’t the case in the US. One of the village women was off getting advanced training to be a policewoman. They were all very pround of this – it was mentioned many times.

Let’s show you some village life.

   Toda traditional costume – Scott & Kathy do the tourist thing… Traditional Toda home. Only one family in the village still lives in this type of house. The rest of the families live in row houses like this – there are three homes here, each with 3 or so rooms.    Interiors are sparsley furnished, and unheated (it gets down to freezing in the mountains). Interior of traditional home. This is the kitchen you’re looking at. This woman has two years of college, majoring in economics. This is a kitchen in one of the row houses. The dinner they fixed for us included beets, dhal (lentils), and rice. It was quite tasty.   Group photo. *Everyone* wanted their picture taken. Notice the kids are all dressed up in their finest. The women wear their hair in these long curls. I have no idea how they get them to hold so well. Toda kids having dinner. A lot of the girls had shaved heads – I’m guessing it was to get rid of lice.    Scott tried out for the Toda cricket team. He did get one hit, but he was no match for the Kiwi, Indian, and Toda experts. The sun never sets on the British cricket empire. There were lots of kids in the village. They like kids a lot – the men and teenage boys were just as affectionate with the kids as their moms and sisters. When they learned that Scott & I had no kids, they felt very bad on hour behalf and asked if we had been to the hospital to see if something could be done about it. They were incredulous that we might choose not to have children. The kids in this village go to school – girls as well as boys, a good sign. 

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