Sunday, February 27, 2011

Vishnu's Largesse

A friend of ours regaled us yesterday with pictures of the trekking region around the Nepalese peak of Annapurna, which she had visited late last year. As I looked at the pictures of teahouses with English signs, and young boys blocking the trail to beg, I considered for the umpteenth time the peculiar nature of tourism, but especially tourism in the vicinity of poor, remote people.

It may be that fascination with Tibet and remote mountainous regions peaked between the fifties with the first summit of Annapurna by French climbers, and the last generation with the publication of Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air. Along with an increasing trend of young techies from California and others becoming entranced with climbing and photography, the approach of the millenium heralded more treks around the 9000 foot elevations in the region of those highest peaks - and of course the inevitable economic reactions: more English spoken and used in signage; more salable trinkets not necessarily on the radar of the Hindu worshipper; more demand for guides and sherpas; and more begging.

It's not, of course, the case that rural peasants in Tibet or Nepal had not seen Westerners in, perhaps, giveaway REI hiking boots or fake-wool vests before 1980, for they surely did. One of the interesting wrinkles was the advent of, in particular, television, which rendered unavoidable the truth that some significant number of souls abounded somewhere who were never hungry, had indoor plumbing, and never had rotten teeth at fifty.

What could a Hindu in such a place make of the actual arrival of one of these exotic denizens of far-flung empires? Another friend had gone to the Everest base camp with a guided camping group which included a Silicon Valley couple who had never camped (though claimed in the application form that they had) one of whom had to be carried out at the arrival at the halfway point due to illness due partly to dehydration. Would the locals associate this with nearly incredible foolhardiness, or just assume it as alien behavior? Could they not be resentful under the circumstances?

Presumably the gradual resurgence of the world economy will bring a renewed demand for those lodgings and guides, and with that inevitable increasing familiarity with things prosperous, agnostic, and Western, it may be that a quiet rebellion less splashy that that shaking the Middle East autocracies will erode some of the old ways.

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