Essay on Spiritual Tourism

The Spirit of Tourism

      The phrase, “I love you to death!” is one used by lovers to each other and this vow seems to be to reinforce the commitment or devotion to each other. No one among us could say that we don’t have a love for the Earth.  It has been noted that when someone has and relates a time when they have experienced a feeling of being close to a deity- it is in nature. God is felt in a sunrise, or holding a baby bird, or even seen in a cloud over the ocean. Many of us might relate somehow to that sentiment, and there is money to be made from this. And this has led us to a complicated set of factors that need to be discussed.

     This complication can be exemplified by an an essay written for National Geographic by Brian Handwerk. It gives a graphic example of the end result of making the money more important than the experience:  “Visitors are loving Tibetan monkeys to death in one of China’s most popular tourism centers.” The monkeys are kept in a severely reduced enclosure, and this seems to trigger aggression toward each other and toward their young. “As a result, less than half of the infants survive into adulthood.” (Handwerk, 1) The results of this study relate to my own experiences as a tourist. In the last ten years eco-tourism has become a large niche within the tourism industry. “It is recognized that two of the fastest growing sectors of the tourism industry are ecotourism and cultural tourism.” (UNEP). Too often, though it is simply to make money. Being aware of this and deciding to become a tourist who is conscientious will prevent the degradation of cultures and the erosion of livelihoods around the world. Understanding how we spend our money affects each and every local inhabitant, local wildlife, and local plant of the places we travel to ensures that the place will be better for our visit.

   The problem I feel is not the presence of the tourist but the perjorative attitude on both sides.  When I travelled to Tibet in 2007, the Qing-ha Train from Beijing to Lhasa was only a few months old, arriving in Lhasa at night winding from behind a large hill, the first thing I noticed was a large tower lit its entire height with blue, red, and green lights.  In the daytime I saw that it was a cell phone tower in the form of a replica of the Eiffel Tower. I later heard Lhasa referred to as ‘Lhasa Vegas’ by a fellow western traveler in a Hostel.  The streets and buildings all were typical 2nd world country- the difference here was that every single one of the beggars was dressed as a Buddhist monk.  It was apparent to me that the tradition of an ascetic monk on alms rounds had become completely perverted.

      After a few days I found a tour company that I felt the most reliable and fair and booked an 8 day trip.  The tour company provided a Toyota Land Cruiser with 4 seats, a driver, and the permits needed for travel to the different area of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). Putting up index cards advertising the extra seats in the Land Cruiser, fellow tourists were located and a trip began. Our first stop was Nam-Tso (Sky Lake) and of course our Land Cruiser broke down. The strap holding the gas tank had fallen away and pulled the fuel-return lines away from the tank.

      My first uneasy feeling of being a ‘tourist’ happened when I went to visit the bathroom. The lake is surrounded by barren rangeland and the bathrooms were wooden-walled chutes that looked out over a gully.  Everybody’s mess was right below where you stood. I left my mess and walked out and a Tibetan woman walked up to me and put out her hand in the international gesture of “Gimme money”. She has aggravated me. I said, ‘No.’ She reached out and grabbed my camera case that was around my neck with her other hand. Her one empty hand still held out, the other tugging at the case. I put 5 Yuan (.40$ us) in her hand and she let me go. Then I remembered that she was the woman who had pointed out a chute for me to use- she ran this concession and she wanted to be paid. But paid for what? Well she did acquire those planks, the nails, dug the holes for the posts, and maybe had to haul away our waste.  The driver had fixed the Land Cruiser by punching a hole through the tire well and ‘tying’ the tank strap back into place. We were mobile again. I wasn’t angry anymore at the fake monks or the pushy outhouse lady. I was embarrassed at being a tourist.

        Preserving the places that tourists seek out for whatever the reason has to be a consideration now. Until this is done, the commercialization will dissolve the very fabric of the very reason a place or a people are visited. Tourists generally seek a renewal of some sort: a change in air, attitude, scenery, and people which gives one that sense of renewal.  For me, it was an attempt at spiritual immersion. I was visiting places that are more than important to the native people who live and worship there. They rely on this place for their well being that goes beyond any kind of choice in belief.  I am starting to feel what spiritual tourism can mean. Where this kind of tourism actually kills anything trying to survive as it always has, like an indigenous people’s ancient belief and even like the monkeys.

     Tourism and the money from tourism can be of benefit, providing this asset is used with discernment.  In my visits to the smaller and/or rural locally run monasteries and temples, no entrance fee was charged. Instead a fee was charged for each picture taken as the visitor walked around inside. With each picture the photographer was asked to pay for (1-5 Yuan).  In the larger monasteries- run by the Government- including, sadly, the Potala Palace the winter home of the Dalai Lama, visitors can take all the free pictures you want but an entrance fee is charged. Non-attachment to material things is a major tenet of Buddhist thought. And this business of tourism has found a way into this way of life, though reversed in appearance, it is the same idea that you ‘pay to pray’. In the smaller temples, it is my feeling that entrance to the monastery was offered as a gift. But any ‘thing’ you took- you paid them for. To me this is fair.  The larger government run enterprises you paid to get in and since you exited through a gift shop you paid to get out to, very similar to every national park and museum in the United States. To me this is irreverent.

At the Sakya Monastery- A stop that I had fought for when setting up our gang’s itinerary, it wasn’t that beautiful, big, and it was a bit out of the way. But, to me it was of high relevance. Shakyamuni Buddha, The Historical Buddha was of the S(h)akya clan.  This monastery was where ‘He’ started. I managed to go off by myself- away from the grumbling of 80% of my companions (Neil never grumbled, though he never was happy either- he went off on his own also and had his own experience as when we met up later he asked me, “Why are there wolf skins hanging from the rafters in that building?”) I went to the main meditation hall and wandered around and found a place to sit facing statue of the Buddha was appealing to me. After I meditated for about 15-30 minutes- a very soothing 15-30 minutes- a Tibetan woman walked by in front of me then came back again with a broom.  She was pretending to sweep in front of me. I had the feeling she wondered what I was doing. “Was I doing something wrong?” I thought. “Is this spot reserved for something or someone important or holy?” Then I felt someone over my right shoulder. It was a little boy, about 10 years old standing behind me and peering around and into my face, “Is this guy meditating?” They left as quietly as they came.

     Costa Christ, the senior director for eco-tourism at Conservation International, An American-based Non Governmental Organization writes in his blog, ‘Beyond Green Travel’, “If we could magically stop all air travel tomorrow, far from saving the Earth, we would unleash a global conservation crisis.  Without tourist dollars, the famous Serengeti game park would soon be covered with human settlements. And Brazil’s massive Pantanal wetlands would turn into a cattle-rearing hotspot.” The challenge, Christ says, “is not how to stop travel, but how to get it right.”  (Ecotourism: Hope or Illusion, As Mr. Christ points out money and tourism may be necessary if we are to have a global mind-set and set out to preserve people and place.

     The money and the working for money aren’t necessary, though. In one village, we stopped for a break and I was walking around, stretching my legs and I walked up to a plank-board building that was essentially a giant wooden hutch. Through the doors I saw a Tibetan prayer wheel about 15 feet high made of a gold-colored metal- the doors were padlocked and I walked away. Unnoticed-I thought.  An older Tibetan man ran across the street gesturing to me, “don’t go!” and a key in his other hand. He unlocked the giant hutch, walked in and sat against the wall in a chair. I walked in after him and started my circumambulation, cynically waiting for him to pull out an empty wallet or a tip jar every time I walked past him. Only about two feet separated me and the wall and he was perched in a chair in a side corner by the door. In other words, the hutch was built around the prayer wheel. Instead, three other locals walked in and circled the prayer wheel with me, one of them chanting to herself. When i finished and walked away, I bowed to this nice man. An hour or so and we were back in the Land Cruiser and driving by the man sitting now by himself in the hutch; sitting erect and smiling at nothing and nobody. He was simply happy. It was here that I became self-conscious about taking pictures of people without their knowledge and consent. I didn’t take a picture and felt that if I had I might have taken some of his moment from him with my picture.

     Being able to travel to foreign lands and mingle with local people should not result in monkeys killing their children or old woman cleaning up my feces as a business venture in a land now made “poor” by Capitalism. Instead it should look like a serene key keeper smiling as he probably does each and every time he opens the doors to the prayer wheel and a woman and a boy free to be just as curious about me as I am about them and no one loses anything; or says, “I wish they hadn’t come.”


Author: Taopants

O' wanderer, the road is walking too. J.H. (sorta)

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