After starting the hostel in Amritsar, I realized I could show the Golden temple, the border and give tourists a glimpse into the culture with our food and village tours but that was not enough for travellers who wanted to get more insight into the culture. Amritsar, no doubt has a lot of the Punjab culture but it has been much more influenced by western culture than the villages around.
For the travellers who want to experience more of the culture of this state, the only way was to take them to the villages, which still have the culture much more authentic than the cities. Also getting older, I keep thinking of moving to the countryside to have fresh air, more space, more natural surroundings, maybe self grown food .
Thinking more about this, creating a home in the village which hosts travellers seemed the best way forward. After a lot of thinking, researching and planning, I have decided to give this idea a try by renting a room in one of the staff’s home in the village and putting a couple of bunkbeds there. The family is a very religious Sikh family with 5-6 cows and a couple of acres of land. They have been hosting the village tour for 3 years so they are used to foreigners. About 10-15 people have stayed there for some days to some weeks in the last two years.
The plan is to see how many travellers are interested in this and test the possibility of a non-profit sustainable tourism project near Amritsar. Sustainable tourism seems to be the long term solution for saving the environment while travelling and learning the cultures. As the plan is to make this a non-profit organization, the profits will go to the welfare of the village and would also become a way to help the village while you travel making it a win-win situation.
The biggest positive I think is the hospitality that tourists receive in the village where they have’t had many tourists. People get invited into homes, marriages, fed, dressed up in local clothes and are almost considered/treated as celebrities by the locals. It is a good opportunity for travellers with the intent of learning the culture. You have the chance of learning the culture and ways of life which are not much influenced by western culture yet. The more you see and observe the culture, the more you learn why it is the way it is and the more it starts making sense. Also as people in the villages are more open, females get more chance to interact with women in the village and learn about their lifes.
This is also a way to make your stay very cheap and healthy. Right now, we are offering a bed in a 4 bed dorm for ₹150 per night and an additional ₹70 per meal to the family. The expenses should not be more than ₹400 per day with food and accomodation in a traditional family house with cows and a farm. Because of cows and the farm, you are much closer to the source of food. The air/water is much cleaner and the surroundings are clean. You can also learn farmwork and cooking.
The biggest worry I had while planning this is how tough this may be for female tourists. You may witness the oppression of women in this society and may also be judged for not adhering to the social norms of this society sometimes. Mixing that with the sexual repression in the villages and the image village men have of western women from movies and pornography, It can lead to some uncomfortable (not dangerous) situations.
The other issue I see is the difference of cultures and a lack of understanding between each other. Tourists who have been in India for a while don’t know or understand the culture fully and Village people have seen some foreigners but knowing or understanding the western culture doesn’t seem likely in near future. So people might end up offending each other unintentionally.
I have taken the role of cultural translator in Amritsar to help people through this. I hope the experience I have had doing this would help in the village.
Things I have learnt which I would like to share:
It very rarely ended well to mix Indians, western women and alcohol. Even if it can be fun sometimes, it gets stressful for us, as after alcohol people have less inhibitions and the chances of doing something disrespectful increase. Also our village family is very religious and you are not allowed to stay there after consuming alcohol. Keeping this in mind, Drinking alcohol during your stay is not allowed.
Tobacco is highly looked down upon in Sikh religion. It will be tough to find a place to smoke in the village. If you feel the need to smoke, take a 10 minute walk to the fields or highway and don’t wear turban or Orange sikh headscarf while you smoke.
While addressing the other sex, it is best to use didi (Sister) and Paaji (Brother) to make sure that the other doesn’t get any interest signals from your interactions. This would help us by minimizing confusions.
Public display of affection is not something village people have seen much. Even if you are a couple, any kind of touch in public gets unwanted attention in the village and its best to avoid it.
People like you more if you are wearing local clothing. If wearing local clothing is not possible, its best to cover as much as possible. We can help you get some local clothes if you would like.
In case you are confused in any situation, asking Sanjay or one of the family members would be helpful.
I don’t know how this will all work out in the long run but as this is the start, I think of taking precautions while doing this slow and steady to give time to villagers to understand more. It will help travellers and locals if it works out and will need efforts from both sides. The Village is halfway to the border and costs ₹15-20 by bus.