My two favorite restaurants in Delhi are Karim's and T.G.I. Friday's. Karim's is a local institution, a first-rate tandoori joint that's said to be run by descendants of the royal chefs who once served the Mughal court. I love the place for its huge traditional tandoors and the men in dirty kurtas pasting the flatbread called naan to the ovens' inner walls with metal poles. And for the food, of course -- the chicken burra especially, a tandoori chicken far removed from, and far superior to, the bright-pink version famous around the world. Half a bird, a stack of the world's best naan, and a side plate of onions and tomatoes for less than five bucks. Naturally, Karim's is in all the independent guidebooks. Hell, it embodies practically everything the indie guides -- your Rough Guides, your Footprint and Moon handbooks, and of course your Lonely Planets -- stand for: tradition, value, authenticity.
Word of the T.G.I. Friday's is much harder to come by. To be sure, South Delhi's T.G.I. Friday's has all the tacky touches of its brethren in Burnaby, British Columbia, and Aurora, Illinois: nachos and wings on the menu, bright red-and-white stripes on the shirts of the staff, roadhouse kitsch stuck randomly to the walls. But never mind the setting. It's the scene at this T.G.I. Friday's that makes it just as worthy a destination as Karim's. I could find only one guide, though, that even mentioned the place (Footprint's India Handbook, which notes, in passing, that it has a 'good 'happy hour'').
During the nightly happy hour, South Delhi's T.G.I. Friday's is the place to see the city's new generation of yuppies. The air is thick with the aroma not of turmeric and cardamom but of fried cheese and potato skins, and there's not a sari in sight. The place is packed to overflowing with young Delhiites at play -- decked out smartly in trendy casual wear, quaffing two-for-one drafts, chattering into cell phones. This is not the India of postcards but rather modern India as it actually is.
The introduction to the eighth edition of Lonely Planet's India guide begins, 'With one foot swathed in ancient traditions and the other striding into the entrepreneurial e-age, few countries on earth embrace diversity as passionately as India.' I couldn't agree more. But why, then, does the India of Karim's -- traditional, otherworldly India -- get so much greater emphasis in the pages that follow?
Therein lies the guidebook paradox. They can be invaluable resources, pointing you to the kind of traditional restaurant you went to India to visit, not to mention a decent hostel on that first confusing night. In a very real sense, the indie guides -- and the budget-oriented, anti-package-tour style of travel they inspired -- are a big reason why so many of us find ourselves in places like Delhi in the first place. More subtly, though, these guides also attempt to indoctrinate their readers in a sort of backpacker Orientalism, ignoring or at least denigrating anything that emerged after the birth of the backpacker culture in the early 1970s.
Karim's courtyard is practically in the shadow of the Jama Masjid, the colossal 17th-century mosque built by the Mughal dynasty, a line of Muslim emperors in India from 1526 to 1857. With its location near this centerpiece of Old Delhi, the restaurant is perfect guidebook fodder. But more recent invaders -- like T.G.I. Friday's or the McDonald's on Connaught Place in the heart of New Delhi -- supposedly have nothing to do with the 'real' India. Some sucker on an all-inclusive tour might stop to find respite from the searing spices of 'real' Indian restaurants, but you wouldn't be reading an indie guide if you didn't lust for authentic adventure. The lonely planet you're looking for -- and the Lonely Planet you carry in your backpack -- doesn't include such tawdry fare. Right?
Lonely Planet -- the godfather of 'independent' travel guides, the backpacker's bible -- turned 30 in 2002. It first hit bookshelves in its native Australia as a thin, hand-stapled pamphlet called 'Across Asia on the Cheap,' written and self-published by Tony and Maureen Wheeler, a young couple whose epic overland journey from England to Australia covered territory never before discussed in any guidebook.
Today, Lonely Planet publishes thick guides to virtually every country the Wheelers traversed, plus separate guides for many of the cities they visited, as well as phrase books for most of the languages spoken along the route. Now a multinational publishing company with more than 650 titles in its catalog, Lonely Planet has spawned dozens of competitors, all professing allegiance to 'independent' travel or 'adventure' travel or travel 'off the beaten path.'
As Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler puts it in 'The Lonely Planet Story,' included in every guide, 'I hope we send people out with the right attitude about travel. You realize when you travel that there are so many different perspectives about the world, so we hope these books will make people more interested in what they see.' Note -- as Wheeler apparently doesn't -- the contradiction at work here: While 'different perspectives' abound, the guide does have a particular 'right attitude' it hopes to share with its readers. Perhaps Wheeler wants his readers to travel like he and Maureen did on their cross-Asia trek in 1972: with hardly any guidance, on a shoestring budget, through an Asia largely untouched by Western culture. At that time, when Kathmandu played host to no more than a couple thousand Western visitors per year, the Wheelers easily avoided tourist-oriented amenities and beaten tracks for the simple reason that there weren't any.
These days, though, more than 250,000 people pass through Kathmandu every year -- and Thailand, one of Asia's most popular destinations, sees more than 10 million visitors annually. For the backpackers arriving in Bangkok these days, the sense of otherness is surely reduced. So, too, the sense of adventure that once limited such places to only the hardiest of travelers. Some of these people might indeed be looking for undiscovered places and simple accommodations, for exotically spiced food and close contact with unfamiliar cultures. Many, though -- perhaps even most -- are not. They're just as likely to be in search of carefree days lolling on beaches and frenetic nights dancing to booming techno. But the budget guides push them away from what they might actually be looking for toward what the books' writers seem to think they should be seeking.
Still, though far from faultless, the indie guides and the style of travel they encourage do far more good than harm to the places they cover. Here's why: Those millions of young Westerners were going to hit the backpacker trail anyway. By encouraging neophyte travelers to seek out low-cost accommodations and less-touristed regions, the indie guides do much to funnel tourism dollars into local, noncorporate hands -- the 'sticky' hands -- of small-business owners, who tend to keep that money in their communities. The term 'sticky' is Tony Wheeler's, and it's always been his strongest defense against Lonely Planet's critics. He has also asserted -- with some truth -- that tourism can support and even resuscitate traditional handicrafts.
The folks toting indie guides around the globe are encouraged to experience the places they visit more deeply than they otherwise would. And, in so doing, they gain an indelible appreciation for the vastness and diversity of our world -- and an unshakeable understanding that in no corner of this not-so-lonely planet will they ever find a monolithic 'them.' This last seems a particularly valuable lesson of travel in the past couple of years, as candidates for 'them'-ness flit across our TV screens -- whether they be Iraqis or Afghans.
If there is one great transformation I've gained thus far from travel, it is this: I can no longer objectify the people in those TV images. I can't discount their lives. If even a tenth -- a hundredth -- of the millions who buy indie guidebooks learn this lesson, then Lonely Planet and Rough Guides and the rest have done a great service.
From the Canadian travel magazine Outpost (Sept./Oct. 2003). U.S. subscriptions: $30/yr. (6 issues) from 474 Adelaide St.E., Lower Level, Toronto, ON M5A 1N6