Misguided Guidebooks?

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

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