Back to basics: rural tourism in India

by AFP/Phil Hazlewood, Jun 18, 2009 | Destinations: India

PURUSHWADI, March 26, 2009 - The remote village of Purushwadi is perched high in the jagged hills of Maharashtra state in western India, where life for the tribal farmers has hardly changed in centuries.

Locals live with their animals in mud-brick houses with dried cow dung floors, there is no electricity or running water and the day revolves around backbreaking work in the fields under the harsh rays of an unforgiving sun.

Yet places like this are now attracting India's city dwellers, who are eager to swap their desk jobs and the stresses of metropolitan living for clean air and a more traditional way of life -- if only for a few days.

Home for Hans Lewis, an artist and web entrepreneur, is only 140 miles (220 kilometres) away in the teeming metropolis of Mumbai.

But India's bustling hub of international finance, media and entertainment -- a hot, polluted, noisy and crowded city of at least 14 million people -- might as well be on the other side of the world.

It has taken the 27-year-old and eight of his friends seven hours to get here by crowded train and over potholed roads so bad that the rear tyre of their overloaded jeep burst.

Despite the energy-sapping journey, he says it has been worth it for giving him a fresh perspective on life away from his daily focus on money and climbing the career ladder.

In a few short hours, the group has swum in a crystal clear river, helped farmers thresh wheat, chopped wood with a long-handled axe, and eaten home-cooked food with locals in the dim light of their meagre huts.

"There's a poetic experience coming here and understanding what this simple life is all about, being in touch with nature, how people live by little means, with absolutely no electricity, simple farming," he told AFP.

About 70 percent of India's 1.1 billion people live in villages like Purushwadi. But as cities like Mumbai expand, fuelled by the country's economic boom, the gap between urban rich and rural poor is widening as never before.

As in other developing countries, migration in search of work is eroding India's rich range of cultures, languages and traditions, and loosening the ties of community life.

Inir Pinheiro, whose company Grassroutes takes white-collar city workers and middle class youth groups to Purushwadi and another nearby village, says it's important such lifestyles are not lost completely.

"It's an endeavour to get people into villages to realise the beauty of India," he said.

"The idea, ultimately, is to get the communities to connect. Every day we've had more than 10 farmers killing themselves. We've had massive malnourishment even on the outskirts of Bombay and there are lots of places that have no water.

"But nobody cares about these things (in the city). The dynamics are so awry."

Lewis and his friends have spent 1,000 rupees (19 dollars) for a night in the village -- a small fortune for the locals who earn on average only 50-100 rupees per day -- to reconnect with a simpler, slower way of life.

The money goes straight into the 450-strong community, supplementing their income from the cultivation of rice, wheat, millet and pulses -- and, crucially, stopping them for heading to the city to look for work.

But as well as boosting greater understanding between people at the opposite ends of India's rigid social ladder, who would never otherwise meet, the aim is not to bring along "the baggage of tourism," said Pinheiro.

"We don't want to change the villagers' lifestyle in any way," he said, describing the business as "responsible rural tourism".

Purushwadi's tourism clerk, Balu Kondar, is happy to see the city folk and treats them as honoured guests. "I feel good about it and my family feels good about it," said the 27-year-old.

"We're providing a service and the people who cook the food get money out of it. At the same time as money comes in, the village's reputation increases."

For the hardworking women, too, there is relief from long days of taking goats and cows to pasture, sowing seeds or bringing in crops, not to mention the two-mile trek to fetch water at least once a day.

"When we go to the fields we get exhausted," said Tara Bhai Dhundar Walekar, who plies her visitors with organic rice, dal and rotis cooked over an open fire at her home. "Here we can save energy and get better money."

Pinheiro's aim is to expand, tapping into Indians' fierce pride in their identity and heritage and a growing domestic tourism market that sees more than 500 million Indians takes holidays in their own country every year.

Lewis is sold on the experience.

"I can go back and put my photos on Facebook or any of these networking sites and tell people I've experienced basic living and milked a goat in the morning. But more than that, you come here and have a change in aspirations.

"Realistically, we understand that we're not very different," he said.

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