My attraction to disaster tourism

While recently watching Munnabhai MBBS (a cult Hindi movie), a scene in the movie got me into serious thinking mode. Nope, not about medical ethics and Hippocrates’s Oath. But about “chilly chicken” – the Asian man, who has no interest in seeing the Taj Mahal, but gets lured by Circuit’s promise to show him the “poor and hungry masses of India”…and is actually kidnapped to serve as a body on which Munnabhai can practise his anatomy lessons. The scene raised the essential question of how similar am I to Chilly Chicken when I travel?

With some degree of travelling now under my belt, I now realise that my most striking holiday memories are of destinations that have some complexity attached to them, places that club my love for travel with history. A war, a clash of tribes, a spirited fight for nationhood, a bloody genocide or a drastic change in economic ideologies. Though I would hate to admit this, but it seems like I am amongst the new breed of “disaster tourists”.

Not that I don’t love the good, old luxurious holiday. For example, I, of course, loved sipping margaritas while lounging around the sandy, perfect beaches of Maldives. But what equally fascinated me was the darker side of this paradise. The world of the emerald waters and the floating water-villas that we see as tourists keeps us isolated from the larger picture that unfolds in Maldives. In fact, we remain oblivious to the harsh realities of this island nation – its standing as one of the most intolerant nations in permitting religious freedom, the fact that even carrying images of your own gods or religious books can get you arrested, that the government actually permitted hooligans to destroy priceless Buddhist antiques in the National Museum, etc. This paradox speaks volumes to me on how the Maldives I visited was a fantasy world – a mere fiction.

Similarly, it was impossible for me to enjoy the endless vistas of Tibet without being aware of the underlying angst of a people without freedom. The grandeur of the Angkor Vat in Cambodia did little to erase the memories of the human skull pyramid that I visited in the killing fields of Phnom Penh, a stark reminder of the genocide perpetuated by Pol Pot in contemporary times. As I floated on the Dead Sea in Jordan, I didn’t drift into a peaceful nirvana, but stayed focussed on the Israeli military planes soaring over me from the visible Israeli borders. Is this the “Chilly Chicken” syndrome? Am I purposely seeking the dark side? Or perhaps being an explorer means embracing a place and its people wholeheartedly – with the good, the bad and the ugly. The Ugly makes the feel of a place more real, more grounded and more personal. The dangers, past and present, give a place a sense of theatre along with a sense of hope. I hope my husband reads this and is convinced to let me travel to Iran! He can name the insurance amount:-)

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