“Why Can’t You Afford a Private Tour?”

I hope you read Mai Wang’s story about traveling (and getting scammed) in China, because it reminded me of a similar trip I took in India while I was in graduate school, starting at the south in Hyderabad and ending up, about three weeks later, in Amritsar near the India/Pakistan border.

Here are the parts that were roughly equivalent:

— Wang and I were both graduate students

— Wang and I were both traveling because of university projects (I was teaching Shakespeare at the University of Hyderabad; when my course finished, I got on a train and headed north)

— Wang and I both experienced the same “scam” where our drivers gently pressured us to stop at restaurants and stores where they received a kickback on our purchases (hey, it’s affiliate marketing, right?)

And here’s the part that sent a long-buried memory orb up the pipe towards Headquarters:

As she guided me across the mountain paths, Little Flower asked me questions about my life in America. I told her that I was not considered rich back home, and she didn’t believe me. “But only rich people can afford a private tour,” she said. “You’re a VIP.” I insisted that I was only an ordinary student.

In my case, it was an evening where a group of University of Hyderabad faculty were sitting together on the patio adjacent to our dorm. (Many faculty members live on campus, especially those who are doing visiting stints, as I was.)

“You’re going to Goa, right?” one of the women asked. “I can recommend a resort for you. It’s so luxurious!”

“I’m not sure if I have time,” I hedged politely, trying to avoid the fact that I knew I couldn’t afford anything described as “luxurious.” In fact, the only way I was able to afford traveling at all was to ride second-class trains, stay in hostels, and — here comes the embarrassing part — impose myself on a friend who lived in Bangalore for an entire week. (He asked me how long I wanted to stay with his family, and I should have said “how about three days?”)

Somehow we got into a conversation about the difference between middle-class America and middle-class India. I say “somehow,” but I’m quite sure I initiated it, because we were a group of university faculty (or in my case “a visiting grad student with a temporarily upgraded job title”), which means we treated socio-economic discussions as entertainment.

We had previously covered the entertaining topics of “American health care” and “why Nicole hasn’t been to a dentist in four years,” and that night we talked about vacations. Specifically, “why this not-at-all luxurious backpacking adventure is Nicole’s first vacation in four years.”

I remember outlining that the average American gets, at best, fourteen days off, and some of those days are pre-determined holidays like Labor Day, so it’s not like you can ever take all fourteen days off at once. I explained the concept of PTO and the idea of using your days off as either vacation days or sick days. I am quite sure I talked at length, and fervently, about how Christmas, for a lot of Americans, was a 72-hour dash through the airports to spend two-and-a-half days with family before having to start work again.

My experience in India was not “but only rich people can afford a private tour.” It was much more “you’re a middle-class professional woman, why can’t you afford a private tour?”And “why don’t you take regular holidays?” Also, “why haven’t you been to the dentist or the optometrist in years?”

I did, by the way, go to an optometrist in India (mostly because I was so excited to finally be able to afford one), making myself an official Medical Tourist. I’ll have to tell that story next week, before Travel Month ends.

This story is part of our Travel Month series.

Photo credit: Julia Gross

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