The Difference between Pilgrimage and Tourism

nathanielkiddnathanielkidd on 09 Oct 2008 08:23

Describing our reasons for going to India to our friends and family back home was difficult. Sharing them with people we meet in India has, thus far, been impossible.

Part of it is the language barrier. When we explain our mission in English to native English speakers, we can be endlessly vague until people stop asking. Being vague with Indians who speak English as a second language simply isn’t an option. It’s hard to get off well-rehearsed conversational scripts with people whose English skills are still developing.

I think another issue is a certain amount of what might be called “tourist guilt.” Here we are in Pahar Ganj, an area that has been undeniably and often undesirably altered by the ubiquity of foreign tourists. People flock here from all over the world, all with their own reasons, from the mundane to the sublime. But whatever their motivation for traveling, legitimate or not, their presence changes things, and not always for the better. Ironically, the presence of tourists often destroys the very things that the tourists come to see.

So we have to ask ourselves: is our desire to be something other than tourists legitimate? Or do we want to “rise above” tourism out of pride, to escape the ugliness of tourism’s dark side?

Like early missionaries struggled with their connection to imperialism, so we struggle with our connection to tourism.

Jesus Christ has called us to this journey.
Jesus Christ has called us to this journey.

I think it is fair to say that we are not tourists in much the same way that the early missionaries were not imperialists. The early missionaries were dependent on the imperial structures for their work. They were taken to the far corners of the earth on the same winds that brought merchants and military men. But they also had the freedom in Christ to be critical of the imperial system, and their relationship with Christ gave them a deep desire to be compassionate, which often resulted in very different behaviors on the ground than those of their imperial counterparts.

We came to India on the same plane that carries tourists; we are staying in the same places. We have the same skin color as many tourists, and ultimately we will probably see and do many of the same things. But we are different: we have come because of the calling of Christ, and we are listening for his direction and seeking to imitate him in all the things that we do.

Of course, we are not really missionaries, either. We are not traveling under that banner, nor are we modeling ourselves after that tradition. What are we? We are pilgrims; we are here on pilgrimage. (I think I’ll throw that one out next time someone asks, and see how they respond.)

But what does it mean to be on Christian pilgrimage in India? This has been an important question for us in our first few weeks here, as we have been seeking God’s continuing call in our life and our time here. We’ve come up with a few pithy statements that help us to understand our pilgrim call.

Tourists come to see, pilgrims come to be.

“You’re still in Delhi!” When we run into people we’ve seen before on Pahar Ganj, they explode with a combination of awe and disbelief. “You should go somewhere nice. Go to Kashmir. Trek the mountains. Stay on a houseboat. Breathe the fresh air.” Or, “Go to Rajastan. See the temples. Go to Agra. See the Taj.”

We’ll have time to see these things, I am sure. But what we are really interested in is the spiritual landscape: drinking in the effect of loving Jesus in India. This is something we can do practically anywhere. In one day, we are likely to converse with a Muslim Sufi, drink tea with a Hindu, and have dinner with a Buddhist. They may not be leaders of their religious sect; they may not have two honorific “sri”s attached to their name. But we can learn just as much, and perhaps more, from their humble and reverent everyday expressions of faith than from the finely tuned practices of the masters.

We are interested in the human landscape. We have enjoyed meeting people, and making friends. If we are moving around constantly, how will we have time to incubate these relationships?

So we are not particularly anxious to leave Delhi, though we are of course open to being called.

Tourists find things to buy and take home. Pilgrims find ways to give, and so furnish their heavenly home.

“Wall hangings? Rugs? Whips? Tublas? Knives? Toy autorickshaws?” The selection along Main Bazaar is endless: as Wikitravel aptly calls it, “Everything that a backpacker needs, and more.” But no matter how many times we are hailed “Hallo! Come look my shop!” or no matter how many times we are strong-armed into a tourist trap, it does not entice us to buy.

After our lengthy process of divestment, we do not have a house (or even an apartment) in the States that is waiting eagerly to be filled with cheap Indian souvenirs. Instead, we look for ways to make relationships, and bless people with good hearts.

(Take that Kashmiri carpet dealer! No rug for us!)

What’s more, we can afford to be lavish hosts in India. A full service meal at the Grand Sindi, with entrée, rice, naan, and drink, costs about two dollars a head.

Tourists relax, pilgrims are reformed.

There are times for relaxation, but this is not one of them. Our spiritual calling prompts us to constant vigilance, and openness to the unfolding work of God.

“Don’t give me any of that ‘Oh, I’ve come to India to find myself’ bullcrap,” the Kashmiri carpet dealer told me, when I at length confessed the spiritual underpinnings of our journey. “Those gurus, all they want is money. They are monks in front, but in behind, they are all married. They renounce the world in public, but when no one is looking, they drive Ferraris.”

We have not come to India to find ourselves, or to find God. Through Jesus Christ, we know ourselves, and we know God. We have come because God has called us, and because God has called us, we trust that our time here will be a part of his ongoing transformation of our souls, and of the world.

Whether they are sycophantic or not, we may want to meet some of these gurus at some point. Not because we believe they have answers for us, but because we are all a part of the same conversation. We can admire and learn from their charisma, their achievements in practice of meditation, their mastery of religious machinery, their administration of ashrams. And perhaps we will have something to offer in our humble but fulfilling love for Jesus Christ.

Tourists throw money into their travel, and get what they want. Pilgrims throw themselves into their travel, and want what they get.

If we had an unlimited bankroll, we could be staying at the Bahraj Indian Homestay, with a nice breakfast every morning, wireless internet, a car whenever we needed it, dinner in our room, and everything we need always within shouting distance. It was a really wonderful and luxurious place.

But we don’t have endless money: what we have is a lot of time and openness to whatever God has for us. This has led us to Pahar Ganj, where we have very little control over our environment. We are constantly assailed by interesting odors, and people of all nationalities and walks of life: it is not the most pleasant place to live and sleep.

But because it is where we have landed, we have found many beautiful things here, and are truly grateful to God for the people and circumstances that we have encountered thus far on our journey.

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