“I was 21 when a friend of mine was going to India and I thought it was an exotic thing to do and a way of taking a break from working in a corporate environment. I returned after a year and then I set up my travel company Grass Route Journeys,” says Claire Prest.
I met Claire Prest in January 2015, in Puri, Odisha, when I was travelling with a bunch of women, along the coast of the Indian Peninsula. Here are the excerpts from the interview:
What is Grass Route Journeys all about?
My husband and I lived in Delhi and worked in an office and tried to be responsible. We did the pantomime for two years and we were both miserable. In the process, we also learned that we enjoyed travelling but we hated being in the city and in the office. The idea of the travel company “Grass Route Journeys” was formulated. It is so much easier to go to a place where you already have connections and, hence, we chose Odisha. The whole impetus for founding Grass Route Journeys is that we wanted to focus on the good stuff that tourism could bring to the locals and for people that are travelling.
Grass Route Journeys is different. We actually travel to different places in the off-season and talk to the locals about things that affect them. For instance, what do they feel about people coming to their village? How is it affecting the scenario? What does a village have to offer? We have to nurture the place and people of the place otherwise the industry is not going to sustain. We don’t want to be in a village where tourists are being disrespectful. We have no control over what other tour operators do. So we can educate and ensure that tourism happens in a controlled manner. We can make suggestions but at the end of the day, people are there to make money so they will do whatever they want to do. A lot of the times we don’t have control on what the industry is doing.
People who’ve checked off Taj Mahal and sat on the beaches in Goa, and those who are now looking to making a deeper connection, come to Odisha.
Grass Route Journeys focuses on responsible tourism. It is a new concept in India and our focus has
mainly been foreigners – people who are interested in tapping the old world India and digging a little deeper. We have found that many people from urban India escape the cities and see the rural country side especially those that have spent their childhood in a rural setup. We’ve had young families join our journeys to nurture a respect for natural and alternate cultures in their own children and it’s wonderful to see such considerate parenting. I wish it were the norm.In Odisha tourism is not a big industry. The locals think they can stop farming and that will bring them money. You cannot expect that. There are inexperienced people at the helm who have spent 10 years and done nothing. The new guy just is as clueless. They get a budget. They spend it on advertising. And they think their job is done. Investing in infrastructure, investing in people is something that is not understood.
What are the significant contributions that you’ve made to Odisha in the tourism sector?
There is no tangible contribution. We’ve not built any buildings. We are a small company. The profits are put back into villages – a water pump somewhere, a community dormitory that needs a fresh coat of mud somewhere else. These small things build the trust. When we go back to that village, every year for a research trip, there are more people that show up for the meeting. That is personally far more rewarding but it also means that slowly we are making some kind of progress. If you have the understanding then you’ve got people saying I can help or I can get involved and that dialogue is more important.
We don’t use motorboats when we go to Chilika, we use oar boats. We do that to cut the noise pollution. We don’t want to get there faster.
We organised a cleanup of Puri beach which met with limited success. The beach was clean but it was filthy the next day because there was no education behind that. We cannot change people’s habits overnight. A lot of people are seeing the beach for the first time. They don’t realise how fragile the environment is.
There are tour operators’ associations in Odisha. We met them and shared our views and experiences. They feel that this is counter-productive as we are not talking about profits. Since they do not step out they cannot understand how fragile the environment is or the cultures are. They do not have good
experiences on the basis of which they can judge what is good and what is bad. If you go to Rajasthan or Agra, certain bodies have been successful in elevating their profile of that particular village or town. But if you don’t have a good example then you cannot understand it. Since we work mostly with villages the caste system is also an obstacle that has to be overcome first.Tourism has the potential to positively or negatively impact a place. On one hand, you have tourists coming into town, and they can throw their rubbish everywhere, they can disregard the locals, they can demand pizza when there are wonderful curries down the road. Tourists can be incredibly demanding. They can travel without even realising that they are in a different country. On the other hand, you can learn so much about yourself from another culture.
Advice for women travellers
If you want to be savvy when it comes to asking random people for help/directions then that skill has been honed in India only! Always ask a local (not a stander-by) and always verify the information. The more times the better!
The second time that I landed at the Delhi airport a guy took me under his wing. He made it his mission to get me comfortable. He saw a need and he stepped in. I needed to trust him, the alternative was far worse. I was clearly out of my depth and needed help. I have returned the favor to many first time travellers since.
There are people like that who I had never expected would open their hearts and homes to me. They are an inspiration to continue travelling. While travelling and trying to stay safe at the same time, women need to stay strong and show no mercy!
In today’s day and age, do you think more Indian women are travelling? What do you have to say to the Indian women travelling alone/in groups?
Certainly, I encourage everyone to travel. Travelling with a group of friends can be great fun, but travelling solo is a special skill that teaches you to listen to your own intuition. It often pushes you beyond your comfort zone and resonates at a deeper level.
Message for tourists in general
Do not impose your ideas; travel to learn and travel with respect. Travel is much more than gaining merit and making memories; travel can broaden your horizons, deepen your understanding and cultivate your compassion. Travel mindfully.