A Bad Trip in India

Here is a popular joke among Israeli backpackers in India: An Indian asks an Israeli backpacker, "So how many Israelis are there?" The backpacker answers "Five million" and the Indian then asks "and how many in Israel?" Daria Maoz, who is writing her doctorate on Israeli backpackers in India, believes the joke increasingly reflects the feelings of Indians in light of the Israeli "invasion" of their country. Some 15 years after Israelis first began traveling en mass to the subcontinent, where they initially received a warm welcome, Maoz's research points to a growing discomfort with the Israeli presence in India. The problem is not the large number of Israelis who travel to India, but their behavior, which the Indians are finding increasingly difficult to bear.

Any talk of an Israeli conquest of India is hardly borne out by the hard facts. The Indian consulate in Tel Aviv issues some 30,000 visas a year to Israeli backpackers and Maoz estimates that a further 20,000 take out visas at the Indian consulates in Thailand and Nepal. "Fifty thousand tourists account for barely 2 percent of the total number of tourists that visit India every year," says Maoz. Indeed, in a giant country that is home to over a billion people it is hard to see how 50,000 people can be considered a threat."

The explanation is simple, says Maoz. The Israeli backpacker population is concentrated in a few small and clearly defined regions. "In some places the Israelis make up 90 percent of the tourist population," she says, "and when hundreds or even thousands of Israelis are concentrated in one village or neighborhood you just can't ignore their very striking presence."

That's what happens in places like Bhagsu and Dharamkot, two not very large villages near Dharamsala, and in Bashisht and Old Manali, two neighborhoods of Manali, which like Dharamsala lies in the north of India. The situation is similar in the south of the country, especially in places like Goa's "Tel Aviv beach"."The Israeli backpackers take over these areas and set up their own colonies," says Maoz. "In the last eight years they've turned those places into Israeli enclaves and in peak seasons they are flooded with thousands of Israeli backpackers. Some of them stay for long periods, even several years. Most of them stay a few weeks or months, but when they leave, other Israelis take their place creating permanent Israeli settlements with transient populations."

Maoz has found that relations between the Israelis and the natives correspond to those anthropologists have found in other Third World countries subject to an influx of large groups of tourists from the West. In a recent lecture at Ben-Gurion University, Maoz defined these relations as "hierarchical, one-sided and depressing". In an interview with Haaretz she described the Israeli backpackers' relations with the native population as "neo-colonial."

According to Maoz, most Israeli backpackers treat the Indians as if their sole purpose in life was to serve them. They ignore the locals' needs and feelings, treat them and their traditions with contempt and regard the Israeli enclaves as playgrounds where they can do almost anything they desire. Uninhibited drug use is a prime example. "I don't think that the Indians will continue to put up with the situation for much longer," warns Maoz. "The hosts and the guests are sitting on a powder keg that could blow up at any moment."

Drugs and spirituality

Daria Maoz's interest in India and Israeli backpackers began several years ago when she was 27. She quit her job as an attorney and enrolled in an MA course at the School of Sociology and Anthropology at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In her first year, she decided to write a seminar paper on rights of transition in Israeli society. She focused on her peers in their 20s and 30s who are facing "anxiety over a second growing up phase" and decide to change their profession. She discovered that many of them travel to India before choosing a new direction.

Maoz herself only traveled to India for the first time a year later after deciding to write her MA thesis on Israeli backpackers in the subcontinent. Later, she elected to devote her doctorate to the subject and her lecturers advised her to gather her material through "active observation." That meant Maoz had to visit India on two more occasions.

During her first visit, which lasted two and a half months, she spent time with backpackers, staying in the same hostels, eating in the same restaurants, hanging out in the same tea houses, taking part in meditation and yoga lessons, going trekking and observing trance parties with all their drug-taking rituals. That journey, during which she interviewed dozens of backpackers, provided material for her doctoral thesis and inspiration for a novel "India Will Love Me" published in 2002.

Maoz's last visit to India was devoted to interviewing Indians who provide tourist services in the Israeli enclaves. What she found in those enclaves she describes as a complete Israeli takeover of the local culture and space. "When you arrive at the Israeli enclaves in Dharamkot or Manali you feel as if you were in Israel itself," says Maoz. "With the exception of the Indian backdrop, everything there is Israeli. All you hear walking down the street is Hebrew and everyone you meet is Israeli. Even the rickshaws have signs posted in Hebrew advertising trance parties.

"Most of the rickshaw owners don't even know what the signs say. You walk into a restaurant and the menus are in Hebrew and the food is Israeli. At the hostels and guesthouses you can find books in Hebrew and at Internet cafes you can read Israeli websites and send e-mail in Hebrew. Many of the Indians that work with Israeli tourists can speak Hebrew, some of them quite fluently."

Maoz believes the phenomenon creates a neo-colonial situation in the enclaves. The Israeli tourists, she says, reject the local culture, aren't interested in Indian food, in Indian traditions or the local lingo. "The Israelis' supposed interest in Indian spirituality is reflected in conversation among the backpackers, but not in action. Before they even leave Israel they know that `India is spirituality'. Two days after arriving they are already dressed in white and telling each other that the `energy is flowing' that they are living `here and now' and that their `chakras are open'. It's a kind of instant spirituality, a sort of ritual they know they have to go through."

But when it comes down to it, says Maoz, they are a lot more interested in trance parties and smoking drugs then in spiritual practices.

Judaism too sometimes finds its way into the heady mixture of trance, drugs and so-called spirituality. One of the strangest phenomena Maoz came across occurred at the Chabad House in Dharamsala, a center set up by Chabad Hasidim from Israel, which attracts dozens of Israeli backpackers every Shabbat. Maoz visited the Dharamsala Chabad House on Rosh Hashanah and saw hundreds of Israeli backpackers taking part in a prayer service and festive dinner. She also saw how after dinner the backpackers headed off to a nearby site for a trance and drug party that lasted some 42 hours. A week and a half later she met them again at Chabad House where they had come for the pre-fast Yom Kippur meal. After dinner Maoz saw the backpackers pass a joint. They called it the pre-fast joint.

Baksheesh and boycotts

Parties and drugs are two of the main points of friction between the backpackers and the local population. The loud music played at parties that go on till the early hours of the morning, sometimes at guesthouses situated in the middle of a village or residential neighborhood, can be heard everywhere and disturbs the locals. The Israelis' excessive drug use makes their enclaves a magnet for Indian drug dealers and other criminal elements. The locals are at a loss. If they turn to the police, they will lose their livelihood and even if they do complain there is no guarantee anything will be done about it.

One Israeli who organizes trance parties told Maoz that before every party he makes sure to pay baksheesh (tips) to the right people and that keeps the police well away.

Maoz's research dug up other problematic issues that lead to friction between the backpackers and the locals. A restaurant owner in Dharamkot told her of an Israeli who drank five cups of tea, but when asked to pay the bill, which came to some five rupees or half an Israeli shekel, he refused claiming he had only drunk three cups. In the ensuing argument, the Israeli threatened the restaurant owner, telling him that he would organize a boycott of the restaurant. This could be a deathblow in a place so reliant on Israeli tourists. In another case, Israeli backpackers boycotted a guesthouse because the owners asked them to pay for sheets they had torn up. According to Maoz, the backpackers claimed the reason for the boycott was that the German wife of the owner was a `Nazi'.

There are a few Israelis who went to India several years ago and stayed on in each of the Israeli enclaves. Most of them have opened cafes and restaurants or tattoo and piercing parlors that also sell drug paraphernalia. Most of them refuse to serve Indians. The Chabad House is also out of bounds for the locals with the exception of the kitchen workers.

Based on her interviews with dozens of Indians who come into daily contact with Israeli backpackers, Maoz researched the ways the locals choose to cope with the negative phenomena. "Most of them simply bow their heads and put up with the situation," she says. They accept all the Israelis' conditions; they let them post signs without knowing what's written on them; they don't argue when someone refuses to pay and they don't complain to the police when the parties disturb them." The Indians, Maoz says, complain they don't have any choice - without the Israelis' money they wouldn't be able to make a living.

But Maoz also found two small groups that adopted other strategies. One employed what Maoz called `hidden resistance', using the Israeli presence to gain money and power. This group, Maoz says, is made up primarily of Indians who arrive from areas outside the Israeli enclaves and pass themselves off as spiritual teachers. "The Israelis are looking for spirituality," one such spiritual guru, who worked as a schoolteacher in his home town, told Maoz, " so we sell them spirituality." Maoz says that during the peak seasons, Indians flow to the Israeli enclaves selling themselves as masters and babas (holy men), teaching Reiki, yoga, meditation and anything else Israelis care to learn.

The other group uses what Maoz calls "open resistance." Some of them try to educate the Israelis in various ways such as hanging signs in their shops saying "Respect us and we will respect you." Others hint that they don't want to serve Israelis by putting up signs saying "no drugs" and a few have even gone so far as to declare "No Israelis served here."

One of the main findings of Maoz's research is that Israeli society has an interest in sending its young people to India. "Israeli society understands that after long, hard and frustrating military service and before integrating into society, Israeli youngsters need avenues to let off steam and to challenge accepted norms. Instead of having them do this it in Israel, they are sent to India."

If Maoz's findings are right, then sooner or later the Indians' patience will wear thin. Here and there, Maoz says, there have already been the occasional clashes between Indians and Israelis. "The Israelis in India increasingly permit themselves to do whatever they feel like, while the Indians are forced to show an ever greater degree of restraint. But under the surface tensions are brewing and I believe that the moment will come when more and more Indians will decide that financial profits just aren't worth their continued self-constraint. Eventually, they will react in the same way as the Palestinians in 1987 when the intifada broke out."

Maoz's use of the intifada as a metaphor for the situation is far from coincidental. During her visits to India she heard several Israelis compare the Indians to the Palestinians before the intifada. "They're primitive and dirty, but they serve us exceptionally well," one Israeli backpacker told Maoz, "just like the Arabs in the territories before they decided to raise their heads."