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Experience the Adivasi (Indigenous) Ways in Orissa, India
Grass Routes Journeys is founded on a philosophy of respect for the environment, the culture and the community, and through authentic stories and hands-on experiences, helps bridge boundaries and open up possibilities. It is apparent from the company's people-focused grassroots approaches to travel that respectful interactions with Indigenous communities and their cultural heritage is an integral part of what defines Grass Routes' natural and cultural tourism experiences. TIES asked Claire Prest, co-founder of Grass Routes, to share an insider's view of visitors' encounters with Adivasi (which literally means "first people" or "original inhabitants") in Orissa.
TIES: What are some of the challenges that you have faced through Grass Routes staff and guests' interactions with Adivasis in Orissa?
Claire: In India as in most other places in the world, indigenous communities often exist on the fringe of society and their socio-political situation is complex. It is important for us to provide our guests with accurate and up-to-date information. Inevitably we have more information than can be easily digested on one holiday experience; our greatest challenge is to summarise centuries of history and evolution into bite size pieces! A common assumption our travellers make is that all indigenous communities share the same customs and costumes. In Orissa, we have 62 distinct tribes each with their own folklore and differing systems of social set-up and beliefs. Depending on each specific journey, we share one-on-one experiences with different indigenous communities in and around their villages. We develop a deeper understanding of that particular community but are careful to explain that one kind of experience is not representative of all. We craft our itineraries around local weekly markets where indigenous communities converge and inter-mingle with each other. This is a great platform for travellers to experience the diversity that exists among the community.
TIES: Beyond economic benefits, how do Adivasis communities benefit from their participation in responsible tourism and their interaction with visitors?
Claire: Adivasi communities have the opportunity to share their indigenous knowledge and reaffirm their unique (and in some cases endangered) cultures. This is vitally important to Grass Routes and is the key reason we work so closely with indigenous communities. We literally sit down with villagers and discuss what they feel are the most important aspects of their culture. We explain why travellers from other parts of the world feel the need to leave home and explore cultures unfamiliar to their own (in many remote villages this is a new concept). Together, we develop activities that promote aspects of traditional culture in fun and meaningful ways. Whether this is on a jungle walk foraging for leaves or by hand-weaving fabric, travellers get a hands-on feel for indigenous life from the people themselves.
This can be an empowering experience for many indigenous villagers. Grass Routes develops awareness of the uniqueness and value of their ancient culture. The sense of pride among these communities is generated through direct and open communications from travellers in respect and appreciation of their indigenous livelihood systems.
TIES: What are some of the challenges facing Adivasis communities and how can travelers help?
Claire: Orissa’s indigenous communities have lived in relative isolation for centuries. This has dramatically changed in recent years with roads and improved communications connecting villages with towns and adjoining provinces. An influx of different influences threatens indigenous livelihoods and beliefs. Travellers can help Adivasi’s facing these challenges by encouraging indigenous solutions. Grass Routes does this by partnering local organizations and community co-operatives focused on meeting these challenges in sustainable ways. Travellers on our Village Volunteer journey encounter three unique ways indigenous communities are tackling threats to their essential livelihood. Through organic agriculture, creative learning and alternative energy creation indigenous communities are tapping into sustainable solutions for essentially global problems. It always comes as a refreshing surprise to the participants on our Village Volunteer journey that remote communities with limited resources are finding sustainable solutions and tackling climate change. We need to learn from, encourage and contribute to this. Joining our Village Volunteer journey is a perfect way to start understanding the challenges indigenous communities face and step up to the challenge of finding a sustainable solution.
TIES: What are some aspects of Grass Routes travelers' visits to indigenous communities that they find surprising/unexpected?
Claire: Most travellers underestimate and are therefore pleasantly surprised by how closely Orissa's indigenous cultures are in tune with Nature. Indigenous livelihoods are intrinsically connected to the forest, weather patterns and harvest cycles. Although the form or ritual of worship differs among different communities, they all share a common reverence for Nature who is their source and supreme God. When you live so closely with the sun and the sky, it’s only natural that you revere the Earth in this way, but I think it’s something most people living in urban environments stray from.
Travellers are also surprised to learn multiple ingenious usages of simple raw materials found in the forest. Useful everyday objects like plates, ropes and baskets are all fashioned from leaves, sticks and bark. The dexterity involved in crafting these objects always comes as a surprise, especially after hands-on experience! Our greatest kick is to see travellers draw inspiration from our indigenous cultures. This usually comes as a surprise to our travellers who don’t expect to find such strength of spirit in this remote corner of the world. One of our travellers remarked 'I never imagined travelling so far away from home would leave me so connected and grounded'. A true and fitting tribute to indigenous ways.
Claire Prest, Grass Routes Co-founder
"I have lived and worked in the Indian Subcontinent since 2000. More significantly I have traveled its length and breadth - working for Australia’s leading adventure travel company, connecting with people of various quirks and guises. I have experienced (and continue to experience) India’s untold charms and challenges. In honor of this irrefutable bond, and in gratitude of the countless people who have shared their genuine hospitality, I co-founded Grass Routes. A pioneering travel company that operates community-based tours in the extraordinary East Indian state of Orissa, Grass Routes is an ethical effort to encourage ancient livelihoods. I now work in partnership with local communities employing sustainable tourism to revive local arts & crafts and breathe fresh life into traditional cultures. Here, I live close to nature and closer still to a way of life so far removed from my birth country, yet I couldn't feel more at home!"