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Freedom beckons them

Tourism in India is not the same as in the USA, Africa or Europe. Backpackers who come here generally stay for a long time, just travelling freely. Freedom is their main motivation, says CAROLINE

``I was really afraid before coming here, I thought I would have a big culture shock, even if Kerala is very rich compared with other parts of India. In fact, I saw more poor people in Zurich (Switzerland) than in Kochi,'' says a surprised Michele. Michele, 34, is Swiss. She saw a movie called `Ayurveda' and decided to come to South India for three weeks.

``Varkala is so nice. I don't know how much longer I will stay, maybe two days, maybe two weeks'', says Sally. Sally and Mitchele are what we call `backpackers'. This young Australian law student took a semester off to travel all around India, alone.

Why India? ''I choose to come here because it is a fascinating country, it is safe for women, cheap and people speak English,'' she explains.

The reasons which lead tourists to come here are often similar, but the population of backpackers is very diverse. Alan, an American, and Vered, an Israeli, met in India. Since September, the young couple have been touring the country on a Royal Enfield. Paul, around 50 years old, is a French farmer. Health problems prevent him from working, which is why he has been visiting foreign countries for the past two years. He plans to stay a couple of months in India.

Andreas, a German student, came here with his faculty to study Indian architecture and chose to stay five weeks more.

Of all the western tourists in India, 60 per cent are between 25 and 35 years old. Most of them are British, followed by French, German and Japanese.

Besty, the owner of Basoto Lodge in Ernakulam, is happy to meet the travellers, Dutch, Australian and Israeli. The latter often come after their military service just to rid their minds of the rigours of military life. Although they are very different in character, all the backpackers have one thing in common: their love of freedom. They never know where they will go next and when; they just move where the wind takes them.

Most of them work in their country of origin in order to save money to spend here, to benefit from all that India has to offer. They generally lead a modest life here, sleeping in small lodges and travelling by bus or train, but they surely are not deprived of anything: the average budget is between Rs 100 and Rs 500 per day.

Some of them come for the second, third or maybe even seventh time! India is so big that it would take more than one lifetime to see everything, though some people are intent on trying.

What travellers like in this country are obviously landscapes, temples and cities, but above all, they love the people.

``Indian people are so nice and so helpful, especially in Kerala. It is very pleasant. You cannot get lost, there is always somebody to explain the way to you, to show you the right bus,'' explain Jim and Lucy, both Australians.

Indian culture and spirituality are also very fascinating to travellers; religion and its varied symbols are everywhere. Costy, a Greek Yoga teacher, comes to the south of India every winter:

``India is the original place of sprituality. Here you go directly to the essential, people are not yet too much influenced by television and Coca-Cola''.

However, this omnipresent spirituality can be uncomfortable for unseasoned travellers in India. Not infrequently, people lose touch with reality since so many come here in search of a meaning for their life, knowing India only from the various bohemian tales floating around.

The French government noticed this trend and decided to put a psychologist in each French embassy in India. One of those doctors wrote a book, `Crazy about India'.

He explains how people can become really crazy here and then return to a state of absolutely normalcy upon arriving home.

The main problem for those tourists is the fear of poverty and death. Death is a normal part of life in India, and in fact the two go hand in hand, whereas in Western countries the perception of death is decidedly different.

A famous Swiss writer, Nicolas Bouvier, wrote about Asia: ''We think that we will do a travel, but it is the travel which does you or undoes you''. Indeed, India changes the people travelling here, but most of them will come again, perhaps to escape winter, perhaps to find themselves ... or perhaps simply to taste a freedom that they never encounter in their own country.

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