Encountering Poverty as a Backpacker

Om and Ishvar are silently watching the demolishment of their home. Bulldozers sent by the government are destroying the slum settlement effectively while the police are blocking the way of people who are running into the destruction site to collect their belongings. People are screaming and crying out loud. For Om and Ishvar this is just another misfortune added to their endless list of setbacks. Ishvar watches his nephew with grief. It’s already the second time Om is losing his home. The first time it was burnt down due to caste-related violence, now it’s being demolished because of a beautification plan of the city.[i]

Text and photos: Amanda Pasanen

I close my worn out paperback and try to get back into reality. For a while I’m staring at the calm sea without any thoughts running in my head. I take a look at my slightly tanned legs and wonder whether I should put on more sunblock or not. Probably not, otherwise I won’t get a full tan having only a couple of days here in Goa. Even though I’m in the tourist paradise of Goa my mind is mostly Mumbai with Om and Ishvar, the two fictive characters in Rohinton Mistry’s book “A fine balance”. Sometimes I wonder why I’m even reading this depressing book. It doesn’t fit at all into the laid back lazy lifestyle here in Goa. But maybe that’s just what I want.

It’s not only the book which causes me to feel unease with the tourist life in Goa. After two weeks of backpacking here in India I feel that something has changed in the relationship between India and me. The naïve positive attitude that I adopted towards this country as a teenaged gap-year-volunteer is gone and replaced by a more critical and harsh one. I feel somehow trapped in the contradiction between judgement and understanding.

Relaxing beach life in Goa.

How is it that this wonderful colourful country is so full of poverty and misery? Not to mention the dirt, the corruption and the bad treatment of women. While I bemoan the faults of India, I also recognize how I, as a backpacker, benefit from some of these problems. Due to the extremely low income level here everything is super cheap for me as a western tourist. Quite often we think that rich people are billionaires and poor people slum dwellers and we as normal Finnish citizens are somewhere in between. But in fact even a cleaner or McDonald’s employee in Finland counts among the richest 10 % of the world.

The thing is that poverty is so extremely layered in India. There are probably more social classes in India than there are people in Finland. Poverty is relative since you can almost always find someone even more miserable or a little bit richer than you are. Many people are depending on the same currency, the rupee, for their living. But the value of the rupee is different for everyone.

Auto rickshaw drivers earn an average of 200-400 Indian rupees per day. Which is around 3-6 euros.

In the harsh hierarchical system everyone knows their place. There is no room for rebellion or otherwise you might be left without anything. Everyone is depending on someone a little bit richer and more powerful. And as a western tourist, I am at the top of that system. While I’m bargaining over a rickshaw drive in order to get the price down to the “normal level” from the “tourist price” I’m in a way denying the rickshaw driver a better pay and a higher living standard. I’m supporting the hierarchical system.

Some people say that travelling widens your views and makes you understand this world better. Sometimes I feel that it only multiplies unanswered questions and makes you even more baffled with the contradictions of the world. There are no simple solutions to these complicated or “wicked”[ii] problems such as multi-layered poverty. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep on looking for solutions and answers. It is the least we can do when backpacking around the world: to keep on looking for answers.


[i] A free modification out of Rohinton Mistry’s book “A Fine Balance”.

[ii] Wicked problems are problems that science hasn’t developed to deal with. They are no “solutions” to these kind of problems in the sense of definitive and objective answers. (Rittel & Webber 1973).


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