Here’s something I didn’t anticipate about our trip: a surprising number of visits to amusement parks. At the top of our list — for activities in India as well as amusement parks visited — is Wonderla Kochi. Set atop a hill overlooking Kerala’s lushness, Wonderla offers and and water amusements plus the best-ever fair food court, with such treats as made-to-order masala dosa and fresh juices (and they have french fries too).
Before, I hadn’t needed to interact with a security guard at an amusement park (unless you count that time in 3rd grade when my Girl Scout troop accidentally left one of our members behind at one. But I was really on the periphery of that). Wonderla provided our first opportunity when my husband wanted to go down a tube slide for which he was over the weight limit. From his post, the officer spotted my husband in line and came over to confront him.
“90 kilograms,” he said to my husband (who probably weighs about 100). Varghese’s face fell.
The officer took pity. “You assume full risk?” he asked.
“Full risk,” said Varghese.
“Full risk,” the guard repeated, and let us pass. We basked in this non-litigious moment. We did not break the tube (or our necks).
We had so much fun that first day at Wonderla that we pledged to return on the last day of our trip. What better way to spend the day before 24 hours of airplane travel? Outdoors, swimming, testing our mettle on such dares as the “Pendulum,” the “Boomerang,” and the “Snake”? We’d cap the whole thing off with an evening spin on the ferris wheel at the park’s peak, and leave fortified for the long journey home.
On this return visit, with our hours in India ticking down and smaller entourage, we decided to splurge on the “FastTrack” tickets, which essentially buys you the privilege of cutting in line.
“We might as well do it now,” my husband said. “It’s the only time we’ll ever be able to afford it.” I agreed.
The FastTrack system sets up an awkward moment: when the people who’ve been waiting in line move to the front, thinking their turn has finally arrived, and realize the FastTrack people are now going to budge. Previously I had only been on the receiving end of the cutting. Now, from the other side, I found the moment even more awkward. For the most part, though, it was over quickly; our group wasn’t too large, and the park wasn’t too crowded.
A particularly popular ride, however, presented a problem. The “Snake Slide,” a waterslide you tackled on a piece of foam rubber resembling a mini yoga mat was — for unclear reasons — one of these. Here, as we edged into the FastTrack lane, the regular would-be riders closed ranks around the entrance.
The lifeguard at the top of the slide saw the rebellion and signaled to the ride’s security guard, thus initiating both our second waterpark security guard interaction and my single most uncomfortable moment of the trip.
The guard ambled over and held his arm out in front of the crowd of late-teenage boys blocking us.
“The English, always the English,” one muttered in Malayalam. One of my native companions responded, surprising him. But he recovered quickly, switching to English, raising his voice as if to prove he wasn’t embarrassed.
“It’s for rich people,” he shouted. “A waste of money.”
My turn arrived. The line stared down my advantaged backside as I placed on my blue mat at the top of the slide. Slipping downwards, I pondered the uncomfortable dynamic.
Certainly, my white skin informs, implicates my presence in India. It totes its colonial luggage wherever it goes. And now here I was, cutting in line by virtue of my relative wealth. By the time I reached the bottom, I felt pretty gross.
The scholar Cynthia Enloe, writing about the politics of tourism, points out that colonization, in its time, also offered women a socially-respectable avenue for both adventure and “a new chance at financial security.”
In some ways, I am less extreme than the Europeans who stripped colonized lands of their resources and forced local populations to labor for their gain. But was my enjoyment of the strong U.S. dollar that much different?
On the other hand, I was traveling with the Malayalee family into which I had married. Our trip that day was sponsored by my father-in-law, who had, 30 years previous, moved to the States, but who returned to India every few years to manage his family’s affairs. I didn’t know if the money we were spending originated in the West or in India. What I did know was that a) my father-in-law was better off than most Indians, b) I was benefitting from it, and c) I was enjoying it.
I bought too much and too casually, tipped too little. I did not object to indulging at every meal, but did so with gusto. I encouraged shopping as an activity, something I strenuously avoid at home — largely because I hate spending money.
But here — why, the money was so little! The opportunity to live like royalty drew me in. Life on the FastTrack appealed to me. Had I lived in Britain in the 19th century, I had to admit, an adventure to colonial India would have appealed, too.
Still, though the colonial legacy endures, the economic landscape has shifted. Enloe is most concerned about tourism’s function in creating “a new kind of dependency for poor nations,” the latest iteration of a colonial cycle, in which they sell their sovereignty for foreign currency to pay foreign debts.
This was not the case here. The park at Wonderla, the state of Kerala: they did not need my tourist dollars. The park was full of Malayalees enjoying themselves (in fact, we were so noticeable as foreigners that when we returned two weeks later, the staff recognized us). And India is one of the Asian Tigers, its economic rise so strong as to disconcert some who’ve been conditioned to assume Western dominance. Was it even a bit presumptuous of me to assume that the old dynamic still held sway?
In other words, it was difficult to measure how much my European heritage weighed in the inequities of Wonderla’s FastTrack. Though certain factors complicated my particular case, as a Westerner in India, I carry with me the residue of history. It’s not all of the story; it’s part of it.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also take the opportunity to see with new eyes the inequities in which I participate at home. In his vibrant New York Times Magazine profile of Rick Steves, Sam Anderson recalls the words of G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton wrote (incidentally, at the height of the British Raj), “The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” Though you won’t find us in the FastTrack stateside, I lead an advantaged life here, too. Without much thought, I enjoy nutritious food, health care, and educational options for my children that are not readily accessible to all.
A moment like this one makes me aware that I am only sometimes aware.
Case in point: Uncomfortable encounter aside, the Snake Slide turned out to be a pretty fun ride. But I avoided it after that; the park offered plenty of others that felt less problematic. The ferris wheel, for example, was fabulous — and no line at all.