While I prefer to travel light, he is obsessed about carrying his new books, laptop, kindle, electric kettle, tea bags, camel jacket, favourite socks, shoes and the works. But that hasn’t deterred us from holidaying. After 10 years of travelling together all over the world, we have discovered the truce mantra – he lugs his bag while I carry my own.
“A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.” – John Steinbeck.Having visited several gayfriendly countries in Europe, we decided to check out the gay tourism scene in India after some of our friends went on customised-holidays organised by LGBT tour operators –
Indjapink.co.in, freedom2be.com, outjourneys.com, pinkvibgyor.com and the Western Ghat Routes among others. But how different are customised gay holidays from the regular ones? To begin with, you don’t draw uncomfortable stares for being gay or lesbian. Most importantly, you don’t have to explain why two men need a double bed.
The check-in dance
So after some research on the internet, we decided to spend two days in Delhi, before heading for our customised weeklong holiday in the Himalayas. Most of the holidays range from five days to two weeks and cost around $150 (Rs 8,000-10,000) per head for a day – includes food, sight-seeing, local transport and stay.Those of us who routinely travel with our same-sex partners (legal or otherwise), know the awkward moments at the reception desk. I still remember the first day that we checked in at a hotel in Karol Bagh. “Welcome to Moonlight Hotel Sirji,” said a rotund Ms Dolly, the receptionist, giving a blank look to my partner.
I handed her the online booking receipt and our preference for a double bed. “Oh, little mistake Sirji, the room has two single beds, and today we are full.” I tell her it’s okay, but she goes on: “Tomorrow, I promise one waddi bed for you.” While Ms Dolly and I discussed bed arrangements, we had an audience on both sides of the reception counter. However seemingly small the oversight, it made us uncomfortable.
But things are different on a customised holiday right from Day One. On our first day, the drive from Delhi’s crowded streets to the tranquil settings of Haridwar and Rishikesh took approximately six hours, but it was an unforgettable journey. The moment we landed in our hotel in Rishikesh, the reservation staff and concierge greeted us with a warm smile and welcome drink. They confirmed our booking and handed us the complimentary breakfast cards with our individual names written on it – no mistake of Mr & Mrs Pate. “All our travel guides, chauffeurs, hotel staff are taught to be gender sensitive and gay-friendly,” said Abhinav Goel, founder of outjourneys.com, a travel boutique that organises holidays for the LGBT community.
Valley of saints
While some of our friends opted to stay in AC rooms, we decided to settle in Mother Nature’s lap – a humble tent that overlooked the Ganges on one side and the Himalayan Sal forests on the other. Rishikesh is an ethereal experience. The temple town is dotted with foreign tourists, yoga ashrams and the latest fad of herbal spas. Many, who come in search of spiritual quest, believe that meditating here leads to eternal salvation. No wonder that even the Beatles could not resist coming to this ‘Valley of Saints’. They had visited Rishikesh in 1968 to attend an advanced transcendental meditation session at Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram.
By and large most hotels and homestays in Garhwal are gay-friendly. However, honeymooners and gay men need to keep in mind the local traditions and cultural sensitivities. Holding hands is okay but smooching in public, irrespective of gender or sexuality could raise quite a few eyebrows. But isn’t it the same even in Europe? You could steal a kiss of your beloved on a busy Paris street and nobody will bother, try the same in the conservative Aix-en-Provence area or Siena, and the locals will stare at you.
Chasing the pink purse
A majority of the hotels and lodges in Garhwal adhere to the “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” policy. Hotel owners may not be vocal about it, but they are happy to chase the “pink purse” and cater to the double income, no kids (DINK) couples. I was quite tickled to see a cleverly disguised candy-cumcondom bowl near the billing counter of a tiny restaurantcum-provision store that read: “Safe Sex Sweeter than Wine”. Apparently, Rishikesh is an alcohol-free place just like Gujarat. “Paise denge toh sab milta hai, Sirji,” said one of our guides, a Virat Kohli look-alike, citing an old Garhwali adage, “Suryast aur Garhwal mast”.
For the next three days, our daily routine was simple yet enriching – eat, sleep, meditate, wander in the forest and retire in out tent. Our charming guide led us through offbeat tracks and showed us some of the hidden jewels of Garhwal (no pun intended). On the last day of our holiday, after a strenuous river rafting session, the organisers even arranged for a soothing massage in our tent – completely lit with scented candles and the works.
I was brought back to the harsh realities of life the next day when I saw a newspaper headline: “World economy sinking again”. I folded the paper, fixed a cuppa for myself thinking, the world economy may be in doldrums but Incredible India’s gay tourism industry is certainly in the pink of health! – TOI