Being a Tourist
I was reluctant to make a radio piece about India and it took me more than a year to finally do it. It’s not that I wasn’t making pieces; I just wasn’t making this piece. Maybe sometimes it takes a year to figure out what story you’re telling.
I went to India last spring with the idea that I would bring gear and figure it out as I went along. I didn’t have any contacts and I didn’t have a plan. I had spent the previous two years working as the Gulf Coast reporter for Mississippi Public Broadcasting. My job required me to file a story every day, whether there was news or not. I had to fill the hole. But, oddly, spending months in a country without the pressure of making radio didn’t make me feel free, it terrified me. I wasn’t used to it.
I flew into the New Delhi airport at 2 am. I traveled with a photographer friend. It was hot and dark, and we were exhausted. We hadn’t been in the hotel room for 30 minutes before I started worrying about what story I would make in India. The next morning I walked around the streets of New Delhi looking for anything to record—I was still in my piece-a-day mode and determined to find something. I was in a coffee shop worrying about what I was going to do, and turned rather desperately to the waiter and asked, “How do you feel about the changing economy of India?” He looked at me like a crazy person and moved on to the next table. That was the wrong approach.
It took a couple of weeks but finally I calmed down. I stopped constantly searching, and I just started to look around. I had heard that Varanasi was a city that I shouldn’t miss. So I went. The pressure of making a radio piece had quieted down by this point, so I decided to be a tourist. That’s how I found the piece.
I knew that the Ganges was the most holy river in India, and I knew that people traveled from all over the country to bring the bodies of their loved ones there to release their ashes. So I was pretty amazed when I saw the state of the river. I couldn’t figure out how something so holy could be so dirty. I didn’t come to the city knowing that I would do a story about the pollution in the Ganges, but once I saw it I just started asking questions. I talked to everyone who would talk to me, even if I wasn’t recording them.
I spent days walking up and down the river. I had always believed that if you acted like a tourist you’d be treated like one, and that a tourist-reporter only hears half the story. Maybe that is true for some things, but in my case, in Varanasi, letting myself be a tourist actually helped me be a better reporter. It gave me access to the girls who were trying to sell me overpriced flowers on the side of the river, and boat drivers who wanted me to hire them for a ride at sunrise. It gave me access to the very people whose livelihoods depended so heavily on the health of the Ganges. If they thought I was just another reporter or an Indian who probably wouldn’t be in the market for some of the more tourist driven products, I might not have had a chance to talk to them.
Right before I left Varanasi I took another boat trip. I needed more sound of the river, and the photographer I was with wanted to get some pictures of the city at sunset. The boat trips weren’t that cheap, and I was trying to do this whole trip on the cheap, so I made a deal with the driver. Cut the price in half, you hold the mic and I’ll row. It worked.
Phoebe Judge is a producer for The Story. She came to WUNC after serving as the Gulf Coast reporter for Mississippi Public Broadcasting and before that worked at WCAI on Cape Cod. She is a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies and Bennington College. She is a winner of Edward R. Murrow awards, as well as several AP awards. Her work has been heard on a number of national shows.