Interview with Claire Prest
Vidula – Tell us a little bit about yourself, where you come from and your family life back home
Claire – I am from Australia. I am one of the 2 sisters and I grew up and spent my early adolescence in Australia. Then after university I started to travel further afield.
Vidula – What did you study at the university?
Claire – I studied Media Arts, which is a funny terminology for learning how to make videos, photography. Actually, it was a multimedia type of a course.
Vidula – Why did you come to India?
Claire – It was just that a friend of mine was going and I thought “Oh that sounds like a very exotic thing to do and a fantastic idea and it is a way of getting unstuck, from working in a fairly corporate kind of an environment.” So I thought let me just jump on that bandwagon.
Vidula – How long ago was this?
Claire – This was 16-17 years ago.
Vidula – Why did you choose to come to India?
Claire – I did not choose India. It just happened. It was not a deliberate decision on my behalf. My friend was going. So I thought let me also go. And so I went.
Vidula – Did you travel elsewhere before coming to India?
Claire – I had travelled to Indonesia and to New Zealand with my family. But it was the first time I was travelling on my own, outside of my own country.
Vidula – Tell us about your travels to Indonesia
That was family time. It was all organized by my parents. I don’t really have much memory of Indonesia to be honest, but apparently, I didn’t like the smell. I preferred the hotel swimming pool than going out into the streets because it stank. So those are the kind of things my parents remind me of even today. They find it amusing now that I have ended up in India. Who would’ve known! We took you to Indonesia and now India!
Vidula – How old were you then?
Claire – 20-21 years old
That is when most people start to get restless and start to travel. A lot of people usually go to the UK and work there and then tour Europe. And I thought that sounded not really that interesting. For some reason India was attractive as just a place to visit and I had no idea what it was about.
Vidula – What did you think of India when you first came here? Was there a culture shock? What was your experience when you first came to India?
Claire – A massive culture shock because I was vastly underprepared! I was expecting my friend who had researched the trip to do all the preparation. But she pulled out at the last minute. I landed up with nothing, with absolutely zero prior information. I was here for 3 months, and it took me a long time to gather momentum. So I didn’t really travel much. I would move to a place and just spend a really long time trying to figure out what the hell was going on. I would spend weeks in places trying to make sense of the system. And after my tour was finished I still couldn’t figure it out. When I was back in Australia, I still couldn’t understand what the hell was going on in India. You speak to people and it takes a while. There are so many layers. It was incentive enough for me to save after another year and return to try and make sense of it again. So I took another chance. Because it had captivated me enough, and that experience as a young adult of putting yourself in a situation when you can’t make sense of it, like logical, rational sense of it, you have extend yourself, you have to question yourself, and that is kind of what I just needed at that time to grow. India got under my skin that way so I returned of my own volition a few times before I started working for a travel company that paid me to be here.
Vidula – Where in India did you come to, the second time?
Claire – It was Rajasthan again, Kashmir again and Kerala again.
Vidula – Tell us about your travel life when you came here the second time.
Claire – I was slightly more prepared. I was able to move and cover more distance, independently and not rely on other travelers or local people or tour company.
Vidula – Did you figure out the system by then?
Claire – Yes I did. Not entirely because there were things that you remained clueless about. But I had a bit of sense of how I could get around and how I could catch local buses and all of that kind of stuff. Second time was vastly more satisfying because I was much more independent than the first time. The first time, a lot of the times, I was petrified. It would take all of my energy to step outside the door and find out what was going on.
Whereas the second time I was more keen. I was jumping out of bed and getting out there, keen to explore.
Vidula – You chose India over Europe is that right?
Claire – Yes
Vidula – Did you ever travel to Europe before that or after that?
Claire – No. And I still have not.
Vidula – Tell us about the people you met during your travels. How did they affect you and influenced you and changed you?
Claire – There are many influential people that you meet when you travel. Those that take you under your wing! I will never forget the guy who I met at the Delhi airport the first time I arrived. He just took me under my wing.
He asked me “where are you going?”
So I said – I have no idea.
So he said “Well, you are coming with me”
I had been to India before, and that was a big mistake to say “I have no idea”
He totally took me under his wing and for a couple of days. He made it his mission to get me comfortable. He didn’t have to do that but he saw a need and he stepped in. There are people like that and then there are people that have travelled all over the place, incredible places. Sharing their stories, artists that travel on the road, who paint and draw while they are travelling! There are so many people and really anyone that you meet and when you are on the road that can be an inspiration. A lot of local people as well who I had never expected to open their hearts and homes to me and I have done it without any questioning. So they are of course an inspiration to continue travelling.
Vidula – Were you not afraid of that stranger who took you under his wing when you came to India? How could you trust a complete stranger?
Claire – I needed to trust him, the alternative was far worse. I was clearly out of my depth and needed help. He offered his hand and I took it. I have returned the favor to many first time travelers since.
How does one be savvy when it comes to asking random people for help/directions?
That skill has been honed in India only! Always ask a local (not a stander-by) and always verify the information. The more times the better!
Vidula – Why did you choose travel as a profession over Media Arts?
Claire – I don’t think that I chose it so much as a profession as it just kind of just happened. I was looking for ways that I could spend more time in India because I felt that there was so much more to learn here in a country that had much more history than my own. Australia is a relatively young country if you forget about our indigenous heritage which we don’t learn about. But there is so much to gain from that history. And I was just beginning to unravel all that. So I was looking for an opportunity to stay in India for longer. And I just chanced on tourism. I have no training in tourism. But a tourism company somehow saw my abilities so I started working for them. I started leading tours for them. So I was taking people around. Rajasthan and the whole Delhi-Agra circuit, all of that, which allowed me to obviously see a lot of the country. Of course I chose to establish my own travel company which is kind of an extension of the kind of things I have learned – Things that can go wrong and go right with tourism. The whole impetus for founding grass route journeys is that we wanted to implement what could go right, like we wanted to focus on the good stuff that tourism could bring to the locals and for people that are travelling. It is not something that I consciously chose or studied or anything like that. It is just what felt right.
Vidula – Give an example of the rights and the wrongs in tourism.
Claire – Tourism has the potential to positively or negatively impact a place. You have tourists coming into town, and they can throw their rubbish everywhere, they can disregard the locals, they can demand pizza, when there are wonderful curries down the road. Tourists can be incredibly demanding. They can travel without even realizing that they are in a different country. There can be negative impacts. There are positive impacts, which I feel are overwhelmingly positive if managed properly. You can learn so much from another culture. You can learn about yourself from another culture. Different ways of eating, sleeping, you can do all of that. It can have a very positive impact.
Vidula – When did you realize the travel bug had bitten you?
Claire – When I started working for the tour company it was on a 6 monthly contract because the tourist season in India is basically 6 months. I didn’t have any long term picture. I just kept renewing. I would just work for 6 months and then whatever money that I earned in those 6 months I would think about the places that I could visit in the off-season. I did that for 8 years without any intention of staying for 8 years. It was just like “one more year and there are more things to see!” I haven’t checked that out that yet, there is this and that. After 8 years, I was like hang on a minute, stop! What is happening here? What’s the plan? What is the thought? That is when I started being less of a nomad and started to think.
Vidula – Did you decide to settle down then? Was it like that?
It was this cycle has gone on for a while and it cannot go on forever, so what’s the next phase? What’s the next step? So it was a decision of either I go back to Australia and it was basically like I had no further prospects for a foreigner in India, with a country of too many people. What am I going to do out here? I really couldn’t think of much. I dabbled in a few things. I did a documentary film making course and worked for a documentary film maker for a while. This is all very fun but it is not earning me a living. So basically it all came down to that – I need to be able to make some decisions in order to fund my lifestyle. This was also about the same time that my relationship with my now husband was coming to a point where we thought, what do we do here? We decided that we would live in Delhi. We would stop touring around, and be irresponsible in that sense. We would settle. We would go to the office, have normal jobs and come back and live normal lives. We did the pantomime for 2 years and we were both miserable. In the process we learned that “we could live together”. Prior to that we had only spent like weekends or day excursions. So we could live with each other. In the process, we also learned that we enjoyed travelling but we hated being in the city. We hated being in the office. So we decided that lets do something about it than cribbing all the time. Let’s just do something about it. The whole idea of “grass routes” was formulated around that time. We were in Delhi, frustrated, what we perceived as skills, or experiences that we had accumulated in our work with tourism, in our travels. Why can’t we just implement this? It was finally time to implement it. So we formed this company and shifted out here. We were looking at lots of places in India to settle down. Odisha was not the first place that we decided but finally it won in the end. It is obviously where Pulak, my husband and co-founder, started his travels from. So he already had a network of villages and locals who understood what he was doing. He felt very much connected to these people. He was kind of responsible for it in the sense. He has the language. It is so much easier to go to a place where you already have connections. So we were like Odisha it is.
Vidula – Since Pulak started his travels in Odisha, was he from Odisha?
Claire – Yes. He is from Odisha. When he started working none of this mess was here. It was just a beach and some foreign tourists would come out and he would take them on the back of his bicycle. He had a lot of interesting excursions. Whenever he got money from a tour, the first thing he would do is fill fuel in his motorbike and just take off. He loves speaking to people not just tourists but any one on the streets. He found an audience. People would sit down and listen to him. Everyone out there was happy and he really felt that there was an encouragement from the locals out there. In the state, they really would cheer for him and would say to him keep moving, keep doing. He felt that he owed something to the people, to come back and do something in a small way that could benefit.
Vidula – Family life and personal life
Claire – It is Pulak and me, our little family. Working and living together has its moments. It is not too difficult to create boundaries out there. In tourism there are no office hours. Anything can happen any time. We pretty much just live and we work a lot but we enjoy our work and it doesn’t really feel so hard a lot of the times. There is also a lot of work in having your own company than we also anticipated, the legal aspects, the accounts all of that is a big headache. Since it’s not a strong point for either of us there is a lot of bickering that goes on. I have a different way of doing things and he has a different way of doing things. There are a lot of cultural things there as well. Of course we get along and all of that but there are cultural things behind everything that we do. We are living and breathing it every moment. Sometimes we need time out and sometimes it is a relief when either of us goes on tours and then we get to breathe. Be with ourselves. But for the most part it is a joy to actually doing what we like to do.
Vidula – Do you miss home as in Australia? You never considered going back there? Why? How often do you go back there?
Claire – Yes, there are many things I miss about Australia; friends and family of course but also the pristine National Parks and beaches, world class restaurants and cultural venues. I return almost every year and hope to return on a more permanent basis one day.
Vidula – Tell us about what you do exactly with grass-routes. Do you actually take people on trips? How many people run the show? How do you do the whole thing?
Claire – I do most of the administration work behind grass-routes. I can take people out for trips but we would generally prefer to have local people in that position simply because the local people respond well. They are more comfortable with having someone that is of their own blood. I am still an unknown factor. I am still Pulak’s wife and we are not too sure. I have observed that people are more comfortable with having a local person for their help. So that is ok. Pulak leads most of the tours that are sub-contracted to larger companies. Then we have a number of casual guides who work for us depending on tour bookings. It is really just the two of us and some casual employees that work for us on need basis.
Sumati – What makes your company different from other companies?
Claire – the thing that makes us different is that we actually travel to these places. When I say that I do the administration, I do administration. But in the off-season or just at the beginning of the season or the end of the season we have discussions, away from the tour groups, away from the show. We talk about tourism. What they felt about people coming to their village? How is it affecting the scenario? Like Raghurajpur for instance! There have been so many inputs, from UNESCO, that has changed the dynamics of the village. I don’t know of any other tour operator that goes and sits with the artists and talks about the stuff and tells them that “You can stand up in this way. You don’t have to let people into your houses if you don’t want to. You can’t demand that you take your shoe off. You can do all of this. This is perfectly ok. Guest is god in india. But guest isn’t always god when they are behaving like fools.” All of that-behind the-scene stuff is what makes us different. Because for us the behind-the-scene stuff is so important so integral to what we do. We have to nurture the place and the people of the place otherwise the industry is not going to sustain.
Sumati – So you travel to places which are typical tourist places? How do identify where to take the tourists?
Claire – Trial and error! A lot of research! We do a lot of research! In the off season we travel. We take our car or we hop on the bike and we talk to people. Nothing can happen without the cooperation of the people. If there is some interest from some people then we will go and pursue it. If there is no interest then there is no point in forcing the matter. So it is about finding the interest. Somebody from the village might be interested but the rest of the village is not interested, then it is not going to work. It is just a matter of following these kinds of leads. We also would like tourism to happen in a fairly controlled kind of manner. Part of it is educating the tourists on what is appropriate and what is not, especially if they are coming from outside of India. They may have less of an idea of appropriate behavior. It is about educating them. It is about educating the locals and the villages about what is expected and what is ok and what is not ok. In Odisha tourism is not a big industry. So there are a lot of misconceptions and there are a lot of ideas that it will bring in money. The locals think they can stop farming and that will bring them money. No, you can’t expect that and that is not going to happen. It is such a small sector at the moment. It is about dispelling all of those myths. It is about going very very slowly. Very slowly! And starting – we are getting interest here. We revisit. And finally figure out what is interesting about this village. We determine what people would like to show about their particular village. And then we try it and see what the response is. It is a very slow process. But that is what makes us different. We step out of the office and tour the state because we like to and we are interested. We don’t want to visit the same village over and over again. We don’t want to be in a village where there is tourists are being disrespectful. Because we would be tempted to speak out! We have no control over what other tour operators do. So we can educate. We can make suggestions but at the end of the day, people are there to make money so they will do whatever they want to do. A lot of the times we don’t have control on what the industry is doing. We can only really manage how our business is going. We’d like to step out and explore new places, because we feel the place is off the beaten track and far more interesting than the places that are far more mainstream tourism.
Sumati – Most of the tourists come for beaches, landscapes and the nature or historical monuments. What do you pitch to the tourists so that they are inspired to go to these villages that are different, which are not main stream and off the beaten track?
Claire – it is life. Most of the people who come to Odisha and are interested in what we do are people who have travelled in India before. They’ve checked off taj mahal and they’ve sat on the beaches in Goa. They have done all the things that are on the to-do list. Now they are looking for something a bit more fulfilling or interesting or deeper. They want to form a deeper connection. And often they are looking for places that are not mainstream. They are looking outside the box. You can just land up here and go out to any village and expect them to be responsive to you. So you need help, to make that connection meaningful, authentic. You need help to ensure that that connection is understood. You need that. Otherwise one is really lost. So that is basically we come in. We felt that there is a need. It is to go out to the village and go coconut farms, all very nice bullock carts and go yada yada yada. I can’t speak to people. I need a translator. I need to know what they are doing! What is their lifestyle? I need someone who can show me and to be there at the right time. You know a lot of the mainstream tour itineraries have people arriving at in villages when they are having their siestas or when are out farming in the fields. So you don’t see anything. So it is finding about all of that right kind of balance in timing. All of that
Vidula – What sort of tourists do you cater to – Indians or non-Indians?
Claire – we focus on responsible tourism and because it is a new concept here in India our focus has mainly been foreigners – people who are interested in tapping in that old world India and digging a little deeper – initially foreigners. Not restrictive. But that was our initial focus. We have found that many people form urban India are very interested in this concept or at least escape the cities and seethe rural country side especially those that have grown up or spent their childhood in a rural setup. And then have moved to the cities and have furthered their career and now have small families and they want to share that rural aspect with their children. We have had a lot of families like that contact us. They can understand what we are doing and what we stand for and principles. They totally fit into our programs and enjoy it and all of that. Our programs are not all that restricted to foreigners. They are there for anyone who gets it, and those who understand that you need to travel slowly in order to be responsible. You can’t expect to zip off everywhere and see everything in 5 days. You have to take things slow. That is why we have taken the kind of trouble to set up our website and say who we are and what we are doing and why we are doing it and if anyone can relate to that they can probably fit in with what we are doing.
Vidula – What do you think about the Indian tourists? Are they travelling to different off beat places nowadays?
Claire – I object to large groups bossing about demanding their own cuisine in another culture. But many urban Indian families who have travelled with Grass Routes have been wonderful encounters. We’ve had young families join our journeys to nurture a respect for natural and alternate cultures in their own children and its wonderful to see such considerate parenting. I wish it were the norm.
Vidula – What are your messages for the Indian tourists?
Claire – Do not impose your ideas; travel to learn and travel with respect. Travel is much more than gaining merit and making memories; travel can broaden your horizons, deepen your understanding and cultivate your compassion. Travel mindfully.
Vidula – Do you approach the tourists or do they approach you?
Well we have a small presence on the internet. And we have some connections through our work in the tourism industry in the past. So a bit of both! We do work with tour companies. The individuals – those who are from abroad and those within India – do a search on the internet.
Vidula – Give us an example of a package tour
Claire – We offer week trips, 10 day trips, 2 weeks maybe 3 weeks is the longest that we do and that would incorporate Chattisgarh as well. That is basically the longest trip that we would do. That includes accommodation, transport, some meals and activities. These activities are designed or tailored in conjunction with local communities – villages that we visit on a fairly regular basis. And regular doesn’t mean that it is overrun. It is only us. It is only our company that visits these local villages. So there is that level of trust that has been established and an understanding has been established and a real pride in showing people around. That is there and that is what makes the difference at the end of the day. We include all of the UNESCO world heritage sites of Konark and national parks. The signature things that make the difference are those things people can relate to or connect to villages.
Sejal – What all states do you take tourists to? What are their demands?
Claire – Between the two of us we have travelled everywhere in India. We have chosen to focus only on Odisha because it would be very easy to rip off a Rajasthan package or an Andaman package but then the focus on Odisha would be dissipated. We decided to focus purely on Odisha and then of course we ventured into the neighboring state of Chattisgarh and West Bengal at this stage. We also do Andhra Pradesh sometimes, because the southern tip of Odisha dips into Andhra. Our core focus is Odisha. Some tour might begin in Odisha and finish in Kolkata but those shoulder areas we also cover.
Vidula – What are the significant contributions that you’ve made to Odisha in the tourism sector? Community, the ethics etc
Claire – There is no tangible contribution. We’ve not built any building. We are a small company. Whatever profits we receive we put back into villages like a water pump here, a community dormitory needs a new fresh coat of mud. These small things get done that just build the trust. We don’t make huge profits because we don’t cater to large numbers. In a season we probably could not carry more than a 100 people. Our profits are not large. But whatever profits we do get are reinvested in various villages in various small projects. I think that that is actually very much immaterial at this stage because people forget that sort of stuff. Someone came in and painted the school and all is very nice but they don’t really care. But for me what is more sustainable is that when we go back to that village, every year for a research trip, there are more people that are interested there are more people who show up for the meeting. What are these people doing, what have they got to say, and someone left a binocular here and we are trying to figure out how this thing works. How to use it. Clean it! To me that is personally far more rewarding but it also means that slowly we are making some kind of progress. In the sense that more people are developing an understanding about what tourism is about. If you have the understanding then you’ve got people saying “I get this” I can help or I can get involved and that dialog for me is more important than painting a school or getting these kinds of jobs done. They are done – Yes! Those are the kind of contributions that we have made in a very very small way. I would not say that any of these contributions are recognized by the tourism industry because they are not bothered about it. They don’t care. They are looking at numbers and dollars and profits. Their focus is way too high-fi for us.
Vidula – Website mentions contributions to the culture and environment. How have you made those contributions?
Claire – So with the environment one of the most common trips is out to Chilikha. We don’t use motorboats we use oar boats. We do that on a regular basis to cut the pollution noise pollution. I don’t know why there are so many of those boats out there. It is totally destroying their makeup. They think we are crazy. They think “here they come, those strange people again on the oar boats!” They ask us “Why not take motor boats? You will reach there faster.” We say “We don’t want to get their faster. We are happy going slowly” All of this pollution and what not that doesn’t make sense. Those are the small things that we can in terms of the environment. We’ve organized like a cleanup Puri beach which was met with a limited success. The beach was clean but it was filthy the next day because there was no education behind that. “Why should you not throw all that rubbish?” So we realized that we way too deep there and we could not change people’s habits immediately or overnight. A lot of it is just education. A lot of people are seeing the beach for the first time. They don’t realize how fragile the environment is. They don’t know where it goes out. It goes out to the water and then it goes. They do the same thing to the rivers.
Vidula – Have you tried to speak to the tourism ministry here in Odisha? Talk to the politicians.
Claire – There are tour operator’s group associations here in Odisha. So we have met with them and we have shared our views and experiences about that. It is so unusual for people here, it is not for people elsewhere in the world, but unusual for people here to not fathom what we are saying. They feel like this is so counterproductive. We are not talking about profits. We are not talking about anything like that. They don’t understand. And like wise with the ministry. It is a language they cannot understand. Since they do not step out they cannot understand how fragile the environment is or the cultures are. So they can’t see it. A lot of them haven’t travelled beyond of Odisha or they might have gone to vizag for a picnic but they do not have good experiences on the basis of which they can judge what Is a good example and what is a bad example. If you go to Rajasthan or Agra you can see how certain bodies have been successful in elevating their profile of that particular village or town and how that can work with cooperation. But if you don’t have a good example then you cannot fathom it. Since we work mostly with villages you have this cast thing, so if it is a village I am not going there. That obstacle has to be overcome first and that is a huge thing.
Vidula – So how about talking to the main tourism ministry of India
Claire – We have not done that. Yet!
Vidula – The Madhya Pradesh ministry has figured out something right as far as tourism is concerned. I don’t see the same here in Odisha.
Claire – You have pretty inexperienced people at the helm here in Odisha. You have had someone sitting in the department for 10 years and he has done nothing. Now he has just changed. The new guy just is as clueless. This is the major problem.
They get a budget. They spend it on advertising. And they think their job is done. Investing in infrastructure, investing in people is something that is not understood.
Vidula – Are there any NGOs working in conjunction with tourism
Claire – No. There are some wildlife NGOs and we atleast we come together on a common platform but there are many NGOs like 1000s. No one is working in conjunction with tourism.
Vidula – What does Odisha’s economy depend on?
Claire – Agriculture
Sejal – What about handicrafts?
Claire – Well first is agriculture and then mining, water and power are big industries. Odisha supplies a lot of the neighboring states power. So these are big industries.
Vidula – So tourism is just a small thing then?
Tourism is not a big thing. Puri and Konark are on the coast. There are plenty of villages and places inland. But they don’t like tourists going inland because they want to do their mining and their extractive industries without any fuss. A lot of these extractive industries are illegal. So for someone to go see the mess that they’ve made and report on that then they would be in a lot of trouble. That is why they have been discouraging.
Sumati – how has it been for you to accept Odisha as your home? We have experienced the fact that Odisha is a very conservative state.
Claire – Yes
Sumati – Even Andhra was conservative
Claire – Yes that is true
Sejal – this affects tourism?
Claire – yes of course it does. Who wants to engage with people that they don’t know? It does affect tourism. It is that slow process of getting to know people and developing that trust which takes time
Vidula – In today’s day and age, do you think more Indian women are travelling? What do you have to say to the Indian women travelling alone/in groups?
Claire – Certainly, I encourage everyone to travel. Travelling with a group of friends can be great fun, but travelling solo is a special skill that teaches you to listen to your own intuition. Often pushes you beyond your comfort zone and resonates at a deeper level.
Vidula – What do you think about us – 3 women, travelling like this?
Claire – It’s wonderful! Road trips are always fun and an all women team is bold (especially in the Indian context) and must have been empowering – Kudos!
Vidula – Do you have any messages for women to stay safe while travelling?
Claire – Stay strong and show no mercy!