Although Asia and I are placed with the Central Tibetan Administration, we have recently been expanding our horizons in order to better understand the issues in Dharamsala related to substance abuse and sexual health. Both the resources and approaches of the CTA are limited, as we have both mentioned in earlier blog posts. Feeling frustrated, we have been able to attend a series of meetings with the help of Vaila’s contacts and coordination. These have included local young Tibetan refugees as well as an HIV/AIDS and substance abuse rehabilitation clinic right here in McLeod Ganj. Tomorrow we hope to visit a local hospital to help us understand the services available for Tibetans and Indians who seek treatment.
Through these conversations, we have gained some alarming insights at the role of international tourists in contributing to these problems. Although refugee communities typically have a higher rate of substance abuse due to associated stressors and mental health problems of being displaced and detached from one’s family and culture, that is not the only contributor in Dharamsala. Both the local Tibetans as well as the rehabilitation clinic stressed the role of Westerners and tourists in growing the drug market. Tourists, they say, provide the demand for the harder and more expensive drugs. Certain pills can be purchased for around 50 Rp. each in Delhi, and are resold to tourists for 600 Rp. With so many tourists passing through Dharamsala, many of whom are eager to buy drugs, it hardly surprising that substances are so abundant. A 550 Rp. per pill profit is enormous by local standards. Even our more expensive tourist-friendly dinners cost just 150 Rp. per person on average.
As a group, we have discussed the increasing trend of young students from the Global North in traveling abroad and engaging in both experiential learning and volunteerism. Many local NGOs and agencies see huge amounts of international tourists walk through their doors each year. Some volunteers stay for as little as one day or one week. While having a drug-induced adventure in India no doubt provides an interesting story to take home, the effects on locals are often discounted or not acknowledged. Although I find our class to be a very conscientious group of young adults, we mustn’t forget the lingering impacts of our presence in Dharamsala. While experiencing new things abroad, it is important not to fall into the narrative of creating a “life changing experience” for ourselves while failing to improve the lives of the people in the places we visit (Roddick, 261). Our everyday actions outside our placement can have a very real impact on the community of Dharamsala. Solidarity and support can be manifested in much simpler ways than we sometimes remember, such as by not contributing to the drug market.