Travel agency

My first exotic trip was to Nepal. It was our honeymoon, and Tracy wanted to trek in the Himalayas, and I wanted to go anywhere with Tracy. We were five weeks on the road to Everest Base Camp, including four on the uphill (we started three weeks before Lukla). My knee hurt for much of the trip, and I lost 33 pounds (ten more than were entirely necessary), and I encountered 3.5 guaranteed miraculous landscapes every single day.

When we got home, we were eager to tell our story. It included 10 days in Thailand and month in India (!). I did not realize that travel was a competitive sport.

(Already I am engaging in it. Note the apparently harmless “three weeks before Lukla,” which is competitive talk meaning “we’d been on our trek for 21 days before the airport that all you losers undoubtedly flew into to start your boutique, no worries, entirely color-coordinated trek-like experience.” The more hardships you endured, the more times you were the only Caucasians within 50 miles, the more points you get. Those are the rules of Travel, a game of risk.)

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the honeymooner

So someone would ask about my trip, and I’d say, “well, we flew into Kathmandu, and at the airport –“

“Oh we were in Kathmandu in 72, before the tourists, and we met this interesting monk at Swayambhu, and the next thing you know we were in that little house in Jeewanpur, praying to crows and eating second-hand lentils and then, what was it, dear?”

“The flood?”

“That’s not it.”

“The earthquake?”

“Yes, that’s it. And the goat pregnancy.”

And there goes my amusing story about suitcases and monkeys. That might be fine at family gatherings, but among the travel-obsessed, it doesn’t even make the anecdote Top 100.

It is a status thing. My friendship group of course rejects status maneuvering of any kind. We have modest cars and modest clothing and a distinct abhorrence of gaudy display.  So when we talk about cheese, or water-recycling devices, or fabrics woven by the nicest Guatemalan women — it’s just our form of gold toilets and infinity pools. Be kind to us; we’re trying to have it both ways.

Not that I stopped traveling. I’ve been to (he said modestly) all seven continents. Full moon at the Taj Mahal; dawn at Borobodur; sunset on Kauai. Walking with penguins; talking with Maharajahs; eating with French people. Tasmania and the Bungle Bungles and the temple at Karnak. Oh, I have cred. I’ve even been to Oman, which is useful to drop into a conversation at dangerous junctures.

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Color coordinated tourists, looking the wrong way

But lately, oddly, travel has made me uncomfortable. Not Montreal, not New York, but…

Last October, we were in the Argentinian mountain town of Juyjuy (pronounced Hoo-hooey)(really). We walked around, down the wind-swept streets (this is the high desert, the altiplano) and up to the cathedral, and we saw native men and women with blankets stretched out and their handiwork on display. We politely looked around, never intending to buy. I looked at the impassive young man sitting in front of his jewelry, and I figured he harbored more than a little rage in his heart. But he wanted me to buy his stuff. This is, I believe, the dominant dynamic in most of the world. They will smile and nod and flatter, and maybe you will overpay for something, and then everyone will feel good for 38 seconds.

Being darned experienced, I had seen this before, in India and Roratonga, in Egypt and Bali and Papua New Guinea. (Yes, I’m country-dropping; old habits etc.). The locals sell colorful tokens of their culture, little resting cats in Cairo and little waving cats in China. And someone in Chicago or Edinburgh has a thingie that their children will throw away in 30 years.

You know what this dynamic feels like? Colonialism. Rich white people appropriating the climate or the topography or the culture of a nation of brown-skinned people. It’s like those people are saying: “Since you’ve fucked up our sustainable economy and pillaged our natural resources, let us service you by building hotels and restaurants and clothing stores and even the temporary bleachers at our colorful Feast of Santa Victoria, where two hundred tourists with selfie sticks follow the Holy Urn to the Inner Chancel.”

Which, among other things, screws up the tourist fantasy. You envision yourself staring sadly at Mona Lisa or strolling the streets of historic Florence or viewing the famous falls at Iguazu, and you get there and there are people! people! people! blocking your view or your way, PEOPLE just like you, cameras ready and longing for Experience. The Experience is not ideal when there’s a tour group of 22 German people talking in that beefy German way, no disrespect. You’re better off wandering the shoreline at Point Pinole.

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Day of the Dead. Note cameras.

Tourism for commercial purposes is as old as the Hittites. The British started the Grand Tour in the 1660s, a high-minded endeavor aimed at broadening the cultural horizons of the wealthy and insulated — and perhaps securing a suitable bride or groom. This kind of tourism is not unknown today.

So then adventurous Brits began to visit the heathen countries, perhaps because the Brits had conquered so many of them. Riding on camels was considered de rigueur. Travelers who stayed for a while were usually in the employ of the British government, gathering information which was of enormous use during World War I.

But now the goal of travel is “relaxation,” usually followed by “adventure” of the most sturdy and anodyne kind.  Zip lines in the jungle. Kite surfing in the lagoon. Cocktail cruises to Torture Island, now renamed Treasure Island. Or a three-hour bus ride to God’s Back Yard, with its colorful spiky things.

It’s amazing how universal our national approval for travel is. Some go to Orlando; some go to Paris. Even poor people travel, although not recreationally. Travel is a sign you’ve arrived. You’ve got an outside cabin on the Carnival cruise ship Valor, or that little house in Ubud behind the shed where the puppet-makers work (quietly, quietly) late into the night. And nothing goes quite as planned and you’re too hot and too homesick, and by God you will keep doing it again, no matter how harrowing the last trip was.

And, even though we are woke as all get out, we ignore the carbon footprint of our travels. I sometimes want to say, “so you’re driving a Prius and also flying to Italy, and that actually makes no sense at all.” To say nothing of what our well-shod footprints are doing to the erosion profile of our exotic destination.

We’re supposed to approve when the economy of a foreign government turns to tourism. It’s a softer use. We’re keeping them from lopping off their mountaintops or despoiling their watershed, and pointing them towards a more eco-friendly lifestyle, with lovely chemicals that will render harmless our redolent tourist poop. Yes, they can exchange their rich native culture for being a barista or a dishwasher in a shiny tourist hotel/nightclub.

Training people to be servile yet cheerful does its own kind of damage to an ecosystem.


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Interesting traffic patterns: Always a plus.

And maybe we emerge from our tourist bubble and take a walk around town, or at least the parts down by the shore or in the somewhat threadbare arboretum. We might find a way to connect with locals on a person to person basis.

Here’s a revealing example of that cultural exchange:

“I just love your goat pasta.”

“Thank you, sir. Thank you. May I refill your cola glasses? How about a glass of wine? On me, sir, of course. On the home, as you say. And my wife’s special duckweed ice cream that her grandmother taught her. Please, sir. With my compliments.”

“No, no, my friend, that’s all right. And please give our best to your wife. We’re Americans, you know.”

They hate us, you know. They hate us even worse now that Trump is in power, but they hate us anyway. We’ve dominated the narrative. We’ve pushed everyone else around. We’re bullies, although of course ever so nice in person. That is, until we can’t get service at the goddamed bar.

And the more sophisticated tourist cities have found a way to confine the tourists to one area of the city. In San Francisco, it’s the northeast corner of the city where, if things got tough, we could all link arms and push them into the sea.

Besides, you know what tourists look like. The half-folded maps, the propensity for group photos in front of things, the reddened knees and the slumped shoulders, all decked out in specialty leisurewear often adorned with slogans about where their parents went and what lousy thing they brought back.

Have you ever glimpsed a tourist and thought, “God, I want to look like that.”?

No you haven’t. And yet, you know you have looked like that. You have peered at street signs wondering where the hell you were, and you have arrived at the museum on the day it is closed, and you have shared a $22 cocktail in the roof bar that looks out on the other roof bars. And I’m not even going to touch on the most humiliating thing you’ve done because that’s between you and your God, thanks to the non-disclosure agreement.

I was recently offered a lovely trip to Pakistan. Tracy is of course going because that’s the kind of gal she is. I mostly didn’t go because I didn’t want to go to Pakistan, but I also remember those folks with the blankets in the town square at Juyjuy. I envision myself, gray beard, baseball cap, shoes that cost four months salary for the average Argentinian worker, peering down at the beadwork and the bracelets, mute, neck-scratching, wondering idly if we’d make it to the hotel before dark — yeah, that guy. I don’t actually want to be that guy.

I can avoid being that guy by staying in a culture for a year or two, learning how to survive and prosper in a place with very different assumptions. I could shut up and try hard. But, seriously, what fun is that? Where’s the zip line, the vista point, the interpretive center? Where’s that great guide we call “Charlie” because we can’t pronounce his real name? And, by the way, where’s my fucking moment of transcendence? Do you know what airfare costs these days?

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You can have fun anywhere.

Photographs by Tracy (a lot of these pictures are badly scanned slides) Johnston

Routine maintenance and bird wrangling by Michelle Mizera