Saturday, October 11, 2014

El Tourist

One of these is not like the other. There are many bodies that are self-effacing, you are not one of these. You are the sore thumb on a nimble hand. A foreign object. An amateur artist has painted you jarringly placed and off-colour. There is no business for you in the south side of Quito nor the unheard-of towns bereft of cocktail offering discotecas and cloud forests. Yet there are whole places designed specifically to pique your interest and gain the foreign currency visible in your north face jacket and sun glasses. Locals don't wear sunglasses.

Therein lies the distinction. You are an imported good to be extracted of money and sent home with photographic evidence that the ticket was worth it, that you found yourself in a world stripped of its context. Here you are posing with a tiger, there you are in front of a statue of somebody important whose name you have now given up remembering. Who are you and where did you come from? Why are you there and what is it, that you want?

You see these questions as self-evident, accustomed to being asked by those like you and answering them in reciprocal agreement of getting to know the other. These questions are rarely asked by those who demand more of an explanation, those whose lives bear no correlation to your own, whose world you inhabit temporarily for directions or an artistic shot of the locals. The more you demand to be entertained the more the other question of why and how fades into the background. If you go somewhere and do something but all you have is your own patchy memory, did it happen at all?

The tourist privilege is an awkward one. Tourist - used often now in phrases to denote a lack of understanding, a short or terminable stay. A tourist in the experience of cancer. Limited by the visible barrier of one being entirely misplaced. Redefined as one who does not belong, not to be confused with those who are excluded, marginalised. No, tourists do not belong but their place is marked in US dollar notes, patrons to those who do. Another problem.

A brochure advertises an 'indigenous guide,' others provide a visit to a 'native village'. You readily take up the role of the anthropologist, the western adventurer seeking the unmapped, the unknown - or at least the exotic. How were you to know you would be disappointed? The terrible cycle of seeking something that seeks you out first, a cheap imitation - so you accuse - of what you originally envisioned. A shaman in tourist-ready clothing drinking coke from his corrugated iron roof house, a caricature. Where is the native and why is he not showing you the secrets of the ways of his people? Where, in fact, are his people?

The tourist is in the unique situation of being a spectacle and at once of observing what he or she deems to be the spectacle at hand. Their mistake is of believing themselves inconspicuous, unobserved. The exchange, at least in this non-monetary judgment, is mutual.

This is not what they term a fair assumption, as if assumptions were frequently just. Perhaps you are of the curious kind who has taken the time to learn the language and engage in conversations. Your heart is open, your mind is blank. You are not a tourist. And yet we are all tourists. We are tourists in that which we do not know, in which we do not belong - the world at large, the world outside of our tiny born-into suburbs, adolescent coming-of-age stories and first time accounts, outside of the people we have given nicknames to and the ones we call crying if we are the type that cry, or better said when we are at the edge of the cliff a step away from falling or jumping, perhaps even at the bottom of that cliff because at some point we all end up on the edges or bottoms of cliffs with vertigo. Outside of this, is where it begins.

The struggle of the tourist is one of categorisation. The yearning for a different label, to know more deeply, to make a connection, to go beyond, to seek truth. The test of the tourist is in the acceptance of the truths they are presented with and those which they find independently. To accept the fact that there is more inauthenticity in somebody presenting a culture they no longer practice in private to strangers in public because they know that holds more currency with us than the reality that their lives have been influenced by what we term modernity - packaged junk food and ugly electrical lines. To accept that a culture on display for the tourist need not be so exotic, need not fulfil the narratives we have pre-scripted and that coca cola invades even the farthest corners of the amazon, at least as far as the gringo trail goes.

To accept that perhaps carrying a backpack a significant portion of your weight and spending sleepless, cramped, aching days on end on buses and all the obstacles that come with that can fall short of any truth you hoped to find about yourself, your place in it, its image in your mind, is part of the final exam. You make the leap from tourist when you bring your own authenticity and stop expecting other peoples lives, cultures, histories, stories to entertain you as if they were a new TV show. This is not Heart of Darkness, not Game of Thrones, this is not On The Road, not Into The Wild perhaps more akin to An Idiot Abroad. When you realise the world does not exist so you can play out your own hedonism but rather that whatever theory you prescribe to adds to the broken pieces that make up this endlessly growing mosaic, you are making the leap. You find yourself on the other side with a chest full of the truth, you are not outside of the world but part of it.