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The Tourist Dynamic

My pal Chris wrote a moving post about an experience he had growing up in South Africa, a white boy who went with his church to talk about Jesus in the “coloured” townships.

Which made me think about traveling and the relationship we rich, “white,”[*] educated people have with the rest of the world. I commented on Chris’ blog, but here’s what I wrote:

I was in Cuba some years ago on holiday and I recall reading before I went about how Cuba had been “spoiled” by tourism, and how you couldn’t have a genuine interaction with people any more because they see Westerners only for their wallets now. It’s true, as far as it goes – those Cubans did see me as a wallet.

But these days (even then), that kind of talk makes me angry, because built into it is this assumption that we deservea certain kind of treatment, as if the world is a kind of park, where we can go visit various places to get wonderful experiences: Bhutan for the mountains and the sage monks & yak-milk tea; Philippines for the sunrise while visiting tropical islands in a skiff guided by a wiseacre biologist; Hong Kong where we can do commerce with the shouting market people, who get such a kick out of Gweilos straying beyond Kowloon. Drinking beer late at night in the veld listening to stories of African leopards. Cuba for sexy music and smiling, dancing people.

I’ve experienced all these things and loved them, they are experiences I cherish. But I have done these things, am able to do these things because I am wealthy and white, and the world, truly is my oyster. I remember being in university, thinking: I will travel the world, I will undertake adventures, I will see distant land and do great things. And for a few years I did. I loved it; it was dashing and daring and exotic and all the things it’s supposed to be. And granted to me with ease, and no sacrifice, because of who and what I am.

I hated that trip to Cuba, not because Cubans see me for a wallet — which actually is “annoying” — but rather because of what I, as tourist, saw Cuba as: a place filled with people who should like me for who I am, give me the benefit of the doubt, people who should see beyond my colour and my new running shoes and instead have a conversation with me about what life is really like for them, because, well, I’d be happy to do the same for them if they came to Canada. That is, I saw Cuba as: entertainment. I’d paid for it, and didn’t get what I wanted.

And it pissed me off, not that Cuba didn’t deliver; but rather that I had put myself in that position, of “he who has paid to be entertained.” I don’t mean that on a surface sense, but at a deeper level. Tourism puts us in such an odd dynamic with people: you are there to get something out of an “experience” … joy, wisdom, commune with nature, commune with another culture, history, something…And the exchange? What do we give up? Our time and our money. Only one of which is worth anything to anyone.

I have this odd feeling that tourism and it’s thinly veiled cousin, “international development,” are about as colonial as a military invasion: the real beneficiaries are the tourists, the NGO’s and their rich, adventuresome consultants; just as the beneficiaries of military invasions are rarely those under whose name invasions happen, these days at least.

I say all this because I am conflicted by Chris’ story of the townships … I have been treated well by people all over the world, treaded poorly by others; i’ve been robbed and cheated, threatened and bored to death. All of it great, and I wouldn’t trade it. Saying I’ve had yak’s milk in Bhutan gives me great pleasure (I was there to “help” the Bhutanese, naturally).

But it’s curious when our own innocence or blindness is caught out — as I guess the young Chris Hughes’ was — by something so moving, which is the twin realization that:
a) we do not belong somewhere
and yet:
b) we are welcomed nonetheless.

I think that might be just the thing that irks me about our modern white fascination with “doing” Asia, or “doing Columbia,” … this assumption that we do belong there. It’s our world afterall.

So I find Chris’ story very moving because, I interpret it something as a recognition that he did not belong where he was … and yet….and yet…there was kindness, despite his naivete, despite where he came from, despite the preposterousness of the situation, and not because of it.

* Re: “white” I use this term broadly, and really it’s the wrong term. It’s not “white”, so much as “affluent middle-class, educated westerner…” I’m using it as a cultural marker, not a racial one; though the two are not totally unrelated.