Friday, May 28, 2010

Travel Snark

My colleague in English, Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton, is currently in Vietnam working on some building projects in northern Vietnamese village. Her comments on how much she hates most travelers are pretty awesome:

I hate the fake raggedyness of the backpacker crowd, wearing their collection of tattered bracelets and “I went tubing in Laos,” t-shirts, but who never leave the safety of their movable cliques. I hate those stupid Hammer-Harem hybrid pants the women wear, imagining they’re dressing like some lost tribe (I’ve never seen a local person anywhere in Vietnam or Cambodia wear those things), the gesture of conspicuous authenticity illuminating their western privilege like white phosphorus. I hate the shirtless men with their dumb-ass tattoos and stupid hats and sunglasses (yes — precisely the kind of folks who should be given cheap beer and motorcycles!). I hate how rude they are to the Vietnamese people in cafes and hotels. I hate also their callowness and ignorance. The rudest of a pack of insufferable English women in Sapa, sat reading a Judy Blume novel in the lobby of the hotel while her friend occupied every other square inch of the place with her gear and yelled loudly into her cell phone to some hapless Vietnamese driver. If you’re old enough to travel in Southeast Asia, you are too old for Judy Blume: go home. And I hate myself because I can’t help but envy their youth and beauty and unfettered fucking fun and their easy ignorance of the responsibility to think more deeply and complexly about the world and their places in it.

You know who else I hate? The older richer tourists in search of some Asian Resortiana, some unholy spawn of Orlando-Vegas-Waikiki-Cancun, Canlandowaicun, if you will, with “such cheap prices” and “nice people.” A very angry woman from California with whom I shared a cab from the train station to the airport in Hanoi, yelled at a Vietnamese man (who was actually trying to rip us off, but not by much) to fuck off. Then she launched into her critique of the whole country: “Vietnam is too scammy. We’re going back to Thailand!” Because the combination of low-wage service workers, tourism, and wealthy business interests appears to be going quite well there, doesn’t it?.Here in Hoi An, the men have their suits made for them and while the women get spa treatments, then they eat steaks and sea bass with knives and forks in fancy restaurants. Soon the central coast will be lousy with these people, although the actual residents of Hoi An town need hardly worry that they’ll spend more than a few hours here in its hot dusty streets filled with actual Vietnamese people. The road from Danang that runs south along the coast, past the beach now named for an American television show, past the beach where decades ago American helicopter pilots sometimes dipped the bellies of their machines low enough in the shallow waves to wash out the blood and mud and body parts, that road now blocks the view of the beach and is lined on both sides by enormous walled golf resorts where people can experience the exotic world of Vietnam without getting any of it on them. When these places are all open, beautiful Vietnamese women will wear ao dai and serve tea and cocktails, and small, wiry men will carry huge bags of clubs over what used to be sand dunes, descendents of the men who carried artillery piece by piece up and down mountain paths more than 35 years ago. On the day I came in from the airport, I saw an old woman in a conical hat stooped over with a short handled broom sweeping the sand and dust from a small patch of St. Augustine grass outside the wall.

I pretty much agree with all of this. Although I haven't been to Vietnam, I've traveled fairly extensively in Asia and Latin America. Elisabeth's slam on both kinds of tourists is pretty accurate in my experience. The backpacker crowd amuses me. Certainly you meet some really cool, smart, culturally sensitive, and interesting people traveling around like this. But you also meet packs of drunken English stumbling from Irish pub to Irish pub, bemoaning the heat and the (delicious!) food, talking about whether Chelsea or Liverpool is the better football team, on holiday but not experiencing anything they couldn't back home except for a warm beach. You see western men and women of all nations who travel primarily to have sexual experiences with brown people. You see people treat the locals like garbage. You hear racist assertions about the superiority of white people (In Indonesia, I once heard a European guy state during some transportation confusion that this was evidence the climatic theory of race was true).

What's interesting is how few of these obnoxious backpackers are Americans. There's a reason for this--Americans are afraid to travel. So when most ugly Americans travel outside the country, they go to Cancun or some heavily guarded Caribbean beach. You just don't see a lot of Americans in Indonesia or Bolivia or Nicaragua. And when you do, more often than not they are pretty cool. But the ugly English and ugly Norwegians and ugly Italians--they are in Thailand and Vietnam and Brazil. It's not that Americans are somehow better travelers than Europeans (hardly!!!) but they are more self-selective, making it easier for me to avoid the ones I don't want to see.

The second variety of tourists however--the wealthy golfers--that's a different story. Rich Americans love this kind of tourism. My favorite grotesque example of the wealthy golfer space is the Costa Rican resort Los Suenos. The first time I traveled in Costa Rica, this place had ads and brochures everywhere. It was classic--it was all rich white people golfing and catching huge fish. The only Costa Ricans were service workers. Throughout Mexico and Central America, wealthy Americans are moving to exclusive communities, completely isolating themselves from potentially unpleasant interactions with locals, and essentially engaging in a new form of individualized and corportatized imperialism. I don't know who these people are in Vietnam, whether they are Americans or Australians or Europeans. All three probably. I do know that a lot of older Americans are interested and amused to visit the nation that caused them so much grief in their youth.

Am I a better kind of tourist? Who knows. I do try to respect local cultures, try new things, not get angry when things don't go my way, and deal with heat and mosquitoes and unpleasant toilets the same as local people. Does that mean I am not the member of some imperialist project by my presence in a La Paz or Kuala Lumpur market? Probably not. Tourism is weird. All I can say is that some tourists, and by some I mean a whole hell of a lot, really suck.

Writing this also makes me very sad that I am not traveling this summer, though I was at a conference in Dublin earlier this month. So I should stop whining. But I wish I was in Vietnam right now.