Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Gross Travel Writing

It seems that southern Mexico brings out the worst in American travel writing. First, there was the New York Times "budget" (which for them means spending only $100 a night on lodging) travel writer's trip to Chiapas over the last couple of months, which is basically an exercise in travel writing as colonialism. I was so angry about these articles that I couldn't even coherently write about them, which is why I didn't. Now we have Eileen Ogintz writing about Oaxaca in the same way. She is so excited to meet the local artisans, such as this woman:

Talk about loving your work. Dona Sophia Reyes, 88, is a potter who works seven days and she hasn't had a day off since she was eight. Dona Sophia welcomed us into her studio and home in San Bartelo Coyotepec, a village about 25 minutes from Oaxaca City.
Um, she might love her work, but there's a reason people don't take days off for 80 years. They face starvation if they don't work. If you were forced to work your job everyday for eight decades, would you like it if people said it was all because you loved working? I doubt it. See, Dona Sophia can't take expensive vacations to different parts of the world and then romanticize all the people she runs into, erasing their poverty through describing them as quaint and cute.

This doesn't mean that we shouldn't enjoy our time when we travel. But we also need to be aware of poverty and social problems and try to think about our experiences through those lenses. Oaxaca is one of the poorest states in Mexico and while it is beautiful and charming, it is also rife with social problems, an oppressive governor (mentioned in the story but only in the sense that it has hurt the region's tourist industry), entrenched poverty, and massive migration to the U.S. I wonder if Ogintz would find these Oaxacans so darn charming if they were picking lettuce or standing on street corners hoping for a job as a day laborer?

The post is also laughable for how Ogintz acts a shill for the travel company Austin-Lehman, mentioning their name throughout the article (and least 5 times) and claiming:

We couldn't have arranged for experiences like this on our own. We needed a company like Austin-Lehman to lead the way, though such adventures don't come cheap.

That's bullshit. I've been to Oaxaca. It is not hard to arrange adventures out there, and my Spanish pretty much sucks. I wonder how much Austin-Lehman paid her for this? Oaxaca is as set up for tourists as anywhere in interior Mexico.

Travel writing is one of those genres that is usually either really great or really terrible. This definitely falls in the latter category.