Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Friday, June 2, 2017

Know Before You Go?

"This desire of travelers not to be seen as tourists is at least in part connected to an interest
in how they are perceived by the local population of the places they visit. This interest
forms another aspect of the tourist/traveler distinction: travelers try to be culturally sensitive
in a way that they believe ordinary tourists are not. tteehee describes that a tourist
'goes to a place and want everyone to know that they are tourists,' whereas a traveler
'spends time knowing about the place they are going prior to departure. Knowing the
culture, history, customs and way of life' (15 October 2009)."

Week, L. (2012). I am not a tourist: Aims and implications of “traveling”. Tourist Studies12(2), 186-203.

There was a comment from a few days ago that had my brain buzzing.  And I cannot thank the reader enough because while I think that she is fundamentally right, I wasn't sure why I agreed with her.  But I like a good puzzle.

There is something really irritating about  watching ignorant travellers who could not be bothered to learn some basic information about a place before he/she carelessly meanders into it.  Case in point:  Donald Trump's recent foreign adventure where he explained to the Israelis that he had just got back from the Middle East.  Note the reaction of the gentlemen on the right in the video.  That is a cringe worthy moment from someone who at the very least should have asked for and got a better briefing before going to the region to represent 320 million Americans.  Israel is in the Middle East, Mr. Trump.  Just look at the map:

Now we all make mistakes but you don't have to be one of the "over-educated eggheads" to find this really troubling of a "world leader."  At the very least it was rude - a signal that he could not be bothered to know where in the world Israel is.  At worst, not understanding the geography means that he doesn't understand what drives much the of politics of the region.  (See The Revenge of Geography by Robert Kaplan.) And that simply will not do.

Trump is a leader and normally we expect better from our representatives.  But what about the traveller/tourist?   How much basic knowledge should be acquired before arriving as a guest in a foreign country?  "Should" I think is the right word because a certain judgment of ourselves and others is at work here

The answer to the first question surprisingly enough can be "None."  Some people travel purely for leisure.  It's a vacation, not a "back to school" experience.  How many French tourists on the beaches of Brittany care about the history of the small towns and beaches they appropriate in the summer?  My grandmother used to go every year with her friends to Maui.  What were they looking for?  Fun.  And you have not lived until you have watched a group of middle and working- class senior citizens living it up outside the continental US:  Sex, Drugs (alcohol) and Rock 'n Roll," on those beaches, baby.

There is another group that prefers not to know and these are the ones seeking an authentic adventure.  Tourism/travelling (and even migration sometimes) is "mediated" by blogs, guidebooks, expatriate autobiographies and the like.  As for the historians, geographers and sociologists they are not neutral (or even honest) in what they write about other countries and people and so they cannot be entirely trusted.  True adventure is avoiding all of them and relying on direct experience which is superior to secondhand information even from the locals.  One participant cited in L. Week's article above said:  "Your signs of authentic this or traditional that don’t blind me into believing these are the real things in your world. No, I know better." (p, 188)

Finally, there is the "Did you know?" syndrome.  This is where a traveller/tourist turn to a local and says, "Did you know that in your [insert country/city/region]...?"  Think about that one for a minute. Is the purpose of all that study to educate the locals about their own country and culture?  One would hope not but, alas, it happens.  I had lunch with a friend today who described listening to a North American teacher explaining Japan to his/her Japanese students.  She was torn between hilarity and mortification as he/she filled the entire English lesson with this nonsense.  I think the intention is good - showing the locals that you have taken to the time to learn something about them.  However, it can come off as rude and condescending.

In Week's article she used this quotation from another article where a  local in Indonesia gave his thoughts about the tourists versus the knowledgeable travellers:

''The traveler thinks they know everything about the local people and the country. But it’s usually
because some other traveler told them before. But they do whatever they like—some travelers
are good, but 90 percent are not, they can be very impolite. With the tourist, everything is
organized, so they don’t destroy as much. The traveler wants to see something new, and wants
it to be cheap then tells others about it. I prefer tourists; they go to specific places, it is more
professional. But the traveler is uncontrolled—they won’t go to the places already prepared for
them; they want to go to other places and then they spoil it—and don’t spend any money!'
(quoted in Mowforth and Munt, 2009: 142)" (p. 197)

Is what I've written thus far an indictment of the knowledgeable traveller who spends some time learning something about the destination country and how not to offend as a guest?  Not at all.  Frankly, I don't think any knowledge is useless, but not everyone agrees that this is a high priority.  If I had told my grandmother that she should stop partying on the beach with her friends and spend more time reading about and interacting with the local culture, she would have blasted me off the island with a lecture about the lot of working-class people, the Great Depression and World War II.  And, yes, I would have shut my mouth.  Such is the power of a grandmother.

Aside from the whole question of values and "shoulds" I can think of a very important reason to learn before you go (if you don't happen to be the president of the US who has higher and more important  responsibilities) and that is safety.  Some of the most important things that aren't talked about in guidebooks or expat autobiographies is that, like in nature, some of the mammals are predators.  You may know that it's dangerous to go off the beaten path in the forest because of the snakes, but be realistic cities, towns and even rural areas have their own reptiles that slither on two feet.

There are neighborhoods in many places where you would not want to go at night, if at all.  A friend of mine in Paris has a chilling story about an American woman that she and her husband helped after she had been raped. They called the authorities, got her to a hospital and called the consulate.  The consulates in Tokyo issue warnings about certain bars in Roppongi where foreign men and women are lured away, beaten and stripped of their wallets and purses. In Thailand, a place I was clueless about and where we went for our 25th wedding anniversary, the guide came with a driver: a really big guy with really big muscles who told us he did martial arts.  I didn't "get" why he was there until we stopped at an ATM in a small town. I stayed in the car and the guide stayed with me while Mr. Driver accompanied my husband to the cash machine.  And I remember a trip to Central Washington, USA which has the most beautiful scenery around and there was dog that came up to us begging for food.  The dog had been beaten and starved.  Looking past the dog was a house where the owner of the dog lived and he looked like one scary SOB. None of us were willing to confront him even though the poor dog broke our hearts.  It's one of the few situations where I really wished I had had a gun.  Problem is, I was pretty sure the owner had one.

In Deep Survival Laurence Gonzales said, “Everyone who dies out there dies of confusion.”   That is just as true in "civilization" as it is in the "wild."   It can be deadly to focus too much on the fun, the adventure, and what other people think of you because you might forget that getting back in one piece with your knowledge is just as important as going in the first place.  And so I humbly suggest that the most important qualities you can take abroad are as Gonzales says: "Gratitude, humility, wonder, imagination and cold, logical determination..." And, yes, knowledge.


Inaka Nezumi said...

Having lived in a couple of different places that got tourists, my feeling is that attitude counts for a whole lot more than knowledge. Ignorance and sincerity goes a lot further than foreknowledge and arrogance, in general.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

I agree. I am very fond of the concept of the Beginner's Mind.

Here is another take on it I wrote back in 2011.