Tuesday, March 29, 2005

The Sempiternal Tourist

Play the Podcast (audio file downloadable to mp3 players)

This is a contemplation of the nature of travel writing, and seeing through the eyes of a tourist -- or at least an outsider whose perceptions have been mediated by travel brochures, gothic romances, and Graham Greene-esque spy novels. Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey suddenly has the ring of an eternal verity.

The Sempiternal Tourist

It will be a the perfect “recuerdo de XXX” photograph – I’m on a street-corner in the romantic colonial town of La Antigua, Guatemala, founded in 1543 to be the political and commercial center for what is now Chiapas, Yucatan, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Belize, and Costa Rica.

Susan Smith Nash at the University of the South Pacific Lodge, Suva, Fiji

Now Antigua is on the worldwide register of historical treasures. I’m not sure of the official name of that list – only that I’m familiar with a few of them, including the ancient walled city of Baku, Azerbaijan, which includes the fascinating Maiden’s Tower. It’s a good place to take pictures and feel a part of some sort of virtual National Geographic experience.

“Smile!” commands my friend. I obey, even as I’m aware that I’ll come out looking like a rather weird “gringa” – rumpled silk blouse over wrinkled khakis and absolutely not for walking on cobbled streets Italian black pumps. I also have the obligatory “mochila” (backpack) making me a bizarre variant of the “mochilera” enrolled in any one of the 80 or so Spanish language immersion courses offered here, in a university-sponsored in-depth study of Mayan culture, or simply an extended vacation between semesters.

“This will be perfect!” says my friend, a civil engineer who has specialized in stabilizing buildings in this earthquake-prone land. “The balloons are in the picture, also the colonial architecture.”

A neatly-dressed street vendor clutching an enormous bouquet of helium-filled balloons greets us. He’s merely being polite. We are wasting his time. We aren’t prospective customers – no children are accompanying us.

I imagine how the photograph is likely to turn out. Me, blonde, rumpled and pale, juxtaposed with the explosion of color created by the balloons – it will be a delightful photograph – something that could be blown up and converted into a lively acrylic painting or pastel.

I once met an artist who had a second career as a flight attendant. His job was perfect, he said. It allowed him to fly for free to locations where he could paint lively compositions featuring flowers, fabrics, and folklore. Ecuador and Guatemala were ideal, he said. You could stay at a bed and breakfast for around $25 per day, and the scenes were fantastic. I went online and took a look at his virtual gallery. He was right. In painting pictures of indigenous women, marketplaces, local architecture, volcanoes, vegetation, he had captured the energy of the exotic.

Did he ever paint the processions associated with Lent, or the bright “carpets” made of colored sawdust? He said those things made him uncomfortable. He was a member of a small Assembly of God congregation and he viewed Central and South American Catholicism as somewhat dangerous.

“Did you know that some people literally re-enact crucifixion?” he commented to me. “They also mutilate themselves.”

“Are you talking about the penitentes?” I asked him. There were many isolated towns in northern New Mexico, as well as in the Philippines where individuals re-enacted the last few days of Christ’s torment, from crown of thorns, to lashes on back and side, and nails in hands and feet.

“Yes,” he said in a hushed voice, appalled.

It would definitely take a strong stomach to paint such scenes. To capture the images may even put one in danger. What struck me at that moment, though, was not the sublime nature of penance, but that so many of the world’s cultures – even those ostensibly diametrically opposed to each other – practiced similar rites. In observing the penitentes I could not help but think of Shia sects in southern Azerbaijan and northern Iran where the devout whip themselves with heavy metal chains.

For the sempiturnal tourist, the exotic is no longer exotic. It symbolizes pure gaze – observation, projection, fantasy – with no real contact with people, politics, or feelings. The tourist learns to package the experience in a way that can be “sold” to his or her audiences – in receptions, meetings, restaurants or bars where relatives, coworkers, individuals become part of the “sale.”

Sometimes other tourists will swap stories. When this happens, the narrative becomes spun around the needs of the community and becomes a place to explore and reinforce cultural or cross-cultural values (or prejudices).

But those possibilities mean little to me as I stand on the street corner in Antigua, Guatemala. I wonder where the next “photo op” will present itself. Will it be of a wedding party standing outside the newly restored cream-yellow cathedral? My friend informs me that it’s very popular these days to be married in Antigua.

“Very romantic,” I say. I really cannot imagine a more gorgeous setting. “What do they think of all the tourists milling around and staring at them?”

“Maybe that’s part of the allure,” he observes. I think about it and I agree. Any work of theater craves an audience. To be married in Antigua on a Saturday afternoon is to guarantee a kind of celebrity. Your image would be preserved in any number of photo albums shelved in offices and in homes all around the world, but mostly in Europe, the U.S., Japan, and Australia.

But what emotions show in the tourist’s face? What are my emotions? No matter what the location, the tableaux is essentially the same. I smile. I wonder if my face is flushed, if my eyes are closed.

Nowhere to be found are the emotions I often feel as I travel. I learned long ago to turn my face into either a) a bland, smiling mask; or b) a joyous mask (suggesting I am in the throes of a neo-platonic awakening as I establish a sense of unity with the “other”). I do not allow my deeper feelings to surface.

So, when this photograph is developed, you won’t see the wealth of emotions I experience when I travel. You won’t see the sadness I feel at being reduced to an object or a symbol (of America, of Americanism). Masked is the curiosity I feel about how people live their lives, day to day. Veiled are the almost violent emotional awakenings when I am able to sit down with individuals from other cultures and talk about what it means to be human. Invisible (I hope) is the amusement I derive from practicing Spanish, but mildly butchering it as I experiment with different inflections, accents, phrasings – Brooklyn, Savannah, Chicago – and then, throwing in sounds (and sometimes words) gleaned from other languages – Russian, French, Portuguese, Swahili, Guarani. The result is a weird gallimaufry or pastiche, I suspect. Oh, the games we play. But – everyone likes to have contact with the exotic, ne-c’est-pas?

Susan in Antigua, Guatemala

The balloon vendor moves down the street. We make our way up the cobbled street to the Palacio on the Plaza Central where I will look for bookstores. I twist my ankle, but pretend I have stopped to adjust my backpack. My shoes are sturdier than they seem. They (or their forebears from previous trips) have carried me to many such street corners.

I put away my camera. I’m already inventing a story to accompany this frame.