Tuesday, August 16, 2011

On Tourists

Did I say something about tourism? The best thing to remember about your vacation is this: Wherever you go, YOU go, too! Some tourists just can't get away from themselves.
20 Complaints by Tourists

On Culture Shock

Cultural Travel sounds very educational and informative, but how much can you really learn about a culture in a few days or a few hours? Having visited both Turkey and Greece on my trip, I formed opinions about each culture, but they certainly can’t be validated by a few days’ experience. I was first introduced into the wider world of cultures as a sophomore in college when I spent a summer in Hawaii. What culture shock! I worked at Dole Pineapple Company among peoples of diverse heritages from the Philippines, Guam, Japan, China, England, native Hawaiian, and haole. I remember watching in fascination as the English boy ate his poached eggs with fork in left hand and knife in the right. And, it worked!

My second taste of culture shock was a semester spent at sea on the World Campus Afloat (now Semester at Sea) program in the spring of 1967. (A photo of the current Semester at Sea vessel, the MS Explorer, appears above. It was docked in Athens next to the Nautica.) After departing from Long Beach, California, and crossing the Panama Canal, we spent 4 months travelling from port to port on the Atlantic Ocean: Trinidad/Tobago, Caracas, Salvador, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Lagos, Dakar, Cadiz, Rotterdam, Copenhagen, London, Dublin, and New York. What a trip! The culture I learned most about on this trip, however, was the bizarre culture demonstrated by the California students. To a conservative Texas girl, they were as strange as cannibals were to Montaigne. That trip just whetted my appetite to live abroad and actually experience a foreign culture.

Living abroad was another experience entirely. Living in another culture provides the opportunity to become familiar with how it operates on a day-to-day basis; living abroad teaches you to make considered judgments about cultures based on experience, not stereotype. Living in foreign cultures ultimately teaches you that human beings are pretty much the same all over; they exist in equal amounts of good and bad both individually and collectively. I have friends and acquaintances who spent a couple of years in the Peace Corps or studying abroad. It’s clear that those years abroad were formative. Every young American should live abroad and experience another culture first-hand.

It’s a complex world, and sorting out the good guys from the bad guys isn’t an easy task. Cultural relativism, however, which holds that all cultural responses are equally valid, cannot be justified. It should be shelved in favor of a considered, educated political discernment. Such discernment would allow for value judgments against cultures which discriminate against women or otherwise have characteristics which miss the mark in a world which has thankfully given up slavery, extreme patriarchal hierarchy, and the tendency towards gratuitous violence. That educated discrimination comes from experiencing a variety of cultures in a variety of ways.

I often hear complaints about America and our culture of possessions and obsessions. Were the British riots caused by a slow decay of moral culture as PM Cameron claimed? Were they caused by a culture of classism and elitism? What makes for a healthy culture?

Monday, August 15, 2011

On Tourism


According to my History of Western Civilization textbook, tourism first became popular in Europe in the late 17th and early 18th century when transportation infrastructure such as roads, which had been in a state of decay since the end of the Roman Empire, were slowly rebuilt, allowing Europeans more freedom to move about. Interest in foreign places had also been piqued by the discovery and exploitation of the New World. Montaigne’s Essais, published in 1580 described the strange and horrible cultures discovered by European voyagers and it prompted him to question the strange cultures of his own age (see “On the Custom of Wearing Clothes” and “Of Cannibals”), introducing the West to the idea of cultural relativism.

It was in 1721 that the Persian Letters was published by Montesquieu. The book consists of a series of letters which were purportedly written by a Turkish sheik who left behind his five wives to travel to France. His letters home describe satirically the bizarre nature of French customs and laws. The foreign perspective presented in the novel prompted the curious French to undertake journeys abroad themselves to see foreign cultures from their own perspective. The early 18th century also witnessed the beginnings of the era of the nation state, and foreign travels helped to accentuate differences and fuel the fires of nationalism. The Industrial Revolution further improved transportation infrastructure and speed, adding railways and steam engines, and travel became more and more popular.

Mass Tourism

The development and popularity of mass tourism is a more recent trend. Travel was previously the reserve of the elite and wealthy. My mother’s middle class family, I am told, created a neighborhood event in the 1930s when they packed up Mom and Dad and all 6 kids in their Model A and left the heat of Texas for cool Colorado Springs. Such a family vacation was a rarity and everyone turned out to see them go. I remember my first commercial airplane flight; it was a prop plane from Fort Worth to Lubbock, Texas. I wore heels and hose and a nice dress. Most of the flight was spent eating and smoking and trying to forget I was in the middle of the air going hundreds of miles per hour. I’ve clocked lots of air miles since that time, most of them more unpleasant.

In 1981, People Express Airline decided that air travel was a right of the people and should be available to everyone much like bus travel. They introduced a cheap, one-class fare structure; passengers were allowed one carry-on bag and were charged for checked luggage; drinks and snacks were also offered for a fee; using train travel as a model, fares were collected on board before departure. Because they expanded too quickly and acquired too much debt, People Express soon had to change its business model to match the traditional airlines, adding classes of service and free services. While People Express no longer exists, its model of treating customers like cattle lives on and the hoi polloi have learned to expect cheap travel as their right.

Mass Tourism in Greece

Greece is a tourist destination. The principle basis of its economy is tourism, and most of that, especially on the Greek islands, appears to be mass tourism from the UK and other European countries. It’s the kind of tourism that revolves around cheap package vacations to the beach. The tourists aren’t interested in the rich Greek traditions and cultural heritage; they’re looking for a get-away where the rules of home don’t apply, the demands of work are far away, and they can take off their clothes and soak up the Mediterranean sun. The narrow streets of quaint Greek villages are lined with shops carrying tacky souvenirs catering to this trade, and angry little cars and mopeds clog the streets. Something about this phenomenon is distasteful. The shopkeepers seem sullen; the tourists themselves seem restless, bored and disrespectful of the local culture; the Greek beaches are littered with a plethora of hotels and beach resorts ranging from the tacky to the sublime.

Cultural Tourism in Greece

Another kind of tourism concentrates on museums and cultural sites. It assumes that travel should be an educational and uplifting experience. Cultural tourism, by immersing us in new and different cultures, offers us an opportunity to tap into the myriad ways that human beings have found to exist and to celebrate that existence. Of course, there’s an element of elitism and intellectual snobbery in saying such a thing. Greece offers a mind-boggling experience for the cultural tourist, but it takes some effort. Greek contributions to Western civilization are extensive and subtly buried in many of our commonest thoughts and actions. To be fully appreciated, a cultural visit to Greece needs to be accompanied by a complete course in Western civilization. Knowledge enhances enjoyment.

Of course, there are other reasons to travel, visiting family and friends, conducting business, seeing natural wonders, for example.

Do you have tourists coming to your town? What are they looking for? How have they affected the economy?

Where are you planning to go on your next trip? Why?

Saturday, August 6, 2011

On Souvenirs

One of the few joys of unpacking is slowly un-wrapping all the precious purchases one has made along the way. I’ve never been one to make major purchases while travelling, but my house is full of tchotchkes that were collected during a lifetime of moves and travels. Each one has a special meaning, and each one represents a particular place and feeling. Every time I make a small purchase, I remember being a child on our annual treks to Colorado Springs when we never had enough money to buy the trashy souvenirs offered by vendors along the way. In some small way, all of my purchases represent triumph over poverty.

It seems to be important to people to reinforce our memories with some sort of physical object. I wish I had been the one to invent the logo t-shirt. Our suitcases carried a few of those for ourselves and relatives. They make a perfect inexpensive touchstone. Since our return, I’ve started looking around the house and thinking of the time and place we acquired many of the “art” pieces that are scattered around. I’ve also started thinking of the ones that are missing because with each move we seem to have lost something: where is the Robin Anderson scarf from Nairobi? Where are the spears? Where is the Dwight family Bible? Where is the past?

Among my souvenirs of our Greek odyssey was a ceramic plate purchased from the young boy who “befriended” me in Istanbul on our first day there. He talked me into going back with him to his father’s shop where I purchased a beautiful, square ceramic plate. It was carefully wrapped in bubble paper and had been in the bottom of my suitcase since we departed Istanbul. While it wasn’t a major purchase, it was the most expensive thing I purchased on our trip. I carefully un-wrapped my prize purchase in Durango and was somewhat dismayed to find that it doesn’t go with any of the colors in my house. The small plate is full of vivid, red tulips with bright, green stems and a rich, blue border, quite the opposite of the warm, earth tones of the house. It reminds me that the Dutch originally stole tulips from the Turks (another bit of arcane history that inhabits my brain). What to do now? Hide it away somewhere? When I left the shop, the young man made me a gift of a silver ring with a large ceramic “stone.” It doesn’t appear to be “my style” but it’s becoming one of my favorites. Ah, memories.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

On Decay

Our visit to ancient Byzantium and Greece provided us with a view of many antiquities in various stages of decay, and I’ve already noted the controversy associated with their reconstruction or renovation. None of these structures has escaped unscathed from centuries of weather, including earthquakes, sun and rain, coupled with destructive human actions such as war and fire. Some of these ruins, Hagia Sophia is an example, are still magnificent. Some are merely a collection of rocks which our imaginations must reshape into stately columns. Why did I want to see them anyway? Do they provide me with some sense of holiness missing from the relics of everyday life which surround me? Do they provide some connection with an ancient past that still lingers in my DNA?

The reconstructions of Sir Arthur Evans at Knossos are much decried by archeologists, and much appreciated by tourists. The government of Greece is in the process of restoring and renewing some of the great monuments of the Acropolis. Maybe the reconstructions are untrue to the originals, but somehow the prospect of rebuilding and renewing adds a sense of continuance and hope to the past, a sense that life has a chance to learn and continue a journey midst the decay while honoring what went before.

I’ve had my own encounter with decay since my return. One of my teeth has finally decayed past saving and I will have it pulled this afternoon. As it turns out, the tooth is dead, but everything in the mouth around it has been inflamed and very painful…sympathy pains the dentist said. I’ve spent most of the past few days in bed. After it is pulled, I will have the choice of whether to reconstruct it or not. I think not. Some ruins are not worth reconstructing. Dealing with the decay of one’s own body is not fun. What’s worse is dealing with the decay of the mind. I entitled this blog Age and Antiquity for a reason. My own aging provides sympathy pains for the antiquities, or maybe vice versa.