Women today don’t have to await the stranger…

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“The late John Gardner once said that there are only two plots in all of literature. You go on a journey or a stranger comes to town. Since women, for so many years, were denied the journey, they were left with only one plot in their lives — to await the stranger. Indeed, there is essentially no picaresque tradition among women novelists. While the latter part of the 20th century has seen a change of tendency, women’s literature from Austen to Woolf is by and large a literature about waiting, usually for love…

From Penelope to the present, women have waited — for a phone call, a proposal, or the return of the prodigal man from sea or war or a business trip. To wait like patients for a doctor, commuters for buses, prisoners for parole, is in a sense to be powerless. But both plots can be available to women [today]. If we grow weary of waiting, we can go on a journey. We can be the stranger who comes to town.”

— Mary Morris, Introduction to The Illustrated Virago Book of Women Travellers”

yes. Yes. YES.

Photography takes you out of the moment

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oomf 7

I used to write half truths in my teenage diaries in case they might be discovered. Propped up under my bed covers, I’d write about the popular girls who I’d pretend were my friends, and miss out the stories of the boys who teased me for looking like an oompa loompa the first time I tried to wear fake tan.

I was reminded of those journals when I attempted to photograph a Canadian road trip from Banff to Vancouver on my boyfriend’s iPhone last week.

I wanted to see if photography was a medium I could enjoy. After all, who ever heard of a travel writer who doesn’t take photos? But I felt awkward asking my boyfriend to pose, vain for getting him to take my picture in an alpine meadow, silly as I photographed oranges at an Okanagan fruit stand while the jolly stall owner laughed at my fumbled attempt to capture the everyday. A good photographer would have used the camera as a tool for opening up communication with that fruit seller. I shied away.

The moments I snapped just seemed fake; the idyllic images that would have made for the perfect photo were too good to shatter with something as intrusive as a lens. How could I commodify our friends’ baby, Amber? She was perfect as she toddled naked through the sun-dappled trees, picking thimbleberries by the creek. I couldn’t ruin it all with, “Just a second, Dylan, can I borrow the phone? What’s the pin again? Ok, smile!” So I let the moment pass, content that this child’s laughter would be shared only with the forest.

At other times, I felt frustrated because the landscapes refused to pose. The mountains especially were too grand and impervious to even deign to be reduced to 1250 pixels x 1250 pixels, and on the iPhone they looked small and far away, nothing like the jaw-dropping peaks before me. Then there were the moments too fleeting to capture — the hummingbird in Victoria dipping its beak into a tigerlily, already gone by the time I remember the phone’s pin, already gone by the time I’d committed the moment to heart.

Frustrated with photography and my lack of natural talent for it, I began to tell myself that writing is a superior art form anyway: a camera takes out out of the moment, for what? To reduce a beautiful experience to a 2D image? When you write, I said to myself, you get to experience each humbling, beautiful moment fully, capturing it from memory only later, at a writing desk while the rest of the world sleeps.

Bullshit.

When I write, I’m still not fully in the moment. I’m still seeing the world through the eyes of the audience I’m writing for. Once I can let go of my ego and walk around in pure, silent meditation, then things might be different. But the truth is, writing isn’t better than photography or videography. There are no hierarchies. You just have to do what you love. And that was the beauty of fumbling around with a medium I hated. It reminded me that I see the world through metaphors and similes, can’t help it. It reminded me that while I may not find joy in searching for the perfect filter or the right light, I could happily spend hours searching for the right string of words to capture the Rockies. It reminded me of what I love.

This article was originally published on Thought Catalog.

What’s the difference between today’s backpackers and last century’s elite? Part II

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Part II of What’s the difference between today’s backpackers and last century’s elite?

sierra norte meadows, mexico

“I’m curious.” He says. “Did some of your friends and family tell you not to come here?”

“Of course! Drug gangs on every corner, Mexico’s the worst.” I wink.

“And who is going to steal from you? A Mexican guy on the street? No way. Much more likely you’ll get your things stolen by someone going through your bag in the hostel.”

“True enough.”

“Who is going to hurt you? Last year, in that hostel, two Australians raped a British girl. They were so drunk they didn’t even remember doing it the next morning.”

“That’s awful.”

“So, why do you travel?” He says, taking off his glasses.

“Me?” I flounder, “Uh, to see nature, meet new people.”

“Mexican people?”

“Of course.”

 “Do you speak Spanish?”

“Um, not really. I’m trying.”

“Oh really.”

I wilt. “I could try harder.”

Why don’t you make more of an effort?”

“Fear? Fear that it’s a waste of time. I could probably read a book in the time it takes me to learn just 15 new Spanish words that I’ll immediately forget. Fill my head with beautiful words in a language I understand, or be a language-learning failure?”

“You need to get over that.”

“I know.”

“I’m doing research on the attitudes of backpackers coming to Mexico. I’d like to ask you some more questions about the subject. Come to my place and we’ll talk.”

What do you do when the most interesting, articulate, forceful person you’ve met in months asks you back to their house? I do what Alexandra in her scholarly earnestness would do, what Isabelle would do in her want for adventure. I do what my father and boyfriend would plead with me not to do — I go.

We walk and talk, and five minutes later we’re inside his old, colonial apartment. He starts up his dusty PC in the living room. As it whirrs and strains to boots up, I look around.  Heavy furniture, old-fashioned and bohemian without trying to be. In front of me, a huge dining table covered in a lacy pink tablecloth overflows with books, dirty plates, and half-drained coffee cups. Books everywhere, piled ten high on the floor — thick tomes and flimsy journals, the complete works of Noam Chomsky, old Lonely Planet guidebooks to Mexico. Framed Maya art covers the walls.

“Computer’s taking its time.” He pats its top. I sit opposite him in a hard-backed chair. “So tell me,” He says. “What do you know about Maya?”

Fuck. I haven’t been here on a quest to learn all things Maya. Mexico has been no more than a backdrop of heat, ocean, and beach while I’ve been wandering the Sahara and Tibetan steppes with Alexandra and Isabelle.

 I tell the truth, “I just watched a YouTube documentary about the history before I came.”

“Tell me what you learned.”

He wasn’t supposed to ask me that. He was supposed to let me off, like everyone else does. It’s a shock when a stranger deliberately provokes. I was brought up on the well-meaning false praise of Western culture, grandma’s kitchen cupboards still covered in muddy finger paintings from when I was four. And I want to impress this man, to let him know that we’re not all bad.

“So the Spanish came and conquered, and the locals were tortured. Spanish at the top, mixtos in the middle…”

Mestizos.”

“Right, mestizos in the middle, indigenous people at the bottom. Same today, right? And, uh, what else, the Maya were really advanced astronomers and, um, had calendars that made everyone think the world was going to end last year and built pyramids and…other stuff.”

“You know how it feels to be reduced to anthropology museums curated by white people, like we don’t exist, like we’re no longer here, already consigned to history? There are 11 million Maya living in Central America today. 11 million. Did you know that?”

I shake my head. During colonialism, we never thought we had anything to learn from ‘backward’ natives and ‘noble savages’. Has anything changed? Look at me. I’m still reading about white women from a century ago rather than learning from the people around me.

“The Mexican statesmen and upper classes try to portray Mexico as being more mestizo than it really is. It’s a myth created so we don’t realize how badly Mexico is controlled by whites with indigenous people at the bottom. And is the history of Maya people written by Maya? No. By white people. It’s absurd.”

He continues, “With a Western background it’s impossible to truly understand Maya culture and history, and so it’s impossible to write accurately about it. People can’t help but see through the cultural prism of how they were brought up. White people took our land, our way of life, and then when our history is also taken away from us too, how can we even know who we are? And then you wonder why we have an inferiority complex? Why we dye our hair and lighten our skin to look more like you? In my university department, what we’re trying to do is reclaim our history. We’re literally questioning everything that has been written in the post-Hispanic period, and comparing it to all the records we can find from before then. That’s the only way to really get an accurate understanding of our history.”

He opens a Word Doc on his computer. “Anyway, first question. Do you tolerate other cultures?”

“Mmm, a person I’d rather respect. No, wait, appreciate.” He smiles as he types my words onto the flickering screen. Right answer.

“Ok. You’re walking down the street on a dark night. There’s a black person on one side of the street, a white person on the other. Where do you feel more comfortable walking?”

I shirk the question and answer,”I feel most comfortable next to whoever is the woman.”

“That’s cheating. Let me tell you something. I studied in Spain for a year, in Seville. I can’t tell you how many times I was stopped and harassed on the street by policemen who thought I was Moroccan. I felt so small. So dirty and weak. You can’t imagine.”

“That’s terrible.”

“And now the Spanish are coming here looking for jobs! Asking for the same rights as Mexicans! They didn’t think the immigrants in their country should get the same rights as Spanish workers, but now, oh ho! Now it’s a different story.”

“Ok, but I think I can sort of know how it feels to be made to feel small and vulnerable — when a guy catcalls a girl on the street, it’s not to tell her she’s beautiful, not really. It’s to intimidate her and make her feel like she’s being watched in the most uncomfortable way.”

“Not the same.”

“Fine.”

“Next question. Do you ever have anti-American sentiments?”

“Sure, I guess. I’ve talked about ‘fat Americans’, ‘dumb Americans’. Which is pretty dumb in itself.”

“Why dumb?”

“If you’re always looking at the faults of others, you can’t see your own.”

“Right. Europeans, Dutch, British, German — they’re so proud of themselves, how ‘multicultural’ they are. Paradoxically, right-wing parties in their countries are getting more and more votes. Are they really so much ‘better’ than the US? Superiority is very dangerous, but these backpackers definitely act superior — they just can’t see the similarities between themselves and the immigrants who come to their countries. The immigrants are poor, uneducated, brown. They expect immigrants to learn their language, but don’t see why they should learn Spanish if they come to Mexico. ‘Oh, but we’re just visiting.’ they say. Why should that make a difference? The backpackers are peso kings, educated, white — so what? Just because they have money they don’t have to be polite?

“They forget that they were just born with more opportunities than the immigrants who come to their country. They aren’t smarter than them, they aren’t better than them. They were just born with different options, that’s all. There are three options for the people from my village: stay, go to somewhere like Cancun and clean-up after rich tourists, or go to the US and work lowly jobs as an immigrant. I was lucky. A local minister saw something in me, and helped with my education so I could go to university and eventually become a professor. I was able to support my younger sister through university. Now she’s a doctor. She lives here with me.”

“You have other brothers and sisters?”

“Six older sisters.”

“Are they ever envious of you and your little sister?”

“No. They’re happy, they all have lots of babies, they’re married in a nice community with grandmas and grandpas and cousins and aunties all around. Don’t project. Don’t assume the Western woman’s way of living is free and independent and that everyone wants that life. My sisters don’t want that life. Would you go to a Maya village for a visit?”

“I guess? Sure.”

“Why?”

“Because Lonely Planet tells me to.” I smile, teasing.

“Ah, Lonely Planet.” He smiles. “They have good maps, I’ll give them that. But why do you listen to what writers who aren’t even from Mexico have to say about this country?” He flips open one of the guides. “Look here at the authors’ page — Noble, Waterson, Bartlett, Armstrong…not one Mexican name, not one of these people is even from here — Berlin, Vancouver, Melbourne. It’s like looking at the Maya history books all over again.”

“Can I see?” I flick to the box of text I was thinking of,

“Ah, but here it says that you shouldn’t take photos of locals when you visit indigenous villages. So that’s kind of telling people to go in with respect and behave politely.”

“What else does it say about visiting these villages?”

“Ah, here, in the Chiapas section it says a visit to the region’s indigenous villages are one of the most interesting experiences you can have…you can see healing rituals being done in local churches, the markets are worth visiting…”

“Mmhmm. Written by?”

I flip back to the authors’ page, “Kate Armstrong, from Australia.”

“Do you think you’re wanted in those indigenous villages because an Australian recommends it as a day trip?”

“I’m not sure. Not if I dress disrespectfully, not if I take pictures without permission, not by everyone. But maybe by some of the market sellers I’m wanted. And a local tourism official probably recommended these villages to the writer. So yeh, I guess I’d think this writer would say if we weren’t wanted, if our presence was damaging to the local community.”

“Of course a tourism official will say the villages are a great place to visit. It’s not their village. You think most Maya like all the tourists coming in and gawping at them like they’re monkeys in a zoo? Right now, any tourist can roar into any Maya village in a 4×4. Does Lonely Planet mention the Maya movement to make at least some of their villages off-limits to tourism?”

I try to imagine Edinburgh Castle becoming the plaything of, say, rich Chinese, its walls suddenly turned into rock climbing walls for over-privileged Beijing teens whose guidebook insists this is the number one thing to do in the Scottish capital. I try to imagine centuries of rock reduced to dust, history eroded under Adidas-clad feet so some tour companies can make a quick buck.

Is it the fault of the Chinese for not asking if what they’re doing is ethical? Who would they ask anyhow? The local guides who will pat their backs and say, “OF COURSE it’s ethical,” before extending their hand out for a tip?  Is it their guidebooks’ fault for not discussing the ethical problems of climbing ancient rock, for not mentioning the discontent among the local community who doesn’t see a cent from the practice? Or should those travelers question the practice for themselves? Would simple common sense stop people from following their guidebooks blindly?

I think of Uluru, still climbed today against the wishes of local Anangu people. We break and subsume a race, stomp all over their spiritual landmarks then tick those experiences off our backpacker bucket lists. And for what? Maybe tourism in its entirety is neo-colonialism. “Still, what if you go to a village with an open heart, to listen and learn?”

“Sure. But first, just ask a local, ‘Is it ok that I’m here?’ That’s all. Talk to the people. Communicate. Treat them like humans.”

“But I can’t communicate, I don’t know the language. Anyway, I’m pretty sure the argument here would be the same as always — money. If I’m bringing money to the community, buying a juice, a sandwich, maybe a handmade scarf while I’m here? Then it’s ok?”

“Are you going to buy a handmade scarf in every Maya village you visit? Or just a coke?”

“Uh, probably a coke.”

“Ah, the black water of capitalism.” He smiles, clasps his hands together and looks at me. “And tell me, what do you think about homoeopathic medicine?”

“Oh, I don’t really know so much about it.

“There’s a whole field of medicine you haven’t studied?”

“Well, I’m healthy.”

He takes off his glasses. “Oh, really? Interesting. That’s your problem in the West. You wait for the problem to show up.”

What’s the difference between today’s backpackers and last century’s elite?

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Image by Malias, Flickr

Ten days on Isla Mujeres so far — tangled up on the beach, the sun seeps in my bones as I read books about Victorian women adventurers — Isabelle Eberhardt, who left life in Geneva in 1897 to roam Algeria penniless, have sex and smoke kief, become Muslim and dress as the male Arab she saw herself as; Alexandra David-Néel, the French Buddhist scholar whose forbidden 1924 journey through Tibet to Lhasa saw her so starving hungry that she had to eat the leather from her boots just to stay alive.

When Isabelle prayed to Allah, when Alexandra donned her Llama robes, they weren’t play-acting like other explorers of their time — Lawrence of Arabia, Richard Burton — they were sincere, listening and learning from others with no sense of cultural superiority.

As I read on the beach from morning till night, the other travelers on the island drink and screw and, if they see me at all, ask why I’m no fun. I cling to the notes on Alexandra’s first voyage, “She had booked a single cabin, from which she intended to depart rarely, preferring hours of meditation and study to contact with other passengers.”

I pack up my tent and leave for the mainland on a chugging yellow ferry. On the bus to Campeche, I wonder how the hours will slip away in the fair city of palms and haciendas that shimmer in the midday heat.

Sunday afternoon. I get off the bus and swing my backpack through the streets in search of a place to stay, lumbering among the Maya girls that drove Kerouac crazy with their sweet faces and tiny, birdlike bodies. Pink-cheeked and apologetic, at each guesthouse in the old town I fumble over the Spanish words for “Do you have any vacancies?” But they’re too boutique, too expensive for me on my £10 a day budget.

I end up at a whitewashed hostel, disappointed and relieved to listen to my back which whispers for a few nights on a plump mattress with soft cotton sheets. No more tent tarp or laying foetal on a thin yoga mat. Still, I hate hostels and think they’re nothing more than Western bubbles designed to coddle the young and privileged who are so ‘brave’ to travel in ‘dangerous’, developing countries.

I hate hostels with their German owners and Australian backpackers taking free salsa lessons in Aztec print shorts made in China. I hate hostels because I secretly love them, this hostel in particular with its itinerary designed for maximum Instagram moments  — free cooking lessons, fresh fruit breakfast, morning yoga — a cocoon from the heat and crowds and searching Mexican faces for 7 pounds a night.

I drop my bag off, take a shower and head out the door into the late afternoon sun. Listless  in the heat, I wander around the main market, buy some leather sandals from one woman, a corn cob from another. As the stars come out, I head back to my hostel. A man’s footsteps catch up behind me,

Hola. Cómo está? De donde eres?

Bien. Escocia. Y tu?”

Aqui. How are you enjoying Campeche?”

“It’s beautiful, though I’ve just been here a few hours.”

We exchange our titles. Professor of Maya studies. Travel writer, of sorts.

He sucks his teeth, “Are you careful with your job? You have a lot of power. Do you tell people how to behave? How to respect?”

“Uh, sure, if I was writing about Mexico, I’d say that outside the beach towns it’s respectful to dress modestly — no tiny dresses.” I point at my tiny dress and blush, realizing my mistake.

His voice is soft as a eunuch or a grandmother from a fairy tale. “You know, a lot of backpackers here treat the locals like shit.” He whispers, “You’re all very polite when you’re sober, so polite I wonder if it’s just another way of showing off how ‘civilized’ you are in comparison to us. But paradoxically, once you’ve had a drink, you can be so obnoxious. I’ve seen backpackers totally ignore Mexican waitresses, try to touch them. What? They think they’ve given us poor Mexicans jobs, so the pesos in their pocket mean they can act like a king?”

“I’m sorry.” I fumble. “It’s the same back home. People are different when they’re drunk. Especially when they’re in a big group.”

“Why do backpackers come here to get drunk? Why tell yourselves you’re ‘travelers’ not ‘tourists’? You pretend you’re Indiana Jones but when you get here you just get drunk with other travelers. Do you think you’re wanted here? That we need you?”

“Of course not.” I say, scuffing my new sandals against the pavement.

He softens, “I’m not saying don’t come. I’m just saying ‘have respect’.”

“Of course.”

“But you know you even have your own tourist police here? Police who speak English and French, just to serve you tourists?” He smiles. “To many Maya in the Yucatán, that’s absurd. ‘Why do tourists get their own police, but if we go to court we can only use Spanish and not our mother tongue?”

“What does the government say about it all?”

“The usual… the tourists are bringing money to the city. The tourists need to feel safe. They’re holy cows! Don’t touch the tourists!'”

I laugh at the imagery. He smiles. “Look at you, walking the streets alone at night. That’s because you know you are a holy cow.”

“I guess.”

“But like I say, it upsets many Maya when they see tourists are given so many more privileges than them. Tourism does bring money to a city like Campeche. But what does that do? How many people does it benefit? Two in ten are tourism workers, maybe, but we all have to deal with inflation. Who nowadays can afford to buy properties here? Not us. Foreigners and expats who have the spare money to invest in juice bars and coffee stores — and so the prices stay high because there are people who are willing to pay them.”

“Right,” I say, “So the new foreign-owned store opens up, and the backpackers start going to the fair-trade juice bar with the free Wi-Fi. The local ice cream store down the street struggles because it doesn’t know that tourists want gluten-free options and organic everything, or maybe can’t afford to provide those options?”

“Right. The ice cream store closes down and the foreigner gets rich. Same as always.”

“And as for hostels, they’re Wal-Marts. That hostel up the street? It’s killed everything. Before it opened a few years ago, this whole street was full of guesthouses run by local families. Backpackers would knock on doors, find the best deal and stay in Campeche for a few nights. As each backpacker had their own room and bathroom, that required plenty of cleaners. Receptionists and gardeners were employed too — many people. Now they’ve all closed down. How can they compete with a hostel that can invest in free yoga, free computers, a kitchen, cooking classes? The internet cafe down the street and many of the restaurants closed down within a year of the hostel opening. Backpackers can even volunteer to help out at the hostel for a free bed! Now a hostel filled with 50 travelers only needs to employ a few people, one or two cleaners. So tell me, who is benefiting from the presence of so many tourists in this town?”

I swallow, “I know. You’re right.” I hesitate. “I’m staying in that hostel and I agree.”

“No, don’t cry! I didn’t want to make you cry.”

“I know, I know. It’s just because everything you’re saying is true.”

He pats my arm, “What will the police think if they see you crying on this dark street with me? You’re a holy cow!” He smiles.

“It’s just a shock. All I hear from tour guides and guidebooks is, “We love you! We love tourists! You bring us money and joy. Thank you!” And I’m sure you’re right about hostels.” I hiccup. “I guess we just like them because they feel like home. Even if we’re talking with someone from Iceland or Australia, our lives are so similar that we may as well have grown up on the same street.

“I don’t get it. Why travel if you just want to feel at home? I mean, that’s fine, but why feel superior to ‘tourists’?”

Alexandra David-Néel wrote of how dull colonial life in Darjeeling was — the wives sat around drinking tea and dancing the foxtrot, too full of their own national superiority to ever want to learn from or listen to the ‘Other’. Today? We’ve swapped the foxtrot for salsa.

“At least the tourists are honest.” He continues. “It’s the backpackers who think they’re so special, they’re the hypocrites.”

Alexandra wrote, “The earth is the inheritance of man, and consequently any honest traveler has the right to walk as he chooses, all over that globe which is his.”

Are we “honest” travelers if we pretend to be here for ‘an authentic experience’, yet in reality reduce the locals to background props as we drink and careen in the sun with the Norwegians and Germans who’ll actually get our VICE magazine references? When rich British kids used to visit the colonies as a rite of passage, it was said to “Expand the horizons, and thereby the resumes, of the rich who would later lead the country — but it did little for the colonies visited.” What’s the difference between today’s backpackers and last century’s elite?

Part II this time next week.