City Paper is not for tourists
The End of Elsewhere:
Macfarlane Walter & Ross, 309 pages, $34.99
Tourists may be the most universally reviled people on the planeteven tourists hate tourists. But rarely has this hatred been as sustained, as analytical, or as thoroughly backed up by research as in Canadian travel writer Taras Grescoe’s new book, The End of Elsewhere: Travels Among the Tourists.
Grescoe, also the author of Sacré Blues: An Unsentimental Journey Through Quebec, defines tourism as a matter of mindset. Not everyone who takes a vacation is a tourist; some make it into the ranks of that more respectable breed, “travelers.” But spotting the tourist isn’t as easy as locating the Hawaiian shirt with a camera dangling above the exposed potbelly. A tourist is anyone who goes abroad in professed search of “authenticity”but really wants to confirm preconceived stereotypes, regarding the locals as little more than photo-album fodder, and shuns local customs in favor of the portable version of a lifestyle dragged along from home. In terms suggesting the near-criminality of this approach, Grescoe argues that “by expatriating one’s vision of the world while travellingand by favouring consumption over exchangeone was committing tourism rather than practising travel.” The tourists, by his account, are guilty of contributing to changing ways of life in traditional societies, economically exploiting the natives, and generally being assholes.
Tourism, Grescoe tells us, is the world’s largest legal industry, with almost 700 million international trips made in 2001. For this book, he decidedrather masochistically, it seemsto wander the most popular “travel ruts” that have been carved by tourists over the years. Sticking resolutely on the beaten path, he observes the culture of tourism “bubbles” and their relationship to the places they happen to pass through. His journey takes him across the entire Eurasian land mass, from the tip of Spain to the end of China. On the way, he mingles with, among others, the pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago in Spain, the patrons of a Club Med in Greece, and the backpackers in hostels everywhere. The resulting chronicle weaves together his own experiences with research and insightful, if patronizing, commentary.
On each new leg of his journey, the author provides a detailed history of the relevant mode of travel. On the Camino de Santiago, we learn, the original pilgrims were Christians in search of the remains of the Apostle James. (Most of the contemporary ones Grescoe meets stumbled on the name in some New Age book or other, but are embarrassed by the fact and were enticed mainly by the novelty of traveling on foot and the beauty of the landscape.) When Grescoe takes a package tour of Europe, he discusses the first package tour, pioneered by the Englishman Thomas Cook in the 19th century. Early beneficiaries of the democratization of travel, the tour’s patrons were considered “[v]ulgar, ill-bred, offensive and loathsome,” in the words of one of their contemporaries. Such historical context enables us to appreciate how tourism has changed, but also to recognize certain consistencies: It seems that since their birth as a species, tourists have inspired contempt, as naturally as cockroaches inspire revulsion.
Grescoe excels at noticing and pouncing on the paradoxes of tourism. In India, he finds a restaurant that embodies tourism by his definition: The menu offers macaroni and pizza, and the elevated location allows customers to see the picturesque poverty below, without having to shoo away children begging for rupees. At a lake in Lucerne, Switzerland, as the tourists snapping cameras look for shots without any heads in the way, Grescoe observes:
[E]ven tourists long for authenticity, the evidence of some real encounter with the foreign. So when they finally reach the longed-for Leaning Tower, Mount Rushmore, or Jungfrau, they can barely control their resentment of the devil’s equation that has made ease of access directly proportional to the number of other tourists blocking their sightlines.
This same attitude has real, tragic consequences in developing countries such as Thailand, where tourists go to hill tribes on trips uncomfortably reminiscent of safaris. The trekkers demand “non-touristic” villages, so when too many tourists come, the villages are no longer sufficiently authentic, and “[t]he guides abandon the villages they’ve ruinedmany of whose families have given up agriculture because of the promise of sustainable ecotourismand seek out an even more remote setting.”
Such dead-on analysis is laced throughout the book, in formidable prose. Grescoe is a writer who knows his way around a dictionary and, one can’t help snidely suspecting, a thesaurus. The writing illustrates both wit and self-satisfaction. Although Grescoe makes superficial gestures at confiding in his readers, giving us periodic updates about his relationship with his girlfriend back in Canada and telling us about all the drugs he used to do, he always remains distant; it’s as if he’s carefully constructed the image he wants to present of himself. He casually mentions the great books he’s reading on long train rides, and he includes several anecdotes in which women on the road all but throw themselves at him. Usually too circumspect to brag outright, he comes close when musing on his own motivations for travel: “[M]y reasons for hitting the road seemed mostly positive. My most successful trips involved exchange and discovery, not self-glorification, patriotic swaggering, and consumption.”
This characterization is in contrast to his descriptions of nearly everyone he meets. No doubt many of them really are insufferable, but Grescoe’s tendency toward caricature, coupled with his increasingly manifest arrogance, chips away at trust in his portraits. Take Frank, for example, Grescoe’s roommate on the package tour, a loquacious American from Kalamazoo. Here is Frank making small talk with an Indian fellow tourist: “‘I was a kid when that Mahatma Gandhi died,’ he said. ‘That made a big splash over our way at the time. What was he trying to overthrow? The government? He was trying to overthrow something.’”
Grescoe regularly employs such people as props, using their idiotic comments as setups for his own corrections, illustrating in one fell swoop both their naiveté and his wisdom. Witness the parting scene between Grescoe and a French backpacker in India, when Grescoe avoids saying adieu, which carries too much finality:
Shouldering my bag, I said perhaps we’d run into each other later.
“Do you really think so?” he snorted. “We are in a country of hundreds of millions of people, tu sais!”
I shot a meaningful glance at the French edition of The Book [the Lonely Planet guide] on the table.
“Au revoir,” I insisted.
Naturally, they meet again a few pages later, and this time “Jean-Marc grudgingly returned my ‘Au revoir.’” Anecdotes like this one make us almost root for the victims of Grescoe’s contempt. After a certain point, the characters start to reveal more about Grescoe’s personality than their own.
Still, if Grescoe is not always the ideal travel companion, he is a valuable travel guide. By the end of the book, he has formulated something of a traveling manifesto. He concludes that slower is better and that it’s still possible to engage in a real exchange with a place, by veering off the travel ruts even by a few feet. “Travelling well means not travelling farther, but finer; it means establishing connections and maintaining them.” Waxing wistful, he notes,
Had I undertaken this voyage with a different attitude, travelled by camel and sampan rather than rented car and cruise ship, and engaged with locals rather than fellow travellers, I would have discovered that the world remains a wonderful place, populated by people with beliefs and views as varied as their dialects.
Clearly, he would have enjoyed such a trip more. Indeed, one of The End of Elsewhere’s most important functions is as a how-not-to book; the author endured this itinerary so his readers won’t have to. On the other hand, for the journey he did take, part of the point was ostensibly to engage a culture: not of a particular place, but the mobile culture of tourism. As his subtitle suggests, Grescoe thinks of himself as a traveler among the tourists. But, eager to confirm his first impressions, and lacking the curiosity to penetrate beyond them, he comes offto turn his own semantic maneuver against himlike a tourist of tourism.
Lest all this parsing induce dizziness, let’s turn for clarity to an old joke Grescoe cites. It may be the best answer to the question of the difference between tourists and travelersand, unfortunately, the one most telling of Grescoe’s own attitude: “You are the traveller…the tourist is the other guy.” CP