Travel Broadens. .. ?

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

A version of this article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday January 23 2011

I have long doubted the veracity of the old adage “travel broadens the mind”. Looking at the European tourists slouching around Bandarawela or Kandy in their peculiarly unflattering travel garments it seems more a case of “travel broadens the arse”.

I now prefer to follow Pascal’s maxim: “I have discovered that all human evil comes from this, man’s being unable to sit still in a room”. I endeavour to move as little as possible.

In my more mobile days, I visited India, Nepal, Thailand, Turkey, Peru, Morocco, most of Europe, the Pacific northwest states of America and British Columbia. My first long-haul trip was under the aegis of an upmarket package company. In their brochure, they were, albeit in heavily-coded language, marketing prostitution. Hotels in Thailand were described as “popular with bachelors”.

My later trips were, what might be regarded by some,  independent travel but, in fact, they were package holidays with dirtier hotels. In the wilder heights of the Altiplano one should not expect luxury, but a constant diet of dishwater and dog soup out of cracked plastic bowls palled. One does treasure memories and congratulate one’s adventurous younger self – drifting around in a malfunctioning boat in the middle of Lake Titicaca as the Bolivian navy (Bolivia has no coastline but does have a navy) passed by; learning that the Huancavelica police station had been blown up by the Sendero Luminoso the day after we had been inside it.

In the twilight of my years, I don’t want hardships or adventure. As I travel around Sri Lanka, I want comfort and cleanliness , if not luxury. Travelling from my mountain retreat to the Great Wen of Colombo can take eight hours and it would be good to be able to stop overnight at a comfortable and clean hotel but this humble desire has been thwarted.

My experience of a particular chain of hotels has not been pleasant. On my last visit to one of their hotels the food was simply inedible. Dinner on the first night was seer fish which was past its shelf date and had been microwaved from frozen, not grilled as I had requested. The second night we ordered chicken curry. The chicken was nothing but bone, cartilage and gristle.

The receptionist laughed when we asked if the room was clean and said of course it was. The room was not clean. There were cobwebs everywhere. The toilet and bidet had unpleasant stains on them. The shower did not work. An ash tray perched precariously on the balcony. It remained full of ash throughout our stay. Neither of us smokes. The table and chairs on the balcony were filthy.  I could see how a room a little further along was being cleaned. The boy was throwing the contents of ashtrays and bins over the balcony on to the ground. At one point he projected a red stream of betel juice over the balcony on to a tree.

Our afternoon snooze was disturbed by persistent hammering from the room next door and by a member of the “management” team shouting to a waiter across the width of the garden rather than taking the trouble to walk up to him and speak at normal volume.

The best feature of the hotel is the view which was not enhanced by mattresses, towels and bedding spread on the ground. The garden was strewn with paper plates covered in scraps of uneaten food. There had been a wedding the day before and no-one had bothered to clean up the detritus. The uneaten food was attracting swarms of flies.

All the chain’s hotels have had dirty crockery and stained tablecloths.

At least those dirty Peruvian hotels were cheap.

Over thirty years ago Dean MacCannell wrote a study of the phenomenon of tourism. His theme was that the middle classes of the west felt alienated from reality by their comfortably dull lives. Although they had been programmed to believe the fiction that everything centred on the individual, they felt the disjunction of living in a depersonalised historical epoch. If there was an authentic reality it must be elsewhere. If it was out there it could be bought.

Professor MacCannell employed Marx’s concept of fetishisation. Pure experience, which leaves no material trace, is manufactured and sold like a commodity. The tourist thinks he can buy the authentic experience which is located somewhere exotic beyond his normal experience. The tourist experience is built upon the fiction that it is outside historical time in a virtual world. Sometimes sex is what is bought without the responsibility of a human relationship.

The touristic world is filled with people who are just passing through a world furnished by the social production of highly fictionalised versions of the everyday life of traditional peoples, a museumisation of their quaintness. There is inevitably a tension between the moderns’ nervous concern for the authenticity of their touristic experience and the traditional folks’ difficulty in acting out someone else’s fantasy version of their life. Culture is tailored to suit those who pay for it, until, in the words of a Masai man, “We have ceased to be what we are; we are becoming what we seem.”

As Don de Lillo wrote in his novel The Names:

“To be a tourist is to escape accountability. Errors and failings don’t cling to you the way they do back home. You’re able to drift across continents and languages, suspending the operation of sound thought. Tourism is the march of stupidity. You’re expected to be stupid. The entire mechanism of the host country is geared to travelers acting stupidly. You walk around dazed, squinting into fold-out maps. You don’t know how to talk to people, how to get anywhere, what the money means, what time it is, what to eat or how to eat it. Being stupid is the pattern, the level and the norm. You can exist on this level for weeks and months without reprimand or dire consequence. Together with thousands, you are granted immunities and broad freedoms. You are an army of fools, wearing bright polyesters, riding camels, taking pictures of each other, haggard, dysenteric, thirsty. There is nothing to think about but the next shapeless event.”

Once I heard an American in a hotel in the Dolomites ask what she could eat. The receptionist said, “Here is the menu”. The American said, “Menu – is that Italian for food? How cute!”

Tourism turns people into commodities. There is a conceptual linkage between sightseeing, voyeurism and sexual exploitation.

Tourism is an extractive industry. Resorts are usually operated by foreign companies. Any local benefits that do accrue must be offset against the downside, such as the commandeering of scarce, clean, fresh water by resorts to the detriment of local communities.

Whatever about all that, if Sri Lanka really does want to attract quality tourists tourist hotel management will need to sharpen up their act and provide quality service and not just extortionate prices.

I brought my complaints to the attention of top management and they said they had immediately instituted improvements. That was 15 months ago. Soon I will be revisiting that hotel and will report my findings.