Good Energy

The guys at Good Energy have been really supportive and excited about the expedition, so much so that they have made a contribution which allows me to keep the blog regularly updated during the expedition, so they and everyone else can follow the journey. Good Energy supplies 100% renewable electricity sourced from wind, water, sun and sustainable biomass. CO2 from coal-fired electricity generation is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in the world. Switch your electricity supply to Good Energy using this link and not only will you be supporting the pioneering community of independent green generators, but for every sign up they get they’ll make another donation to help get the bus around the world. It helps you cut your personal CO2 emissions, helps them grow a great business, and helps me get round the world.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

The Prism of Tourism

For five years I worked as a tour guide around Europe, taking coach loads of people to see the sights and making a handsome living out of translating the cultural experience, into Europe-Land for foreigners.

I had a great time and it was a period which formed me into a European. I hate the cliché of renouncing your nationality, in exchange for some greater global oneness, (I’m a citizen of the world, man), but I really do now feel more European than British or Italian. I’d speak 3 and a bit languages every day and finish up having a drink with local friends in my regular bar no matter what big city I was in. My job not only took me to the most beautiful cities in the world, Florence, Rome, Paris, but it required me to enjoy them. And when I wasn’t working I was sofa surfing, around those same cities to see friends (and deal in cars).

This journey and the overland expeditions I’ve done outside Europe have helped me understand how the rest of the world is linked to my cultural references as a European. Its shown me radically different ways of deciphering, understanding and managing the things life throws at you, and shown me the variety of projectiles life has in its arsenal. It’s also helped me see more objectively the things Europe does well and does badly.

In my early trips through Africa I felt obliged to like and accept everything I saw, because it was “culture” and therefore it had to be good. Not liking it, was a reflection of not being worldly enough to appreciate it and a sign of my ignorance, I thought. Now I’m a lot more critical and a lot more confident in my cynicism. I’m not troubled, for instance, by the fact I think Tibetan arts and crafts are atrocious. I don’t feel that because I don’t somehow understand the artform fully, or that because I haven’t lived the pain of what it is to be a Tibetan woman, I’m not entitled to dislike the stuff they sell on the street corners. I mean I find arts and crafts the world over pretty hard to digest, (along with rock engravings of hunters with big willies), but the Tibetan stuff really does rank among the worst I’ve seen. There are westerners trudging up the high street here in Pokhara wearing clothes they would be embarrassed to wear as pyjamas back home. Even the Tibetan ladies that sell the stuff look at them funny.

But my point isn’t about tourist tat, it’s that to make any sense of a place, it’s not enough to rely on your encounters made through the prism of tourism. I know this because for a long time I was the translating prism. The people I guided around Europe didn’t want to hear about local unemployment, crime figures, health care management, or tax structures. They wanted to hear a bit of easy to digest, sanitised history in the shape of an anecdote or two they could tell their freinds, consume a bit of local culture in the shape of food and souvenirs, and go home with a picture of them stood by the Eifel Tower, so that’s what I and the Tourism industry gave them a premium price.

I made a lot of money by turning the reality of Europe into the Europe-Land Experience they wanted, where a rude sales assistant was transformed into a charming example of French panache, and ooh did you see that really old church, and isn’t this museum art beautiful, or profound, or whatever.

The best example was the street of “rubies and diamonds”, my nickname for the Champs Elysee, so backed up with traffic that at night it’s a river of red brake lights (rubies) and white headlights (diamonds). It’s fucking nightmare traffic jam reframed through the prism of tourism as a beautiful sea of precious jems. And it worked every time. People would take a photo of the beautiful lights. Do me a favour!

Here in Pokhara, the part of the town I’m in, Hallan Chowk, Lakeside, Pokhara-6, is so removed from any actuality about Nepal it’s hard to reconcile with a country that could be on the brink of returning to civil war within 48 hours. Everywhere I walk I’m greeted by charming shopkeepers that call out “Namaste” as I pass inviting me in to look at their wares. My simple response should be to interpret Nepal as a place of charming albeit pushy shopkeepers, or maybe I should think that Nepalis are just money grabbers looking to fleece me because I’m a tourists. Actually if there is any conclusion to be made it’s that the Nepali here are pretty hard working and resilient to the rude responses of the tourists they make their living from, but still relatively naive to the most effective marketing techniques that work on their target clients. It’s not that this neighbourhood isn’t the “real Nepal”. It’s real, and it’s really in Nepal. But the reality is Nepali people working in tourism, building Nepal-land through thier own prism,. It’s a creation brought about because of the presence of tourists in Nepal, the result of the big bang that happens when different cultures and their purchasing powers collide at the speed of a Boeing 747.

Tourist strips in developing countries the world over; Gambia, Marrakech, Goa, are all the same, populated by people that are there to work and make money. Why else would they put up with rude tourists and their unfathomable demands for egg and chips. Money was the only reason I stuck with the job by the end. Doesn’t make Nepal, or Europe, a land of money-grabbers. While it’s fair to say that tourism spoils a place, most of the time the spoiling remains pretty well contained in tailor made ghettos for tourists, even in Europe there are specific restaurants, attractions and hotels that segregate the visitors to Europe-Land from Europe.

Spaghetti and meatballs doesn’t exist in Italy. There’s no such dish, it’s a creation of Italian Americans. I explained this to a New Yorker who was appalled at me for the suggestion that it wasn’t genuinely Italian. At the next restaurant she showed me it was on the menu. It was a restaurant that only dealt with tour groups and had been asked for spaghetti and meatballs so many times they’d put it on the menu. To the New Yorker this was vindication. How could I explain that although we were in Rome, this wasn’t an Italian restaurant? All the evidence was against me; the Neapolitan music, the candles burning in empty raffia wine bottles and the gesticulating waiter, Luigi, shouting “Mamamia” from the behind the pizza oven.

Tourists are willing accomplices in this apartheid, naively accepting tourist-land without challenging it, which is why “cultural tourism” is such a facile sham. I have more respect for Benedorm’s sun-seekers or Ibiza’s revellers, than anyone with a guide book in their suitcase.

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