Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Useful Vacations

You’re sitting in an outdoor cafe in the Piazza della Serenissima in one of those stone Tuscan hill towns, and you’ve just finished 20 minutes of rapture while touring a gemlike little basilica far off the normal tourist paths. You’ve pulled a few iron tables together to accommodate the urbane couples you met inside, and as you sip drinks that back home would qualify as cough syrup, you begin trading vacation stories. Somebody mentions a recent journey to the Göreme Valley of central Turkey and the glories of the caves the Hittites carved into the volcanic mud-ash, when suddenly a gentleman wearing a shirt with an enormous number of pockets leans back and interjects, “Ah, yes. But the whole Cappadocia region has just been ruined by all the tourists.”

After a few minutes someone else at the table relates some fascinating bits she learned from the tour guides while on an eco tour of southern Belize. “It really hasn’t been the same since electrification,” the man with all the pockets laments. You have come face to face with a travel snob. There are a certain number of sophisticated travelers who wear their past destinations like little merit badges. Their main joy in life comes from dropping whopping hints that everywhere you are just going they went to long ago when it still meant something. It’s hard to know where such people get the time to go all these places, unless some evil philanthropist pays them to go around the world making other travelers feel inferior about their cultural repertoire. They are masters of the insufferable question. “Didn’t the Atabeg of Damascus stop there in 1139?” one of them will ask at the mention of a certain faraway oasis before peering around the table with a hopeful expression, as if everybody else were going to jump in to confirm that little bit of data. They seem to spend their evenings boning up on obscure ethnic groups: “The Mobabi tribe once fished there, I believe, until the Contutis pushed them further upriver.” And needless to say, they merge with that other atrocious population segment, language snobs: “I suppose you can get by with a little Chinook?” They don’t say, “I know” such-and-such a language. They’ll say, “I have a little Portuguese” or “I have a few of the romance languages, of course,” in that faux offhand manner that makes you want to stick the person’s head in a vise and squeeze it until the eyes pop out.

Unfortunately, few people act on this noble impulse, even though they know that when such a person appears, the Vietnam syndrome is not far behind. This is the psychosis that causes people to steer all their conversations to a single destination: their life-altering trip to Vietnam.

The travel braggart begins slowly. Just a few sly hints about his vast cultural capital. Then as the conversation goes along, he gets a little more voluble. He is biding his time, sucking you in. There will be a ray of hope when someone else in the group starts talking about Mount Everest. Ah, he’s been Tibetted, you’ll think. Surely he can’t be so smug around someone who’s been to Tibet. But, of course, he was doing Tibet before Into Thin Air.

And then it begins. He’s describing his journey up the Ho Chi Minh Trail or the rail trip from Hue on the crowded non-air-conditioned train. He starts describing all the odd glories of North Vietnam, the aroma of camphor, the flurry of bicycles. Suddenly you realize you are in a quagmire. There will be much suffering. There is no way now to withdraw from the conversation with honor.

“I never knew that feeding geese could be such a spiritual experience,” he will be saying while passing around photos of himself standing with a group of locals amidst the rice paddies near My Lai (he’s the one in the sunglasses). He’ll be describing a former VC whose oxcart he rode on up the Red River Valley. In his stories he always depicts himself as a masterful Dr. Livingstone, but you know that when he walked into a village, the locals saw him as this big flapping wallet with dollar bills flying out. If this person were suddenly found dead with a dozen butter knives up his nose, it would be like an Agatha Christie novel; everyone would have a motive.

I suspect that what keeps us from finishing off the travel braggart is that none of us is pure. All of us in the educated class are travel snobs to some degree. It’s just that while we are snobs toward the hordes of fat tourists who pile out of vast buses and into Notre Dame, he is snobbish toward us. He’s just a bit higher on the ladder of sophisticated travel.

The code of utilitarian pleasure means we have to evaluate our vacation time by what we accomplished what did we learn, what spiritual or emotional breakthroughs were achieved, what new sensations were experienced? And the only way we can award ourselves points is by seeking out the unfamiliar sights, cultivating above-average pleasures. Therefore, Bobos go to incredible lengths to distinguish themselves from passive, nonin dustrious tourists who pile in and out of tour buses at the old warhorse sights. Since the tourists carry cameras, Bobo travelers are embarrassed to. Since tourists sit around the most famous squares, Bobo travelers spend enormous amounts of time at obscure ones watching non- tourist-oriented pastimes, which usually involve a bunch of old men rolling metal balls.

Since tourists try to move quickly from sight to sight, the hard-working traveler selects the slowest possible means of transportation. Bobo travelers tour the Loire Valley by barge, looking down on the packs who zip through in cars. They cruise through New Zealand by bike, dismissive of those who take the train. They paddle through Costa Rica on a raft, feeling superior to those who jet past on airplanes. If tourists seem to be flocking to one sight, Bobos will make sure they are at another. “While most tourists in Tanzania go to Serengeti National Park to see the wildlife, the Selous Game Reserve is bigger and less disturbed,” writes Natural History magazine editor Bruce Stuts in fine cultivated-traveler mode. It doesn’t even matter if the Selous Game Reserve has less to see than the Serengeti. The pleasure the Bobo traveler derives from doing the more industrious thing more than compensates.

Lewis and Clark didn’t return from their trip and say, “Well, we didn’t find the Northwest Passage, but we did find ourselves.” But that is the spirit of Bobo travel. Our travel dollars are investments in our own human capital. We don’t just want to see famous sights; we want to pierce into other cultures. We want to try on other lives.

But not just any other lives. If you observe Bobo travel patterns and travel literature, you will detect a distinct set of preferences. The Bobo, as always, is looking for stillness, for a place where people set down roots and repeat the simple rituals. In other words, Bobo travelers are generally looking to get away from their affluent, ascending selves into a spiritually superior world, a world that hasn’t been influenced much by the global meritocracy. Bobos tend to relish People Who Really Know How to Live-people who make folk crafts, tell folk tales, do folk dances, listen to folk music—the whole indigenous people/noble savage/tranquil craftsman repertoire.

Therefore, Bobos are suckers for darkly garbed peasants, aged farmers, hardy fishermen, remote craftsmen, weather-beaten pensioners heavyset regional cooks— anybody who is likely to have never possessed or heard of frequent flier miles. So the Bobos flock to or read about the various folk locales where such “simple” people live in abundant hills of Provence, Tuscany, Greece, or the hamlets of the Andes or Nepal. These are places where the natives don’t have credit card debts and relatively few people wear Michael Jordan T-shirts. Lives therefore seem connected to ancient patterns and age-old wisdom. Next to us, these natives seem serene. They are poorer people whose lives seem richer than our own.

The small things—an olive grove or a small chapel take on greater meaning to a Bobo on vacation. Ideally, Bobo travelers want to spend a part of each day just savoring. They’ll idle away at a trattoria so far removed from the crush of events that the natives don’t even feel compelled to have an opinion about Bill Gates. They will swoon over some creamy polenta or a tangy turtle soup and even educate their palate with some dish that prominently features bone marrow. They will top off their coffee cup with cream squeezed straight from the cow and enjoy the sturdy obesity of the peasant woman in the kitchen, the picturesque paint peeling off the walls, the smiles of the other diners who seem to be welcoming them into their culture.

The pace of life is so delicious in such places. But the lease on the vacation rental only goes for two weeks, so Bobo travelers had better do their spiritual development quickly. Most Bobos come up with a few serendipity techniques that will allow them access to a few moments of authentic peasant living. Hovering on the edges of local weddings often works. Exaggerating their genealogical connection to the place while conversing with the locals is another winning tactic: “Actually my grandmother’s second husband came from Portugal.” If done correctly, these techniques can allow the Bobo pilgrim to have 6 unforgettable moments a morning, 2 rapturous experiences over lunch, 1.5 profound insights in the afternoon (on average), and .667 life-altering epiphanies after each sunset.

- David Brooks

No comments:

Post a Comment