Suffering as Scenery: the place of 'authentic travel' in a post-authentic world (conference paper)
(for “Travel Ideals: Engaging with Spaces of Mobility” conference, University of Melbourne, July 2012)
This presentation is called “Suffering as Scenery: the place of 'authentic travel' in a post-authentic world”. I will be reading draft excerpts from Moron to Moron, and discussing the place of suffering in travel, in the context of a broader discussions of tourism and travel. My contention is that, in an era of globalised mass tourism, experiences such as confusion, discomfort and even pain have become touristic commodities, which a certain type of tourist – the 'authentic' traveller – consumes with relish. In general, I will try to avoid the use of “air quotes”, but whenever I talk about “authentic travel” or “real experience” or anything like that, you'll notice I will frantically claw the air to demonstrate my deep scepticism about such claims.
For many people, myself included, tourism is a dirty word. Paul Fussell, editor of The Norton Book of Travel, which was published in 1987, asserts that tourism is to travel “as plastic is to wood”. He continues, “If travel is mysterious, even miraculous, and often lonely and frightening, tourism is commonsensical, utilitarian, safe, and social … Not self-directed but externally enticed, as a tourist you go not where your own curiosity beckons but where the industry decrees you shall go. Tourism soothes, shielding you from the shocks of novelty and menace, confirming your prior view of the world rather than shaking it up. It obliges you not just to behold conventional things, but to behold them in the approved conventional way.”
Fussell's words set up a clear and purposeful binary opposition: tourists are unadventurous, uncurious, uninsightful and unoriginal – they are mass-produced cliches, plastic ones at that. The traveller, by contrast, is adventurous, curious, insightful and original; he is unique (it's almost always a “he”); and he is wooden – presumably a tasteful, expensive wood, not pine or chipboard.
Paul Fussell is a lacqured mahogany snob, as I'm sure he would cheerfully admit. What's at stake here is largely symbolic, and takes the form of Pierre Bourdieu's “cultural capital”. Fussell is determined to erect an impregnable barrier between “authentic” travel and “inauthentic” tourism, to ensure that his traveller-heroes – dignified, well-read fellows such as Patrick Leigh Fermor – never have to rub shoulders with a busload of Florida retirees, in Prague for the weekend.
From my perspective, however, the boundary between travel and tourism must've been made of wood, because burned down long ago – as this anecdote taken from Moron to Moron, but set in Poland, will hopefully illustrate.
* * *
I was in Poland a few years ago with my friend Paulina. We were on the morning train from Krakow to Oswiecim, known to English-speakers by its German name, Auschwitz. We ended up stuck sharing a carriage with a couple of dorky young lads from Britain. Paul and Richard were staying in the same hostel as us, and had tied up the communal bathroom all morning using matching hair-straighteners to get their fringes just so before visiting the world’s most notorious concentration camp. They were telling us how hungover they were, about the crazy nightclubs they'd been to the night before. Then the conversation took that grim, inevitable turn to the one subject you could never escape in Poland: the distinction between tourists and travellers.
“Lots of our mates are on like package tours, Kontiki and that,” Paul said, “but we didn’t want to be like stuck in a bus, know whamean? We didn’t want everything to be like planned in advance and stuff. We’re not tourists.” He brushed his fringe out of his eyes.
“Yeah, we’re not tourists – we’re travellers, innit!” Richard said, nodding enthusiastically. “We’re here to have authentic experiences, know whamean? After this we might go to Prague!”
Paulina and I had been giving each other knowing, contemptuous glances, when I caught an unwelcome glimpse of my bloodshot eyes and greasy stubble in the train window. An awful realisation dawned on me: I looked like I’d been out clubbing till five in the morning – because I had! Paulina too. We’d been at Klub Gogo Taboo last night as well, swilling down Bison Grass Vodka. In fact, we’d been kicked out of Gogo for dancing on the tables. We'd stumbled back to the hostel as it was getting light, knowing full well that in five hours we’d be catching a tourist train to the gas chambers. I had to admit that, yes, I did know exactly whamean.
On the walk from Oswiecim train station, Richard and Paul stuck close to us, probably because Paulina spoke passable Polish and they wanted their Auschwitz experience to be as authentic as possible. There was a snack bar on the edge of the camp, and they wanted to grab some hot chips before heading into the barracks, know whamean? Paulina and I reluctantly waited in line with them, waiting for a chance to slip away. Ahead of us, some fat Americans were complaining about the queue, how long it was, how starving they were, how they didn’t have to wait like this at the Killing Fields. Paulina freaked and ran out of the compound faster than I could chase her. I found her sitting on a wooden fence on the edge of a field, doing her best not to cry.
* * *
… That's the end of the anecdote. It's an example of Dark Tourism, or Atrocity Tourism, a niche category that forms part of an overarching meta-category called, not particularly usefully, “Adjectival Tourism”.
In Nigel Gifford and Richard Madden's book The Adventurous Traveller, published in 2004, the hope that travel can be different from, and thus better than, ordinary tourism, seems central to the appeal of adventure tourism – sorry, adventure travel. Part One of The Adventurous Traveller is called “Dreaming the Dream”, and opens with these words:
"Few people ever forget their first experience of foreign travel. A magical doorway swinging open onto other worlds, other peoples … A sense of adventure is often as hard to recapture as it is to forget. Even in an age of mass tourism, the sights and sounds of an alien culture experienced first hand and for the first time remain indelibly etched on the memory."
Madden goes on to describe his first overseas trip, which took place in the 1970s, when Madden was sixteen:
"… this was to be no ordinary teenage holiday. The airport for which I was bound was Uganda's Entebbe airport on the shores of Lake Victoria in the dark heart of Africa … it was almost dark as I climbed down the steps of the plane on a humid tropical evening, excitement oozing from every pore …"
… I'm pretty sure all that oozing “excitement” was actually just sweat – although, Madden is from cold old England, so it might've been the first time he experienced the exotic rush of perspiration. Madden's holiday was made extra-ordinary by the then-leader of Uganda, Idi Amin, who started torturing and killing the locals shortly after Madden's arrival. As a foreigner, Madden was safe, and as blood oozed from the pores of Idi Amin's enemies, Madden got to have an authentic experience. One man's suffering – or the suffering of thousands – turns out to be another man's scenery.
I already knew this, but I learnt it – again – when I was in Mongolia. To give a little bit of context for this next excerpt, Tama Pugsley and I are ten days into our twenty-three day ride, we're sunburnt and tired, and a couple of days earlier we'd been caught in a field during a lightning storm and nearly struck by forked lightning a bunch of times …
* * *
We rode down a dirt track through dark green fields of wheat, next to a ditch that was about five metres wide and one metre deep. Stormclouds gathered behind us, really gathered, they were piling into the sky like I’d never seen before – not even in Mongolia. I pedalled hard; Tama was ahead of me pedalling harder. Every time I looked back the clouds were taller, darker. Big raindrops started to fall. In the distance, thunder rumbled. Tama pointed to the ditch and yelled something.
“What?” I yelled back.
“We can hide in there – if the lightning gets bad!” I nodded and changed into top gear.
We tried to outride the storm, but the rain kept coming. After a few minutes we rode past a couple of half-built log cabins and a yellow construction hut/trailer, which was roughly the size of a packing container. A couple of workers sheltering in the doorway of the hut poked their heads out and watched us ride past. We kept going. The rain was pelting down now. After a couple of minutes Tama stopped.
“Maybe we should go back,” he said.
“Go back where?”
“To that hut. Those people.”
It started to hail.
By the time we made it back to the building site, hailstones the size of strawberries were vomiting out of a white sky and shattering on our helmets. We banged on the door of the hut, and gestured could we please put our bikes under the trailer and come inside please? They looked at us like we were mildly retarded and welcomed us in.
* * *
… and so, we hang out inside the hut, they feed us deep-fried dough, it's all good – but there's only one window in the hut, and it faces away from the fields and the ditch …
* * *
We had been inside about quarter of an hour when, just visible in the corner of the window, a geyser of white concrete started spraying into the air. It was – hail, surely, but who was tipping it out of a truck? I shouted and pointed, Dorj threw the door open, we all piled outside and saw a river of hail and icemelt surging through the ditch, and where the ditch turned a corner the flow had pushed into their rubbish-pit from underneath and was spraying muddy ice and plastic filth into the air in a toxic frigid fountain. The whole ditch – the ditch that me and Tama were going to shelter in to avoid getting hit by lightning – now resembled an escaped glacier stuck on fast-forward. The workers ran inside and grabbed their jackets; me and Tama ran inside and grabbed our cameras.
On the other side of the ditch, the wheat fields we had been pedalling through twenty minutes earlier were trampled flat and half-submerged in ice and water and mud. Dulmaa stood with her hands on her head, distraught. Batbot, Chuluun and Dorjstared and pointed into the wind, horrified, rooted to the ground in disbelief.Tama and I couldn’t believe our luck, and dashed back and forth to get all the angles. This was it: Doig and Pugs vs Wild, meteorological carnage in the Mongolian wilderness, Steve Irwin sticking his finger up a stingray’s arse.Dorjran up to me and motioned that he was going to use my bicycle to alert the neighbours downstream, or contact their boss, something – then he was gone. Five minutes later he was back – the road downstream was flooded out. He dumped my bike and took off in the tractor, which had a dishevelled little Mongolian flag fluttering sadly from the roof and a top speed of ten kilometres an hour. I had a feeling that any farmers downstream would probably know about the flashflood by now.
* * *
That's the end of the excerpt. I survived the flashflood, obviously, and it was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life; meanwhile, because the wheatfields were destroyed, Dulmaa, Batbot, Chuluun and Dorj all lost their jobs. Their misfortune is still very hard to reconcile with my own touristic epiphany.
In her book Imperial Eyes, Mary Louise Pratt's discusses Richard Burton's heroic exploration of central Africa in the 1860s, including the unheroic fact that “Burton had been so ill that he had to be carried much of the way by African assistants”. Pratt notes that
"While the ordeal required to make the discovery is unforgettably concrete, in this mid- Victorian paradigm the “discovery” itself […] has no existence of its own. It only gets “made” for real after the traveler […] returns home, and brings it into being through texts: a name on a map, a report to the Royal Geographical Society, the Foreign Office, the London Mission Society, a diary, a lecture, a travel book."
In a further twist, as Burton writes up a 19th-century travelogue which accentuates the visual and represses the visceral, his “act of discovery itself, for which all the untold lives were sacrificed and miseries endured, consisted of what in European culture counts as a purely passive experience—that of seeing.” Suffering literally becomes scenery.
In the paradigm of late 20th and early 21st-century “authentic travel”, especially “adventure travel”, pain and misery are no longer elided – quite the opposite. These days, suffering is a mark of authenticity, proof you are “the real thing”. The reputation, and popularity, of Polish journalist Ryzsard Kapuscinski is at least partly attributable to his constant proximity to death and danger. Kapuscinski was on the ground for twenty-seven separate revolutions and coups, and was apparently sentenced to death not one but four times. Reviewing Kapuscinski's book The Soccer War, James Fenton writes:“In this book you learn what it feels like to have benzene poured over you by someone who is about to set you alight. You feel very cold indeed.” This is the ultimate ordeal, and it easily becomes the travel anecdote For travellers and story-tellers seeking maximum adventure, a brush with death is a Holy Grail: the end of the line, and then a reprieve, and the ability to write it up.
From Kapuscinski's semi-gratuitous heroics in search of journalistic “stories” that often fail to materialise, it is a small jump to Bear Grylls and Man vs Wild. While Grylls is “the real thing” – an SAS-trained outdoor expert, able to survive in perilous conditions – the TV show Man vs Wild is pure Big Brother-style simulacrum. Grylls readily admits this in interviews:
"I suppose to bear in mind that this is a worst-case scenario show, and therefore, of course things have to be planned. Otherwise, it would just be me in the wild and nothing happening, you know, 'cause textbook survival says you land, you get yourself comfortable, you wait for rescue, you don't do anything. It would be a very boring show."
Grylls is “alone” in the wild, accompanied by a cameraman and sound recordist, and the ordeals he endures are wholly gratuitous – suffering for suffering's sake, commodified schadenfreude for a post-authentic audience. Unfortunately I don't have enough time to show you a clip to illustrate this – but for those who are interested, you can Google “Bear Grylls Do-It-Yourself Enema with Rancid Bird Dropping Water on Raft in Pacific Ocean” and see it for yourself.
Kapuscinski and Grylls might be versions of the “real thing”, but sometimes the most 'authentic' figures are rank amateurs. In his book Travel Writing, Carl Thompson suggests that some travel writers “insist [or imply that] their authority derives […] precisely from their lack of specialist knowledge […] this pose of comparative ignorance may simultaneously invest the traveller with an alternative form of authority. He or she is thus able to present themselves as an 'everyman' figure, and as the ordinary reader's representative in the field.”
In the context of adventure travel, sending an amateur to do a professional's job is an effective shortcut to high stakes and high drama. For example, Eric Newby's account of mountaineering in A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush is so appealing not just because Newby write better than most mountaineers, but because he doesn't know what he's doing.
This final excerpt from Moron to Moron shows Tama and I in the role of ignorant everymen. It takes place the day after the flashflood.
* * *
We were starving. I don’t know who suggested it – I’m going to say Tama – but someone said we should crack out the tin of emergency meat I’d being carting around since Tsaagan Uur. The can was red and silver, with a retro silhouette of a cow on it and writing in Cyrillic that said “PYSSKAR” if you couldn't read Cyrillic. I thought of it, hopefully, as corned beef. Tama got out his Leatherman and cracked the PYSSKAR open.
It wasn’t corned beef.
The PYSSKAR was a greyish pink, and extremely gelatinous. It looked, and smelled, like jellymeat. Surely it wasn’t meant for human consumption? But then again, we hadn’t seen a single cat in Mongolia, so … either way, the neighbourhood flies were very excited by it. We weren’t.In Warsaw I had forced down some Novki, a local delicacy that was basically good beef ruined by immersion in gelatine. Maybe PYSSKAR was the Chernobyl version.
Tama speared a chunk of meat on the tip of his knife, then extracted it from the glue and raised it hesitantly towards his mouth. He chewed it for a couple of seconds, then his face clouded over and he retched and spat the meat into the bushes, spitting and spitting again to get rid of the taste.
“Good?” I asked hopefully.
“Are you sure?”
Tama placed a much smaller piece of PYSSKAR in his mouth. This time he chewed it with his teeth, trying to keep it away from his tongue, but he gagged again and spat it out.
“It’s just … the texture’s really bad,” he said. “It’s not what meat should be.”
“I think you should try some.”
Tama handed me the can and his knife. I looked into the open can dubiously.
“Man, I don't know if I can eat that … it looks exactly like catfood,” I said. “When I was little I had to put out catfood for my cat and it would make me vomit.”
The stench of jellied entrails, the congealed sludginess of it all … but now was no time to be fussy. I stabbed a chunk of PYSSKAR and put it in my mouth. Coldness, slime, cow anus and childhood trauma was a potent combination. I chewed the PYSSKAR with my central incisors, trying not to vomit, and managed to gulp it down, but instantly regretted it. Tama was right; it was not what meat should be.
* * *
Now, that little story, along with the flashflood anecdote and the Auscwhitz anecdote – and Dark Tourism in general – can be interpreted as forms of schadenfreude, where people take pleasure in the suffering of others. But I don't think that's the end of the story. My train ride to Auschwitz made me feel vicariously awful for my Polish friend, and awful for myself, and thanks to that I am left with some highly-charged emotional content that I can exploit, by converting into memoir. With the flashflood and the ruined farm, I feel bad on an intellectual level precisely because I didn't feel bad on a visceral level at the time; at a crucial moment, my conscience failed to deliver, and that still worries me. But now, I can leverage that cognitive dissonance, and try to turn it into a thrilling yet disturbing adventure story.
This all suggests a process akin to auto-schadenfreude: the ability to feel joy at your own misfortunes, not necessarily at the time but soon after; and to look ahead to future pleasure even while in the midst of pain (we made sure to get out the videocamera and film each other eating the jellymeat). This is similar but not identical to masochism, and I'd split hairs by arguing that masochism involves an instant and often perverse conversion of pain into pleasure – spanking – whereas auto-schadenfreude is based on the retrospective appreciation of the narrative of your own suffering: retelling the tale, as if whatever awful events you lived through happened to someone else. This is, I argue, one of the main ways that story-tellers deal with discomfort and displeasure: we turn them into amusement and pleaure. Take your suffering, cram it in a can, reheat with simile and serve as scenery.