06 May 2016

On Travel and Tourism

I am on vacation.

I am traveling. I’m taking a trip. Playing tourist. I will be out of the office starting on Monday… I am staying at… Going away. Touring. Doing a little sight-seeing. Going abroad. Taking some time (off). Visiting.

It seems to me that there is some important weight, some cache, for how we describe (or are described) ourselves when away. “I love to travel” has to be an almost ubiquitous response to any conversation that arises on the subject (unless you’re a happy contrarian, like Woody Allen, who proudly never leaves the island of Manhattan*). To not proclaim to be interested in travel is to risk being perceived as provincial or uncultured. Of course, there are a lot of socio-economic assumptions wrapped into this line of thinking – and others have done much of this thinking already, most notably, Dean MacCannel's work: The Tourist.

In the course of my week away, it occurred to me that a large part of the attraction of traveling for me (whether abroad or an hour out of the city) is to help strengthen the muscle that has to do with imaginary thinking. We took a day sail (a day motoring, really), and passed by a massive freighter in the port that was being loaded with shipping containers. As we passed, I looked up at the bridge of the ship, 100 or more feet up from the deck (I am a bad estimator, but it seemed quite far), and I wondered about the life of someone captaining or serving on that vessel. I thought about what sequence of choices in my life might I have made to land myself in Aruba, working on a boat, and waiting for it to be loaded and weigh anchor (way anchor? whey anchor? not a boat guy, clearly), and be off to Fort Lauderdale, or wherever our next port of call would be. I also thought about the arbitrariness of our station in the world – the blind luck (not saying whether good or ill) of being born in Wisconsin in the year 1978. And the ease with which the former sequence of choices might have been lightened – made more probable – were I born in Aruba or Fort Lauderdale or Monrovia…

In classic RPG-ing, a player chooses a class or profession for her or his character – a bit like we do in life – based on strengths and weaknesses, and preference. Almost invariably, a player also goes on to select his or her race (human, elf, dwarf, etc.). This has always struck me as a bit out of place (though fine, of course, for a good bit of fun – convention gaming and what not). Gary Gygax’ Dangerous Journeys is one of the only games I know where players roll to determine their birth (if I remember correctly, even their birth order – that game has a lot of tables). Now, for some, developing a character back story is half the fun of gaming (for non-gamers, imagine the amateur thespian who created the four-page back story for his or her one-line character in the high-school musical… for non-gamers who’ve also never been a part of an amateur theater production, you have missed much in your life…), but playing the arbitrariness – experiencing the thrown-ness^ of your life (real or gamed) – is a gran part of the payoff of traveling (and of gaming, I would argue).

We went to a bar called Charlie’s in San Nicolas, Aruba. It’s a great bar, and an average tourist trap. Famous for having been family-owned for over 70 years, it used to service (along with the rest of the red light district where it finds itself {stattfinden is amongst my favorite German verbs, because it embodies Heideggerian German, and German itself strikes me as a language that was constructed by great thinkers more so than it is a derivative of the Indo-European languages that linguists would have you believe}) the refinery workers – first for the American company that ran it (and built the ghost town Sero Colorado for its workers), and now for Valero (a company whose origins is just a google away, I’m sure).  We had a couple of drinks, and looked at the museum of left memorabilia for a short time, and then headed down to Baby Beach for the afternoon.

It seems to me, though, that the way to experience Charlie's is as it was intended.  You should go to Charlie's, a little after lunch, with the full intention of spending the whole afternoon there, getting drunk, talking with tourists, bartenders, and locals alike.  There was a man sitting at the bar, holding fort (holding forth?), occasionally singing and riling up the crowd.  We called this man Sam, because we'd read a book, An Island Away,^^ in which he'd seemed to appear.  It seems to me that to really experience Charlie's - to travel there, as opposed to be a tourist there (although I am disinclined toward this distinction) - is to while a way the afternoon, make friends (because what else are bars for?), and be a part of the collection, at least for a time.  Now, most likely, you've got a week - maybe two - in Aruba, and spending a whole day getting drunk and chatting folks up seems bit of a waste of your vacation...

But I would say that perhaps this is in fact the purpose for your trip.  The reason to travel.  It is the hardest and the easiest thing to do - to put yourself in someone else's shoes, and methinks our time on earth is better spent trying to inhabit those shoes - in your mind if you can't in actuality - for a moment, an hour, two weeks, or the rest of your life... whatever it takes... to better understand and appreciate our present condition.

I had thought to write about Recalibration Travel Narratives - travelogue stories where someone commits to walking away from their life for a time - in this entry, but I've rambled further than I thought I might. I thought these RTN would, perhaps, a way to distinguish the traveler from the tourist... again, not something I'm actively engaged in, but something worth reflecting on I think.

Another time for the RTN...  Now, hit the road.

*Note: Non-New Yorkers will be quick to celebrate this mentality, because – it’s New York, and where else would you need to go? – but that logic only holds if you’re not from a place, and are celebrating a distant locale, a ‘travel destination’.
^Note: For those of you playing along with Roman Numeral J Bingo, you can mark Heidegger off on your boards, if he appears there… “that’s Heidegger, Heidegger, the sunshine vitamin…”
^^Note: Finally, I think I've found a use for my goodreads account.  To track all of the books (not many, but a good sum over time) that I don't ever finish, but may eventually decide to do.