Monday, January 28, 2013

Tourists or Invaders?

My niggling sense that tourism is not the world’s best occupation is compounded when we arrive in Cuba. Naively, I had no real idea what to expect from this completely foreign land. Selfishly, I wanted to see communism first hand, photograph the classic cars and crumbling architecture and dance with some sultry locals.

Impossibly photogenic and lively, at first Havana is a sight to behold, a travel gem to remember. Until a couple of days in, it becomes clear that we are not welcome. That tourists are greeted with suspicion, hostility and ridicule. Either the locals wanted to ignore us, or scam us. And understandably so, when you think about how tourism works in this country.

Opened to tourists in the 1990’s to inject some much needed income into Cuba, a separate currency was introduced for tourists, who would always have more money than the residents. Separate hotels, separate restaurants, separate buses, taxis and internet services were also introduced. All these things a foreigner takes for granted, would never be enjoyed by a Cuban; while the local slices of life a backpacker takes for granted are swapped for tourist traps and ridiculous prices. Add in the fact that tourists have clothes, cameras and toys that were previously unseen in this country, and that Havana police have the right to detain a Cuban who fraternises with a foreigner, and you’ve got a recipe for hostility. Why would anyone want to smile and welcome me when I represent the double standards and class system that socialism is supposed to safeguard against?
More than ever before I am ashamed to be a western tourist, traversing to far off third worlds, curious to see how the other half lives. Are we modern day explorers just as bad as Christopher Columbus and friends? In search of foreign lands to conquer, exotic souvenirs, pictures and stories to bring home, no thought to the consequences? As I jet around the world to places I previously knew nothing about, I can’t help but hate the system I am perpetuating. I can’t reconcile my yearning for the thrill of travel and the excitement of a world far from my own, with the feeling that the whole thing is unfair, that all I am really doing is trampling indigenous customs while flaunting wealth and techno gadgets – all which are far from special, in fact downright out of date in my own country, but are more than some of these cultures could ever comprehend. Is it fair that some people will never be able to travel to foreign lands the way I have? Never be as free as we will?

Coming from New Zealand, land of the Big O.E, my faded backpack and year-long sabbatical were nothing new. But here on the other side of the world, every time someone asks how long we are on ‘vacation’ for, I find myself lying. Failing to mention the seven months we have already been away, shaving a couple months off the end. Only naming one or two countries we might visit instead of the four separate continents we’ve seen. All to assuage the guilt and ease any envy; to tone down an unfair world I find impossible to participate in. The fact is none of this occurred to me before I left home, and somehow I imagine, back in the comforts of a job and house, some of it will fade away. But right now, all I want to do is change something. Right some wrongs. Make it fair. Forget my past. Help someone else. Be somebody else.
Back in Cuba, fate steps in, throwing C.P. an injured ankle, forcing us to forgo the whirlwind city tour and stay in small town Vinales for a week. Offering us the chance to see Cuba through new eyes, and to realise perhaps it was just the jaded Havana city dwellers who couldn’t stand the sight of us. Staying at a warm and friendly Cuban guesthouse, five days enforced ‘repose’ becomes a humorous tangle of hand signals, smiles and stuttered Spanish, as our hosts become our temporary family.

When my adopted Padre peers over my shoulder and asks to see the book of travel adventures I am busily scrapbooking, I cringe, wishing I could gloss over all the amazing places we have been, hoping to skip a few pages to lessen the impact. But he seems fascinated, perhaps enjoying the chance to travel through our eyes more than I expect. Five minutes later, he returns, bearing his own ‘scrapbook’. Simply three family photos, each thirty years apart. A fascinating study of children, long passed siblings, and changing fashions. Along with a travel book by a French photographer amigo, bearing a photo of him opposite one of a bevy of African women. His pride in his own lifetime of memories and adventures is tangible and relieves my guilt, while the chance for me to time travel through his world reminds me why we do this thing called travelling. It’s moments like these that make it all worth-while.

For fascinating Cuban musings direct from Cuba, be sure to check out the poetic Yoani Sanchez at Generation Y


Lucinda said...

Brilliant post - I've often pondered the same things. Damn lady, I love reading your blog.

Fiona said...

Thanks very nice to hear.. sometimes I worry I'm too negative but I can't help feeling these things!

Lucinda said...

I think it's normal to be feeling the gap of western privilege. I mean, it's be quite sad if you were oblivious to it you know?

Fiona said...

Yeah I guess you're right - sometimes I look around at all the other travellers and feel like I'm the only one not loving every minute of it... but I guess you never know what is going on inside someone's head. It was easier when I was 18 and more oblivious!