Amy Scott is a friend on facebook. She has built a kind of career for herself out of being a ‘modern nomad.’ She offers advice to aspiring modern nomads on her website, Nomadtopia. She just published this piece about not liking Nicaragua, and linked it on Facebook:
Yes, there have been some good times and pleasant discoveries—friendly and caring people, cheap taxis, nice cafés, a beautiful central plaza, a place I’ve started taking art classes—but overall, I’m feeling underwhelmed.
Or perhaps more accurately, overwhelmed—by the heat, and the dust, and the crazy drivers, and those people who haven’t been as friendly, and the expensive food… And yet, I’ve been other places in the world that have a lot of those same things and it didn’t bother me as much as it does here. I still can’t quite put my finger on how I feel about this place or why.
I have often said that I think I could be happy almost anywhere—I adapt easily and have found the good in lots of places I didn’t expect to like—so not feeling at home here is a surprise.
I feel guilty admitting that I don’t love it.
I’ve had words from Amy about getting snarky in her facebook feed before, so I’ll put my thoughts here.
(We argued because she was vacationing in this part of the world, and had followed half a dozen status updates about delicious cheap food and lovely cheap hostels with a complaint about Cambodian child beggars. She didn’t understand why those kids couldn’t be put in school. School in Cambodia is not free, but even if it were, there’s a pretty short straight line connecting dirt-cheap tourism, poverty wages, and impoverished families. The reason those children don’t go to school is because their parents don’t earn enough to stop them working, and the reason their parents don’t earn enough to stop them working is that customers like Amy don’t pay more than a few cents for clean linen.)
(I managed not to say, “Do you really not see how grotesque it is to gush about how cheap goods and services are and then sneer at the people providing those goods and services for being too poor to lift their children above squalor?”)
(Another commenter summed up their travel philosophy in the developing world with, “Leave no trace,” as though Cambodia is a KOA campground overrun with whitetail deer and not a former French colony with an explicit policy of attracting as much tourism as possible.)
But this quandary is what happens when you try to turn ‘tourist’ into a higher calling, even when you term it ‘modern nomadism.’
(Nomads are not people who skate over the places through which they travel. Historically, to be a nomad is to possess a culture deeply entwined with the geography, commerce, and culture of your region. Nomadic herders, for example, Travelers, and countless trading cultures. They are dependent on the regions they visit, and those regions depend on them. They are a delicate feature of a delicate cultural and economic system, and they are usually threatened first when those systems change. While their places survive, they serve a vital and specific purpose. Their orbit is often stable, and their national and regional identities remain secure for centuries. Many nomadic peoples are nations, and many of them have geographic borders that only disappeared through colonization and genocide. ‘Modern nomads’ are just people technology has set free. They don’t live through travel. They live anywhere. There’s a difference.)
(Modern tourists should also be aware that tourism is the fugitive species that destroys those native ecosystems, and that nomadic peoples often suffer most from their incursion.)
There’s nothing noble about enjoying traveling. Modern travel is a luxury. Enjoying is what you are meant to do. The reason people like to travel – the reason tourism has become a marker of prosperity and an economic keystone for entire regions – is because there’s an enormous global industry dedicated to making travel as pleasant and simplistic as possible.
That industry markets itself by convincing people that enjoying a country is the same as knowing it. Tourists learn to conflate their experience of a country with experience in the meaningful sense of the word. They also learn that tourism can be genuine or authentic, even though it is by definition artificial, standardized, and limited. They eventually come to believe in moral hierarchy of tourism. If you’re an adventurer, you like ‘authentic,’ ‘rough’ travel. If you’re sophisticated, you like ‘luxury’ travel. If you’re a nice person, you like ‘eco’ or ‘volunteer’ travel.
These judgements are a matter of taste and nothing else. It’s not any different than being proud of yourself because you like gelato more than ice cream, organic produce better than the inexpensive kind, or the local coffee shop better than the franchise – and that is often the literal level of distinction.
You can argue that these forms of consumption are important in their own right, and that you have a responsibility to do as little harm as possible, but they are nothing more than forms of consumption. Tourists travel because they like to. Their relationship with their destination countries is as superficial and self-interested as a motorist’s relationship with a gas station on I-80, except the gas station doesn’t have to live up to anyone’s sense of deep significance. Tourists are not refined when they like bistrot or resilient because they love hiking or veteran because they’ve gone abroad several times. All tourists are tourists. They amuse themselves.
Amy has made a personal brand for herself out of the lie the tourist industry sells. She’s not a professional with enough industry and technological know-how to be mobile. She’s not a citizen of the developed world who has made the calculated choice to live in countries where her money goes much further because everyone around her is extremely poor. She’s not a creature of modernity who prefers to live where creature comforts are readily available. She’s not a cosmopolitan accustomed to imported cuisine and produce. She’s not a savvy entrepreneur targeting the romantic preconceptions of her audience. She’s a nomad. Tourism is her identity, her culture, her contribution.
Having donned and apparently internalized that sense of her purpose in life, she is now at a loss. If she identifies as someone who can live everywhere, how then can she fail to live happily in Nicaragua? Just because there are ants and traffic?
She visits new countries because she’s curious about them, enjoys them because she likes them, and leaves them when they cease to hold comfort or interest for her. Her trip to Nicaragua is a purchase she doesn’t like, so she wants to discard it and buy something else. Accosted by fauna? Assaulted by poverty? Street food, street food everywhere but nothing you can eat? Why not just fuck off across the nearest border? See if the mangoes there are tastier, the insects less hostile, the guesthouses more tranquil, the beggars a bit older? Why not?
Each new country has to be an experience. Since she doesn’t find this trip meaningful, she must have failed in her moral duty to Nicaragua. But because that failure hinges on a lack of durable connection, on the philosophy that every place is interchangeable, that you can fall in love with a country because you’re infatuated with its color scheme and charmed by its form of good manners, she feels silly and strange about feeling so bad. Worse, she doesn’t see the problem with the idea that any one person should feel welcome and comfortable everywhere. She seems to believe that this would represent achievement on her part, not damage on her behalf.
But being a consummate professional tourist, she turned it into a blog entry, so that other people could find meaning in her experience.