Monday, June 27, 2011

The Long Hot Hustle – The Ugly Side of Travelling

No Sympathy for the Devil(s)

As any respectable professional will tell you, a man or woman in possession of a retail job is in desperate want of any other profession. In the words of our direct, crude times: retail is balls. With the provisos: “Working retail is balls”; “Working retail for ages is super balls”; “Having to work retail for your whole life is super scabby donkey balls”.

Some people earn their badges in the service industry with minimal complaints, but I liken this to those men drafted in WW2 who stayed in civilian areas co-ordinating supplies for the front. They were not, as the military parlance goes, on the front line. Petty, egomaniacal managers, obnoxious, impossible customers, absurd and counter-intuitive bureaucracy, lack of job security, the threats of secret shoppers and customer surveys – there's no need to belabour the point. But I believe there is one over-looked profession that deserves both more praise (and more criticism) for the poor sods trapped in its embrace – the tourism industry.

To me it seems that those working in the trenches of hard-core tourism, working in hellhole paradises, scraping and bowing to bloated families and their spoilt brats have it harder than anyone else on Earth. It's like working in General Pants and living amongst the displays. These poor suckers have to not only work a nine to five with their customers, they then have to mingle with them, these awkward, unearthly consumers as they gawp and litter and bark orders in their restaurants, gas stations and mini-marts.

But I have realised another thing about these poor unfortunates – and that is that I no longer care for their plight. Like mosquitoes that carry malaria, corrupt tourist operators who swindle and lie are like parasites that not only take from the host but poison the unwitting subject irreparably. Crotchedy old men who seem to resent serving you in their restaurants, savage old women who smile until they have your money then turn their backs without another word, pot-bellied drivers that shake their hands in the air and mock you openly in their own tongue, all these and more in this savage bestiary decrying the idea of tourism, the old chicken-coup squabble of us and them, ours and yours, men and women who deprive families of their safety and ignorant travellers of their belongings, the truest, most depraved scum on Earth engaging in this absurd boxstep of prejudice and hubritical pride.

And it is to them, and their persistent efforts to ruin the leisure of others, to despoil paradise and salt the very Earth they stand on that I dedicate this article.

Over Land or Sea or Agitated Water

I am now sitting in an A-frame bungalow on the South-Eastern side of Koh Samui in Thailand. The time is 5.50 pm, and the last remains of day are bleached by low cloud cover, the sea like a rough-cut block of jade.

Six hours ago Lara and I thought we would be travelling by boat to Koh Phanghan and had dutifully checked out of our bungalow and walked down the beach to where the wooden ferry had come ashore. We had spent two days trying to research a cheap fare from one island to the next, as all the tourist agencies we found attempted to sell us tickets on the tourist catamaran which cost 350 Baht ($12). This seems reasonable until you compare the price we paid to get from Bangkok to Ko Samui by bus and then boat (450 Baht, $15).

Online and at our guesthouse we were assured this little wooden ferry should cost no more than 150, and pulling alongside it I certainly expected this to be the case – the boat was a single storey, open air passenger carrier, driven by a lawnmower engine on a long, home-made prop. When we pulled up to the pavilion, an old man directed us to the ticket office. Lara went while I watched the bags, smiling, thinking about how cool I must look in my sunglasses, happy to be off the dirty (but admittedly beautiful) beach of Mae Nam.

Then there was a moment, a scene which theatrical professionals refer to as a Beat. Lara came back up to me.

“He's saying it's 250 Baht. When I said we read that it was 150 he said we could go swimming.”

“What, while we wait?”

“No. As in, 'you go swim to Koh Phanghan.' He said if we paid 150 he would throw us overboard.”

Furious but calm, I walked up to the pot-bellied jackass and asked how much. Impatient he just pointed at the sign. When I said I had read online that it was 150 he laughed, as if the internet could not be trusted, as if it did not know the word on the street. Then I said I talked to my guesthouse owner and she said it was 150.

“One hundred fifty get you half way. We throw you out.”

“You can try. We'll get there and we'll see what happens.” I replied, still trying to make a joke out of it. Finally I said I had talked to two white guys who lived here, who owned the MoonHut bungalow up the road, and they said it was 150 – at which point he turned around and started talking to his co-pilot and they laughed, gesturing at me and my girlfriend, the one not talking to me ending the conversation with a dismissive gesture and sitting back down to his lunch.

“Fine fine. You go. You go up there.” The ticket man flicked his hand from the wrist in the Thai fashion, which resembles the limp movement of shooing flies off of cooling food.

“No no. I went there yesterday. Up there is the catamaran. This is the ferry. The cheap ferry.”

Up there. Up there is the ferry.” And turned his back on me to get at his food.

In My Head at That Moment

But it's tourism that has made it this way, isn't it? The encroachment of selfish, rich foreigners, buying up this land and converting it into a surreal amusement park. It is our own greed and materialist ideology that has perverted this unspoilt place with our sick, depraved dreams of acceptable slavery and capitalist colonialism. Isn't it? Aren't we, really, the ones at fault?

The Counter Response

Oh you poor fool, rest your weary rhetoric awhile under the fronds of the coconut and know that white man's guilt is one of your saddest inherited debts. It clouds the mind whilst simultaneously elevating you above your fellow man. Take a deep breath, reassess the situation, distribute blame on the merit of the circumstance rather than the imagined history. Good? Good. Now calmly tell this joker to go fuck himself with a rusty spoon. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, to take a flying fuck at the mooooooooon.

Terrors in Ha Long

The rudeness of this boat driver is not uncommon in SE of A. I should have been prepared for it but the truth was I had not been on the front line of the tourist hustle in quite a while. Lara and I have travelled to the south of Thailand via the north (a much cheaper and more relaxed place) and Laos (where despite some of the prices, the people were incredibly friendly) so we were out of practise when it came to applying the hard word. However our time away from touristy areas was sort of necessary after our experience in the north of Vietnam, and our time in Ha Long Bay I would consider one of the most demoralising, difficult times of my life.

The best example of the overall rudeness, incompetence and negligence that dogged us the entire trip (and you must understand that anything that could go wrong, did) was the first night and morning of our stay on Cat Ba island. Two bus loads of tourists were deposited at a hotel and restaurant at 6.30 pm (we had been told we would arrive at 5). When we piled out many people went to reception to ask for their rooms, which could not be provided. We were informed that of the forty of us standing there, only eight people had accommodation. Our tour guide tried to calm the furious crowd of confused people by saying it would be sorted out after dinner (which was awful and we could see our drivers and guides eating much better looking food in the kitchen area).

After dinner our tour guide had disappeared. Gone completely. It was chaos. Groups of people would elect leaders to go forward to harass and harangue, couples stood on looking anxious, the boys shrugged and the girls looked stunned. One group of 8 managed to organise something, they disappeared. Two Korean guys agreed to pay for a room (everyone had already paid and thus were not going to pay again) and they went. After much back and forth, sixteen of us were standing outside two hotels being told that we would need to pay for rooms, that the men and women would have to be segregated, and that four people would stay in one double room. On the edge of losing it, I cracked open a bottle of fruit wine and shared it around the gathering of strangers, trying to laugh the situation off. We all relaxed a little, swapped tales and cigarettes, the angry men at the front could do their jobs, their anxious partners could calm down, we all felt the touch of forced bonhommie. After no less than an hour and a half of protesting we all got rooms, didn't have to pay and the couples could stay together. The staff had had the keys all along.

The next morning we had a new tour guide. He apologised for the mistakes of last night, but now we would go trekking. However, if anyone wanted to go to Monkey Island in the afternoon, they could pay him for the boat and he would organise it. Again, uproar. Nearly everyone had paid for this service and no one was getting it for free. One girl walked up to our tour guide with a receipt and itinerary, on it clearly written 'trip to monkey island' and our guide laughed in her face and walked away.

What I wondered was, why do they hate us? In the South of Vietnam or talking to locals generally I perceived no hostility. My lecturer Alan Wearne suggested, of course, the war. But it doesn't quite map – after all, Laotian people suffered a lot more in the Vietnam war and are still suffering today from the threat of unexploded ordnance. Yet they were very friendly and courteous.

Was it then the Vietnamese people? But this again rang false – I've been screamed at in Cambodia and ignored in Thailand. So what is it? Why do they hate us?

Flashback to the Outback

In 2008 I found myself working in the Doon Doon roadhouse in W.A., a service station on a deserted stretch of desert road. It was three hours drive to the nearest town, the red earth extending in all directions except to the north west, where mountains made of terracotta roofing tiles were scattershot with shrubs and gums. (I climbed these mountains only once towards the end of my employment and found myself looking out over steppes and rounded, dry catchments – a study in crimson of the American west.)

It was off season when I arrived and the older Dutch couple who ran the place were struggling for extra workers, so when I started they immediately went on vacation. My first two weeks were relatively easy – clean the toilets like this, scrub the fryer like that, make the hamburger just so. But when the older couple returned my problems began.

Besides being creepy (they were part-time nudists and their late-twenty-something kids still lived with them and worked in their store), racist (saying it was sad but inevitable that the aboriginal culture should “die out”) braggarts who acted as if working at their shitty roadhouse was some kind of privilege, they were also pedants who would go over hours and hours of security footage on the lookout for “thieving blacks”. They hated thieves, graffiti and worst of all, tourists.

Being a roadhouse in the middle of nowhere the Greyhound coaches were compelled to pull over for lunch at their rest stop. This would constitute the daily rush for us – two bus loads of travellers stopping for food, water and toilet. And everyday after the rush they would begin griping about the mess they made, the most common complaint that the tourists would use the covered metal tables to eat their own lunches. You know, instead of sitting in the dirt. In the store they sold a bumper sticker with the slogan, 'If it's called Tourist Season, why aren't we allowed to shoot them?'

Over two thirds of their income was due to little old ladies buying aboriginal picture books of the dreamtime or hungry kids raiding the chest freezer for ice cream at a 300% mark up. Yet everyday without fail would come the bitching in their snotty, upwards inflecting Dutch accents.

Which makes me aware now of the difference between retail and tourism – escape (discussed above) and resentment. It's possible to escape from the retail shop you work in but those working in tourism cannot – and nothing exacerbates frustration like witnessing (and in this case serving) another's happiness.

Litost and Paradise Lost

In Milan Kundera's novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, he goes to great lengths to outline the meaning of a Czech word that has no equivalent in English. The word is 'litost' and he describes it as “a state of torment upon by the realization of one's inadequacy or misery”. He illustrates this with several examples, but the one that always made the most sense to me was of the young boy playing piano whilst under the harsh instruction of a pitiless teacher. As the boy makes mistakes the teacher scolds him and the boy, unable to help himself, makes more mistakes, unconsciously wills himself to make more mistakes, thus the teacher reprimands him more, thus the boy is brought full circle in a chain of misery that comes from knowing and seeing the source of his discontent yet paradoxically pursuing it at the same time.

Kundera writes that he does not know how it is possible to understand humanity without this insightful term, and I would agree that it definitely helps to sympathise with the plight of the jaded percentage working in unfulfilling tourism jobs. Which is where it becomes confusing for me. Sympathy and empathy are different things – sympathy is understanding a fellow humans' plight, empathy is the ability to feel the pain of another – yet I cannot honestly discern which I am able to do (or not do) in this scenario. Can I really understand the frustration of living in a country where learning English triples the range of your potential income? Or do I emotionally connect my frustration with that of the taxi driver, forgiving him his trespass on my time, money and good will?

There should have been another tree in the garden of Eden – one with the knowledge of righteousness and self-righteousness. I think the fruit of this tree would best be symbolised by the pomegranate, which is a complicated, time consuming fruit to peel and eat, yet at the same time is incredibly delicious. Also maybe good for you, but I don't care enough to look this up.

So I'm forced in this situation to respond as is the traveller's wont – on the basis of simple stimuli (The life of a tourist: Wake, eat, revel, sleep, repeat.) and the stimuli says 'Don't care'. I don't care about you, oh crappy Thai ferryman, because you don't care about me. You see me as a walking wallet, thus I see you as a device to operate transport. Greed begets greed, self-righteousness the same. In the words of P. Diddy, whose eloquence far outstrips my own: I simply don't have the time/ or inclination in my rhyme/ to consider the polemics/ of your hustling aesthetics./


Daniel East

Post-script: Intangibility and Taxi Drivers

It occured to me after writing this article that there is another sub-set of people, another much maligned profession that similarly warrants an analytically sensitive approach - that of the taxi driver. In all countries I have visited, regardless of quality of life, cultural diversity or tourist saturation the taxi driver remains the most singularly vile creature to inhabit any given environment.

It would seem that they qualify in the terms given above as victims of resentment and imprisonment, but perhaps their plight illuminates an entirely new field of discontent which might not be at first apparent, that is the intangibility of people. Taxi drivers come equipped with their own break-up lines, their own escape pod. People they serve go as far as their destination and no further - as such, they seem to be less real than the taxi driver himself who, in this transitory role, treats the passenger as a sort of animal to be milked rather than a human whose needs must be met (and simultaneously is made invisible by the passenger/tourist/customer who forgets the taxi driver's existence as soon as the destination is agreed upon).

Is it possible that this invisibility perverts the normal moral compass of one's fellow human? Or is it simply that only opportunistic bastards are willing to put up with being cooped up and ordered around all day? Complicated questions I intend to avoid until in less relaxing times.

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