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June 30, 2004

On Being a Tourist

During my vacation in New Mexico, we did touristy things, like visiting monuments, parks, and museums, wandering around town lost with a map in our hands. I don’t think that we stood in the middle of the sidewalk blockin traffic (my biggest pet peeve with NYC tourists) staring at the sky—though we spend a large portion of our time staring at skies, it was generally in a wide open space, and I was careful to be aware of my surroundings.

Every so often, I would think Wow, I’m being a tourist. I wonder how annoying we are to people who actually live here. Granted, I didn’t spend my vacation worrying about it, but the thoughts crept in from time to time. Being a tourist was okay, as long as I respected the people and surroundings that I moved through, remembering that this was some one’s home and my photo taking, map staring, scenery staring ass was treading on it.

When we visited the pueblos, however, I had some issues.

We visited the San Ildefonso, Nambe, Tesuque, and Taos Pueblos, both to see the villages, which for the most part were amazing, and to look at pottery (particularly at San Ildefonso). My mother was looking to buy a pot for the house and felt strongly that such a purchase should be made directly from the artisans, rather than through a gallery—which I wholeheartedly agreed with.

But when we got to the pueblos, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of invasiveness. The first three pueblo visits elicited the same emotions—that I was staring at peoples’ homes and lives as if they were anomalies, and it just felt wrong. This feeling was amplified when we visited the Taos Pueblo on the San Juan Feast Day. Tourists arrived with lawn chairs to watch the Corn Dance. For whatever reason, the ritual was not starting on time and visitors were becoming restless. Plus, it began to rain.

As we waited, I overheard several things that crossed the line from inquisitive tourist to downright ignorant stupid person, such as Well, I guess they don’t need to do their Corn Dance because it’s raining and people wondering why the event wasn’t starting on time, as if they were at Colonial Williamsburg waiting for a candle dipping demonstration. The more I heard, the more awful I felt about the whole experience.

The tourist business at the pueblos seemed ethically wrong to me on several levels, though I have been unable to explain it well to anyone. While I understand and respect the fact that tourist brings revenue to the pueblos, the experience seemed so invasive and disrespectful to the community. Am I missing something here? Perhaps I was there on a bad day, but I don’t think so.

Posted by callalillie at June 30, 2004 9:50 AM | Introspect , Rabid Rants


It's important to keep the perspective that, for most of the places where we were in full tourist mode, the full-time folks expected and (to a large degree) desired our presence as tourists. The streets of the plaza area of Santa Fe and the museums, etc. were all there to serve tourists as their primary function. In NYC the tourists are a minority who share the space with the local folks going about their business. In areas of SF where we did the tourist thing, the focus was much more on tourism than other, local business.

I share your discomfort with the pueblos, however. As much as the native american tribes may want tourists to come to the pueblos (and I think there is a heavy ambivalence about that), I could not shake the creepy feeling that I was supposed to be viewing these homes/communities and the people who lived in them as some sort of cross between an anthropological curiousity and a theme park exhibit. It/they were all too real for that and it was, for me, a very uncomfortable experience.

Posted by: bobtrancho at June 30, 2004 9:02 AM

Do you really think that the body of the tribal communities truly welcome tourism, or see it as a neccessary evil? Obviously, I can't speak for anyone but myself, who live within, by any account, a completely different sphere-- culturally, financially, etc. To some degree, I think that my discomfort grew out of that difference. For communities (not just Native American pueblos) that have had so much taken away from them over the course of time, I felt as though tourism as a form of "giving back" was depressing, as it felt like a form of exploitation.

I really wish that we could have visited San Ildefonso on a day in which they had local tour guides. While that still would have felt like the epitome of tourism, I would have had some context to the visit.

Posted by: corie at June 30, 2004 9:10 AM

If you’re a curious, intelligent person interested in history and people, you feel the pull to go and see places like the pueblos when you’re near them. I think it’s natural and right, so long as your curiosity remains respectful. The difference between you and the people who annoyed you is that you were aware that what you were seeing had elements of the theme park experience, you were aware that being a tourist sometimes carries ethical or moral questions, and you were aware that visiting a place like the pueblos to gawk is more wrong than visiting to try and gain a certain level of understanding or knowledge.

A couple of years ago, I was dragged on a cruise through the Caribbean. The whole week felt like the worst elements of America contained on a very large boat. The sheer volume of consumption, and the natural assumption of most on board that all that food was their birthright, compared with the unrelenting poverty found in most of the ports left me appalled.

Each night, they served a 28 billion course dinner on the boat. Midway through the week, the daily cruise newsletter had a little sidebar that listed the amount of food they used each day on board. I seem to have lost it, but it was stunning.

On one of the last nights, after that giant meal, they had a midnight buffet in the main dinning room. The thing had acres of food—lobsters and steaks and more cream filled desserts than you could wobble a fat American ass at. There’s no way anyone was hungry. People lined up to get into this thing. And they took pictures of the food rather than eat it.

When the boat docked, each island had a duty free mall right there for your shopping pleasure. If you went 100 yards outside that space, and many didn’t, the reality of tourism based economies stared you hard in the face. The food that gets chucked out on those boats each week could probably feed most of the places they dock for a year.

And, perhaps the saddest part of all is this: The only part of the trip that I really enjoyed was Cozumel. It was near the end of the voyage, and I couldn’t take it anymore. I rented a jeep and drove the ring road around the island with my sister. We stopped and swam when it got too hot, and turned up a little road and found a small place that would take us out to the reef to snorkel. We did that, and it felt touristy and awkward, but it was beautiful. On the way back in, I noticed that the guy driving the boat had speared a large, ugly fish I’d never seen before. When we got back to the beach, his wife was making tortillas, and he cleaned the fish. With my rudimentary Spanish and their rudimentary English, we managed to have a really nice conversation over fresh fish tacos and beers. Later that night, someone asked me at one of the 743 bars on the boat how I’d liked Cozumel. I started to answer and Mr. Pink Faced Jowlie Midwestern Man cut me off and said, “It was great. The wife (really, he said this) and I did some shopping for her and then we went to Senor Frogs for Margaritas and Nachos. Mexico has been the best stop on this trip.” These people actually believed that they’d been to another country and experienced something of it.

I want someone to shoot me if I ever show the slightest sign of becoming those people.

Posted by: Bill at June 30, 2004 3:07 PM

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