Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Travel Spoiler

"Why in the world are you going to Thailand?" they ask. (Or Nepal, or Bali, or Finland, or Tierra del Fuego, or the Sea of Tranquility.) "It's been completely spoiled." Then they hoist their beer or shot of Jagermeister or whatever the hell it is, and say, "Now, when I first went there . . ."

And they’re off, reciting the Travel Spoiler’s version of Paradise Lost, describing an era – now vanished in the dim mists of time, when pangolins ruled the earth– an era when the place you’ve been saving money for years to visit was actually worth visiting. The people were friendlier, the streets less crowded, the culture more authentic, the summer cooler, the rainy period briefer, beautiful women threw themselves at men’s feet (you don’t hear much about the reverse), and you could rent a five-room apartment over the river for twenty dollars a month. Oh, and did they mention the women?

When they’ve run out of superlatives to describe the past and negatives to taint the present, they deliver the coup de grace: “I’m finished with Thailand, actually.” (Or Nepal, or Bali, or Finland, or Tierra del Fuego.) “Can’t even stand to go back, it’s changed so much.”

By now you may be so dismayed that you missed the nugget of good news in that last paragraph: Wherever you’re going, this person won’t be there. There will be other Travel Spoilers of various kinds, but this particular one won’t be among them. So cheer up, and let me tell you a secret:

All those places are still wonderful.

I don’t understand why so many people (okay, mostly men) seem compelled to make the point that they experienced the true Thailand or Lhasa or whatever, and what you’re about to enter is some sort of animatronic theme park designed for less discerning travelers. Underlying this attitude is a very specific kind of snobbery. The country you’re going to visit was better then because it was harder to get to, there weren’t good hotels, the roads were scratched in the dirt with a stick. But now, the argument suggests, just anybody can go there. People who wear shorts. People who don’t care about the culture. People, they are suggesting, like you.

Another common thread that runs through the Spoilers’ stories is that the people who live in the country on your itinerary were more eager to accommodate the intrepid explorers of the Golden Age than they are today. No request was too unreasonable; all tourists were treated like Brad Pitt. Any pasty-faced American or European schnorrer teaching English for three dollars an hour could afford four servants. Boil all that down, and you come up with this: back in the days of paradise, the local people were poorer. And now they’re not so poor, and the Travel Spoiler doesn’t like that.

Anyway, if you’re unlucky enough to run up against one of these clowns, ignore him. People have been saying for decades that the earth’s various paradises were spoiled. Before I went to Bali for the first time, I read a classic book written in the 1930s by an artist named Miguel Covarrubias, in which he said repeatedly that Bali had been spoiled. Sixty years after Covarrubias wrote his book, Bali took my breath away. People have been proclaiming Thailand to be over since the 1980s, but it’s still the only Thailand on the planet, and it’s one of the world’s blessed places. Ignore the Travel Spoiler and recognize him for what he is: a snob and a closet colonialist who wants to lord it over the people of any country he condescends to visit.

But I have to tell you, the first time I visited Angkor . . . .

Tim -- Sundays


  1. Oh, yeah! So it's not what it was, it is what it is NOW! And that is something. Like you said, it's the only Thailand (or Bali, etc.). Way to stick it to the Travel Spoilers.


  2. My uncle asked me that question in a completely different context. My uncle's question was, "Why in the world are you going to Ireland? Your grandparents couldn't wait to get out!"

    I'm third generation Irish. My grandparents were born there and didn't want to talk about life in the old country. They were poor, hungry, deprived of education, and without any prospects. They came to the US on British passports. Ireland was the place they wanted to forget.

    My grandfather was born in County Sligo in 1881. As to his education, he said he went as far as the third book. My mother never knew if that meant third grade or that there was only three books in the school. But he was a man who loved words and he was a great story-teller.

    The third generation is the one that wants answers to questions. My grandparents died before I was old enough to ask any about their lives in the old country but if I had had the opportunity I would likely have been as surprised as a friend was when he asked his mother what she remembered most about growing up in Ireland. He assumed he was going to hear about the community, social life, etc. Instead her answer to what she remembered most was that her feet were always wet. It was a very long walk to the town but if she crossed the bog she cut off about 30 minutes. But walking across the bog soaked through the shoes and, with only one pair, the shoes never got dry.

    Being Catholic in Ireland before the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1921, was to be, literally, beyond the Pale. My grandfather was absolutely committed to his faith and he resented, for his entire life, having to stop work, remove his cap, and bow when the landowner rode by. He believed a man should bow only before God and he should remove his cap only for those who earned his respect.

    Uneducated he may have been, but he took the teachings of his faith very seriously and his children were raised to know from childhood that, to quote my mother, "You will make no fun of any man's church nor any man's race. No one is ever less than another in God's eyes." And my mother would continue by saying, "and you'd get a boot in the backside if you did."

    So, why in the world did I want to go to Ireland? When I went it was nearly a 100 years after he was born and the Ireland I visited was nothing like the one he left. But I loved going to Mass, sitting near a family, and hearing little kids with brogues. All the brogues with which I was familiar were those of adults. Hearing little ones with it made the country real.

    And, to honor my grandfather's philosophy, I made many trips to a restaurant owned and operated by a Chinese family with brogues.


  3. Pave paradise; put up a parking lot. Or a five-star hotel. (sigh!)

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. Tim, it seems your post was interpreted as being one posted by a travel agent.


  6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  7. Hi, everybody -- Sorry not to have responded until now, but I was on a cruise in the Sea of Cortez and Internet access was spotty at best. In fact, I barely got the post itself up -- had to put it online a full 6 hours early because the signal was going to disappear again.

    Beth, I've deleted the two commercials.

    I promise to come back and respond more promptly and at greater length on future posts. I just got back yesterday PM and am at Left Coast Crime in downtown LA all weekend, doing panels and shilling books. Well, if I don't, who will?