Tourism: it’s a dirty word- especially in the travel industry.
The touch it implies is altogether too light.
Who wants to be seen with a camera, map, and backpack gawping up at the neon of Piccadilly Circus when you can be living in an igloo, learning an Inuit language- ‘like, living a culture from the inside‘?
The traveling appetite of the comfortably-heeled- along with their hunger in entertainment- is in the process of undergoing a marked shift from the passive to the active.
It’s no longer enough to go to the cinema: we want to participate in the screening, and to do so in secret locations.
Your story about that theatre outing is all very charming, but I was bossed around by the actors at mine- and guess which one of us is holding court?
Oh wait, neither, because Joe Schmo on my right, here, was the person around whom the entire play revolved…
The buzzword is EXPERIENCE.
And leading the charge is the authentic sampling of other countries – not glancing up at the Pyramids en route to a plate of egg, ham and chips, but rubbing sand into your body swathed in meticulously-crafted replicas of Ancient Egyptian garments.
It’s about keeping it real in unreal environments, and all well and good; whatever floats your questing, seeking boat.
But how does this relate to the age-old practice of experiencing the peoples of other cultures?
How far do we get to taste them?
We went on a safari in Tanzania over the Christmas period.
As we drove between locations, we often saw the Masai going about their business of herding cattle, or perched by the sides of the roads.
Dressed only in bright Shuka cloths out in the middle of vast fields, in possession of nothing but a stick, the way of life of these semi-nomadic people is about as far from that of the average Londoner as you can get.
We asked our Guide a river of questions: Where do they live? Do the children go to school? What do they eat? Why, who, what? again and again, as each answer piqued further curiosity.
Then, on Day 9, the unfolding of our itinerary: a visit to a Masai Village- a sort of animals-in-the-morning-people-in-the-afternoon-type-affair.
So, on the one hand, I’d LOVE to do that.
I’d pretty much go into anyone’s home for a nosy; I’m Pinocchio after a lying orgy.
On the other hand, isn’t that a bit intrusive?
This isn’t really about warmth and hospitality, is it?
It’s about a performance in exchange for cash.
It’s about us having money and them not having money, and them having to sell a bit of themselves to our nosiness in order to get it.
Like hawking a ticket to the Sultan of Brunei so he can witness my adorable, dirty children watching crap TV on a Saturday night: ‘My, but I AM feeling grateful for those gold taps now’…
Our Guide, Christopher- a strong-hearted, tell-it-like-it-is man of Masai blood, but not the traditional lifestyle- was reassuring.
Some of the villages, he explained, apply for government permits that allow them to show visitors around. (The permits are a source of revenue, of course, but they also seek to ensure responsible tourism, so that visitors are welcomed respectfully).
The Masai are not financially wealthy, but neither do they need to be, as by living off the land and the cattle they keep, they are almost entirely self-sufficient.
However, they need money if they want secondary education for their children of any sort (schooling is fee-paying throughout Tanzania) and for certain extraneous supplies, like fuel.
Therefore, visits from outsiders are a source of income.
A voluntary donation of $50 per tour is requested up-front, and the craftwork of the women is then offered persuasively for purchase at the end.
It is a transaction, yes, but one considered to be a fair exchange.
This is no Slum Tourism; the people are proud of their way of life and their work.
They are not in poverty; they are happy to share their customs.
Hmmm again, but this from a trusted source, and we weren’t in the market to take along a paparazzi-lens camera.
So we pitched up, sharing the slot with another family staying in our camp, though we remained in our separate groups.
And what a jimbly-jumbly experience of emotions it gave rise to.
We were greeted by a young Masai Warrior on arrival.
He was open, friendly, and on automatic pilot while delivering a script of sorts about the tour: I think he’d done this before.
We made our donation, did masses of humble smiling, and then popped up right in the middle of a traditional singing, dancing and jumping routine, split by gender.
The deep guttural humming and clicking noises of the men; the extraordinary faces of the women (extraordinary to us, that is); the clothing and jewellery and the thousand nuances of a life lived differently, were intoxicating.
I felt honoured, and thrilled, and ridiculous all at the same time: plonk a necklace on the stupid white woman, and watch her beam.
The general atmosphere was celebratory, though I would say more amongst the young men than the women, who came across as ambivalent and unperturbed in contrast to their engaged male counterparts.
The kids were the good-humoured focus of all (young boys are especially prized, as girls = dowries) – an exchange of genuinely joyous connection taking place between them and our hosts.
After this, we were invited inside one of the seasonal homes by our Guide, following a brief overview of the Masai habitations, diet and age-set system.
It was the most basic dwelling (as in, unadorned, non- mod-conned) I’ve encountered: barely 5 foot high inside, with 3 ‘bricks’ burning in the centre, for heat and light; 3 pint-sized compartments for the parents, young children and goats; a ladle and pot hanging on the interior wall.
The simplicity of these homes was remarkable.
An episode of listen and reflect, as opposed to stare and judge, it left me thinking of my duvet and face cream with a mixture of love and self-loathing, calling to mind the ‘perfumed ponce’ line from Withnail and I.
We were then taken to the tiny school hut where the children learn Swahili and English- a little girl springing up to lead the rest of the class in a song for our benefit.
This learned behaviour of pleasing (for money) from one so young was a jarring point, somehow serving to throw an off-colour light on our giving of the colouring pencil gifts we had brought with us from the UK (for the purpose of general present-offering, as we didn’t know about this official visit in advance): we had not been holding the gifts ransom to a display of winning ingratiation.
The final leg of our three quarter hour trot around the village was a vast display of beaded and wooden handicrafts, which our Guide was careful to point out we were NOT obliged to purchase.
We bought 3 small mementos, for which their chief negotiator- a man stationed by the bins working the character of a wheeler-dealer salesman- asked $65 of us- perhaps in a game of ‘who’s exploiting whom?'; we settled on $50.
And then we were off; fond waving and no blood spilt, as my Dad would say- the most unsettling comment coming, surprisingly, from Christopher, who invited the kids to consider how lucky they are.
Though well-meant, and infused with good humour, it imparted to us an uneasy superiority: is an iTouch the path to true richness?
Did we discuss their declining way of life? The poaching of wild animals? FGM? The insidious creep of Western ‘permissiveness’?
No. We passed through their world exuding an odd mixture of appreciation and apology, mindful to capture photos and footage in the open spaces only despite repeated assertions we were welcome to do so without limitation in the intimate ones.
Might the sensitivity of visitors vary?
Yes, as may the guileless nature of the village Guide’s welcome.
I found it fascinating to come into contact with an unfamiliar slice of existence.
I disliked the contrived circumstances under which it came about, but wonder if favouring the bespoke or spontaneous experience is primarily an affectation.
The Masai had found a conduit for their crafts which would spread an appreciation of their culture beyond the confines of their immediate environment, in (part) exchange for a curious family of four crouching in one of their temporary homes.
To the extent that they noticed us, they might have sensed that we are not crass colonials.
For our part, the prejudice of the ‘primitive native’ was a far cry.
The confluence of cultures may serve ultimately to dilute those identities, but where barriers are dropped understanding ensues.
In a world where perceived divisions can get you shot in the streets and at your desk, one could argue that (appropriately-mediated) old-style ‘tourism’ – the type that brings together people who might otherwise consider each other alien- is not necessarily such a dirty word after all.