Friday, May 07, 2010

Travel is dangerous: another chat with Carey Davies

I interviewed the EP Thompson scholar, musician, sometime political activist, journalist, and proud Yorkshireman Carey Davies a couple of months back, when he was near the start of his travels around New Zealand. I caught up with Carey again a couple of days ago, when he was about to catch a plane back to summer, a hung parliament, and an economic crisis in Blighty. We talked about the seat-of-the-pants research he has been conducting into the strange condition called tourism...

Carey: I wanted to travel and to research - not just to research the places I visited, but also to research travel itself, travel as a condition -

SH: as a malady -

Carey: as a psychosis! You see, we British are both the best and the worst travellers in the world. On the one hand, we head overseas in numbers that must be unmatched - think about our takeover of the beaches of Majorca and Corfu, think about the whole history of the British Empire, think about the hordes of Victorian so-called explorers getting lost and dying of ridiculous diseases in Africa and Australia...we can't stand to stay at home. It's absurd that so many of us whinge about immigrants coming to our country when we have been pouring into other countries for hundreds of years. So on the one hand we are great travellers, but on the other hand we are awful travellers, because we try so hard, and so comically, to avoid adapting to and learning from the places we visit. We prefer to try to recreate home, in a Potemkin village sort of a way...but I don't mean to demonise Britons. I think you could probably find the same patterns in the way Kiwis travel - in your concept of the 'OE', for example. We've simply done things on a larger scale...

SH: English fish and chips shops on the Spanish coast, for instance -

Carey: We expect the whole world to speak English and drink warm beer. Even our great explorers refused to learn from the places they traversed. That's why so many of them met sticky ends. Scott refused to take dogs rather than good old British horses to Antarctica...the contradiction at the heart of British wanderlust intrigues me.

SH: How long have you been travelling?

Carey: Eight months. I came to New Zealand after Indochina and Australia. Indochina is over-run by Britons and other Westerners. Britons, especially, it seems. Indochina is a popular destination, and also, for a lot of young Britons, a dangerous destination.

SH: Presumably it's not as dangerous as it was forty years ago...

Carey: Do you think Apocalypse Now is a war film? It is really a story about the desire to lose oneself - the river, the jungle, the drugs, the madness, even the war, these are just excuses, background...I actually thought about Colonel Kurtz when I was travelling through Indochina and observing the customs of my fellow British tourists. I travelled alone in theory, but in practice kept joining up with ad hoc groups - it saved money on petrol and on accomodation, and it's safer, sometimes...

SH: What exactly reminded you of Apocalypse Now?

Carey: There is a town called Vang Vieng in the Laotian jungle. I shouldn't call it a town. It scarcely deserves the label town. Twenty years ago it was a swampy bit of jungle beside a river. Then a backpacker discovered that it was fun to ride a tube down some rapids on the river. He set up a resort and a bar. Now there are resorts and bars - I don't know how you tell the difference, as people seem to sleep where they drop when they've had enough to drink - at both ends of the rapids. Vang Vieng has all the history and culture of a truckstop. There's no real trace of Laos there - no temples, no traditional houses...a strange ritual has developed amongst the young Westerners, many of them Brits, who flock to the place...they get drunk or stoned, or drunk and stoned, in the bars at the top of the rapids, then float down the rapids, then drug and booze themselves up again at the bars at the bottom of the rapids. You are given a coloured piece of string to put around your arm when you do the tube ride. I saw people with both arms covered in those string bands. I asked one guy with glazed eyes how long he'd been riding the tubes. 'Nine months', he told me...there are a lot of young, relatively well-off Britons living in a sort of drugged-out stasis in places like Vang Vieng... SH: Do they feel a sense of freedom in these places? Are they released from the constraints of the society back home?

Carey: No. The libertinism on the surface disguises a radical surrender of will, of control. In a country like Laos you can do whatever you like whenever you like, if you are a Westerner with cash. You can get someone killed for a hundred dollars. You can blow up a cow with high explosives for a few dollars. Seriously. You can buy all sorts of drugs...but because anything is possible, what ultimately happens is that nothing becomes desirable. The Western decadent lapses into fatalism. Why not just ride a tube down a river for the rest of your life?

SH: It sounds like the adepts of decadence are acquiring a weird version of the traditional 'wisdom' of the East that pilgrims from the West - the Beatles, for instance, or Herman Hesse - have traditionally sought. What you call 'fatalism' might be what someone like George Harrison or Timothy Leary would call 'tranquility'...Carey: It's a desire to obliterate the self, and possibly it has more to do with Western problems - with the alienation involved with many aspects of life in modern capitalist society - than with the tenets of Eastern philosophy...

SH: You haven't talked about the actual inhabitants of countries like Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam...

Carey: That's because the people and places of those countries are obscured by, or perhaps hidden from, the tourist industry. They become, at best, a picturesque background. I went to a bar in that nightmarish riverside town in Laos. There was a Lao DJ, there were locals partying with Britons, beer was fifty cents a bottle. I got into the mood. I got drunk. I was - I'm sorry to admit this - dancing wildly. (At least I never took my shirt off and did a limbo dance while people poured alcohol over me, like some of the podgier Poms did...) I had a good time, but I came back the next night, and - guess what - the same scene was unfolding. Exactly the same scene. The Lao DJ, whose enthusiasm had seemed so spontaneous, was playing the same tracks, shouting the same slogans, making the same dance moves. The same podgy guys were limboing. The Lao waitresses had the same expressions on their faces...

SH: It sounds like Nietzsche's eternal recurrence...

Carey: In Vietnam I broke away from the tourist trail. I got hold of a scooter and rode into the northern hills. I was told that there were bandits on the roads, and that I should stay in the resort areas, but I didn't have any trouble. I entered the territory of the Hmong people - they are a fascinating group, a little like the Kurds of Indochina, in the sense that their mountain homeland straddles the borders of several states. Their society is quite traditional and patriarchal. The extended family is extremely important. They have avoided being incorporated into mainstream Vietnamese culture. They forged an alliance with the US during the war, which meant that they have been persecuted by the post-war government, and many of them have gone into exile in North America. Remittances from these exiles gives them an economic base which many other Vietnamese communities do not possess. You see new houses and SUVs on potholed roads in what seems like the middle of nowhere. But the Vietnamese government and the tourist industry do not want outsiders to meet Hmong, and experience their culture.

SH: What about New Zealand? Don't tourists ride tubes down our rivers?

Carey: It would be too cold! But you must understand that we Britons divide the world up into different destinations, which offer differ 'attractions' that form differing backdrops to our predictable disportments. To many of us, the world is like a collection of differently themed bars. New Zealand offers a different 'theme' to Indochina, and therefore attracts a different type of tourist.

SH: Not the tube rider, but the bungee jumper?

Carey: Not so much your shabby Anglo-Laotian junkie, with his opiates and his tube, as an adrenalin junkie. A lot of the tourists I met were attracted by 'gee whizz' activities, like bungee jumping and skiing and white water rafting. There were not the same concentrations of dropouts and druggies that I encountered in places like Laos. A lot of the tourists down here seemed like clean-cut, upwardly mobile kids trying to squeeze as much of an adrenalin rush as they could out of their annual holiday.

SH: While you were travelling about New Zealand a couple of news stories involving misbehaviour by tourists broke. A young German created an outcry by facebooking photos of herself clowning around on the wrong side of a barrier erected to protect ancient Maori rock paintings in Otakou. When critics pointed out that she'd both disrespected and endangered the fragile taoka with her antics, she explained that she'd seen the protective barrier as a 'challenge' which she had to surmount -

Carey: typical 'adventure tourist'!

SH: A group of Norwegian tourists got in trouble after posting footage of themselves shooting protected birds like the native wood pigeon in another part of the South Island. There's been some gnashing of teeth over these latest incidences of bad behaviour by tourists, but it seems to me that we are simply reaping what our tourism industry has sown. We promote ourselves as a giant amusement park, a place for the rest of the world to leap about and shout and generally let off steam, and, surprise surprise -

Carey: you attract idiots!

SH: Well, we don't make any effort to attract what might be called the 'cultural tourist', and I find this frustrating, because both Maori and Pakeha culture and history can be intellectually and aesthetically interesting. I've shown visitors to this country old pa and battle sites, and hybrid Maori-Pakeha buildings like the astonishing Ngata memorial church at Tikitiki or the temple at Ratana, and introduced them to painters like McCahon -

Carey: McCahon is someone who impressed me when I saw his work in Auckland.

SH: There are certain parts of the country where Maori culture is shown to tourists, but the culture seems, to me at least, to be presented as something quaint from the distant past, not as something living and relevant. And, even worse, it is often only the martial aspects of Maori culture that are shown off - the haka and taiaha and the patu -

Carey: Warriors in grass skirts...

SH: Yes. What about Maori carvers, composers, theologians, painters -

Carey: I travelled most of the length of both islands, and I found myself being treated as something of an oddball by tourist operators and other tourists, because I was interested in New Zealand culture and history. In Matamata I stopped at an information centre which was obviously set up largely to cater to fans of Lord of the Rings. I didn't want to visit the nearby remains of Hobbiton, though - I wanted to find some local sites associated with Maori history. The staff at the information centre were unable to give me any tips. Isn't this weird? Tolkien's fantasy, which was constructed thousands of miles away, is acknowledged, but not the real history of New Zealand. But the Waikato is the most transformed, the Anglicised part of New Zealand, in my experience. It feels conquered. England has been imported in bulk - and not the England I like, the rough heaths and downs and mining towns of the north where I grew up, but the twee faux-rural commuter villages of the south, with their picket fences and well-mown lawns...

SH: It's sad, because Matamata and its environs have a fascinating history. Matamata began life as an island pa in a huge forested swamp. It was close to the home of Wiremu Tamihana, the principal creator of the King movement. He consructed a utopian community down the road from the present-day township, and he marshalled his followers during the Waikato war in a pa not far to the west. But that history might be too messy for the folks at the information centre...

Carey: I learned something of the King movement in Waharoa, a little town up the road from Matamata beside a railway junction and a disused dairy factory. I met a group of Maori living communally on tribal land there, and one of them was a senior operative in the movement - he apparently played a key role in selecting the latest King. We talked over a few beers. But I had to wander off on my own to find Waharoa - no one would have recommended it to me...

I don't want to write off the whole of the tourist trail here. There are some remarkable sights. The South Island is extraordinary - the scale of the landscape is enough to impress anyone used to Cumbria's hills as exemplars of wild beauty. But it's strangely hard, given the quality of roads and communications here, to escape the tourist trail. Backpackers' hostels, information centres, even maps - they all direct you to the next 'sight'. In the evenings you find everyone in the hostel sitting around drinking and talking about which sights they have and haven't seen. Mt Cook, Fox Glacier, those pancake rocks...they tick them off. It's like a game...

SH: What advice would you give to the New Zealand tourist industry?

Carey: I don't think it's listening! I was excited by some of the places the tourist trail bypasses - places where there is no hostel and where the buses don't stop. Te Kuiti, Havelock, Blackball. I think that the scenic as well as historic value of the nineteenth and early twentieth century ruins you find in places like Blackball and the area around Greymouth is under-appreciated by New Zealanders. In Yorkshire you can visit old mine and factory sites, but these are usually in built-up areas. In a place like Blackball, where you find the ruins of industry and mines being overpowered by resurgent bush, and shadowed by wild mountains, the effect is extraordinary. It feels like two worlds are colliding. In Blackball I was given an impromptu tour by a local who taught me about the history of the mines and the history of industrial conflict in the area, and I was treated to a ghost story involving the mine manager's house by another local. The entire town had an almost ghostly feel - there was even low cloud crawling in over the mountains - but at the same time there was a feeling that it was more than simply a museum piece. I think that the story of the struggle with nature and with exploitative mining companies in that place could tell New Zealanders a lot today, when they are engaged in a debate about mining that seems, well, rhetorical and ahistorical, and when there is so much kneejerk anti-industrial thinking about on the left. And I think Blackball could attract the British tourists - it has a good pub, after all!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find this elitist.
Why can't ordinary workers take a break from their lives and have some fun?
You are poking fun at the wrong people.

10:11 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re the last photo -
'Buy one bucket' OF WHAT?

12:33 am  
Blogger pollywog said...

One if the bestest day trips we had was heading off out of Christchurch into sth canterbury in search of ancient rock paintings.

you'd think there'd be tourists everywhere but no, there was only us and i'll admit i was much appreciative of the fact too.

10:24 am  
Blogger Jessie said...

Hostels industry are more known and in demand today.

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1:39 am  
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