So Far, So Good (6)

By John Harris | January 3, 2003

So Far (6)

Viv regards travel as a sort of art, or sport. Civilization, she says, was created to give individuals safety. But with safety comes boredom, which sensitive individuals find unbearable. Certainly, Viv can’t stay around our nice suburban home in Prince George with her nice china collection and me for more than six months at a time. Because of the boredom spread by civilization, Viv and other similarly sensitive individuals are forced to devise ways to escape boredom. Art. Sports. Travel.

You cultivate certain skills, which gives you pleasure. You have to acquire languages, for example. You have to acquire knowledge of customs and history. As your skills increase, you increase the challenge in order to keep boredom back. You go to places that are, as Viv puts it, "unspoiled". What she really means is "dangerous".

Maybe, also, you take pleasure in the attention this brings you, the fans you acquire, the dangers amplified by any idiotic actions. So you tie travel into art and sports by trekking, climbing mountains etc., and writing books or making videos about your activities. And you compete with other artists and athletes for attention.

As with any art or sport, the ground keeps shifting. You cannot do the same thing twice without introducing boredom, or inviting ridicule. You follow Chatwin, who cashed in when he latched onto Butch and Sundance in Patagonia, following their hoofprints north through Argentina and Bolivia. You hear from a taxi driver of a man whose great-great-grandfather was one of the four Bolivian soldiers who successfully ambushed Butch and Sundance. For ten bolivianos, the driver will take you to him. You learn from the campesino that each soldier took a boot for a souvenir. For twenty bolivianos you can see this boot. Look! It has bullet holes in the toe! It must be one of Butch’s boots. For forty bolivianos, the campesino will sell it to you. Of course, he does not want to part with this treasure, but his son needs allergy medicine.

The shifting of the ground doesn’t interest Viv very much. Her particular skill is for the next move, identifying the most promising of what to her is an infinitude of possibilities. "This place is spoiled," she says of the campesino and his boot. "Too many tourists have been here."

We’re in Tupiza, near where the famous outlaws were ambushed. Tour agencies are running tourists by the hundreds, on horseback, out into the badlands where there are at least a dozen authentic gravesites for Butch and Sundance. You can rent a Stetson if you didn’t happen to bring one.

"Of course, this all happens because of people like you."

I’m not complaining, but I am interested, in a way that Viv regards as morbid, in how travel contributes to civilization, spreads safety and boredom. How it moves past where colonialism left off, how it supplements corporate capitalism, pitting what I believe is a superior form of civilization against the inferior forms that Viv and I visit.

Viv finds this attitude despicable. "Why do you think we’re better than them?"

"They still put things like family connections and sexual roles ahead of bureaucratic efficiency. Over perfect safety, in other words."

What I want to say is that we’re the tourists. What I want to say, thinking about our hotel in Tupiza, is that we attach our toilet seats to the toilet bowls so we don’t snowboard off the porcelain and into the shower when we have to get up at night. But Viv doesn’t see this as important, and also seems to believe that what I regard as the superior form of civilization is heading straight for oblivion.

But I’ve discovered that I can always corner her with the sexual argument, especially since last year when she spent two months in a chaddor touring Iran, and came back an ardent supporter of
George Bush.

"If only we could nuke the guys and leave the women intact," she says.

Some things, like oppressive roles for women, are wrong. And some things, like equality, are right. And we’ve got equality.

"Sexual roles?"

"Yeah. Remember that idiot we met at the cafe yesterday? Tony? The guy in the pointy alpaca toque, the woven alpaca vest, and the alpaca shoulder bag loaded with coca leaves and banana hash?"

"At least he had the guts to live out here with a campesino family and learn some Quechua."

"Sure. No doubt he can milk alpacas too, and grow quinoa. But remember he told us how he made a point of helping the lady of the hut with her washing. How he made a point of talking to her?"

"Good for him."

"He’s destroying their civilization."

"He’s helping them evolve."


"Why do you call him an idiot? He’s on your side, isn’t he?"

"He doesn’t know what he’s doing. It’s like fighting alongside a goon. He’s effective, but embarrassing. A superior civilization should produce superior individuals."

"In other words, I’m Tony, and you’re superior."

"You’re you, I’m me, and Tony’s an idiot. You don’t worry about destroying their civilization. You just want to make your way through it to the next airport and the next civilization, so you can make your way through that to the next airport."

Viv’s problem is that she thinks only in terms of individuals. Just because she booted her previous husband who drank too much, taking the larger house from him, and just because she maintains a position of superiority over me because I’m not as brave as her, and just because she’s always worked at great jobs as a medical lab tech, a school teacher, and now a travel writer, she thinks that women have never really been oppressed. Sure, she admits, there are barriers to sexual equality, but a real woman overcomes them. Like, for example, Elizabeth I, Jane Austen, Mary Anning, and Anna Jameison.

I know things differently. As a naturally timid person, I understand that boredom can be overcome, but only covertly unless you’re like Viv, Sir Richard Francis Burton, and the people listed above. Safety must be enjoyed at any cost. Some forms of civilization are better at providing safety than others. My own materialistic, secular, scientific, bureaucratic civilization, that made toilet seats to be attached to the porcelain toilet bowls that it also made, is the best one.

So I accompany Viv, frisking hotels, cafes, and tour agencies. I see myself as a modern conquistador. See how tall I am! In Bolivia, the average for males is 5′ 3". Note my perfect teeth (every one of them filled with platinum or something equally unaffordable to Bolivians). Note how good my eyesight is (behind spectacles). See how young I am for my sixty years! In Bolivia, half the population is dead by that age, most from untreated illnesses. I am immune to malaria, though of course the Larium I take causes a certain paranoia, which in some males results in the murder of wives. Also, yellow fever, and a host of other tropical diseases cannot touch me. My GoreTex repels rain but allows my skin to breathe. I can, through American Express and more recently through bank machines, access incredible sums of money.

I perceive things that Viv doesn’t think are important. Like the toilet seats. I point out that, in the hotel room, the TV doesn’t face the headboard, the table is too tall for the chairs, the light is bad. The jeep, I point out to her, is not the new Pathfinder pictured in the tour agency’s brochure, but a Land Rover, built back in the 1950s when it was still thought that the British could make cars. Furthermore, the tires are bald, the rubber boots inserted to protect the tube sticking out around the wheel rim. And those tires are "Joyriders," made in China.

And so it goes. What really hurts is that the locals like Viv. They recognize a free spirit, running from boredom. Me they hate. They intuit what I’m after.

Yet I’m merely a simple foot soldier. Viv’s the general. The guidebook girl, not the goof standing beside her in the "The Keg" sun visor and the North Face shorts, is one who’s really going to screw them over.

1356 w January 3, 2003


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