Déjà vu today.
In period-piece movies there’s always a scene where the camera follows a character as he strides through a town in his armor/dusty chaps/waistcoat/toga, weaving a path between horses getting shoed/drunkards getting tossed out of swinging saloon doors/matchstick girls huddled over vents/centurions on their way to war. In this sequence, epoch notwithstanding, there’s always some footage of smoke rising from foodstalls, voices arguing loudly off-camera, jostling, smells of rotting food, maybe some street musicians. I’d never given a thought to the Chinese Muslim community, but Xi’an harbors one thriving enclave, and today it was my turn to be the character strolling through its market.
A taxi driver’s misinformed turn led us to these narrow alleys,
where cracks in iron street stoves belched out flame and oil in big
woks crackled as it fried sizzling meat. Sinewy raw mutton hung from
awnings and chicken carcasses lay on cutting boards next to amputated
claws. Grains and nuts and dried fruit filled large canvas sacks,
spices and tea smaller ones. The streets were ancient and dusty, but
not dirty, and there were no flies in the meat. Bathing in clouds of
white steam a man untopped an enormous wooden steamer to reveal a rack
of doughy white buns, and then another, and six more underneath.
Stylized, heavily meringued cakes rested in glass cases, and songbirds
chirped behind bamboo bars. A woman weighed a case of fruit on a big
bronze scale as her husband and his friends played dominoes on the
sidewalk. In the recesses of a dimly-lit store I could see a Western
mannequin wearing Muslim headgear and clothes. Briefly we slipped into
a mosque, and the sounds and street dust melted away. Wizened men in
white caps shuffled around under signs that juxtaposed Arabic lettering
with Chinese characters. Carefully manicured shrubs encircled the bell
tower—the mosque had a pagoda’s eaves. When a stooped man, bald with an
ancient white beard, noticed my dad filming him, he burst into laughter
at the absurdity of the cinematographic subject. Then my dad showed him
the footage on the camera’s little screen, and his expression turned to
awe, prompting a mass of old men assemble and gaze wonderingly,
clucking and chuckling (Très The Gods Have Gone Crazy.)
I hadn’t felt like there’d been anything to write about since leaving
Beijing. To be sure, we’d seen much that had been beautiful—Xi’an’s
terra cotta warriors, a dance performance (more Vegas revue than T’ang
dynasty, but whatever)—but none of it had been remarkable in the
literal sense: worth writing about. Our visits had been too scripted to
be anything but cliché: we saw the sights, we learnt the history,
people tried to sell us shit. The end. But our stumble into Xi’an’s
Muslim neighborhood provoked and revived me. I had to wonder, though:
was I just falling into cliché again, even if it was better masked?
In January I was in Ecuador with my family. We took a two-hour ride the roof of a train that follows the steepest rail track in the world, the Nariz del Diablo, which zigzags down into an Andean valley and then goes up again the same way. Even though I’d been prepared after reading Erzulie Coquillon's travelogue, I was slightly nauseated at the blatant touristification—I don’t think there was a single Ecuatorian on the roof except the kids selling beers in buckets and men renting out ass cushions. The overweight Brits next to me hurled lollipops at the gap-toothed kiddies trainside, some of whom lunged for them, others who stared back disdainfully. By the end of the two hours most people had given up watching the scenery and were chatting up their neighbors, exchanging hostel names and bus schedules. It felt like a hippied-out upside-down version of a bus tour.
The Nariz voyage was packed, but then at Alausi everyone decamped,
including my sister and mom, backpacks bobbing down the streets. When
my dad and I reboarded an hour later for Rio Bamba, seven hours down
the line, the only people left on the roof, to our surprise and
delight, were he, I, and the three train engineers.
Now we felt like travelers, not just vulgar tourists. The scenery wasn’t as pristinely alpine; we went by a gaunt cement plant, near crumbling walls painted with last decade’s political slogans, through rusty, dusty townships littered with Pilsener bottles and Dorito bags. (By beautiful valleys filled with grazing sheep and waving shepherds too.) We got dirty, grimy, sunburnt, sore. All of a sudden it didn’t feel commercial and culturally imperialistic—it was real travel now. The tone had completely changed—or did it? What made the difference? I’m still figuring it out.
The same quandary reared its ugly head when I thought about the Muslim neighborhood. Surely there is a difference between wandering through its backalleys and visiting the Great Wall (or the Tour Eiffel or the Statue of Liberty or Chichen Itza), swarming with tourists and their eternal accompaniments: tour guides holding up little flags and spewing facts through a megaphone, and people selling jade Buddhas or biographies of Eiffel or a lighter in the shape of Lady Liberty or an authentic Olmec face mask, all of which you, amigo, can have, por un buen precio. But while I’m eschewing what to many people is their “authentic” China/Paris/NYC/Mexico experience, I’m still seeking ones of my own. And something bothers me about the elation I feel whenever I feel I’ve gotten the “real deal.” Mexico was full of those made-for-the-scrapbook moments: the market in Zaachila (“National Geographic come alive” I wrote in my journal), the vacant beach at Ventanilla, the bonfire at Mazunte, and so on. But aren’t I still just another hippie backpacker looking for good stories to bring home? How is that any different from Walt and Dot, who can’t wait to put the pics of them in front of the Parthenon on the mantel in Omaha?
There’s a significant problem, obviously, with my aversion to tourism and other tourists; it’s totally hypocritical, since I’m as much a tourist as any of them. I can only say in my defense that I bet I’m in good company—we all like feeling like explorers. But what differentiates “real travel” (does it even exist, or is the concept just another of Tennenhouse’s nostalgic fictions?) from the flailing search for foreign kicks? Is my hunger for gritty adventure and street food and conversation with locals genuine, or am I trying to fulfill an imperialistic fantasy for “authenticity?” Do I read too much MCM? I know the answer to one of those questions for sure.
Thoughts are welcome.
* Have finished Tiziano Terzino’s “A Fortune-Teller Told Me” (irritating but compelling, irritatingly so in fact) and am working onFoucault’s “The Order of Things”—can you tell?