infinity on repeat

"It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality. It seems, in the last analysis, to have something to do with our self-preservation; and that, no doubt, is why the expression of it, the sound of its words, helps us to live our lives.”

Category: yucatan travelog

down the documentary rabbit hole

“A post-modern ethnography is a cooperatively evolved text consisting of fragments of discourse intended to evoke in the minds of both reader and writer an emergent fantasy of a possible world of common-sense reality, and thus to provoke an aesthetic integration that will have a therapeutic effect. It is, in a word, poetry – not in its textual form, but in its return to the original context and function of poetry, which, by means of its performative break with everyday speech, evoked memories of the ethos of the community and thereby provoked hearers to act ethically.” –Stephen Tyler, from “Post Modern Ethnography: From Document of the Occult to Occult Document”

“…although the universal juridicism of modern society seems to fix limits on the exercise of power, its universally widespread panopticism enables it to operate, on the underside of the law, a machinery that is both immense and minute, which supports, reinforces, multiplies the asymmetry of power and undermines the limits that are traced around the law. The minute disciplines, the panopticisms of everyday, may well be below the level of emergence of the great apparatuses and the great political struggles.” –Michel Foucault

i told you i would melt

“We must never allow the future to collapse under the burden of memory.”
~Milan Kundera

By the end of our trip, all of my nights ended tequila drunk and a thousand feet deep in a philosophical shit‐shooting session. It makes sense. You cannot talk about tourism for long before you have to start laying down some serious theoretical definitions.

I don’t think tourism can be fixed within its own terms, because tourism is rooted in bad faith. It must go. What are we touring other than power and control? In practice, to “be a tourist” is to surrender one’s agency. After about a week in the Yucatan, I started to feel extremely hostile and restless, like I couldn’t breathe. I was losing interest in the sites and I strayed from the group as much as possible, just to look at something no one told me to look at. I didn’t understand what my problem was, because wanderlust runs through my veins. I travel whenever the opportunity presents itself, because travelling has always made me feel so free. I wasn’t feeling free. I was feeling like a puppet… Then I realized that I had traveled before, but I had never been a tourist. I had never been on a trip with a tour guide. A tour guide, however well meaning, defines the group against their surroundings and constantly directs their gaze. The experience is mediated and implicitly ineffectual. I had been existing vicariously through a guide. But once I grasped that underlying conceptual framework of tourism, I regained my agency. I had the freedom to choose how I would operate within the situation. So, tourism is crippling by design…  and I don’t know how to demolish such a powerful industry. But it seems that tour guides are the symbolic prophets of tourism, so maybe the model could at least be decentralized.

I know I have criticized the tour guide model a lot, but I just want to clarify that I don’t think tour guides themselves are dehumanizing or evil people… and the same for tourists. Getting to know our tour guide, Miguel, was one of the best parts of this trip. He understands people so well.  When I would get lost in my head thinking about all those ideas up there^, he would always notice and tell me to stop worrying. He taught me so much, really. So much. Namaste & gracias mille, Miguel! 

Other thoughts lingering from the trip~
1. Sometimes you wake up to a viper by your hammock and that’s ok.
2. I keep collecting clues even though I still don’t know the mystery.
3. There is nothing we can learn from hatred.
4. yolo
5. When you tell someone you don’t believe in the self, be prepared to eat your words.
6. My childhood wish came true— to see the flamingos take flight

i can die in only 0.125 seconds per frame

“Today, I feel evil.”

That was all I wrote in my journal on May 22. I was starting to get really sad about rules, how they are always multiplying, and how love has somehow gotten all tangled up by them.

I went on a walking tour of some strangers’ most sacred space— a cemetery. The celebration of death is one of the most holy rituals of the hybrid Mayan‐Catholic belief system. The thought is that death is no end to life, but a mark in the cycle of life.  When someone dies, their body is preserved in a way that keeps the hair and some flesh from deteriorating.  The corpses are placed inside a small wooden boxes with no lid, and then placed on shelves. Families come to the cemetery to celebrate and learn from the dead……… we went to tour it.

I am not religious. I don’t believe in any metaphysical truth to reality, and I don’t believe in the existence a fixed  material world… I guess I would consider myself a pragmatic existential humanist. i.e. reality is generated by experience. There is nothing governing the human will outside of our physical limitations, so the world is a constant product of our will to experience it.  (Yeah… I’m still working on it.)  I don’t believe knowledge is anything but attaining consciousness of experience. So there isn’t really any idea that is legitimate or illegitimate, because the idea has been produced. If I have an ethic, it is to value humanity and liberate experience.

It is our ability to generate experience that can free us from the power structures that have presented us with a reality as-such.  Refusing to let a fixed idea define my reality is the constant struggle, but also the necessary hope. And that is why May 22 was the day I felt most evil. I let someone define my experience for me before it happened. To me, this was the ultimate example of how objectifying and anti-humanist tourism really is. Even though I didn’t think it was ethical for us to tour the cemetery, I participated. I perpetuated the delusion, I became the delusion. Before we entered the cemetery, my tour guide gave us a long talk. He heavily implied that our presence was an exploitative, intrusive, and disrespectful privilege…  and then we followed him in and let him direct our experience. So of course, the experience unfolded exactly as it was prescribed.  I mean, that is the very core of tourism though… Having a guided experience.

To me, experience is all I have, it is my only core truth, the closest thing I understand as sacred. So, my sacred center was annihilated by participating in the annihilation of another person’s sacred center. And honestly, I don’t even know whether or not our presence there would offend the people who consider it sacred. But the intimacy of the place and fact that we “toured” it offended me, and I still did it. He said we could take pictures, so I did. But the entire time, I felt guilty. I was pretending like I could tour humanity. So, it was dehumanizing to the tourist, at the very least.

backwards astronauts

A lot of new age spiritual tourism happens at Palenque, so I tried to capture my imagination of a spiritual seeker’s experience of the space. The ruins are blurred and the strange looking life-form takes the stage. It is a new being, sprouting from ancient beliefs.

I am going to be honest, that picture pretty much captures how I was feeling about my presence in the site. I was almost completely disenchanted with the whole touring‐Mayan‐ruins thing by the time we visited Palenque… which is a shame, because it is by far the most beautiful site we visited. But by the last leg of the trip, I couldn’t even pretend that I understood the real significance of these sites. Our tour guide was constantly telling us bits and pieces of history related to one ruin and then moving us along to the next. I couldn’t process all of the disjointed information, nor could I process what it meant for me to be experiencing these sites in the current historical moment.

Also, I am getting suspicious of archaeology—both in theory and in practice. It seems a little… recursive, almost. Why do we spend so much time trying to dissect the past? Has archaeology really done anything to better our lives today? I mean, I get that these places are beautiful and that Mayan civilization was fascinating and “advanced”, but do we really think that lusting for the past is going to create a more livable tomorrow? Because even if we did find out that Mayans were using internet a thousand years ago or something crazy like that… why does it matter right now? Archaeological discoveries seem to only feed the desire to find more. Do people truly believe that archaeology will someday uncover the key to end all human suffering?

I also have trouble with knowing that most of these sites were excavated by white men. The most privileged group in the modern world. Of course they showed up in Mexico when they realized they could get their hands all over history again! They piece together their best guess of how Mayan Civilization looked and worked, and then go to people in Mexico of Mayan descent and preach that they need to know about this stuff because it is “their story”….. But is it? Who wrote it?  Why do we think it is okay to tell people how to define themselves? And how would you feel if all of a sudden a bunch of foreigners showed up in your neighborhood, started tearing the earth apart to build an enormous replica of the past, stuck your name on it, then charged people admission to come snoop around?

let’s pretend we don’t exist

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” ~Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

There was a quiet strangeness about studying tourism in the Yucatan while experiencing tourism first hand. Our small group travelled with a tour guide for sixteen days, and most of our class conversations were directed toward finding a humanizing mode of tourism. But even on the last night of the trip, the dialogue drove itself into a dead end. Nothing seemed viable for a sustainable solution to the problems tourism creates.

Because tourism is an impossible equation.

We always returned to this questionː is tourism a newer, gentler form of imperialism? I think the logic here assumes that imperialism is as an isolated chapter in history that could be returned to… But history is a constant flow of action‐responses. Since the word imperialism first entered our language, it has become a part of our shared code for navigating and understanding our relationships.  So, I do think tourism is a response to imperialism, and a largely affirmative one… but the aspects of tourism that we criticize are not at all unique to tourism. It is the perpetuation of imperialist ideology in our language.  The pervasive idea of culture is created and sustained by media, and is  now being packaged and sold as tourism.Culture is a super powerful ideological system because it relies on a fear and fascination with the other, and it has been inextricably linked to language and place. Tourism is dangerous and dehumanizing because it sells an impossible goal—to temporarily stop the chain of interactions that defines our existence. It is a behavioral code of demolishing self‐generation and agency.


“every way of seeing is also a way of not seeing”

I am what I see.

I become every detail of my surroundings—looking closer constantly, obsessively searching for patterns, meditating on the curvature of peeling paint, morphing objects by changing angles.  I like how billions of people inhabit this earth and if time stopped for just one second, every single one of those people would have a different image in their visual scan. I like how no one can own the thing being looked upon.

I am hyper-aware the materials around me, and even more so when I travel. Some of the hyper-awareness comes from my unfamiliarity with the place & from paying extra attention so I don’t get lost… but mainly it is the sheer freedom to indulge in my gaze, to revel in the feeling of floating anonymously, almost invisible. It is pure ecstasy to wander alone through a strange city and feel yourself slowly disintegrate.

Loving to see also means loving the limitations of seeing. I know I will never capture the air condensing, and I know I will never capture the essence of a person in an image. I am starting to understand why some people believe taking a photograph of a person is an attempt to steal a part of their soul… photographing a stranger without asking is robbing them of their self-definition, because whatever story that photo will go on to tell will be the photographer’s story, not the subject’s. Telling a true, whole, human story is the spirit of making films, so as a filmmaker I have to take constant care to avoid voyeur. This is even more dangerous in still photography… I’ve noticed that in the past months, faces have appeared less and less in my photographs. Of course, I will take pictures of my friends and family, but we use pictures of our loved ones to celebrate our histories together, not to trap them in space and time.

But people love to take pictures of other people. A part of me wonders why that has become such a common practice, especially in tourism. Tourists take pictures of locals as if they are statues in museums. I really hate it. When I took the above photo, I had been filming the waves wash in on the shore of Puerto Morelos. The two girls approached me and started asking me questions in Spanish. I love kids so I liked talking to them even though we really couldn’t understand each other. They wanted me to take their picture… I pretty much always do whatever a kid tells me to do, but I felt vaguely guilty about the situation. I asked them what their names were, but I didn’t have anything to write with and I have already forgotten what they were. So now, like tons of other tourists, I own a picture of a face for which I have no name.

hola, wtf r u doing here?

I spent most of my flight to Cancun reading about this Cohen guy’s categories of tourists… and a lot of literature on tourism is super critical of tourists, especially of mass tourists… Who are the types to stay in big resorts. So as I finished my reading, they were finally getting to the back of the plane with drinks. I asked for coffee, but then the older couple next to me ordered bloody marys and I realized that was a much better idea… So we had our bloody marys and began talking. They were en route to Cancun because they won an all‐expense paid vacation. They’d be staying in an all‐inclusive resort and doing the whole retired‐n‐chillin thing, but they’d been to Cancun several times before. I asked if they’d ever traveled outside of Cancun or gone anywhere else in Mexico, and they said no. They were about my parents’ age, which seems to be the lead generation of mass tourism. My generation seems to lean towards the whole staying‐in‐a‐hostel‐gives‐me‐the‐right‐to‐bitch‐about‐tourism‐even‐though‐I’m‐still‐sort‐of‐being‐a‐tourist thing.

So………. we didn’t stay in Cancun (gracias a dios), but drove about 45 minutes out of the city to Puerto Morelos. It is a tiny town, and obviously a port town, so there is a really interesting mix of people. Most of the stores and restaurants seemed to be geared toward tourism, but we saw very few tourists or foreigners. When we would get into a conversation with someone, we always heard the same thing—we were the first Mississippians anyone had ever seen here, and not many tourists from the states come here at all. Most are from Germany or France. Some from California. I did meet a family from California one night, and they were really wonderful. They were definitely not of the mass tourist persuasion…. more of the Woodstock persuasion.  Jeje ;)

Mexico in travel websites

     Yucatan Today entices visually, with bright colors, graphics, and photographs.. The site uses banner advertisements of spas, hotels, and the like. It seems to be geared toward prospective ex‐pats, or at least the demographic. The menu options are topics, destinations, eventsaccommodations, restaurants, and real estate. Even the order in which these options are listed creates a sort of narrative… A person who is English speaking and wealthy enough to vacation goes to the Yucatan, verses his or herself in the topics relevant to that region, visits beautiful historical sites while dining out and staying in nice hotels, and eventually decides to look for real estate in the are and move. The site seems to be assimilating parts of Mexican and Yucatecan culture into a product that will appeal to a certain audience. The advertised sites and media feed into a lot of the hype surrounding the Mayan calendar predictions for 2012.  They seem to feed whatever audience they think will come. I wonder who runs this site, honestly.

Cancun Information is the official site for tourism in Cancun. This site looks more like Yucatan Today, and it is even more geared toward luxury seeking masses. Instead of advertising Haciendas like the Yucatan Today site, this lists all-inclusive resorts—which are HORRIBLE for the local economy. There is no attempt to sell Mexican culture here… Nothing reflects, informs, or depicts anything about the culture. There are photos of white skinned, blonde haired models lounging in the bright blue ocean. The list of dining options includes Italian, Oriental, Fine Dining, and steakhouses.. with Mexican food as a mere item on the list. You’ll start to notice that I absolutely detest Cancun…..

The U.S. Department of State’s travel website offers a completely opposite  presentation of Mexico. There are no colorful graphics or advertisements, and all of the information is organized by a very streamlined and straightforward design. Rather than listing destinations and tourist hotpots like the Yucatan Today, these are the topics on the menuː

  • Country Description
  • Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP)/Embassy Location
  • Entry/Exit Requirements for U.S. Citizens
  • Threats to Safety and Security
  • Crime
  • Victims of Crime
  • Criminal Penalties
  • Special Circumstances
  • Medical Facilities and Health Information
  • Medical Insurance
  • Traffic Safety and Road Conditions
  • Aviation Safety Oversight
  • Children’s Issues

The narrative is very clear here… Go to Mexico, be prepared for danger. Of course, part of this reflects the way the entire website is structured, but these are the very concerns that circulate among Americans about travelling to Mexico. There is nothing about culture, food, or really anything positive.

Mexico in American newspapers~ half the story, at best.

The mainstream news coverage of Mexico fluctuates between presenting Mexico as a glorified luxury getaway destination, and a place of socially deviant mayhem. That, combined with the tourism industry Americans rely on while visiting Mexico, creates an awful sense of otherness.

While I was waiting for my flight out of Atlanta to Cancun, I a USA Today at the newsstand with an article titled “Authorities find 49 bodies dead on Mexican highway” on the front page. This is classic sensationalized journalism. Rather than covering the social, economic, and political structures that have contributed to and sustained the drug‐related violence in Mexico, this just lists the result—casualties— and presents them as mere numbers. There is no history, no narrative, no detailed investigation. Just a blatant statement that drug cartels in Mexico are violent. Which is, of course, all most Americans know about them already. This sort of shallow coverage, I think, contributes to the fact flocks of Americans travel to Mexico every year, yet rarely stray out of the “safety” of the all‐inclusive resorts in Cancun. Most of the money spent by tourists in Mexico only sustains the tourism industry, which is largely owned and operated by international corporations. Perhaps the drug cartels and violence is a result of a starving local economy? I don’t know, because the system that robs Mexico of economic autonomy is the same system that regulates the media that covers it….. But I do know that I never felt unsafe or threatened during my sixteen days traveling the Yucatan peninsula and I never stayed in a resort.  Before I left, countless people warned me that a “little white American girl” walking the streets alone in Mexico was doomed for rape or kidnapping. I was suspicious of that type of generalization even before I put it to the test.  And when I did put it to the test, I realized how deluded our perception really is. Instead of danger, I found friends who I could connect with beyond our language barriers.

I also read an article in the LA Times before my departure called “Disenchantment may keep Mexicos Young Voters on Sidelines”, which I think is a much more thoughtful and humanizing coverage of Mexico. The article gives a brief history of Mexico’s 71 year long one-party rule, and discusses the new generation of voters who are extremely critical of all political parties after having witnessed both sides of the cultural revolution. I spent a few nights at The Mayan Pub in Merida getting to know some local guys who had all recently finished up the equivalent to high school. They were extremely knowledgeable & critical of Mexican politics, and most said that they were not going to vote in the upcoming presidential election. They shared my largest critique of American media & politics, which is the refusal to vote for a candidate without having the adequate information to feel fully informed of the implications of my decision. However, I noticed a huge difference between these guys and my American peers. Rather than falling to apathy, they were activists. They didn’t want to vote, but they sure as hell were going to be heard. And the political demonstration I saw in Merida confirmed that… most participants looked like they were younger than 25.

My new amigo, Orlando, & I having a chat.

 

a travel guide is a tourist’s bible

Before I left, I looked at media representing Mexico–especially media directed toward foreigners and/or tourists. These are some travel books I found, and I think each depicts a specific type of “tourist gaze”…

1. Mexico Chic This travel book represents the luxury gaze. Like Ury and Larsen theorize, the tourists’ gaze depends on his or her own sociocultural ‘centre’–their culture, language, beliefs, daily routine & practices, economic, racial, and social status. This book caters to the contemporary American fashionable female. The implied reader’s lifestyle is heavily influenced by visual and sensual pleasure. The book presents Mexico as an oasis that is isolated from a daily routine of work, offices, and suburban/urban landscapes. It entices via large, colorful photographs of hacienda suites, resorts, spas, and fine dining– all with an “authentic” Mexican flair. Tag-lined with the phrased “you can’t get it at home”, the tourist is lured into an ideal of escapism. Mexico is only partially depicted, as a place void of actual people with actual jobs and actual lives, etc.

2. Graham Greene‘s Another Mexico

PalenqueThis book offers an historical viewpoint of Mexico: a mix of travel writing, social critique, and religious protest written in the 1930′s. After converting to Catholicism, Greene traveled to Mexico and explored the religious landscape. He described Catholics as a suppressed people, ignoring the history of Spanish colonialism and imperialism. Mayan culture was significantly changed by the infiltration of Catholic Spaniards, prompting Mayan religion to take on aspects of Christianity. This syncratic practice is a key notion in the study of Mexican culture.

3. An Archaeological Guide to Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula, by Kelly Joyce

This book approaches tourism through a scholar’s lens, offering the tourist a how-to guide on a more academically grounded, therefore ‘authentic’, experience. The book emphasizes visually compelling aspects of the Yucatan as an anthropological and archaeological field, and invites the reader into an insider perspective on Mexican culture. Tourism scholars could criticise this book for perpetuating staged authenticity, as the sites listed are all run somewhat like cultural theme parks. The scholarly authority imparted by the voice in the book seems verified and objective, which could be dangerous for a tourist audience.

4. Lonely Planet: Cancun, Cozumel, and Yucatan

 

This is what I would consider a “classic” travel guide. Lonely Planet produces hundreds of guides for destinations all over the globe. The information is a survey of the Peninsula’s hotels, restaurants, museums, beaches, and cultural sites. The design has a visual and photographic emphasis, once again, with historical/cultural information in captions. The book is a self-described authority on “how to get there and get away”, and the place is presented as exotic, foreign, and other-worldly. The American tourist is instructed to see difference primarily, and there is not much about the people who inhabit Mexico today–perpetuating voyeuristic pleasure.

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