Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Adventures of Ali Baba and Vodka

Jamaica Kincaid points out that the tourist is an ugly thing: a squinting, camera-toting ball of dough who keeps bothering people who are trying to go on with their lives with silly questions barely framed in a bad mockery of the local language (if they try at all). While I'm all for traveling (a traveller is nobler than a tourist) I remember expressing disgust at people who sign up for slum tourism, for example. What do they expect out of it- to see people poorer than they had imagined possible so that they may feel happy about their own lot while also congratulating themselves for their ability to be a bleeding heart foreigner who helps the poor people by bringing in some revenue (it is arguable whether any of the money goes to the community)? Of course my holier than thou attitude takes a bit of a beating when I get to Sao Paolo or Rio and a part of me wants to take a look at the nearby favelas. This is perhaps also in part because of the danger, not despite it, though to say the truth I don't really believe that it is extremely dangerous (the ignorant tourist?).

When it comes to exoticization, I had thought of the tourist as the one with agency- the one who gawks at the local people and customs to come to some conclusion along the lines of 'how quaint'- while forgetting that the local people also have prejudices that they may be more than willing to share. There is currently a hugely popular soap opera running on Brazilian TV that becomes the topic of conversation every time my nationality is mentioned and after a lot of smiling and 'namaste'ing, I am asked questions such as "why do Indians follow the caste system?" While getting on the bus at Sao Paolo, someone asked me where I was from (this happens rarely unless I open my mouth, apparently I look Brazilian) and as the bus pulled away, he yelled "Ali Baba" after me. Tania, on the other hand, has almost awalys been greeted with the word 'vodka' when she mentions where she is from. I guess Indians can claim a slightly more varied heritage in the common Brazilian consciousness than Russia.

To be a foreigner can be a very convienient thing. People have generally been very helpful when it comes to navigation, sometimes stopping what they were doing to show us the way- some may call it mollycoddling but it's convienient and wonderful after hours of fruitlessly trying to find the place on our own, so I won't complain. We asked a cop for directions in Rio yesterday (we needed to figure out where to take a bus to the metro from) and instead of pointing out the bus stop, he gave us a ride to the metro in his car. He was very excited, in fact ecstatic at having met a Russian who speaks Portuguese and an Indian who speaks Russian. Of course we didn't mind the cool ride either. I doubt he would have done the same for people hailing from less exotic places. Maybe I should put on a bindi and start namaste-ing before any conversation with the locals :P


cringe-all said...

interesting thoughts and a very well-written piece. I could actually agree with some of it. :P
I just went back to my own blog and read an entry that tries to deal with some similar questions and now I wish I could put things as efficiently and economically as you do here, without sounding opinionated or pedantic or playing the angry victim. :)

Avec Maître said...

It's "São Paulo", bitterheart. Nice writing, though; diarrhoea sure brings out the writer in you. :-)