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3 ways to narratively sanitize a place & 1 way to dirty it.

1. Curacao’s Slave Museum… All We Want is the Beach!

I am at lunch with other travel writers at a new restaurant overlooking Central Park. There’s wine and steak and pasta tossed with a type of mushrooms whose name I can’t pronounce, and later there will be panna cotta, accompanied by a shot of espresso.

We’ve been invited to learn more about a property in Curacao, a luxury resort. Somehow, a dialysis clinic, a treehouse, and Rembrandt (I think) paintings all figure into the story. Then, someone mentions the slave museum.

“Oh, that!” one of the writers says, waving her hand dismissively, as if to sweep away her own little giggle. “No one wants to see that on their Caribbean vacation!”

I make the mistake of responding, saying that there’s actually a large–and growing–market of travelers who are very much interested in sites and stories related to the African diaspora. And because I happen to be interested in them–those travelers and the diaspora–I mention a couple other places to illustrate my point.

“You are so funny!” she says, shaking her head. “Just. Too. Precious. Really.” She suppresses another giggle. “Listen,” she says, getting serious, “all anyone really wants is the beach. Right?”

I don’t say anything.

She goes back to her dessert.

2. “It was hard for the whites, too.”- Plantation Tour, Upstate, South Carolina

We are standing on the porch of a rather modest main house at a plantation, trying to make sense of the docent’s narration. The slave quarters (or, excuse me, the “quarters of the enslaved people”) are gone, no one really knows which crops were grown here, and life was hard for whites, too. Or that’s the story, anyhow.

We tour the outdoor kitchen and hear how the women folk of all colors were probably really friendly with each other. Probably.

“How could life have been hard if you had people cooking your meals, schooling your kids, and doing all your labor?” Francisco asked me later.

I wasn’t sure if he wanted an answer.

3. “Delete the deer ticks.” -State tourism client

“We don’t feel that mentioning deer ticks is necessary; it certainly is not a positive attribute of [the location].”

4. Partial NPR Transcript, Oysters: From the Gulf to the Table

“NORRIS: You know, some restaurants around the country are beginning to put up signs that say: We don’t serve seafood or shellfish from Louisiana. I was in New York yesterday, I saw one of those signs.

Mr. FAHEY: Hmm.

NORRIS: Does that worry you?

Mr. FAHEY: Yes, it worries us very much. Extreme precautions are being taken at this point to ensure that what we do have access to is wholesome, and in fact it is. That’s something we’re going to have to overcome and I think it will take years.

If we are able to survive this, if the beds don’t get destroyed, we’ll still have years of work to do to overcome perception problems that are setting in right now, as we speak.

NORRIS: Mr. Fahey, you sound very weary.

Mr. FAHEY: I’m tired. We have – we’re working twice as hard to do about 25 percent as much. And it grates on you after a while. And just seeing the images of that thing spewing poison into our beautiful Gulf, it just sucks it out of you. It sucks the life out of you.


20 responses »

  1. 1. Shocking. Or is it?
    2. Wow.
    3. Why so many people come back from their vacations/travels disappointed – expectations that are built up that are impossible to fulfill.
    4. Sad.

  2. I’m going to copy Carlo’s format.

    1. Is that a common sentiment on press trips?
    2. It was hard for the whites because there was no indoor plumbing! It was hot! No electricity! Totally comparable to SLAVERY.
    3. Will you tell me where the deer ticks are so I don’t go there?
    4. I heard that NPR story, too. Really, really sad, especially when I think of the shrimpers and fishers I met when I lived in New Orleans/St. Bernard. I’d be weary too if I had to pull through Katrina and now this mess.

    • 1. Not necessarily.
      2. I bit my tongue and refrained from stating exactly that: hard is totally relative.
      3. A certain state that starts with P and ends with A.
      4. That guy did sound weary.

  3. “Delete the deer ticks” has something of a haiku brilliance to it. Or a PR business card.

  4. The writer in #1 sounds like she could be from the Housewives of Orange County… ugh.

  5. 1 and 2: really? some people need to have better grasp of reality. Great post.

  6. I think the idea is to cater to the status quo – follow marketing procedures. I might have gotten mad enough to yell at that woman from example one. Holy cow, what idiocy!

    And #2. WTF? I guess they have to cater to those that fear white guilt so they don’t ruin their trips. Infuriating. But I suppose it’s that way in history classes from that part of the world, too. Sad.

    • Kate-
      Yeah, after going to two different plantations and hearing this same sort of narrative spin, I felt like asking, “What do you learn in docent school, exactly?”

  7. #2 – Have you read “The Cabin and the Parlor; or Slaves and Masters” by Charles Jacob Peterson? It was a direct response to “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” that attempted to prove that life was harder (or harder) for the white folks.

    Story goes something like this:

    • White aristocratic family separated after death of patriarch
    • Beautiful unmarried daughter is forced to work
    • Young son dies of poverty in the North
    • Fugitive slaves are worse off under wage labor than slavery
    • Former slaves secretly provide for white family
    • White Mr. Walsworth comes to the rescue, marries the daughter and buys back the estate

    Voice of Peter the former slave (actual quote from book…no lie)

    “Eh! de life of de slave is hard, I ‘fess. But harder is dat on de white man in season, ‘specially when de Lord sends poverty on de widders an’ orphans.” (Stokes, 44)

  8. I’ve read plenty about how awful the slavery experience was for the slaves.

    But it wasn’t until I visited a South Carolina plantation in August, that I gained a visceral understanding of how bone crushingly oppressive slavery was.

    There were a few sanitized “explanations” concerning the slave quarters etc. But they were faded and in disrepair.

  9. 1. Sadly I’ve encountered a few like her on press trips – narrow-minded writers who write for narrow-minded readers, and sadder still I have ran into a few of her type of readers while traveling – they only want to sit on a beach, never leave the resort, don’t learn anything about their location, don’t interact with locals (beyond ordering cocktails), and think that the jerk-chicken buffet on Fridays means that they’ve tried the local cuisine….big sigh…

    2. Appalling. She should be fired. And slapped.

    3. Another big sigh. This is why I never believe the brochures, and why user-generated review sites are so popular. When will they learn? My guess: never.

    4. I listen to NPR all day long, and remember that story. Another case of main-stream media creating mass-hysteria where it doesn’t belong, just to get attention in our media-saturated lives. Even bigger sigh.

    For writers who do care, and who try to inform/educate/entertain with truth and authenticity, it often feels like we’re just one tiny squeak in a cacophony online/offline voices, but at least we should be able to sleep better at night. Hopefully.

  10. Julie, you handled that woman in number one really well. I don’t know what the hell I would’ve done, but I’m fairly sure it would’ve involved losing it. That is just awful and what makes me sorta hate the term “travel writer.” Its become so narrow because there are so many narrow-minded travel writers like this woman.

    And yes, the deer ticks! My boyfriend and I are up in Ontario right now, spending a month working deep in the woods. My friend’s family runs the land, and told us, in detail, about everything we might experience here, except for the FOUR different kinds of blood-sicking insects here. I am literally covered in bites — huge, bruising ones. I look like I got beat up and thrown in the gutter.

    Anyway, I love this. Great idea for a post.

  11. #1 It’s a shock when you meet people like this and you are faced with the reality that they really do exist in 2010.

    #2 I went to high school in GA and I remember visiting a plantation house and leaving wondering about the lives of the slaves. Now I know why.

    #3 There is “no” malaria or dengue fever in Thailand either.

    #4 Sad, sad, sad.


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