Friday, September 5, 2014

Tourist Trips and Traps

Travel is a risky business these days.  You can be seated behind the passenger from Hell on a red eye from LAX to JFL.  You can be made to empty your pockets and shaving gear, suffer three or four infants yowling out The Anvil Chorus on a Virgin flight to Gatwick or Heathrow.  These are only the tip of the iceberg.

The day in which you are not reminded you live in an active tourist destination is a rare one.  Vehicular traffic in your city is mottled with the extravagance of out-of-state license plates.  Fleets of stretch limousines prowl such go-to areas as the courthouse, the Botannical Gardens, Stearns Wharf, and that quintessential symbol of the city, Mission Santa Barbara.

On your way to morning coffee, you with some frequency are beset by large vehicles with exaggerated shapes, meant to haul large groups of tourists about the notional whimsy of local neighborhoods.  Your attention is often co-opted by serious-looking individuals, consulting maps in confused speculation. On frequent occasion, you are invited to participate in the speculations.  

If your opinion of a worthwhile restaurant becomes a part of the speculation, you feel the squeeze of moral choice.  Do you, because you live here, keep your favorites secret because, after all, you discovered them only after long experiment?  Or do you assume your inquisitors want--actually want--the more tourist oriented venues?

Your reading materials feature inducements for travel, and with the possible exception of real estate salespersons and career coach sorts, a significant part of the work force here has something to do with tourism and transportation to exotic destinations.

Through the simple pleasures of eavesdropping at coffee houses or hidden meals at the restaurants you're tempted to hide from tourists, or while standing in cashier lines at various markets, you process the numbers of individuals who live here, visiting other tourist destinations.  Where ever its origins and destinations, tourism ranks among the more democratic activities.  Even those on bare-minimum budgets have options of free transportation to gaming destinations.

Destination is the key word here.  Whether you are reading or writing, destination becomes a default factor.  True enough, one motive for reading is to gain information.  Yet another motive is to gain experience. Still another is escape.  Being informed, experienced, and transported are potential destinations you seek in much the same way you seek these things through real time travel to real time places.

Here, the picture blurs in interesting ways.  Stories are destinations we have been "sold" on by their authors, but also by critics, teachers, and peers.  Among the many things you have come to believe about story, because of your own information, experience, and escape, is the salient belief that all story is a representation of an alternate universe.  

You do not limit this belief to the alternate universe of science fiction or fantasy.  Story impresses you because of the lingering sense that, were you to visit the locale of a particular story, you would encounter the characters from that story.  At the same time, your visit to the place of the story may overlap with the visit of another reader, but it also varies from the other reader's experience of the story.

Story also impresses you because, like the story or not, you now have some degree of connection with it.  The connection is braided with feelings, the tantalizing effects of speculation about the characters and what you would do and how you would feel in such places.

The same duality of interpretation of story inheres in response to a place and, indeed, the actual persons of that actual place.  Check the Internet comments on a given restaurant in a particular city.  One reviewer will come away preferring to have had cat food and thinking dismissive thoughts about the waitstaff while the next reviewer will speak with passion about making ritual returns to this particular city and this special restaurant.

You have many causes to envy an individual for her or his extensive travel experiences.  To pile more onus on that envy, there are your feelings about people you know who take regular vacations, reminding you of your own use of leisure time.  But you recall with the special, braided and complex warmth of long, close friendship,your conversations with Barnaby Conrad, wherein he envied what he considered your intensive reading experiences.  While he spoke, you were envying his travel experiences.

There are enjoyable similarities between the reading and writing aspects of travel as compared to the pack your suitcase and book a flight aspects of actual travel.  There are distinct differences, but for the moment, these don't concern you.  Your concerns have to do with the comparisons of travel agents, critics, reviewers, stunning destinations, awful destinations, no hot water, no suspense or concern for characters, no fluffed-up pillows with chocolate bars, no burning curiosity to read another title from the same writer.

You're concerned with the kinds of tour guides Mark Twain introduced you to in The Innocents Abroad, and the kinds of travel agents who, mindful of a potential bonus for getting you to book a particular tour, are all over you with verbal taunts and hints.  

Travel is of equal risk when the book is bad because of an unreal sense of destination or when the characters seem to have phoned in their participation, or when the alternate world for which you'd had such high hopes fails to materialize.

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