Thursday, 3 November 2011

hunting season

A tribute to those funny folks from far away who come to town to give us money…and ask ridiculous questions

If it’s tourist season, why can’t we shoot them? 

Australia being...well., pretty bloody awesome, attracts tourists like kookaburras to a barbie. There are places any local knows to avoid during hunting season, such as The Rocks, Manly, The Opera House, Taronga Zoo, Darling Harbour and Bondi Beach for starters. These Sydney ‘hot spots’ are prime real estate for camera-toting, bumpack-ready, sensible-walking-shoes-wearing, guide-book-reading tourist.
However, I love this country, so I understand their desire to come down under and I respect their willingness to commitment to the 24hour flight getting to our secluded little Island. Plus, they give us their money and plenty of amusement with their ridiculous questions. So, we put down our hunting rifles and pick up a schooner and show the northerners how it’s done Down Under.

In the arvo, back in town, we fire up the barbie and entertainment, and we’re treated to delightful inquiries like: “are there kangaroo-riding tours nearby?” or “do you bring the Koalas in at night?” It’s no wonder a few of these well meaning pioneers are K.O.ed by camera-shy big red roos each year. “Which direction is North in Australia?” is one of my favourites.
For the most part, we smile (and roll our eyes) and offer to help these wayward travelers. After all, most of us have been newcomers at one time or another. Less tolerant Queenslanders have bumper stickers on their vehicles saying, “Keep Queensland beautiful, send a tourists home on the bus.”
However, I see tourists as a fascinating breed, and a goldmine of comic entertainment; busloads of ill-prepared, funnytalking gawkers with odd backpacks, high socks and bumbags follow an umbrella-wielding guide around like loyal chooks. No matter their skin color, tourists stick out like a light beer drinker at the rugby. Could there be an easier target for lampooning?
Of course, we all like to think that we’re not nearly as na├»ve as those out-of-towners, that we’re somehow better than the clueless masses swinging their camera lenses in unison. One can’t help but feel a little superior when answering the absurd queries of puzzled visitors. But it’s not only locals who are so smug.
Picture this scene: two tourists walk in opposite directions along a dusty street of some exotic foreign land. These fearless voyagers have weathered the hardships of their soul-seeking journeys, so far from the comforts of home, with their ipods and laptops of course.
Both long for that authentic experience, that exclusive look into a mysterious world that will inspire the next self-satisfied facebook status update. Aside from the curious English of local shopkeepers, extraordinarily patient hotel managers, and confused bus ticket vendors that they’ve encountered along the way, for weeks they’ve had only their trusted guidebooks (and iPods and laptops) to keep them company on that long and lonely road.
They pass each other on the street. Although neither have seen another of their kind in weeks, neither one makes eye contact with the other. A smile would be unthinkable, each purposefully blind to the presence of a fellow traveler, each secure in the knowledge that he is the first and only outsider privileged or clever enough to find that particular corner of the world, each believing that he has singlehandedly discovered whatever tourist trap the Lonely Planet has led him to.
Why would two otherwise reasonable and friendly people, both lost as babes in the woods, purposely avoid one another?
What we have here are the classic symptoms of Marco Polo Syndrome (MPS), perhaps first diagnosed by Ernie Diaz, a blogger for the China Expat. Expats, of course, represent the uppermost caste of this nonnative hierarchy, with the matching-outfit package tourist on the bottom of the food chain. Introduce a pair of expats and they’ll quickly attempt to determine who’s been there longer, and who’s made it deeper into the local scene. Expats are equally as susceptible to this ironic form of self-deception as freshly arrived hippie backpackers. But it’s the latter who make the best entertainment.
Tourist envy associated with MPS can range from the boastful to the obsessive. I’m constantly amused by the guy ‘doing Asia’ for a month confidently regaling his companions with his mispronounced expertise of local custom. In backpacker ghettos like Bangkok’s Khao San Road or Kathmandu’s Thamel, inflated tourist egos can border on the ridiculous, as travelers round out their exotic sojourn by weaving tales of intrigue about their exclusive experience on a local bus, showing off photos with themselves posing with a village chicken, while wearing the quintessential local beer t-shirt, while generally avoiding such beer and the spicy local food, preferring the more familiar hamburger.
They can be annoying, (notice I’m using the 3rd person), but the tourist’s fascination can be like that of a child’s; sweet and innocent, if a little naughty and precocious at times. Tourists can actually help locals appreciate their own culture and environment, to find value in the things we often take for granted in our hometowns. But they can still act like idiots.
Newbies in any environment will get things wrong, trying the patience of locals, acting as though they’re the first outsider to ever taste Vegemite or a lamington, and avoiding the gaze of fellow travelers. As one of those fortunate foreigners who’s currently residing in a land to which I was invited, I’ve probably got my blinders on too.