Tuesday, 20 July 2004

The Amazing Race 5, Episode 3

San Antonio de Areco (Argentina) - Buenos Aires (Argentina) - San Carlos de Bariloche (Argentina) - Villa Catedral (Argentina) - Cerro Catedral (Argentina) - Bahia López (Argentina)

The Amazing Race has rarely spent as long in one country or region as it has in Argentina this season, with one episode entirely in Argentina; two others partly in Argentina and partly in the most closely linked of its neighbors, Uruguay; and of course at least part of a fourth episode, starting from San Carlos de Bariloche, in Argentina again next week.

I talked last week about why this region deserves its current boom in tourism. If you are looking for more guidance to the places The Amazing Race 5 went this week, Wayne Bernhardson’s Moon Handbooks Buenos Aires (2003) is scheduled to be followed by Moon Handbooks Argentina covering the entire country in November 2004, and a more detailed regional Moon Handbooks Patagonia in 2005. (In the meantime, try the Rough Guide to Argentina if you’re going beyond B.A.)

But I wouldn’t want to be accused of blind boosterism, and as usual what’s featured in the tour brochures is only part of the story. Like the national art form, the tango, travel in Argentina and Uruguay today (the most famous cantante de tango , Carlos Gardel, is claimed by both countries) has beauty and allure, but with an undertone of melancholy.

So many ironies.

One of the most eloquent depictions of the vibrant café society on both sides of the Río de la Plata that I’ve found in English translation is Eduardo Galeano’s Days and Nights of Love and War — which depicts the members of that artistic and intellectual community as their paths of exile crossed and recrossed in one country after another in flight from a succession of military juntas. Galeano himself, now celebrated as one of the great voices not just of his country but of all the global South, found his writings suppressed in his homeland, and himself driven into exile (along with as much as 10 percent of the population of Uruguay) for almost two decades.

The most famous film about Uruguay, Costa-Gavras’ State of Siege (based on a real incident in which the Tupamaros kidnapped, interrogated, and killed the CIA’s leading trainer of Latin American torturers, the former police chief of, yet more ironically, one of the centers of American Quakerism, Richmond, Indiana), could not, of course, be filmed in Uruguay under military rule. Instead, it was shot in Chile — shortly before the elected socialist administration of President Salvador Allende was overthrown in the CIA-backed military coup that Costa-Gavras would later depict in another of his movies, Missing .

My partner and I arrived in Buenos Aires and immediately both thought, “We’d like to live here.” But of course, if we’d lived there in our teens and twenties, I’d be dead now, and she’d be in exile: I for being an outspoken leftist, and she (less outspoken if no less leftist) for being a Jew. On the other hand, is that a reason not to visit now? I don’t think so. It’s a reason to try to learn, so we don’t repeat the mistake in our country of letting threats to “security” panic us into giving up our freedom.

We felt very comfortable, and Buenos Aires felt very cosmopolitan. But we’re white. In Buenos Aires, many people who look indigenous are referred to as “Bolivian”, while people who look to be of African ancestry are referred to as “Brazilian”. (Wayne Bernhardson adds that many Argentines also refer indiscriminately to all people of Middle Eastern ancestry, such as former Argentine President Menem, as turcos or Turks.) The implicit assumption, of course, is that people who aren’t of European ancestry aren’t really Argentine. It’s not such a comfortable place for others — but then, the USA isn’t necessarily so comfortable either for members of ethnic and racial groups that aren’t thought of as “real Americans”.

Did we feel more comfortable in Argentina than in, say, India or China (where we enjoyed travelling, but sometimes found it difficult), because our racial “panic buttons” weren’t being pushed? Or because we were less conspicuous as foreigners than in a place where most of the locals have skin a different color than ourselves? Or because the differences in standards of living between rich and poor weren’t as great as they are in India (if indeed that’s the case)? I suspect it’s a bit of all of the above.

We went to Buenos Aires as tourists, and we saw the mothers of the disappeared still mourning in the Plaza de Mayo every Thursday at 3:30 p.m. We went to the annual commemoration, held again this week (with, for only the second time, the President in attendance), of the bombing of the Jewish community center in 1994. But Buenos Aires still has one of the world’s largest and most active Jewish communities, and it remains an important part of the city’s life.

And did we enjoy Argentina and Uruguay so much because the undervalued peso meant that, with U.S. dollars in our pockets, we could travel luxuriously yet cheaply? Almost certainly so, at least in part. But is that wrong? It’s hard for me to say: living conditions for Argentine tourism workers, while difficult in the ongoing economic crisis (as they seem to be for all but the ultra-rich), are still better than the people living below the water line in the crew decks of cruise ships whose flags of “convenience” let them pay Third World wages even while competing for tourist dollars with hotels and restaurants that have to comply with USA labor laws. I had lunch on Saturday with some other travel writers on a cruise ship docked in San Francisco, with a ratio of staff to guests higher than almost any USA hotel. Was it a moral failing on my part not to demand that our host, the cruise line’s publicist, tell us what the minimum wage is in the Bahamas, whose flag the ship flies? I don’t know.

Confused? So am I. Seeing differences and contradictions is the joy of travel, and the dialectic through which we learn. (I’ll be moderating a panel on “Travel as a path to peace, justice, and education” at the upcoming Peace and Justice Studies Association annual conference in October, in addition to a talk at National Geographic Society headquarters in Washington in September — details to come.) That, too, is part of the interest of travel today in the Southern Cone.

Three seasons ago, during The Amazing Race 2 , I was travelling in Northern Ireland for a BBC documentary investigating whether Northern Ireland was “ready” for international tourism. My verdict was that it wasn’t: people interested in visiting Northern Ireland, at least from the USA, are those who want to learn about the peace process that’s still too recent and too fragile for most locals to be willing to discuss it.

People I met in Argentina and Uruguay are, for the most part, no more eager to discuss the legacy of “El Proceso” than people in Ulster are to talk about that of “The Troubles”, but the civic healing has still gone much further, as discussed in Lawrence Weschler’s A Miracle, A Universe (focusing on the restoration of democracy in Uruguay in the 1980’s) and Marguerite Feitlowitz’ A Lexicon of Terror (on Argentina through the 1990’s).

Is tourism a zero-sum game? I’d like to think not — but it can only avoid that fate if travellers/tourists act on what they learn through travel, in ways sufficient to offset the almost inevitable economic and ecological costs they impose (not least through air travel, which relies on non-renewable fossil fuel, and has no “ecological” form). I doubt that’s what Expedia.com means when they say, as sponsors of the CBS broadcasts of “The Amazing Race 5”, “Don’t just travel. Travel right.” But perhaps that’s what they should mean.

Link | Posted by Edward on Tuesday, 20 July 2004, 23:28 (11:28 PM)
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