Thursday, May 28, 2009

Me and money. (pt.1 of the Lonesome Wolfboy series)

My family is a family of wanderers. One might call them travelers.  My mother is a working class midwestern expat, my father a segregated  sharecropping south/ern Baptist reject, and my brother a true adventurous nomad (all National Geographic and shit).  I have always felt culturally dislocated: I said to Michael and Anissa "I feel invisible.  I do not know where to place myself."  It is why I am a performer; I am overcompensating.  Me and my brother and my mom and my dad are all people who believe in roots while at the same time practicing a kind of rootlessness... never fully invested in the place where we are.  I think my brother is the only one who admits to living this life in earnest - he readily admits he will be ready for a new adventure after another year in Japan, and maybe it will prompt him to enlist in the armed forces.  Regardless, each of us believes in stretching out our legs - even if for only a minute - as if to make a home in whatever place it is that our homelessness has brought us to.

Anyway, I never would have said we are tourists.  
Until Istanbul.

My parents are old now.  They are in their mid and late 60's.  It is important to them to continue to travel, but they do not have the physical luxury of their youth.  They do, however, have the luxury of credit cards and a middle class delusion of endless wealth.  So they got a tour guide.  This made me slightly uncomfortable from the outset - paying someone to book us expensive hotel rooms, drive us around while we do windshield tours and snap photos of bazaars sounds a little imperialist-creepy to me and is not really the way I like to travel.  But what is the way I like to travel to another country whose language I don't speak, whose culture I don't know?  (Trying to answer this question, I typed and deleted a number of statements just now about different experiences in different cities.  And I realized what I have been realizing for some time now: one's experience of a place is almost entirely about the way that the people are there.  Spending all of my time with the same person or people colors a place in a particular way for me.  Just because I was attached at the hip to my friend Sarah in Paris for two weeks in 2005 doesn't mean I did not experience the city - it just means I experienced a different city than what the tour books talk about, and a different city from what art students talk about, and a different city from what talks (talked?) about.  I also realized, in trying to answer that question, that often my experience of a place is colored by the fact that I am a young person who passes as a straight woman, despite my efforts.  I have been propositioned on three different continents.  Men take me on tours, want to explain history and folklore to me, want to buy me a drink at their favorite bar.  It helps. Right?)

So why the hell not try something new in Turkey?  We are in Turkey now - Cappadocia (Kapadokya).  It is stunningly gorgeous.  We are full-on tourists.  The conversations I have had with Turks since arriving have been based on commerce (tour guides, shopkeepers, two salesmen my parents call "the Carpet Brothers" because they bought thousands of dollars in carpets from them).  My mother's wallet was stolen and we ended up at the police station for an hour, so I guess that was kind of different - but we couldn't really communicate with them because none of us speak enough Turkish to get past "Hello, how are you, big man?  I'm feeling strong like a rock / beautiful like a peanut."  

Today was spent almost entirely without Turks (except for our tour guide).  Most of the afternoon we spent alone, jumping across beautiful rock formations in which Cappadocians carved out homes a thousand years ago - it is like a scene from a Spaghetti Western on Mars here.  No sounds, just flies humming and the sound of rock falling somewhere, and the occasional call to prayer that bursts out across the country over loudspeakers five times a day.  Then we went shopping.  "Supporting the arts," my brother calls it - a large man-made cave where they make world-famous pottery.  The work is beautiful, and the cave is full of European tourists.  The nice man (everything here seems run by men; women are often working at a table behind them or pictured in photos on the wall as rural folk who have been given resources to produce the goods the men sell) showed us around a bit and talked about the fascinating history of miniature painting.  Then we entered the storeroom where we spent at least two hours laboring over what plates to buy, how much is too much to spend, what colors look best in the bathroom, haggling haggling haggling.  A relationship that had begun as friendly, informative and jovial, ended in jockeying over prices (plates start at around $300, and can be in the thousands).  I could see sweat breaking out on my dad's forehead.  My mom had already maxed out her credit card and had her entire purse stolen the day before.  Can we get the price down to 800?  My brother offers to thrown in 500 Turkish Lira in cash.  Can we do it, without shipping, for 900?  My dad groans.  I leave the room for the 3rd time; I feel so shitty.

Back in the car, after it is over, everyone looks at what everyone else purchased and proceeds to distractedly follow their script:  "It's beautiful.  How much was it?  ...Oh, you did great."  I remember this from West Africa with my parents.  This pleasure in the haggle, the joy of knowing you got one over on the local and you got a beautiful piece of craft.  And, ultimately, these plates (or gloves or carpets or tin works) are generally finely made and your patronage is what sustains their making.  That is to say that in many places where tourism takes up a huge amount of space in the country's economy, traditional fine craftsmanship is kept alive through its wholesale to foreigners - often the same foreigners whose ancestors colonized the ancestors of the traditional artists, and even more often whose ability to travel and tour and buy is predicated by wealth that comes from a history of exploiting the artists' people.  In globalized capitalism, nothing is worth anything if it doesn't make money.  Laboriously hand-crafted and highly decorative traditional items need to make money, too.  People still gotta eat.*

Tomorrow we go in a hot air balloon ride we cannot afford.  My mom and dad didn't understand the brochure and thought it was in dollars, not euros.  We have offended the guide taking us up by trying to get out of the commitment.  So we will go up, and have a good time, and be together, and it will be about being together.  We will be half way across the world, in a thousand dollar balloon ride, together.
I'll keep ya'll posted.  

*for more on notions of tourism, capitalism, colonialism, and traditional practices, check out chaska's entry on shaman practices in peru, where millions of white people come each year to have a cathartic spiritual experience.


chaska said...

Yo! we are totally on the same wavelength!!!

aurora said...

thanks for the post card. i'm so happy you are blogging. <3

Dana May said...

Wow, these are the exact same issues im grappling with traveling in italy with my folks! We will have to talk more about it at grdc. My travel blog is