More Travel Thoughts
by Paul Hein
by Paul Hein
I wrote a few months ago about flying as a paradigm for society. Having just returned from another trip — around the world, in fact — I remain convinced that much can be learned about modern society by travel. And it's depressing.
Consider the tourist attractions owned by governments. It's been many years since I visited the pyramids in Yucatan, but I was impressed, even then, by the fact that the tourist, who makes it all possible, is given little heed. There were, at least in those days, no places to park at the pyramids. We arrived in a rental car and just left it under some trees (it was a HOT day!) since there were no signs indicating where to park. There was nothing resembling a visitors' center, with air-conditioning and water. The atmosphere was ambivalent: tourists were desired, and yet nothing was done to encourage them to come or enjoy their visit.
On this recent trip, I realized why. For governments, the principle virtue of a fabulous tourist attraction is the opportunity for hiring people: a make-work scheme donated by the ancients. Tourists are only allowed as justification for the scheme. Petra, in Jordan, is, doubtlessly, that country's premier tourist attraction. It is spectacular. To gain access to this long-abandoned city, you pass through a defile in the surrounding rocky hills called the Siq. It is about three-quarters of a mile, and the footing is treacherous. There are loose stoned underfoot, ranging in size from gravel to baseball. It is easy to turn an ankle, especially if you're gawking at the scenery instead of the footpath. There are native boys with donkeys and horse-drawn carts who will take you to the city and back, for sixty dollars, round trip, per couple. That's a pretty pricey ride. Most of us walked there, but coming back, it's all uphill, and quite tiring. We had negotiated a price of 20 American from one of the horse-cart boys when we arrived; but when it was time to leave, he steadfastly insisted he didn't know what we were talking about, had never met us, or made any promises. We noticed an older man, presumably his boss, looking on and listening. For all I know, the horse-cart business at Petra may be a government scheme. It provides work for otherwise unskilled workers, forbidden to negotiate their fees, at the expense of the hapless tourist. Has it occurred to anyone in Jordan that providing smooth pavement in the Siq, with, perhaps, electric trams to move people — especially on the uphill leg — would, in the long run, probably employ more people?
Then there is the Taj Mahal. Breathtaking. Sublimely beautiful — once you get there. If you're with a tour, you arrive by tour bus — but not at the Taj. No, the Indian government is concerned about pollution from bus exhaust, so you must abandon your bus about a mile away, and jam (literally) into tiny electric vehicles for the final mile. Once there, you must pass "security" (meaning metal detectors) at the entrance, and, a few hundred feet further along, pass through "security" once more — as though someone could have slipped you an Uzi since the last metal detector! All of this rigmarole provides lots of jobs, but not much benefit to the tourist, who makes it possible. Is there any actual valid evidence that tour bus exhaust has damaged the Taj? Perhaps nobody really cares: it's good enough excuse to hire a lot of people to do something unnecessary.
We noticed that thousands — probably millions — of trees in India had white bands painted on their trunks. Why? Well, our guide explained, those white-painted trees are located on government property. Ah! So what? I guess it is to discourage anyone from chopping them down, although I doubt anyone would notice if they did. But what an opportunity to hire people to put white paint on millions of trees through that vast land! And no doubt it has to be re-applied from time to time.
Governments everywhere seem to be dedicated to making work for people. In third (or, in India's case, tenth) world countries, the effort is fairly primitive and unsophisticated. "Here, paint these trees white," or "see if any of the tourists will ride this donkey." But America also has its make-work schemes, though vastly more sophisticated. At the top of the chain, it provides work for the likes of the Carlyle group, or Halliburton, rebuilding countries that the U.S. has recently destroyed. In the middle are the thousands involved with "space exploration." Toward the bottom, examiners of automobile emissions sniff about.
One wonders about the pyramids, or the Great Wall!
April 14, 2004
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