Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Road Trip Wisdom

As many of you know, I attend Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, but my home is Olympia, the beautiful, green, and very liberal capital of Washington State. The photo above is one I took in downtown Oly. I spent the past few weeks there and in the surrounding area, enjoying all that the Great Northwest has to offer, then last weekend returned (reluctantly, as always) to Provo. This return trip was actually much more complicated than it should have been. I’m used to being creative with my methods of travel between Washington and Utah, since I don’t have a car and don’t like to always have to depend on flights (which take a lot of coordination, what with rides to and from the airport, plus all the baggage restrictions, wait times and stress). I’ve had a lot of experiences with Greyhound, city buses, ride shares and bumming rides off friends. This time I had a ride set up with someone from school, but just three days before we were supposed to leave she texted me, letting me know that her plans had fallen through, and I had to somehow find a new way to get back to Provo. I didn’t expect to find much at such short notice, but I turned to a ride-share website with my fingers crossed, and at six the next morning I found myself on a bus to Seattle to meet David, who would be my companion for the 16-hour drive to Salt Lake City.

Despite my somewhat questionable method of finding David (though it is a step up from hitchhiking – at least we talked and I saw his Facebook before leaving), it was really a great drive. David is from Mexico City and has done quite a bit of traveling, so he had a lot of experiences and advice to share. We ended up talking about a lot of the things we covered in the prep class for my Field Study (which is explained in this post), like differences between cultures (especially Mexican and American) and the kinds of cultural misunderstandings that can come from something simple, like smiling at someone in a grocery store. It was really enlightening talking to him about his experiences with foreign cultures, especially since I have yet to travel far outside of the U.S. (does Canada count?), and it made me wonder how my experience in South Africa will compare with his in Canada and the U.S.

I was especially excited when David started talking about one of his favorite vacation spots in Mexico, because I could immediately relate what he was saying to both ecotourism (again, explained here) and the sublime. This place had clearly had a profound effect on him: he lit up as he talked about it, and even told me he hopes to someday get married there. What made this place so amazing, he said, wasn’t just its unsurpassed beauty, but its authenticity. This was no Cancun (pictured), no American resort which just happens to be a little further south. This was a true Mexican spot, free from the commercialism that quickly invades so many beautiful places. Going there, you could experience a real community and the true, natural beauty of the place. David described to me in vivid detail the view possible from one hill in the city, on a peninsula jutting into the ocean, from which, surrounded on three sides by water, visitors could gather with members of the community to watch the breathtaking sunset. This, he said, was one of the most incredible things he had experienced – the beautiful view, away from the lights of the city, surrounded by others sharing the wonder of the moment. David found something sublime there, in that image and the feel of the place which still awes and inspires him months (or years) and thousands of miles later.

Much of the wonder David felt came from the seclusion and realness of the place and the experience. He told me how, as the years go by, this place is slowly gaining more attention and attracting more tourists, which makes him concerned for its future. The more people arrive, the more focus will be placed on quantity rather than quality, the more tire marks will scar the hills, and the more it will become just another commercial gimmick, losing the soul of the place. This is one of the inevitable results of tourism, though one of the major things that advocates of ecotourism wish to avoid. When a place becomes a tourist destination, it stops existing for its own sake, instead gearing itself toward the tourists, shaping itself to fit them, and gradually becoming just a shadowy reflection of what it once was.

This is when David encouraged me, as I went to South Africa, to experience the true South Africa, not some version created for tourists or others who don’t call it home. He left me excited to go out there and discover just that, while being aware of my role as an outsider, learning from the locals, and continuing to explore this idea of tourism with an environmental and social conscience.


  1. Katherine, would you say that one must be alone to experience the sublime in ecotourism? David mentioned the seclusion of his experience, and clearly the area lost its soul when more people came. Can you experience true South Africa only when a few other people are there?

    I think perhaps that being the only people as far as you can see would add to the feeling of sublime in ecotourism. Maybe that is because when we don't have within our view the marks of humanity--even other humans--we find something of divinity as we focus on God's creations rather than man's.

    P.s. Is your field study this fall? When do you leave? Also, why did you choose South Africa? I love your idea--I'd never heard of ecotourism before, and it's fascinating.

  2. Thanks Kristen, great questions. In my opinion, the sublime is really dependent on a sense of separation from the familiar or everyday. When we're surrounded by people or familiar man-made objects (buildings, cars, etc.) we not only can become distracted from the natural, we also end up feeling more comfortable and in control. The object of our attention can then be placed within our own parameters, and it becomes more of a lovely background to human life and activity rather than the all-encompassing, endlessly powerful force it may have been. I talked about this sort of thing a bit in my June 16th post, "Wordsworth and the Modern Sublime," where I look at the poem "Tintern Abbey." In this poem the sense of the sublime felt by Wordsworth arises largely from his seclusion, which allowed him to recognize the true grandeur of the scene. I think this is where ecotourism, with its focus on keeping natural areas unaltered, better allows for the sublime than traditional tourism, at least in theory. I like that you bring in the distinction between God's and man's creations - I'd like to incorporate that more.

    And yes, my field study is this fall, I leave on August 21st (almost there!!). I chose South Africa because it has such an interesting diversity of cultures, geography, and wildlife, which makes for great contrasts in all sorts of areas, including tourism and perceptions of the environment. Plus I've always been interested in the whole African continent.