In the time-honored journalistic tradition of lists (o, you home of nuance and subtlety and click-worthiness), the NYT
exoticism Travel section gives us The 31 Places to Go in 2010.
1 on the list? Sri Lanka. Wouldn’t you know it, but “for a quarter century, Sri Lanka seems to have been plagued by misfortune.” Seems that way, doesn’t it? “But the conflict finally ended last May, ushering in a more peaceful era…” Timesdudes, is that misfortune all GONE? Sweet! Except for all the people dealing with the conflict’s aftermath! Including the hundreds of thousands of displaced! Not to mention all the bereaved!
(Also on the list… Mysore, Mumbai, and Nepal. The last may be the “next gay destination.” Trend-o-RAMA! (h/t to Anup))
Let’s annotate, just for kicks.That misfortune includes
“But the conflict finally ended last May, ushering in a more peaceful era for this teardrop-shaped island off India’s coast, rich in natural beauty and cultural splendors.”
I won’t rag on “teardrop”–I’ve used that one too. But how ‘BOUT those “cultural splendors.” What does that mean? Otherness, dance for me and offer me the bounties of privilege with the many arms of your strange gods… Who’s the traveler here?
“The island… feels like one big tropical zoo…”
Really? The whole island? Even Colombo? To whom? Have you BEEN to the zoo lately? Were there a lot of cars?
“And then there’s the pristine coastline. The miles of sugary white sand flanked by bamboo groves that were off-limits to most visitors until recently are a happy, if unintended byproduct of the war.”
And THEN there was that tsunami five years ago. Mmmm, sand. Tasty. Also, happy for whom, exactly? The people who used to live there? Fishermen? People who lost their homes to that tsunami, or to high security zones?
“the Tamil north”
Erm. Tamil-dominated and historically Tamil, yes, and I know there is a word count. But “Tamil north” is reductive in the extreme.
“The Sun House (www.thesunhouse.com), in Galle, looks like a place where the Queen of England might stay, with its mango courtyard and colonial dÃ©cor.”
Anglophiles, quick! To the travel agent!
Please note: my beef (!) isn’t with travel generally… it’s with travel writing of this kind, constructed for a very particular audience and seeming to encourage people to travel to someone else’s home without any sense that that is what it is. These are places to see, yes–but why not see them, and yourself, as they really are? I don’t want this to be a snark-and-run… but good travel writing contends honestly and openly with presumptions of who is traveling and why… and it does not treat local people as though their lives were just incidental, conveniently or inconveniently producing conditions for others’ escapism. To those who would say, “So what? Sri Lanka needs all the business it can get!”–that’s not my point. Sri Lanka does not need to be reduced to writing like this to attract tourism. No country does.
In this old post from The Lede, the Times’ own Robert Mackey writes, “Let’s just hope that the first journalists to be allowed to operate freely in Sri Lanka will not be there to write travel stories.” Or let’s just hope they don’t write travel stories like this.
(To be fair, much of the Times’ Sri Lanka coverage from the foreign desk has been excellent… head and shoulders above its competitors.)
Here’s a terrific post from a couple of years ago, on PTR, also related to travel writing (and the writer himself responds in the comments!)
Here’s another post I did related to the NYT and travel writing.