Wednesday, July 9, 2014

What the Postcards Don't Show


Not music, not dance, not education. The glasses I wore in Ghana, Italy and Austria don’t fit me now. Not art, not history. That’s what I would wear in Florence, Venice, Rome. But here in Riomaggiore, the southernmost of the Cinqueterre towns, it’s a new lens that will serve me.

First and foremost, re-awakening this exercise-dormant body, five weeks since I hurt my leg and have been away from walking, biking, swimming. Yesterday, walked down from the dream villa in the Santa Margherita hills into town, dipped into the water and then dipped out when it began raining, walked back up the hills and lo and behold, my leg held up. Then today, up 702 Inca-trail style steps to the peak between Riomaggiore and Manarola and another 656 down (my numbers-nerd habit of counting) and feeling some strength and vigor in the old body. Hooray for that!

Second is the mix of natural beauty and exquisite architecture blended into the surroundings. The brain always searches for familiar experiences and ascending the hills called up a mixture of Granada (Spain), Olleytantambo (Peru) and Santorini (Greece) . The latter especially close, these houses built into the cliffs overlooking the blue sea, only here all colored in pastels, in Greece, all white.

At dinner in Verona one night, we talked about the astounding fact that hardly anyone could think of an ugly Italian town. And then began to admire the unique culture and beauty of each— and there are so many! As mentioned, Florence, Venice, Rome, but then also Verona and in different ways, Bologna, Milan, Genoa, Naples and then the smaller towns like Assisi and the hill towns in Tuscany and famous towns like Vinci that spawned Leonardo and Arrezo that was the home of Guido (who invented solfege). And once you start walking down history to see what Italy produced, from Dante to Sophia Loren, from the Renaissance to Ferrari’s, from Opera to the Mafia and Machiavelli— not to mention pizza!—well, it’s pretty extraordinary.

But tucked away on the West Coast and not easily accessible until tourist demand tunneled train tracks to these five towns, these modest fishing villages are famous for anchovies, but no great Renaissance painters, Opera composers or immigrants like Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin. And yet, they ooze with charm and astound with natural beauty. The possibilities for postcards are beyond what stores can carry.

But there’s one thing the postcards don’t show that shouldn’t have taken me by surprise, but did. And threw a canker into all of the splendor.

Tourists.

Hundreds of them swarming the streets, crowding the trains, overflowing from the restaurants. It’s hard to feel the native charm when everyone looks like you and talks like you and you feel you could be shopping in Sausalito or Carmel. So far, no one seems especially obnoxious or ugly Americanish. But still, there are so many of them! Everywhere! All the time! Naturally, I have no right to complain. I’m one of them!! But still people, don’t you want to go see David in Florence?

There are 7 billion people on this planet and lots of them have money for travel and computers to arrange hotels and word spreads fast. Of course, it changes everything, not always for the bad. Usually locals are thrilled with the expanding economy. But only up to a point— when an authentic way of life becomes “for show,” when the world is one continuous Disneyland, culture suffers. I’m guilty of using the words “quaint and charming,” but for the people living the life in a place, nothing is quaint or charming. It’s just life in all its meanness and splendor, all its terrors and joys. A choppy sea means no tourist boat for the visitor, but no fish for the resident.

Here it’s useful to distinguish between traveler and tourist. One comes to a place still living life on its own terms and partakes as an appreciative guest grateful for a new way of seeing the world. Such was the travel in Ghana, where we didn’t see a single tourist our whole time there. The other rolls off the cruise ship with camera snapping and money ready for the souvenir shops and then back to business as usual. And then a third category, the subject of this blog— one bringing a gift to the culture that perhaps may (or may not) be needed or welcomed. In my case, an education practice that nurtures children and cultivates a humanistic future. And then all the shades of grey in-between.

So while I aim for traveler consciousness, it will be hard to disentangle from the tourist throngs. Except by walking up high in the hills. And that’s my plan tomorrow.

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