Ever since I returned from holiday, I’ve been itching to write a post around a phrase that kept occurring to me as I travelled: “bully tourism”. It doesn’t really operate well at a literal level but, in terms of emotional resonance, it exactly captures a set of feelings and frustrations that I went through on this trip. And have experienced before.
So: here I am, in an undisclosed Middle Eastern country. I am sitting in the front seat of a comfortable car watching the desert whizz by. Rushing towards me, in space and time, are adventurous things: castles and caves, wadis and ruined cities. In the back seat, there is a sweet, harmless Canadian man with bad teeth, with whom I am chatting. So far, so good. But there is a problem.
We two quite capable adults are subject to ongoing psychological brow-beating from our local tour guide, a short and overweight man with a puffy scowling face, driving the car.
He berates us for not having started early enough. And it must not be forgotten: repeatedly, that all we see around ourselves is but an inferior reality, second to the wonders we could have beheld if leaving 45 minutes earlier. This is all our fault. And always will be.
We are shown – through the way he treats us – that we are not thinking living human beings, who have a right to wander, to talk, to absorb a place, choose the path, find a pace. Our role is to stop, get out, photograph, get back in and continue driving. It is all about the photographs. In front of mosques, by streams, before castles, on castles, within castles, in the car, eating lunch, talking, looking, breathing, blinking, being – but fast, fast, on to the next one. Because, and this is another one of our problems, whatever we do, we take too long. The country itself is just backdrop to our act of being recorded. And this guy has somewhere to be.
He closes down attempts to change this story and it is clear that he views us with distaste, these people who are getting in his way. ”You want photograph?” is not a question but an accusation. Something macho is going on too. It has a creepy psychosexual dimension, this obsessive-impulsive routine of recording ourselves “doing it” in every place, every position (‘it’, in this case, being tourism). And it’s all about showing off. We are not in this country to be in this country. We are here so people will see us here. What fun.
Now, I know I’m walking a fine line. There’s always something distasteful when a member of the global middle class starts detailing the terrible inconveniences that have ruined his or her day, expecting anyone to care. There are bigger problems, people think. The world does not exist to convenience you. Yes, I know all this. I agree. It is true. There are power relationships in the background, bigger than both me or the driver. I am a white man from a rich country. He is a local, who should have inherited the earth, but instead drives people like me around. I hail from a language and a culture which is such a large and loud producer of stories and values that we are terribly oppressive. He needs me but he resents me. Why should he treat me differently?
Let’s be clear. It isn’t about the money. It isn’t about service. I don’t think, “I’m paying – and this isn’t good enough.” Throw all that obnoxiousness out the window. The real issue is that, stripping away all this context, there’s still a level at which you exist as one person to another, and at that level I don’t like this man. I don’t respect him. Indeed, I’ve met him before. He doesn’t need to be a taxi driver. The job, the social structure is irrelevant. He just needs to be a bully. I think it’s made up of two things.
First, he’s bullying reality. He’s oppressive; he’s controlling the way I’m allowed to see the world, limiting it, constraining it, turning it into his ‘not good enough’ world. I resent that so much. I woke up excited. I woke up and everything was open. Now he’s shutting it down.
Second, he’s bullying my identity. He’s only allowing me to be a certain way; and resisting objections, refusing to build anything new in response to my “but it’s not like that”. It’s the way parents can bully their children, refusing to acknowledge them as adults. Or people at school who make others ‘losers’, by viewing them as such. It’s powerful. Even if you disagree, if you know it’s not true, it’s still powerful. It’s a mode of attention that can transform reality. Transform you. Which is why it’s so offensive.
This thinking process – from story – to analysis – to abstract – brings me back to bully tourism. Bully tourism or just bullying? I’m reluctant to let go the phrase that started me off on this train of thought because, for me, there’s a sense of truth there. Those words speak something, still not yet fully articulated. And I’m running out of words to think about why.
At its heart, I think that bullying of this kind has its own character in a strange land because holidays are about freedom. They are the moment where you watch everyone following a daily routine and think, “I can go anywhere… I can do anything with my time”. This leaves people vulnerable: outside of their normal routines, flexing fragile and undeveloped parts of themselves. It also draws people – often otherwise nice people; friends, family members, even some of these newly vulnerable holiday souls – to become domineering; trying to order around the realities, identities and possibilities of others.
I can’t help but despise this. When I meet bullies, I think: I may look like someone you can push around. But I’m going to destroy you.