Saturday, September 27, 2014

Gringo Trails

Director Pegi Vail

Director Pegi Vail (center) with her cameraman Melvin Estrella and local guide on the Tuichi River in the Bolivian Amazon

GRINGO TRAILS       B-                   
USA  Bolivia  Thailand  Mali  Bhutan  (79 mi)  2013  d:  Pegi Vail         Gringo Trails Official Site

Take only memories, leave only footprints.                —Chief Seattle

More than ten years in the making, the film explores the effect of institutionalized tourism in remote regions around the globe, where the tourist mindset, especially when they arrive in droves, alters the natural landscape and turns whatever natural beauty the site offers into a money-making theme park, where instant gratification outweighs long term gains or benefits.  While the director is an American anthropologist who is also Associate Director of the Center for Media, Culture and History at New York University and a Fulbright Scholar, the film exposes a kind of hedonistic behavior that is altering the face of the planet.  Whether one travels on the luxurious high end of the economic scale using Fodor’s or Frommer’s Travel Guide or backpacks on the cheap scouring through The Lonely Planet guide of must see places around the world, tourists are continually looking for a bigger bang for their buck, searching to discover new unexplored worlds.  Using an episodic structure, the director takes us into some of the most remote regions of the world, beginning with the harrowing adventure in 1981 of Israeli backpacker Yossi Ghinsberg in the Bolivian jungle of Rurrenabaque, where he and some friends set out on an authentic jungle experience hiking into the wilds of the rain forest in Madidi National Park, though they had little knowledge of wilderness survival.  Using maps that were nearly unusable, they were unable to track the overflowing riverbanks of the Tuichi River that cut a path through the Bolivian Amazon, causing him to lose contact with his companions, where Yossi was stranded in the jungle for nearly a month before he was rescued by search teams.  While he was fortunate to have been found, where the boat slowed to turn around at the exact same spot where he happened to be, his emaciated body resembled photos of concentration camp survivors.  Writing a book about his experience, Back from Tuichi in 1993, it attracted the interest of similar wilderness seeking tourists, especially from Israel, where they descended into the remote region by the thousands, all searching for that same authentic jungle experience, where people who had lived quietly and peacefully for generations were suddenly called upon to act as tour guides on hastily put together expeditions, where the myth of Yossi Ghinsberg only grew more exaggerated by the retelling of the tale, turning a poor indigenous community into a tourist trap. 

Another British tourist enthralled by LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962) and OUT OF AFRICA (1985) was realizing her dream by finally traveling to Timbuktu in Mali, one of the poorest countries on earth, where this once-thriving mythical village on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert exists in a time warp, once one of the thriving cultural centers in Africa, featuring the Sankore Mosque and other scholarly university centers for Islamic study, where literally nothing has changed, as the town is surrounded by sand dunes and the streets covered in sand as well, seemingly preserved for centuries.  While remarking on the beauty of the region, locals had a differing view, claiming nothing could grow in the desert, that life is nearly impossible, making it one of the poorest towns in the world, where the culture has all but disappeared as the population moved elsewhere, so there was nothing beautiful about any of that.  The romantic fantasies suddenly meet the reality, yet the next day they arrange for a camel ride, where each of the tourists is decked out in flowing white robes that resemble Peter O’Toole in the movie, where she’s finally excited by the thrill of adventure, sleeping out under the stars, yet when they return to town the next day it only takes them 5-minutes, as they simply moved them to the other side of an existing sand dune where the town was out of sight.  In another desert on the other side of the world, Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world, measuring four thousand square miles, where tourists began gathering in the 1980’s to collect cactus from Incahuasi "island" in the middle of the flats.  Twenty years later, after being listed in various guidebooks, people started arriving in SUV’s to visit Fredo Lazaro Ticoma, the self-professed “first inhabitant,” having built his home on the site which he turned into a tourist museum where he could profit tremendously, creating a spot where crowds of visitors would gather at picnic tables bringing with them large quantities of alcohol, showing little respect for the fragile environment, while leaving behind plenty of garbage for someone else to clean up.  By 2010, tourists had swelled to 300 to 400 per day, where Fredo can be seen serving lunch, as the government now runs the island.  Travel writer Rolf Potts asserts that “since modernity kicked in, displaced middle class people have to look to poor people [for authenticity].”

The most egregious example of beauty turned to ruination started out as an unspoiled paradise, where National Geographic travel editor Costas Christ describes his own unbridled enthusiasm about visiting Ko Pha Ngan Island in Thailand in 1979, taking a ferry down the river in southern Thailand with about a dozen or so other backpackers, and when they disembarked, he was met with a flurry of tourist hawkers, all trying to steer them into their own business, which was exactly the last thing he wanted to experience, so he asked the ferry pilot where he was going?  He was told the next island had no tourists as there was nothing to do there, so he hopped back on and seemingly had the entire island to himself.  After walking a few miles, he came to an overlook of a spectacular beach below known as Haad Rin Beach, where he met another couple living there, so he spent a month with them in what can only be described as idyllic conditions, as this was literally paradise on earth.  Ten years later small bungalows were built along the beach to accommodate the tourist traffic, but by the Millennium New Year’s Eve Full Moon Party in 1999, closer to 15,000 drunken revelers showed up, and by 2010 that number was closer to 50,000, where there were simply no sanitary facilities to accommodate everyone, so human waste and refuse, especially plastic bottles, littered the beach afterwards in what resembled a disaster zone.  In contrast, the breathtaking beauty of Bhutan, nestled at the foot of the Himalayas, opened up to tourists in 1974, adopting a policy of “gross national happiness” rather than gross profit margins, where they charge tourists $250/day, attracting only the most affluent, threatening visitors with expulsion if they don’t comply with their cultural traditions.  This attracts older tourists, retired professors or the economically elite, where a tour group is seen climbing 2500 feet on foot just to get to a desired restaurant.  This two-tiered economic plan, one price for the locals, another for the tourists, brings much needed money into the region in order to properly maintain the natural splendor.  This same policy is implemented at the Chalalan Ecolodge in Bolivia in what’s called eco-tourism, as the tourist money is used to help explain the value of the land and its resources to their indigenous culture while helping to sustain the upkeep and pristine beauty of the region.  Costas Christ observed that while there used to be plenty of empty spaces around the globe that hadn’t been visited, “now it looks like a Jackson Pollard painting.”  While this might be required viewing on all transcontinental flights, reminding prospective tourists that they are “guests” in another country, the film only artificially examines the surface realities, as Vail never digs any deeper to explore the real underlying causes of why tourists tend to be so uniformly disrespectful to the nations that they visit.  Whether it is the economically elite or the more frugal backpacker, both exhibit the same sense of entitlement, where the sole criteria appears to be to have a good time, irrespective of the consequences to others.   

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