I have been many kinds of tourist. I dutifully read David Foster Wallace’s “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” before embarking on my own week-long Caribbean cruise, though my cynicism at the mass marketed tourist experience could, in the end, not match Wallace’s. I have been the thrill seeker who pays a pretty penny for the unique and physically taxing adventure, hiking the Inca Trail at the conclusion of the longer “Gringo Trail” across southern Peru and plumbing the depths of the Phong Nha cave system in rural Vietnam. In both cases, my exertion for fun was supported by a team of local porters who carried the equipment and food for the livelihoods. I also learned the meaning of “Andean flat” (hint: it’s not really flat). As a kid, my family took a vacation every summer, and we traveled across the US, with a couple of sorties over the border into Canada, on the week or two that my parents got away from the factory. I became fond of the national park system, and even considered on occasion becoming a park ranger, but also enjoyed the mass tourism that built and defines places like Gatlinburg, Estes Park, and Disney World. The vulgarity and contradictions of strings of motels, cheap pancake houses, and stores selling keychains and novelty t-shirts abutting some of the nation’s most ecologically diverse and historically important preserved areas escaped me, for a while at least. And if you’re from where I am, and you’ve been to the Smokies, Myrtle Beach, and Florida, well you’ve been almost everywhere.
My tastes as a tourist still range widely, and with the benefit of a steady income, a flexible schedule, and a willing travel partner, I have had the luxury of visiting dozens of countries and expanding the limits of what I can eat and where I can lay my head. Yet as a tourist, I remain an interloper, marked by my clothes, my language, my expectations, and, to a large degree, by what my guide book or the internet can tell me. I can get the feel of a place, but not know what it’s really like to live there, to move in the world as someone rooted in that place and the material conditions that shape daily patterns of life, work, and home. That is not, of course, what one always or even usually looks for as a tourist. The tourist seeks the extraordinary in someone else’s ordinary, consuming place as an outsider rather than living it fully as an insider while seeking authenticity, an experience of something ‘real’ and different that can be carried forward as a marker of that consumption amid the homogenizing influence of corporate branding and global capitalism. Some places are built to facilitate one side of this: theme parks and their hinterlands, a cruise ship, beach resorts, the fashionable areas of ‘world cities’, all seeking to provide the extraordinary while often leaving much to be desired in terms of the elusive quest for authenticity. But then, seemingly authentic experiences are also often wholly constructed, as tourists seek places frozen in aspic, relatively untouched by cultural change that might make the different and exotic more familiar. Scratch the surface of the tourist experience, and you might see the herculean effort that goes into making places that cater to tourist desires, whether these seek escape and spectacle or the nitty gritty of real life in a different place. Like your hotel bed, cruise ships don’t make themselves, and like the crumbling facades of ancient Rome, Disney World was not built in a day.
This past summer, we had the chance to travel to Spain, landing first in Barcelona then touring across Andalusia, from Seville to Córdoba to Grenada and back to the beach near Cádiz. It was in Seville that I had one of my most unexpected and enjoyable experiences as a tourist. We saw all the main sights in the city: the cathedral, the Real Alcázar, the strange but somehow endearing Las Setas, all designed or managed to capture some ‘essential’ element of the city’s history and identity and all thoroughly swarmed by tourists. All had their charms, particularly the gardens and centuries-old tiles of the Alcázar, but we had sought out an apartment in Triana, a diverse working class neighborhood along the banks of the silty Guadalquivir River. The streets here are narrow, the walls of the three and four story buildings marked by the beautiful ceramic tilework once produced in the neighborhood and found all over the rest of the city, and small murals of famous bullfighters, though the actual bull ring is located across the river in Seville’s old city. On our first evening in the city, we stayed close to the small apartment we had rented in Triana, venturing out to get an early dinner and some groceries and then returning by 6 pm to get our toddler ready for bed. Once he was asleep, I had to head back a few blocks to move our rental car from the parking garage to a spot on the street and retrieve some ice cream for myself and my partner, a necessity, I was told, to watch the Eurovision song contest on Spanish television. As I left the apartment and made my away across the interior courtyard of the complex toward the street, I could hear quite a bit of noise, and once I passed through the front door to the Calle Pureza outside, I was surprised to see a large crowd in the street. Our car was just a few blocks away but as I worked my way into the thickening crowd toward the parking garage at the foot of the Puente de Isabel II over the Gaudalqivir, I understood quickly that I would not be getting to the car, let alone moving it. Throngs of people of all ages filled the street, laughing, drinking, and embracing. As I weaved a path through, I could hear music ahead of me and saw what appeared to be a statue on a small pedestal slowly moving my way. On my right I passed what just a few hours before had seemed a sleepy local chapel, a brightly colored but narrow and relatively nondescript church tucked away on a quiet street and one of many religious buildings servicing the needs of the Catholic faithful. Now, the chapel, the Capilla de los Marineros, had its tall doors open wide and the electric lights and candles inside made the entire altar shine as if caked in illuminated gold, an effect heightened by the early evening’s falling light.
Not far past the capilla, I ran into a virtual wall of people as I approached the source of the music, a group of perhaps ten middle-aged and elderly men, dressed smartly in suits and broad-rimmed hats playing drums and fifes, surrounding a single boy, maybe 12 years old, who took a turn at a solo, then led the group toward the capilla. Behind them came a group of older women, carrying a gilded carving of the Virgin Mary (or so it appeared, as I could not get close enough to see it very well), in procession toward the chapel. I turned back as the crowd moved slowly with the drummers and the women, and stopped in front of the open capilla as phones captured the glacial progress of the group toward and then into the chapel. The people standing around me pressed in close, and I could feel the crush of bodies, old Spanish men peering over each others’ shoulders as small gaggles of teenagers elbowed their way to break away from the crowd and down the street, eager to move beyond the eyes of parents and the Virgin, laughing and holding hands. As the procession finally entered the capilla, I could feel the crowd ease and the night’s communal drinking, eating, gossiping and visiting could commence in earnest. Knowing that the streets would be full of pedestrians for quite a while, I resigned myself to leaving the car in the parking garage overnight, and wandered back toward our apartment building. I bought two Häagen Dazs ice creams from a small grocery nearby and then headed upstairs.
I have no idea what event in the Catholic calendar the procession celebrated, and maybe there was no specific liturgical reason, but the joyous and lively atmosphere and crowded streets were a contrast to the tourist sites with more or less orderly lines and a steady stream of out of town visitors pausing briefly to read a sign or snap a photo and then move on to the next thing. I would hesitate, however, to argue that happening upon the procession to the capilla provided me with a more ‘authentic’ experience of Seville and of Triana. I did not, after all, know quite what I was witnessing, and with limited Spanish skills (I can, if needed, order food or buy a train ticket, and that’s about my limit), could not engage that well to find out if this was a regular occurrence or how long the night’s festivities would carry on. Nor could I tell how important the religious aspect of the event was to those viewing it, or if it was just an excuse to mingle in the streets over a glass of wine with friends and family. How did this event capture the feeling of the place, what social relationships forged the chapel’s golden interior and made it the center of everyone’s focus for that evening, what made May 16, 2019 different from or similar to the same date in 1519 in the streets of Triana? These are not questions easily answered from the tourist’s vantage. Yet my serendipitous encounter with the procession and its audience in front of the capilla was tremendously enjoyable, as I did encounter something that was clearly not just for the tourist’s gaze, and which held some importance to those organizing and participating, even if just providing a reason to be present in the streets.