28 Mar 2016
This is a great op-ed by Cuban-American actor/writer/filmmaker Natalie Morales (Lucy on Parks and Recreation, Claire on The Grinder).
Screen shot of Flood Magazine. Photo by Sean Mennie.
Side note — the article caught my attention because I LOVE her as Lucy on Parks and Rec and yeah, I’m just a tad bit obsessed with the show. Anyway …
First, read her well-written essay (published by Flood Magazine) on her family’s experience in Cuba: Please Stop Saying You Want to Go to Cuba Before It’s Ruined.
Confession — I’ve said that many times.
I probably didn’t use the words “before it’s ruined,” but my meaning was close enough.
I’ve also been guilty in the past of wanting quaint places to stay quaint — as if they exist purely for my own enjoyment, rather than as places where real people live their real lives. My thinking has evolved over the years, and probably could stand to evolve even more.
Another lament I’ve heard many times among the adventure travel set: “This place just doesn’t feel authentic anymore.” That usually refers to something like a McDonald’s appearing in the heart of a colonial town square. There are likely legitimate gripes about that McDonald’s — especially if its existence is threatening the livelihood of a family-run enterprise that’s been on the corner for generations.
But who gives me, a visitor, the right to say what’s authentic in someone else’s town?
And, by the way, that lovely colonial square isn’t authentic, either. It was forced on earlier inhabitants by, duh, the colonists.
From my experience, these types of remarks are common among us first-world travelers who like to think of ourselves as adventurers. We love the idea of escaping the comforts and commercialism of our worlds.
That’s why I fantasized about visiting Cuba. It seemed like one of the few remaining places where you would not encounter a McDonald’s. Also, since it’s been illegal for Americans to go, sneaking in and out becomes a point of pride, a sort of proof-of-life-as-an-adventurer.
(Turns out, I’m not quite the adventurer I like to think I am … my ex-husband and I were this close to jumping on a plane to Cuba from South America when we were spending several months in Ecuador … seemed like an ideal time to hide a trip to Cuba in the non-stamped pages of our passports … but then President Bush threatened to crack down on travel to Cuba and I chickened out.)
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to escape our own cultures.
In fact, I would argue it should be a mandatory experience for every citizen.
But it’s all-too-easy to fall into a mindset that other places need to meet our own expectations of what those other places are supposed to be. And then to feel let down if they’re not. This is not only arrogant, it robs us of experiencing what a place is really like — McDonald’s and all — because we’re too busy looking for what we have decided we’re supposed to see.
Over the years I’ve mellowed a bit in that regard. I can sometimes catch myself now when I start to compare a place to the fantasies in my head.
Natalie’s article is another great reminder.
PS: For a more in-depth discussion of this topic, I recommend my favorite travel book: Vagabonding, by Rolf Potts. To me it’s more life book than travel book — great insights whether or not long-term travel is in your future. To quote Tim Ferriss: “Vagabonding teaches you how to travel (and think), not just for one trip, but for the rest of your life.”