Saturday, 2 August 2008


Stanley Fish is a professor of law and author of 10 books. I do not feel tempted to read any of them. Here is why:

On July 27, 2008, the New York Times published an article by Fish entitled "Travel Narrows" in which the author confesses to be a bad traveler for he doesn't care to go and see sights. Well, neither do I. But what has this to do with traveling, I wonder? Does traveling, as Mr Fish seems to think, really consist of doing what quite some tourists do?

He elaborates:
"But behind the lack of interest in sightseeing is something deeper and more unsettling. When I ask people what they like about traveling, they usually answer, I enjoy encountering different cultures and seeing how other people live. I am perfectly happy with the fact of other cultures, and I certainly hope that those who inhabit them live well; but that’s as far as it goes. By definition, a culture other than yours is one that displays unfamiliar practices, enforces local protocols and insists on its own decorums. Some of them even have different languages and are unhappy if you don’t speak them. To me that all spells discomfort, and I don’t see why I should endure the indignities of airplane travel only to be made uncomfortable once I get where I’m going. As for seeing how other people live, that’s their business, not mine."

Despite the humorous tone, it sounds like Mr Fish means what he writes. An astonishing lack of curiosity, and a remarkable unwillingness to consider things beyond the familiar, for, according to Wikipedia, "one of the most recognized academics in the United States". Poor United States.

Likewise astonishing is that The New York Times, "a national newspaper of record" (Wikipedia), provides a platform for such thinking. Well, come to think of it, maybe not.

I lately spent two weeks traveling in Uruguay.

My starting point was in Brazil, in Santa Cruz do Sul; my first stop was Tapes, a small town on the shores of the "Lagoa dos Patos", a giant freshwater lagoon, south of Porto Alegre. I spent the first night in the "Pousada da Lagoa" where the following note was posted on the wall of my bathroom: "Por favor: Não utilize a toalha de rosto ou de banho para limpar os sapatos." This seemed to indicate that guests of this establisment routinely used the towels to polish their shoes. Where do your guests mostly come from? I asked the receptionist. I was the only foreigner in the six months that he had been working here, he said. Probably a regional custom, I concluded.

The next day, I moved to a resort hotel outside of town. The room rate was a bargain. However, the young lady at the reception informed me, the restaurant was closed due to a local holiday. Could I get a sandwich? Of course, she said. I was convinced they would charge me excessively for it - I'm Swiss, this is what I'd expect in Switzerland - yet they didn't. When, some time later, I told one of my Brazilian students, a business man in his late thirties, how this had impressed me, he smiled and said, "Well, in Rio or São Paulo that would have been different."

In the Uruguayan town of Maldonado, the receptionist asked whether I wanted the room with or without breakfast. What is the price difference? I asked. 520 Pesos without, 650 Pesos with. Aha, I said. Breakfast is only 60 Pesos, she said. 60? Didn't you just say 520 repectively 650? Yes, 60 Pesos. I was baffled. And asked her to please jot down the numbers.

$ 60.-, $ 520.-, $ 650.- she wrote, and then, inquisitively, looked at me. Well, the difference is not $ 60, it is $ 130.- I said. Unmoved, she kept on staring at me. I haven't the foggiest idea what went through her mind but I settled for the 'without breakfast' version.

In Minas, a town surrounded by rolling hills, I buy Juan Antonio Varese's "Historia de la Fotografía en el Uruguay" that informs me that the daguerrotype, that was publicly demonstrated for the first time in Paris on 19 August 1939, reached the then small town of Montevideo already by the end of February 1940. How come? A group of Belgian and French businessmen decided to send their kids, who behaved badly and did poorly in school, on a trip around the world - the kids should practise commerce, navigation, and languages. One of their instructores was the French abbot Louis Compte, who had been personally instructed by Daguerre in the use of the machine, and who, apart from his religious functions, was in charge of taking pictures of the places they visited.

In a pharmacy in Piriápolis, on the Atlantic coast, I found myself in an animated exchange with the owner who eloquently described how supermarkets destroy whole neighborhoods and how he now patronises the small shops nearby. Whenever in the following days I entered a supermarket I did it with a bad conscience. Also in Piriápolis, the owner of a restaurant that didn't look like much but served good food told me all one needs to know about journalism: the journalists' job, he said, is to keep the media owners happy. And that's it. It had never occurred to me that a restaurant owner would give much thought to the workings of the media.

In Nueva Helvecia (or Colonia Suiza as it is also called), a small town of 11 000 inhabitants and, as the tourist brochure says, "una limpieza en sus calles que ya es proverbial", the young saleswoman in the bakery wondered where I was from? Switzerland, I answered. Tell me about it, she said, I love to hear about foreign places.

In a restaurant in Colonia, a journalist in his early forties wanted to do a cartoon of me (my part time job, he said), for 50 Pesos. It took him 10 minutes.
In Mercedes, the lady at the reception charged my visa card $ 650.-. Only after I had signed it did I remember that the receptionist of the night before had said that the room was $ 550.-. I informed the lady at the reception. In this case we have to do it once again, she simply said. And did it. In Switzerland, I'm certain, this would have been impossible. In Switzerland, the receptionist would very likely have said: How can I know if what you are telling me is true? And I would have agreed. For this is how I was culturally conditioned. In order to free myself from my cultural conditionings (yes, this is precisely why I travel) I need to experience other cultural realities.

Between Salto and Artigas, it rained heavily. The roof of the bus was leaking, the woman in front of me had to change seats twice until she found a dry spot. A young woman from Vancouver Island on a school outing in Costa Rica came to mind. It had started to rain and we all ran for cover when the young woman (no, she was not on drugs) dreamily said: I just love weather.

Then I was back in Brazil. In Santa Maria, I asked a taxi driver for a good hotel. He showed me one and asked to give him a call if I needed a taxi. Well, I need one tomorrow, at twelve o'clock, to go to the bus station, I said. He was there on time. And charged me 12 Reais. Didn't you tell me yesterday that the fare would be 10 Reais? I inquired. Twelve, he said, but then, without further ado, gave me change for ten. "Never ever could that have happened in Switzerland" I told one of my private students a few days later. "I mean he knew that most probably he would never see me again but ..." My student, a young Brazilian woman, smiled and said: "The same thing happened to my boss when he was recently in the US. He had paid too much for lunch and the waiter returned him the money. This however would never happen in Brazil." Now I smiled and said: "But in my case it did happen in Brazil." "Well" she said, "maybe it did because you are a foreigner here."

1 comment:

Kalina said...

this Fish guy is soooo . . . not interesting.