Tuesday, July 18, 2006
THE NAKED TOURIST
In Search of Adventure and Beauty in the Age of the Airport Mall
By Lawrence Osborne
North Point. 278 pp. $24
A couple of years ago Lawrence Osborne, an Anglo-American journalist who by his own reckoning has taken thousands of flights and passed through hundreds of airports, decided to do something different. He proposed to follow "a route to some kind of 'end of the world,' " a place in some way "outside" the modern world and modern tourism. With good reason, he was sick of both, the latter most particularly, since "modern tourism is like fast food: short, sharp incursions that do not weave a spell," turning "the planet into a uniform spectacle, and [making] us perpetual strangers wandering through an imitation of an imitation of a place we once wanted to go to."
The place he chose to point himself toward was Papua, New Guinea, which isn't exactly Disney World: "Almost nobody experiences it. There are few 'attractions'; the malaria is encephalitic. Civil War rages in the rain forests. Rumors of head-hunting and cannibalism can be more easily dismissed by the intellect than by the heart." Papua "was, and is, the last Lost World. And there is nothing the West loves more than a Lost World, an image of Utopia."
More accurately, the West loves it more in theory than in actuality, unless it comes equipped with all the modern conveniences, including air conditioning, mini-bars, chlorinated swimming pools and electric wiggle beds. Papua offers none of those, nothing even close. So that's where Osborne chose to go, arriving there via the old Asian Highway, or at least a variation of it:
"Flying out of Dubai, I could proceed to Calcutta, then to Bangkok and so on to Bali and Papua. In this way, I could pass through several phases of Easternness, all of them now touristified and packaged for visitors like myself, the harried escapists of a hemisphere so rich it no longer knows what to do with itself but move . It would be a panorama of modern tourism, a gaudy cross section of the charlatan global spectacle -- and what portal into the upside-down world of tourism could be more gaudy, more symptomatic than Dubai?"
Indeed. That city-state on the Persian Gulf, one of the seven emirates of the United Arab Emirates, has a population of about 1 million, but its ruler, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, "is masterminding an extraordinary gamble: that he can turn the 2.4 million tourists who visit Dubai every year today into 15 million by 2012." If he succeeds -- and there's no particular reason to believe he won't -- Dubai will be Las Vegas on steroids, with "three gigantic artificial palm-shaped peninsulas" jutting into the gulf and "an ensemble of 250 to 300 man-made islands that together form a vast map of the world -- for each island will be shaped like a country," though oddly enough you won't find Israel (or Papua) in this "World."
What you most certainly will find, at Dubai International Airport, is the contemporary airport gone berserk, one where "the facilities put any American hub to shame." It is a consumer wonderland: "You can get measured for a suit, buy a Maserati, eat soft-shell crabs, equip your pad with carpets, and do the laundry. Theoretically, you could do all this on your way from Paris to Bombay, in the space of two hours. It is the third biggest airport retail concession in the world and probably the most hedonistic."
On to Calcutta, where Osborne contemplated the complex relationship between England and India, and then the Andamans, "a long archipelago of some 572 islands that are mostly invisible on a map," where his driver and guide stubbornly refused to let him get even a glimpse of the mysterious and supposedly terrifying Jarawa people. By now Osborne was completely caught up in the rhythm of travel:
"A journey is never a simple thing. The hitches and the boredom, the missed connections and the empty hours are the price that must be paid for leaving one's real life and entering an unreal one. On the other hand, this temporary unreal life has its advantages. You have nothing to think about except the logistics of the journey itself, in all their maddening detail and stupidity. With time even these details take on a poetic urgency. How far is it to the bridge? Is the car waiting on the far side of said bridge? It is only when you are thoroughly submerged in such questions that you begin to become unconscious ."
From there he went to Bangkok, where the twin engines of tourism are sex and medicine. The two frequently come in the same package, as Thailand "is already legendary for its sex-change procedures. You can book into a hospital-hotel, order in room service, have your sex changed, recuperate around the pool for a week, then fly home with a lasting tan. Cocktails are thrown in free." Then to Bali, "Indonesia's Golden Calf, its splendid money machine, the only place in this enormous nation that Westerners ever see," and then -- at last -- to Papua.
There he and three Germans were taken into the jungle by Kelly Woolford, an expatriate Missourian with "a love of tall stories and magical events." Papua "was a place where the instinct for such things -- the craving for them -- could be indulged. It was 'unfathomable, limitless.' It could not be tamed or flattened out, not even by the forces of the rest of the world, which itself was hideously flattened -- as our prophet of globalization, Thomas Friedman, has suggested in an altogether more Panglossian spirit. If our world was flat, Papua was round. It had flesh and depth. Its savagery could not be reformed. It was the far side of the looking glass, a parallel world about which Indonesians and Westerners could make only fraudulent images."
Perhaps so; certainly Papua satisfied Osborne's "desire to get out of the known world," and offered "a bit of heart of darkness" too, but "The Naked Tourist" pretty much grinds to a very slow pace once Osborne gets there. He often quotes Margaret Mead and expresses deep admiration for her, but his writing about the South Pacific only occasionally matches the sensitivity of hers. Like it or not, he's best when indulging his "fastidious disdain bordering on arrogance" and taking deft swipes at the bizarre excesses of contemporary tourism. He may have needed Papua as a goal toward which to point both his journey and his book, but the best parts of "The Naked Tourist" take place in Dubai and Thailand.