From the Beagle Channel

As I mentioned, I recently visited my brother on his ship, in Tierra del Fuego. In nearly a year, I had talked to him very little, technology being much less helpful than we sometimes imagine. Inside Sonate, it smelled the same as on the day of their departure, a mixture of tar, iron and coffee, although it was considerably tidier than I remembered. According to everyone on board, leaving your dishes in the sink for the next day is a mistake you only make once on a ship. Finding food scraps and plates scattered everywhere after a rough night out at sea is the sort of thing that teaches you about cleanliness, and fast.

We met in Punta Arenas, on Magellan Straits, in the middle of the lanyrinthine pattern of channels and islands that makes up the south of the Chilean archipelago. My brother rode eleven hours on a bus just to welcome us, and then we rode back together, he and my mother and I, towards Ushuaia, or, Not The Southernmost City In The World as we found out. This honour belongs to Puerto Williams, a tiny little town cobbled together from corrugated iron on Navarino Island, where horses and dogs roam the streets freely and the customs occasionally open late if there was a party the night before. Going through the customs when you arrived on a sailing ship takes ages, but that’s just one of a million things you don’t ever realise if you’ve never spent time on a ship.

Sailing on the Beagle Channel is the sort of experience that is hard to put into words. After a few hours, there are no traces of human passage at all, anywhere. Have you ever been to a place with not a single pigeon in sight? Not a dandelion? Absolutely nothing brought there by travellers? That’s what it looks like over there. Of course, it wasn’t always like that. Extermination of the Fuegian people did not happen so long ago, and it’s a bit unnerving, in fact, to see so many pictures of them in Ushuaia, people clad in fur seals and staring at the camera with a blank expression, probably unaware of the fact that their genocide would be turned into a tourist attraction decades later, once all their land had been turned into pasture.

Now the channel is home to legions of birds, more than I had seen yet on any sea I’d visited, and cetaceans too. Dolphins followed us at times for brief moments, and we spied the blows of whales in the distance — or very close, on one occasion, when a humpback whale emerged right in front of the ship and sank under the hull, leaving everyone on board baffled and squealing.

We’re not the centre of the universe. Many places can thrive without us, and it’s a strange feeling to arrive in the middle of a land that is doing very well without humans and where everything, the cold, the gigantic ice fields, the forest growing in steep bogs where every step costs more than usual, tells you that you’re not quite welcome here. It’s even stranger to realise that the only reason that you cn be there at all is that you were part of the few people wealthy and lucky enough to make the trip in the first place, so I won’t pretend that this was some sort of humbling spiritual experience. I’ll just put it in coarse words because subtler ones have been failing me since: sailing in the Beagle Channel slapped me in the face with the fact that I didn’t deserve any of this beauty. Entire people were slaughtered there because other humans wanted more unnecessary meat to eat; whales were slaughtered all so that we could have whale oil to grease machinery and light our cities with, and now we seek contact with a lost natural wonderland as if it was a nurturing experience for our souls, when in fact our souls are the very last thing that matter there. We don’t matter. We should just thank the universe for being randomly born in it.

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Stork country

The area known as Alsace, a very peculiar place that has changed hands between France and Germany over the course of several wars, is famous in France for being the home of most French storks.

We visited Alsace last week and didn’t hope to see any–they do migrate, after all, and it’s not nesting season. In a shop where I bought an embroidery kit featuring a traditional stork pattern (I know, I know…), I was told that storks actually annoy people around there. They’re huge and noisy and their nests weight up to half a ton, so they can easily destroy a roof, it seems–and some of them do stay all winter, what with global warming and all. Still, I would love to see storks try to destroy my roof…

Taking a late-evening walk with a friend, however, he suddenly pointed towards the roof of a very posh house. There, on a platform specially installed for such an occasion, was a massive nest, and by massive I do mean absolutely huge. On the nest were two tall, lanky, entirely still birds.

‘Oh, wow,’ I said. ‘But… are they real?’

I’ve never seen anyone laugh like that. To my friend, it was a very funny idea to put fake storks on a roof: the birds are so common people don’t even look at them anymore. To me, it was like suddenly being in another country. They looked so beautiful someone might as well have put fake ones there on purpose.

Eventually they started moving, and there wasn’t a doubt left. We walked back home, and I thought about the little nesting boxes I recently bought for the blue and black tits back home. People who build whole platforms for five-hundred-kilos stork nests take the commitment to quite another level. I’m very fond of my tiny birds back home, but I will keep treasured memories of stork country.

Flying on hot air

What it’s like to fly a hot air balloon:

– You get up long before the sun. There are plenty of stars in the sky an a very thin moon crescent, and as it happens the Earth might be crossing an asteroi field, although shooting stars are not visible from the road. It’s a good kind of lack of sleep, full of anticipation.

– You’re in a field in the middle of nowhere when the sun appears. Right in front of you there’s a massive, rainbow-patterned balloon rising from the ground, flapping as it fills with cold air. You could easily build a dancehall in there.

– Everything takes forever as they prepare the balloon, but then things move forward very quickly: you get briefed on how to get inside without endangering anything or anyone, explained about balloons, then you get inside the wicker basket with the balloon up above your head, and before you’ve had time to wonder how nobody is going to fall off the whole thing (the basket is about one metre high, and there are no safety harnesses of any kind), it lifts off. Just like that. You don’t feel a thing, and then all of a sudden you’re hanging above ground, rising so smoothly you hardly feel the altitude.

– It’s very, very beautiful up there. You can see the trees below, the red cliffs, the mountains around keeping the win at bay. At sunrise, it gets warmer as you get up: the warm air from the day before is lingering there. The sun is barely up and the light is perfect. It’s much too perfect to take pictures. The basket doesn’t move at all, and it’s still so thin and low, there migh as well be nothing there. Just the air holding you very peacefully, and the beautiful landscape below. When your eyes move around, it gets very dizzying very quickly, however: your gaze can travel around, up, down, and there’s just distance and sky everywhere, so it’s best to find a steady point to look at. It’s quiet, dizzying and exhilarating at the same time.

– Going down again, you brush again some trees. You can’t know in avance where you’re going to land. Hot air balloons are a wonderful, but extremely inefficient way to travel. You’ll eventually be picked up after a lot of confusion, and one false landing in very tall grass.

– You’re back down again. It’s still early morning. There will be time to get back to civilisation, to fold down the giant thing, to have a drink together, and there will still be a whole day ahead. But now you’ve been through the open skies.

Goodbye, soon

Things I will miss from Québec:

Strangers smiling more often than not.

People using ‘tu’ even when they have never met you; the formal ‘vous’ would be the rule in France, but it’s so… well, formal.

Cranberries, blueberries and maple butter.

Dramatic season changes. Even with the feeling of helplessness in November (when the weather is at its most rotten) and March (when it should be spring already and everything is still covered in snow), it’s still amazing to see leaves turn red and flowers explode in summer.

Large summer campfires, where flames and embers get spit on the grass all around the fire pit and nobody even worry about starting a catastrophic fire, that’s how wet the grass is.

Water everywhere, in the air, in rivers, lakes, everything.

My friends.

Things I won’t miss:

Cars everywhere, and being unable to do something as simple as choose my own doctor without driving.

Mayonnaise everywhere; there’s no accounting for taste, but having to read every label to check if it will be soaked in mayo is not fun (MAJOR problem, I know, I know).

Working all the time, though it’s not Québec’s fault at all.

That’s about it. I hope I’ll come back one day. When and how… we’ll see. But one thing is certain, I won’t be working then.

Tourism from the inside and out

I’m an eager tourist. I often travel with a backpack and stay in strangers’ homes, I don’t go sightseeing all the time and I avoid tourist shops; I could probably show all of this as evidence that I’m ‘not a tourist, I’m a traveller’. Since backpackers do the same kind of tourism as everybody else, but often seem to think they’ve got a free pass on account of being marginally more adventurous, I prefer to be upfront. I’m a tourist, and I love it.

Now, being on CouchSurfing, as we have for the past two years, brings you a new insight on tourism. On CouchSurfing, as a host, you suddenly find yourself on the receiving end, being ‘the local’ interacting with foreigners. The experience can be extremely rewarding. Tourists can have a great many defects, but they can also be great people, and we’ve been quite lucky so far with the kind of folks we invited into our flat.

However, there is one particular thing that comes up every now and then with our guests. Some of them inform us that they want to see the city ‘as a local, not as a tourist’ (which is a bit puzzling, because just how do you expect to experience a place ‘as a local’ when you’re spending 24 hours in it, exactly?); and some others insist on spending a day in Marseilles, which is half an hour away on the bus, and which might not be the most rewarding city to visit compared to some others around the place. The argument they often make is that Marseilles is more authentic, and that they want to see a bit of the authentic France, not just the tourist parts.

And here we go again.

First things first: Marseilles is not the ‘authentic France’. Marseilles is Marseilles. It’s noisy, it’s dirty, it has more poverty and crime than many people are comfortable with, and as a rule, to like it, you need to have been born there or to go there on an occasional basis (preferably to the nicer, safer parts). You can find many things there, but none of them are representative of an ‘authentic’ France, whatever that might be. As for the grittier parts, most people tend to wish they were less gritty, and that work and safety were a bit more evenly distributed in the city. They may look exotic, but they’re not always fun.

Secondly, it’s always very surprising to hear that the place where you live is not authentic enough. I don’t know what that makes of its inhabitants—am I supposed to be a paid extra, or something? Aix-en-Provence is particularly well-groomed and privileged, but I call that ‘lucky’, not ‘inauthentic’. Is it that we’ve got pedestrian streets? A traditional farmers’ market? Old houses? These things have been around for the past few centuries. I’m pretty sure nobody put them there to please the tourists.

I’m being facetious, I admit. I understand perfectly well how my city may seem inauthentic. I’ve complained about it myself. Gentrification is never-ending, traditional shops close in favour of cloned fashion retailers, anyone not rich enough to belong is pushed back to the suburbs. But there’s one crucial difference between me and tourists saying it: I know what I’m talking about. I don’t care about gritty, or about authentic. I care about being able to afford a home, to buy everyday objects and foods on the street (I don’t eat designers’ handbags or jeans, sorry), to go out to venues that don’t charge half my salary just to get in. In short: what I want, and what I need, isn’t defined by what makes the city look interesting and authentic at a first glance. But of course, you have to live there to know about it.

Tourists used to judge authenticity based on the number of famous sights. Nowadays they do the exact opposite, but the process remains the same, and is no less problematic. You can’t arrive in a city and decide after two hours how real it is, based on whether or not the whole place was adapted to meet your needs, because places you visit are just not about you. It’s as intrusive and inconsiderate as judging the value of a place by its number of famous sights. Even with the best of intentions, it’s not okay. Don’t do it.

Adventures in conferences

Woke up this morning after a nightmare about the PhD jury slashing my thesis to bits. Here’s what bothers me most about those nightmares: it’s not that they’re stressful, it’s that they’re boringly stressful. It’s not like I much enjoyed the other one when everybody was being chased around by giant robots and cities were crumbling down, but at least I had some cool pictures in my head in the morning, after I’d had time to realise it was just a dream and I could enjoy it just like any terrifying horror movie. If that makes sense.

I particularly dislike the thesis-related dreams, because if I’m going to be stressed out, I want to be entertained at the very least, if that’s not too much to ask.

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On the plane from Zurich to Montreal, I sat next to a man who looked rather scared of flying. He ordered one serving of wine after the other, very brusquely, cutting off the flight attendants who were explaining the menu, and he slept most of the rest of the time. When we finally landed, he sighed heavily and suddenly started to speak again, though he wasn’t very talkative.

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Customs took forever. I should be finishing the decorative details on my powerpoint for my upcoming presentation at the conference, but by the time I got through the formalities, I’d had ample time to enter that state when you don’t know what time it is and the only reason you don’t buy another magazine is because you forgot to take Canadian dollars. So I’ll just thank Montréal airport for the free wifi.

Expecting a sound, deep and delightful night of sleep. Not even thesis dreams can disturb this one, I bet. Only five more hours to go…

Tourist wisdom

There was an article recently published on Aix, my native city, that featured interviews of foreigners, and what they liked and disliked about it. By "foreigners", I mean, of course, mostly tourists, or wealthy foreigners who came here for a good job. I don't think anyone cares for the opinion of recent immigrants from developing countries anyway, unfortunately…

Foreigners, it seems, love this city, because it's beautiful, sunny, close to the sea and the mountains, very safe, and all the usual arguments. They dislike two things mostly: it's permanently dirty, and the locals are unpleasant. Case in point: café waiters on the Cours Mirabeau, the main avenue, are particularly rude at the best of times.

How can I phrase this politely. You're a tourist, you come to a foreign city… surely you'll realise there's something wrong with saying "It's nice, but I'd like it better if they took the locals away" before you blurt it out, right? I mean, people with half a brain do realise that it's a little bit arrogant and rude and wrong to visit a city for a couple of days and then bitch about how its inhabitants didn't go out of their way to figure out how to be nice enough to your taste and standards… am I completely out of line here?

There's that sense of entitlement about tourism which, I think, is perfectly exemplified in the fact that so many people find it's normal to make that kind of statement. Tourists don't visit places: they buy them. And then they assume that clients are kings. It doesn't take much thinking to figure out that your personal experience is limited, that cultures differ, that you may have unwittingly been rude to someone (I know lots of English-speaking people don't mean it, but approaching a stranger on the street and talking to them in very fast English without even asking first if they understand you is considered impolite in France–acting impatient when people don't respond is, of course, terrible behaviour). Yet that rule doesn't seem to apply to tourists. Although it's now common to try to travel "differently" (meaning, just like everybody else, but not quite like your grandparents), experiencing the local way of life and seeking interactions with locals, one basic thing hasn't changed: the country you visit owes you a good service. And that includes people who don't get any benefit from tourism at all.

Tourism is a large economic sector, yes. It creates jobs, yes. But even in a tourist city, not all jobs are created by tourism. "Good for the economy" doesn't mean "good for every single person in the country". In fact, there may be a surprisingly small number of people who actually benefit from tourism in some places, and there are always people who are actively harmed by it. More tourists often means higher prices for everybody; it can also mean changes on a deep scale in the structure of a city. In some parts of the French countryside, for example, people are not allowed to steer herds of cows through villages anymore, as the tourists complain about the smell. In Aix, local shops were gradually replaced over the years by clothes and handbag stores, because of a combination of higher rent prices and demand from outside visitors. And yet again, I'm talking about the situation in a rich country, because that's what I know best; bear in mind that the exact same mechanisms that cause prices to increase here cause shanty towns to be destroyed, property to be confiscated and livelihoods to be ruined to build sea-side resorts or hotels in parts of India, South-East Asia or Africa. I'm not complaining about my lot here; I'm just trying to use an example I know well to illustrate that it's just not enough to say that tourism helps the economy. That can very well go hand in hand with causing disturbance or harm to people.

It's past time everybody who's privileged enough to travel abroad start reflecting that you don't buy a whole country. You're a guest, not a customer. Locals make changes in their own way of life to accomodate you, and few of them actually reap the benefits: consider this a favour and show appropriate gratitude. And if their welcome was not up to your taste, please ask yourself what you did wrong before smugly complaining to a mainstream magazine. Or just move on.