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Tourist Torture (Existential Musings)

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Originally published via Armageddon Prose Substack:

In the streets of Cusco, I have beheld more nuclear families of obese gringos festooned in matching artisanal ponchos, procured from any of a thousand street vendors — hanging down to their ankles with incongruous sneakers exposed underneath — than I might have thought possible in a few days.

Passing by, hobos and hippies and various sordid figures have advertised drugs to me no less than fifty times in less than a week; the variety of the offers impressed me and the aggressiveness of the sellers annoyed me.

Ethnic grandmas in extravagant get-ups have exhorted me to “hold baby alpaca,” animals brought down from some mountaintop, which would probably rather be munching grass or whatever and which they lead around on leashes throughout the city, pimping all day every day for a negotiable fee.

I have watched a beach-blonde lady with pearly whites in full-makeup and sunglasses at 8 a.m. on a cloudy day — pushing fifty and desperate to look thirty years younger — seat herself next to the opaque foggy window on the train from Machu Picchu and take no less than a literal hundred selfies in a thirty-minute window from the exact same position, but capturing various angles of her face, I guess for Instagram or whatever.  

The above is my humble homage to the late David Foster Wallace, who hung himself in his basement in 2008, and in specific the opening salvo of his legendary essay, “Shipping Out: On the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise.”

On the road to Cusco from Puno, we stopped at five or six historical sites to take pictures and hear stories. Without fail, each had a bevy of vendors to go with it, all wearing the same exotic costumes designed to exude authenticity — which may or may not have been authentic and which they may or may not wear when they’re not in character — selling various ceramics and llama dolls and garments they swear to God are all made with baby alpaca fur, the regional fabric most highly sought, which fetches the highest price, for its sublime texture.

At one site, a decaying Inca temple, though there were none, though.


The temple ruin stood alone under the hot sun. After explaining the human sacrifices that reportedly went down there — which I was keen to learn more about for off-color reasons — our tour man kindly directed us to an old-looking church constructed by the Spanish on the other side of a wall. (I have noticed that throughout Latin America the Conquistadors developed a habit of building churches either directly on or adjacent to culturally significant native sites, I presume as a show of cultural domination.)

It was only after passing through the gate to the other side, on the well-laid tourist circuit meandering throughout the site, that the endless stalls of consumer goods and their familiar lady proprietors became visible.

Of course!

I cursed my own naivety that our bus driver might have delivered us somewhere where no one was selling anything. 

Machu Picchu itself, the zenith of the whole scene, can only be described as an industrial-grade, military-like operation. By some estimates, 6,000+ tourists pass through the Wonder of the World each day. At times that number is far higher. The sequentially numbered buses (seafarers used to give their vessels names; the bus company gives them numbers) run nonstop like clockwork all day, servicing the queues of tourists waiting in line to be whisked to the mountaintop.

Sentience aside, I can’t say that I felt very different from the tireless buses or the llama dolls on offer or the drug peddlers who roam the Cusco streets day and night or the dozens of tour guides who sell themselves at the gates of the ruins — cogs in the money-generating machine to the tune of $250 million annually.

Am I the consumer or the commodity? The John or the whore? Is there a meaningful difference from 10,000 ft.?

“Shut up and enjoy the view,” I can hear the criticism.

Yeah, okay.

My deep-seated — and some might say pathological — hatred of tourism as an institutionalized practice notwithstanding, in moments of goodwill toward mankind I am left with a lingering sadness that outstrips hate.

People — like me, and who am I to condescend? — flock to the ruins because they find them beautiful and, beyond that, awe-inspiring.

If and when AI runs things and the only humans left are hybrids out of a sci-fi nightmare, if humans are around at all, Machu Picchu will hold no sentimental sway in their minds, and all of the graft that feeds off of that appreciation of beauty will evaporate, and perhaps I’ll miss it after all.  

Machines feel nothing.

          Related: The Slaving Tree

“Come sit down, we’re lamenting about yesterday’s sad ending
‘Bout the water in me whiskey
The brass passed off as gold
Another round, we’re descending into old tyme mem’ry
Of a day when wood was wooden, silver-silver, gold was gold
Sweet home was home

Son, these tools are artifacts
Endangered species left its tracks
So lock me up behind plastic glass in the city”
-Mischief Brew, ‘Old Tyme Mem’ry’

Ben Bartee, author of Broken English Teacher: Notes From Exile, is an independent Bangkok-based American journalist with opposable thumbs.

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