Growing up in the rural Midwest, I lived for several years in a resort for well-off city dwellers. (My mom had remarried and some of my stepfather’s family owned and operated the place, and for a while he worked there too.) The resort had artificially created lakes, golf courses, a concrete castle, and hilly roads with vaguely Native American names.
I didn’t hate this resort, in fact I relished the chance to meet what seemed to me thrillingly sophisticated city kids. I did, however, loathe the Trunk-Slammers. While some owners—mainly retired folks—lived year round, most people would come on weekends, summers and holidays. The Trunk-Slammers were weekend warriors known by that name because they drove in, pulled noisy stuff out of their car trunks, made a lot of noise, packed the noisy stuff back in their trunks, slammed those trunks shut and left two days latter. Trunk-Slammers rode ATV’s through wooded areas, ripping up wildflowers, ferns and the habitats of wildlife. They tore through the lakes on speedboats and jet skis, polluting the air and water with noise and diesel fumes. Trunk-Slammers were in “the country”, where it meant they didn’t need to respect anyone else and they could do stupid stuff they would never do at home, like walk in the middle of the road and drive snowmobiles over thin ice.
These days I’m a bit of a weekend warrior myself: with trips averaging 10 – 14 days, HOB and I will pursue a hectic itinerary through the country we’re visiting, a day or two in a town and then zip the backpack up and on to the next. While I may be a weekend warrior, I am not, of course I’m not, a Trunk-Slammer. I mean, I don’t even drive and I carry everything in a small backpack. But….well, after our last trip I’m starting to worry I could be a cultural Trunk-Slammer.
This past fall we rented an apartment in the Alfama neighborhood of Lisbon, described in our guide book as a deeply authentic, working class district full of undiscovered back streets and soulful fado music. Well, Alfama did have innumerable backstreets, every last one of them jammed with tourists. In the balmy evenings sounds of fado drifted from tiny bars, each one of them filled with tourists. Gorgeous young women strummed guitars for tourists. When we unlocked our apartment the couple checking in below us were also tourists.
Oh, and the important part: we were tourists. We were paying the Airbnb rents, making it more economically viable for Marta (our landlord) to live outside of Lisbon than in the apartment she once occupied in that historic neighborhood.
I mean, it isn’t like I never thought about this before (or tried really hard not to think about the environmental impact of all the flying we do). But I’ve felt okay about contributing to mass tourism because of how we participate in the local culture. We respect the religion, eat local foods, and seek out art, architecture and music. That makes it okay, right?
Maybe…not. It is possible that what HOB and I do when we travel is the cultural equivalent of driving an ATV through the wildflowers in someone’s backyard. Let’s say I’m inside some temple, awkwardly holding incense and bowing, leaving offerings for a god I don’t know the name of—am I edgy and open-minded, or just getting in the way of a local person’s spiritual experience? I like to think I am an expert in short-term cultural immersion but perhaps culture is not meant be tried on like a costume.
I also occasionally wonder if my “authentic” travel experience is a performance put on by locals who are themselves trying to please tourists seeking out authentic culture. This was certainly the case when we stayed at the farm of the Bunan tribe in southwest Taiwan. The tribe members really do live and work on that farm, but they probably don’t actually want to run though their millet harvest song and dance routine every afternoon at 2:00 pm. On the other hand, by promoting and delivering these cultural experiences to tourists like us, the Bunan tribe are able to live self-sufficiently on their own terms and I applaud them for it.
Perhaps the search for authentic culture is a problematic concept that could lead to cultural Trunk-Slamming. I often remind myself that tourists believe Chicago locals love eating hotdogs and stuffed pizza and that we are all crazy for sports, while I, a 25 year resident of Chicago, couldn’t tell you the last time I ate a hot dog, find eating stuffed pizza to be like swallowing a bowling ball, and have never attended a single professional sporting event the entire time I’ve lived here. By all means, visit Chicago and choke down a few hot dogs while screaming at a sportsball game but please don’t think that has anything to do with my life. (This reminds me of a time we shared a freezing cold guest house on a mountain in Georgia with a German couple. In learning they came from Leipzig, HOB and I were overjoyed to share with them our love of their traditional hometown music: Bach sung by an 800 year old resident boy’s choir. The German couple finally confessed “We’ve never heard that boys choir—we listen to electronic music.”)
I may be a cultural Trunk-Slammer but I recognize that authentic culture does not necessarily equal good culture. While bullfighting is a genuine cultural phenomenon in Spain, I would not support this disgusting and cruel tradition as an audience member. And the next time we travel in Belgium on December 6th, we’ll turn our backs on the festivities surrounding Santa’s blackface helper, Zwarte Piet.
The solution to cultural Trunk-Slamming in not staying home. My job relies on tourism and I genuinely enjoy most of my tourist customers, particularly the curious ones who work a bit harder to engage in the complex and myriad cultural offerings of Chicago. And anyway, regardless of my feelings about them, if those tourists stay home, who pays my salary?
We’re still going to have to be blitz travelers, given the reality of limited vacation time and of course, limited funds. What I can offer the residents of the places we visit is the same curiosity I like to see in Chicago tourists along with the recognition that their culture is complicated. As much as I like to see people singing and dancing in colorful national costumes, I realize that an equally authentic local experience is eating mediocre Chinese food in a strip mall in rural Italy. And though I feel uncomfortable about Airbnb, we’ll continue to stay in them (hello kitchen and washing machine!) Anyway, it is patronizing to assume that every local is somehow mourning for their authentic apartment in the historic area. That apartment we rented from Marta in Lisbon? It was tiny with a ridiculous shower. Perhaps Marta prefers staying in a more comfortable place in the suburbs anyway: if I were less of a cultural Trunk-Slammer, I would have stuck around and asked.