Caribbean novelist Jamaica Kincaid writes this in her work A Small Place, which is a scathing missive to the traveler. Although she has spent the majority of her life in the United States, she grew up in Antigua, a tiny Caribbean island whose circumference is roughly 54 miles and its area 108 square miles, and many of her novels and short stories are set there. Kincaid hates tourists to her native Antigua who she feels are “ugly human beings.” She herself is the descendant of slaves, men and women who were taken from their homes in Africa to work at the many sugar plantations found throughout the Caribbean. Kincaid hates the British for all the things they did and did not do for their subjects in Antigua, before it achieved its independence. She hates the Americans who come to Antigua, who to Kincaid are the “modern day British,” the “new imperialists” with their overreaching of borders.
To call all tourists “ugly human beings” is a pretty broad generalization since ugly human beings are everywhere and not just of the tourist demographic. I grew up in Philadelphia, a city beset with tourists in its historic colonial district, especially during the warmer months. The tourist invasion never seemed bad simply because Philadelphia is large enough in size that if you were to walk 10 blocks away from such iconic sites as the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, you would be among locals and not tour groups. I guess in Kincaid’s view, since Antigua is so small, there’s not many places natives can go to escape from the tourists except those sites that have no interest for the tourists to see and experience-the homes of the hospitality industry’s workers, the dilapidated schools- it’s not much of an escape. I’ve encountered many ugly tourists-those that don’t make an effort to try the local food, who look down upon the people of the country they’re visiting, and who constantly make unflattering comparisons between the country they’re traveling in and their native country. But then I have also come across tourists like myself, open-minded and ready to embrace the unfamiliar.
“It will never occur to you that the people who inhabit the place in which you have just paused cannot stand you, that behind their closed doors they laugh at your strangeness.”
Whenever I travel, I meet many different people. Some interactions may just be a polite hello while others consist of asking me where I’m from, if I’ve been enjoying my visit and, if it’s in a Spanish speaking country where I’m conversing in Spanish with locals, questions regarding how long I’ve been studying the language and if I’ve traveled to any other Spanish speaking countries. I’m not naive to think people are never gossiped about behind closed doors. Rather, I feel that the individuals that the natives cannot stand are the true “ugly human beings,” the tourist who was too rude to say thank you after a local had done him a kindness or one who became exasperated when no one spoke his native tongue even though he was in a country where his native tongue is not spoken. My red hair is often a topic of conversation in countries in which red hair is an anomaly or nothing more than a hair dye number on a kit gotten at the local supermarket, so I wouldn’t be surprised if my hair was discussed by some locals. It always caused extreme staring fits by people in Mexico and especially South Korea.
“ Most natives in the world cannot go anywhere. They are too poor. They are too poor to go anywhere. They are too poor to live properly in the place where they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go-so when the natives see you, the tourist, they envy you.”
While I feel much of Kincaid’s writing in A Small Place is much too cutting, the above statement is entirely true. I have traveled to enough developing countries and indulged in first world luxuries to have contemplated the living situation of the workers at the resorts where I’m staying or the servers at the high-end restaurants where I’m eating. For people from the United States like myself, Cancun is an idyllic tropical paradise-glorious white sand beaches, crystal clear blue waters. But for the natives of Cancun, who live in abysmal conditions in comparison to the visiting tourist, I suppose they are indeed “too poor to live properly in the place where they live” in the place we tourists flock to visit. While I certainly met Mexicans who were well-off-my host family in Queretaro, co-workers at the orphanage in Cuernavaca where I volunteered-I encountered many more who weren’t. Their country, a gem to foreign tourists, is just their native country and nothing more.
Getting away from the everyday life is one of the things that will cheer me up the most-new sights, new scenery, new people, new food. And yet, I know it is not so easy for many people in the world who may go their entire lives never seeing anywhere new. A tourist need only read A Small Place to see how incredibly lucky we are to do the traveling that we do, year after year.