I started the trip reading Michael Crichton’s Timeline and wishing I owned some Tom Petty songs. And that S- didn’t need to borrow my headphones to listen to the vital midi files of Zelda on the DS.
Timeline is, by no stretch of the imagination a literary masterpiece. It is, however, so good a story that reading it is still an absolute joy, despite this being something close the millionth time I’ve done so. The book, at its most basic level, concerns an IT company that has accidentally discovered a way to visit different time periods (not time-travel in the Doctor Who sense… that would just be ludicrous). In a bid to make money, they purchase all the land surrounding key historic sites and donate vast sums to the controlling government, funding the restoration of these monuments. When said sites – such as the fictional town of Castelgard in France – are recreated according to details found from trips into the past, the IT company comes to own all the surrounding land, earning money from the rent of shops and restaurants, and the sale of souvenirs. The baddie – and you know a story is fabulous when you can refer to a single character in such a way – claims that people are no longer interested in traditional entertainment.
In other centuries, human beings wanted to be saved, or improved, or freed, or educated. But in our century, they want to be entertained. The great fear is not of disease or death, but of boredom. A sense of time on our hands, a sense of nothing to do. A sense that we are not amused.
But where will this mania for entertainment end? What will people do when they get tired of television? When they get tired of movies?We already know the answer – they go into participatory activities: sports, theme parks, amusement rides, roller coasters. Structured fun, planned thrills. And what will they tire of theme parks and planned thrills? Sooner or later, the artifice becomes too noticable. They begin to realize that an amusement park is really a kind of jail in which you pay to be an inmate.
This artifice will drive them to seek authenticity. Authenticity will be the buzzword of the twenty-first century. And what is authentic? Anything that is not devised and structured to make a profit. Anything that is not controlled by corporations. Anything that exists for its own sake, that assumes its own shape. But of course, nothing in the modern world is allowed to assume its own shape. The modern world is the corporate equivalent of a formal garden, where everything is planted and arranged for effect. Where nothing is untouched, where nothing is authentic.
Where then will people turn for the rare and desirable experience of authenticity? They will turn to the past.*
I completely agree.
We took a trip out to the Sahara, primarily to ride camels. After almost ten hours of being folded into the twin front-seat of a Ford mini-bus, we reached our destination – a relative nowhere of a town where a group of Berbers waited to lead our tiny caravan into the desert. Carefully, S- and I, the gaggle of American girls and the sullen Frenchmen, attached our bags to the metal bar of the camels’ saddles. With a few deft twists from our accompanying Berber, our scarves were transformed into romantic, sand-stopping headdresses and we mounted up.
The Americans were ecstatic, snapping haphazard photographs of one another whilst the moody French party wore dark expressions which clouded their sunlit faces. S- and I made nervous fart jokes** in Danish and drew disapproving glances from all sides for our quiet snickers.
The camels began with a lurch forward, spurred to life with a hissing cue from our guides. Like everywhere else in Morocco, a handful of bright-eyed children materialised from somewhere in the sand and ran alongside our mounts, trying to sell up almonds, tissues and human misery. When their shouts of ‘Merci, merci,’ – what I believe to be Moroccan for ‘I would like the contents of your wallet’ – had faded into the reds of the sunset, silence fell upon the group and we stared up at the great bowl of stars.
As darkness fell, it became clear that patches of the sky were white with stars. Even on a clear night at my parents’ middle-of-nowhere-Scottish-house you can only see a handful of what populates the night sky. Take Orion, for example.
We can see the above marked stars from our little English field. From my parents’ house, you can even make out a sword, hanging from Orion’s belt. In the Sahara though, the space between these well-mapped points is literally teeming with not hundreds, but thousands of stars. I always knew that light pollution interfered with what we see at night, but I never realised the extent of it.
One of the American girls began to whisper to me, tentative and awed, and I begin to whisper back – daring myself to speak a little louder. As the conversation passed between us, it began grew until S- and the other girls added their voices to our chatter. Eventually, laughed bubbled up and we ceased to be alone in the desert beneath the impossible stars.
We continued on this way, clinging to our saddles and the sounds of one another, until we made it to the camp.
the Berber tents were lit with gas canisters, blue cylinders topped with white flames. We were given shimmering glasses of amber mint tea with far too much sugar. Another group joined us, older – not necessarily wiser – and more ‘into’ the experience. The Berbers began to sing and dance outside the tent and one of the men in the other group closed his eyes, swaying to the rhythm and humming low. Another woman joined him and the sullen French group, who had been cross about various things throughout the trip so far, began to make unimpressed beds for themselves on their backpacks. This seemed to spur the Berbers into serving food – tagine and cous cous which had somehow been heated, despite the lack of fire and stove. We all devoured huge huge portions, despite its mysterious origins.
The Berbers sang again after dinner and lit a fire to dance around. Our new American friends approved of our silly camel fart jokes and this naturally led to a discussion about the authenticity of things to see in Marrakech.
It was decided, in a democratic sort of way, that the nation’s capital was far too geared for tourists. Stall holders chase after you, shouting obscure cultural references in an attempt to draw your attention. S- told the story of how, within the first hour of our stay, we had been dragged into one man’s home to ‘meet his family’ and had proceeded in offending him when we refused to leave with any of the carpets he offered for sale. He tried to insist that I was ‘so gentle’ that he would give us a huge discount, however our continued refusal soon banished the frankly disturbing idea that I was anything close to a lady. The insults began soon after, though we did manage to leave carpet-free and so I suppose there’s a positive in there. It was amazing how many people had not done so – his walls were full of photographs of happy tourists, holding up overpriced rugs.
After discussing the need to haggle – our almost-carpet began at a price of 2000 dirham and was soon reduced to 350 – we spoke about the evening’s camel ride and the Berber guides with Nike trainers.
“This is far too touristy,” S- said, gesturing to the older folks, trancing to the low hum of the drum music.
“Oh for sure,” said one of our four new friends in a soft Texan drawl. She was wonderful – with an accent like a cowgirl and the look of a peaches-and-cream English rose.
“They’re only doing it for the tourists,” another joined in, nodding to the Berbers dancing around the fire.
I began to think about Michael Crichton and Robert Doniger then. Yes, these people probably were just doing it for the tourists, for people – like us – who were interested in seeing how the Moroccan people ‘really’ live. We forget though, until we come out to these places, that people don’t really live like this any more – the Berbers live in towns around the Sahara and have satellite dishes, paid for by pretending they don’t live in towns with satellite dishes. The only reason they come into the desert and dance these ancient dances is because they get paid to do so.
And there – for me, at any rate – is the value of tourism. Admittedly, I’m not all that keen on being asked to ‘walk far out into the dunes to see the stars’¤, but that these singing and dancing traditions -which are thousands of years old – still exist is certainly something that shouldn’t be sniffed at. Despite the fact that our satellite dishes and Nike trainers have penetrated a world where possessions could once be carried on a camel’s back, those of us who seek out Crichton’s participatory activities whilst on holiday are somehow contributing to saving what might otherwise be forgotten. Yes, it feels cheap, bastardised and far from authentic, but that we can save some shred of our ancestral lives has to mean something.
“They’re only doing it doe the tourists,” the girl had said.
“I know,” I replied, trying to keep the smile from my voice. The Castelgard Effect – conservation through experiential tourism.
* Michael Crichton, ‘Timeline’, Arrow Books – Random House, London 1999, p. 443-444
** Get a cat – suddenly fart jokes are hilarious again, and you rediscover an area of humour that has lain untouched since your early teenage years.
¤ I was asked, on my way to the bathroom, to accompany one of our guides far from the light of the camp so that he could properly explain the stars to me. When I said, “Great, I’ll fetch my husband,” he looked sulkily at me, replied that it didn’t matter and that he’d better go check on some other guests.