On this episode of The End of Tourism, our guest is Stephen Jenkinson, activist, teacher, author, and farmer. In the second part of our conversation, we explore the themes of tourism as the trauma of homeless people. Rights are discussed in contrast to responsibilities. Stephen takes us on a deep dive into how the idea of the stranger or foreigner came to be, principally through travel and trade and what this all might offer us in our time. Finally, we contend with the notion that the only responsible way of being a tourist is to stop being one, is to stay home and honour the place one lives in.
Stephen has masters’ degrees from Harvard University (Theology) and the University of Toronto (Social Work). He is the founder of the Orphan Wisdom School in Tramore, Canada and the author of four books, including Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul, the award-winning book about grief and dying, and the great love of life. In 2015, he created Nights of Grief & Mystery with Canadian singer-songwriter Gregory Hoskins. With a 5-piece band, they have mounted international tours and released three albums, the most recent of which are “Dark Roads” and “Rough Gods.”
I first encountered Stephen in 2014 at a chocolate shop in Toronto. In the midst of a life-changing, 3 hour-long story, he whispered to us, that “in this place, they eat teachers.” Later on, digesting the fact that I was, very much, one of the hungry, I decided to join his teaching school in the Ottawa Valley. Since then, Stephen has travelled here, to Oaxaca, Mexico, mostly as a “pulmonary refugee,” as he refers to it. Alongside his wife Nathalie and others, I have been witness and accomplice to much of their co-conspiracy, here. Over the years, many of those conversations revolved around tourism, exile, and radical hospitality, which are the themes of these two episodes.
Part 2 is entitled “Trauma Intelligence, the Stranger, and Radical Hospitality.”
Throughout the episodes you will hear what are cicadas, emerging after a 17 year underworld life to die. Their songs, as I’ve heard it said here in Oaxaca, are prayers to local Gods, asking for rain to once more kiss the parched soils of this place.
What to do in the midst of pandemic consequences?
Nights of Grief and Mystery / A Generation’s Worth Book
Learning as a redemptive enterprise
Translating what it means to be a citizen in our time
The sound of being awake in our time is a sob
Tribalism and its modern prejudices
Radical hospitality and the emergence of the stranger
Work-exchange, trade, and value
Kinship arrangements and ceremony
Story of visit to Bali and the possible touristic fate of Balineseculture
Tourism invites the tourist, not the rehabilitated visitor.
The western / tourist dilemma – to go or not to go
Staying home as an act of civil disobedience
How to proceed with the privilege you cannot renounce
Invitation to be a citizen of outsider status
Chris: Well, Stephen, I’ve had the great, good fortune to get to lean on the grapevine of your days and work in the last few months. In that time, it seems you’ve written and finished a new book with another waiting in the wings. Might you tell us a bit about them, about what you’ve crafted in this regard?
Stephen: Well, I had a idleness forced upon me about a year and four months ago or so.
So, and this was particularly troubling for me because, not only because I made my living by being out on the road, basically, but I, it was my life too, not just a way of, you know, paying the bills, but it was a genuine vocation that really came to get me later in life. So I knew myself to be a child of just ridiculous fortune because of it.
And it’s very compelling. Obviously, the dynamics of interacting with people live in real time has its own crazy magic and illogic to go with it. But I loved it. And, um, just before the pandemic hit, I was as busy as it’s possible I think to be. You know, on the road, off the, on the road, back to the farm, re-introduce myself just long enough to repack and tour with the band.
And so on. Nights of Grief and Mystery and suddenly very suddenly it was no more. And like everyone, I waited it out in the early days, figuring, oh, a little patience and people washing their hands that should take care of things, you know, or whatever one thought when there was nothing to think in those days, early on.
And it’s, uh, it’s turned into a handful of “who knows?” And in the midst of that, uh, I wondered not so much, would I ever get to do it again from the point of view of permits and all of that. But the, you know, I’m 66 and counting, and it’s not, it’s far from assured that I get to do that again, from the point of view of what I’m capable of, not the show so much, but all the coming and going.
As Mr. Cohen said, so artfully, like he did at virtually everything, “they don’t pay you to sing. They pay you to travel.” The understanding being that singing you do for free, but that other stuff somebody’s got to pay for that man. Cause it’s too hard. It’s too hard on the chassis and all of that. So, in the absence of all of that, I, I gave myself a couple of little assignments.
So I was under the influence of younger people who were absolutely convinced that live streaming and so on was made for me. That’s not true. I adapt myself to it as best as I can and pretend there’s an audience there from the little Chiclets around the outside of the screen, you know, with people barely moving in them. But we did something at the farm.
And then I was, I was forced off the farm by the cold and came down here and tried to do it one more time. And I gave myself the task of wondering whether or not the books that I’d come up with so far over the last 20 years had any consequence or, or should have, given the, the subtle, that might sound strange, subtle change in circumstance that the plague is induced, but I think will turn out to be subtler absences than we might imagine.
When I was preparing, I took note of the things I was writing down as I was preparing, and I realized I was putting together something that was not a reminiscence of what I’d done originally with these books, but a kind of plumbing the shortfalls, the missing things, and then ultimately holding what I’d written to the kind of fierce standard of utility in a plague.
And, um, I was just compelled by what I came up with and then, and then the quality of the question- answer things and the transcript came back and seemed to work okay. So, long story short there’s four chapters come from the four sit-down sessions we did. And it’s a combination of the transcript of the live “back and forth” with people I never met and the preparations.
So, hopefully I’ll be forgiven for doing something that’s not entirely quote, “novel, fresh and clean.” You know, it’s not easy to reflect on what you yourself have done. Nobody’s asking you to do it, I should say. But every once in awhile, it’s good to take the measure of what you’ve come up with.
That’s what I did. So I finished that about three or four days ago.
Chris: I’ve had the great blessing of being able to sit in on some of those livestreams for the last couple of months, hearing a little reading that came out of one of the upcoming books last night. I very much look forward to it as I’m sure many people do.
Stephen: Me too.
These are not days that are friendly to books, you know, the old fashioned kind with pages and things. I’m not nostalgic, but I’m vintage, they tell me. So this is a vintage fixity, I have, the physical book, the physical record. You know, in its way has to carry, has to be in some fashion a beautiful thing.
So that’s my strange commitment in a time of plague is to make a beautifully feeling book in light of the plague. It’s an odd combination, really, but not designed to throw anybody off the scent of the care-worn days
Chris: I don’t think I’d be alone in saying that so much of your work appears to so many as beauty-making and beauty-making in times like these things seems beyond necessary.
Alongside your writing, certainly you’ve made a living from speaking. And, uh, it seems that there have been some whispers around here of something like a ramshackle tour in the summertime. Might you be willing to share with our listeners what that might look like or what would emerge?
Stephen: Man, this is just me talking now because, even since we thought of it, our little corner of the world at home has gotten much worse, as in, ill-advised to return worse as far as the plague goes. So, governments, of course, trying to dance that dance between maintaining the rudiments of their economy and maintaining the rudiments of public health and, unsuccessfully, I think, for the most part.
So the notion of traveling across the country, which is what we’ve come up with. This is how the Nights of Grief and Mystery began, as a duet, traveling across the States and Canada about six years ago now. And prior to that, I would say the Orphan Wisdom enterprise, before it became a school with a home, was a wayward wandering kind of proposition where I realized it made more sense for me to go to where the people are then for them to convene these big conferences that people would come from all over the freaking place. And they’re so top heavy and they’re so expensive to mount and they pull people away from their work for, and which they’re glad to do. Probably. But, um, anyway, that was my reasoning and, and that’s how I started the tours. So we were going to go, in some fashion, back to those days with a little caravan, literally, and dropping in across the country.
I guess I know a lot of people or they know me now across this continent. And that’s what we were going to do a kind of hedgerow school that would materialize and then dissipate all in the space of an evening, basically to take the measure of what’s become of, uh, the people that I, that I came to learn about through the work I was doing and see what I could, contribute to the cause.
That was the scheme. And then I talked to the Gregory Hoskins. What do you think? Well, he took a couple of days to think about it and he, he and his wife, Lisa, who’s also in the band wanted to do it too. So suddenly, we’re looking at the possibility of doing these little “Grief and Mystery” unplugged events in people’s backyards, which I ended up don’t think I ever saw that coming.
We make two records and then we tour on, on, in support of the records by going to people’s driveways. Not a good business plan, but, um, something noble, stripped down and necessary about it. That’s what I’ve decided. I don’t know if we’re going to get to do it. I mean, people are pretty, pretty jumpy. You know, at the prospect of gathering and nobody’s getting over this anytime soon, no matter what they tell you about the vaccines and you work out the politics of it and so on.
But the basic learned mistrust of your fellow humans from whom you can die because of whom you can die doesn’t go away with the mouth coverings and the strange etiquette of standing at a great distance, you know, touching knuckles or something like this. So, we’ll see. Um, I’d like to imagine that some version of this is responsible and responsive and that’s, that’s what I’m holding myself up to towards the latter part of the summer and into the fall.
And if we get to do it, some kind of documentation is going to occur. And whether that becomes a film, we’ll see. It’s exciting, you know, and it’s daunting and it’s heartbreaking all at the same time just to imagine doing it. And then what you have to contend with to make it work.
People are very nervous about organizing, generally because I think they suspect my expectations or requirements are through the roof for, you know, the technical side of things. And I, I just say, look, here’s what we’re talking about: invite 15 people, you know, to dinner, right. And then forget the dinner.
That’s it. That’s what we’re doing. So, all they have to do is appear and I’ll take care of my end of things. Or if you, if you don’t like that image, you’re putting together a children’s birthday party and then you fire the kids. That’s what it is.
We’ll see what happens.
Chris: Well, may all those ventures and dreams come to fruition and might they bless the days of those who might host them. Stephen, you and I find each other today, as we have in years previous in this place called Oaxaca the land of the Guaje. The geographies are sets of mostly semi arid, desert valleys, careening towards more desert than anything else.
A friend of mine who previously worked in water regeneration here told me that this city, Oaxaca, has a few decades left before its water reserves and water tables, collapse, and become irretrievable, assuming we carry on with the current trajectory. The desertification of the Oaxacan valleys is intensified by tourism, by tourists arriving with the often unconsidered expectation that water is not only a mere resource, but limitless in its capacity to slake the thirst of human craving and consumption.
Locals are often all too eager to meet these foreign expectations and end up tragically contributing to the destruction of their own ancestral homelands, as perhaps is the case with the Rio Atoyac, here. This seems to be a kind of fatal collaboration between locals and foreigners and local lands and lineages seem to be that which bear the cost.
Between the two foremost places you live in Stephen, tourism and its wake is having its way with each. The scarce waters of Oaxaca and the seemingly abundant ones in Ontario, Canada are deeply compromised by this thing we call tourism, by the wanderlust of the day. If the water disappears entirely in places such as Oaxaca, what then might we have understood about our relationship to it? What kind of warning shot or clarion call might that present for us today?
Stephen: The early part of the question sequence that you asked seems a little bit predicated on the idea that we are catastrophe’s students more or less willingly, more or less intentionally, that we learn from catastrophe. You can tell by me pointing this out that I’m going to suggest that that’s probably not true.
Learning, we should say, is not inherently a redemptive enterprise. I mean, trauma is a kind of learning and you can’t really make the case for its redemptive possibilities. Trauma, no? Trauma is a neurosis that doesn’t get tired, by which I mean that it’s in the nature of neurosis to overwhelm the present moment with the past, by the past. In other words, not by the goneness of things, but by the sheer inability to proceed. This is a kind of learning, although it’s not the kind that you’d advocate for your kids, but this is the kind of learning I think that characterizes the modern age. It’s trauma misapprehended. So this is why tourism is a sought after solution to trauma in the same way that suburbs are. And development is an attempt to solve the trauma of ectopia: that if you just find another place, if you just develop another place, then there’ll be less trauma that drove you to find the place, but you never find the place.
You’re a homeless person by definition, your homelessness is there in your seeking, right? You seek the way a homeless person does. That means you have no capacity for home. You’re homelessness leads you by the nose to the next solution. So, nobody should be shocked that every solution we come up with deepens the problem that the solution was designed to solve.
This is the problem with solution oriented, anything, right? Is that the solutions are bastard children of the dilemma that they’re supposed to be a salve to. So it’s a horrible communion that you’ve described between homeless people and the people who are seduced by homelessness, you know, masquerading as opportunity.
You could call it an unholy alliance. It is, it is. It tells you that the homelessness that I’m talking about doesn’t obey racial lines or divisions, doesn’t obey quote intactness of indigenous culture. Jesus Murphy. You know, people who look like me in this world are not more prone to this shit then more cafe-au-lait hued people are, okay.
The accidents of history mean that it’s proliferating across the world in the form of people who look like me. That’s the last few hundreds of years. Okay. But the coming years, that’s not the fairest characterization of the way it’s going to go. Right? Because indigenous people are discovering…
I hope to their extraordinary dismay that they don’t have a genetic firewall, you know, or some kind of spiritual firewall that inures them against this viral dilemma. I’m not talking about the plague, now, I’m talking about the plague of tourism. So, so yeah, they service it. Yeah. They want to get into the casino business.
Yeah. You know, the resort business. Yeah. It’s, you know, revenge, right. It’s Montezuma’s real revenge. Well, you know, I have nothing to say to people by way of, you know, course correcting that because I guess that’s going to need to be played out too. Cause their kids are like, “get us a piece,” okay, while there’s still a piece to get.
Forget seven generations from now, how about two? You know, given the water table question that you began with. And who genuinely lives that out when they’re in the clutch of the mania of the next and then the next and then keep up and then don’t be left behind and don’t get left out and this is the way it’s going to go and who does, who just says, “fuck it?”
And if they do they’re out, right? So, they’re off the front line, such as it might be, you know, in the name of having one lifespan that’s not completely deformed by this stuff. I understand the attraction. Okay. So, to my mind, it comes down to this: me where I live, people here where they live, we have to come to an understanding of what the conditions and the obligations of what I’ve called a radicalized citizenship are because all of those terms and conditions are dictated by the conundra of the present time. They’re not historically derived tribal identities or shouldn’t be at least.
So we have to translate what it means to be a citizen. And partly that means translate what it means to be here, to be born in a particular place in time, which is the only condition of birth available to humans until, until we get homelessnessed, right, by the internet and a few other kind of globalizing things.
And then it’s not the condition of our humanity. We seek out opportunities to be self-actualized. None of these are iterations of our humanity. All of them are alternatives to being human, in my take on it. So can you, you know, it’s, it’s the dilemma of the so-called developed world having glimpsed its excesses finally, and turning to the not-quite-yet developed world and saying, look, we really screwed it up when we had a chance.
So you can’t do it that way. Like anybody at the conference table on the other side, is going to listen to that shit. Say, do you know what that sounds like? That sounds like everything else you’ve said about how we should be. So, you see this kind of treacherous feedback loop between the “developed” places and the “not quite yet developed” places where everything that developed people say by way of “warning” becomes another opportunity to benefit from the not yet quite developed places and around and frigging around.
It goes so, so you can’t lead by instruction. You have to lead by example. Okay. So if the places that you don’t want to slip off the edge of development and tourism aren’t listening to you, okay, and not taking your cautionary tale to heart and not curtailing their developments, curtail your fucking development, baby.
Okay. No one has any reason to listen to you if all you’re coming to them with is cautionary tales from your excesses. You’re still performing your excesses. Okay. There’s your credibility gone. Right? So, and this is not true at the level of NGOs and the rest. I shouldn’t say it isn’t. It’s not only there. These obligations to see things this way and do this translating. It’s at the level of trying to converse about this stuff and recognizing your prejudices about “progress evil.” Well, where did that come from? “Progress evil.” It came from the progress you’ve identified as evil. It’s no less evil. Yeah. To demonize progress is no less demonic than the progress you’re demonizing. So what are you left with? You’re left with translate, translate. You’re left with what does it mean to be a citizen?
Enough already with the rights. The responsibilities outweigh the rights in a troubled time, many times over, right? You claim to be awake? The, the sound you make upon awakening in a time like this is not hallelujah. It’s not, “I get it.” It’s not “amen,” it’s not finally. It’s not “I’m ready.” It’s a sob. Sob is not nothing. Sob is not what you do before you do something. Sob is an act of subversion.
I’m sobbing now, that’s what this is. I’m just trying to get the words out, but there’s no celebration and there’s, there’s no sense of superior consciousness in what we’re talking about. This is what it sounds like to be gotten by the way it is.
Chris: The sobs and laments in favor of amnesia and sustainability. You know, it seems that so much of what has made people come undone in the last year as a result of plagues and paranoia, quarantines and lockdowns has been a real unwillingness to grieve how so much of this has come to be… the solution mania, vaccines and immunization passports and certainly the tourism industries are at the forefront of pining for these things, of allowing people to dream themselves out of the moment, to wish themselves out of the moment and, of course, into postcard picture settings and destinations.
You know, I read a headline the other day out of Thailand saying that the three or four major tourism players in that country were willing to pay for every foreign person’s vaccination shot upon entry in order to get the industry rebooted again… with of course, no guarantee that there would be any efficacy in the vaccination process itself.
Whether one believes in the efficacy of vaccines or not, or the efficacy of immunization passports, that any solution to the current plague seems to mandate the same behavior that created the circumstances for the plague to arise in the first place.
Stephen: Just trauma intelligence. People seem to imagine trauma as the opposite of intelligence as having no interior guiding force or logic or capacity.
This is running madly in all directions, in a tearing your hair out and that famous painting, “the scream.” Right. Okay. Let’s get it straight now. Trauma, learned. Okay. Trauma’s not just off the edge reactivity. Trauma gets it to a certain degree, enough to be compelling. Right. Trauma’s got a kindergarten, it’s got a public school system, it’s got a high school. It’s got university. It’s got all that, which is to say that it doesn’t ignore the world, trauma. You’re not lost in it. Okay. You’re lost. And trauma is giving you the marching orders of lostness. It’s an identity, and in this identity prone, desperate time, it’s no surprise to me at all that trauma has got a lot of takers and people self identify that way.
And there’s a certain kind of victory, shrill kind of victory song in that claim. You know, historically disadvantaged and, and so on. I’m not saying there’s no such thing. I’m just questioning the internal efficacy of being undone and crafting an identity from that, and then mitigating the expectations that anybody in a troubled time could reasonably have of you to join the ranks of the refuseniks, you know, the people who aren’t going to go along with it any longer. If you’re traumatized, you can’t be relied upon because it’s a wonderful outclause as much suffering as there is in it. So, you were saying for your interrupted.
Chris: Wow. Well, I have to say I definitely, in retrospect and in reflection, I recognize that there were traumas that led me to other places, whether they were personal or ancestral and the inability to recognize that trauma and to be responsible for it, I think, was tantamount to my lostness and that it created a proneness, an unwillingness to stay still long enough to understand that trauma, to see it for what it is, and also to not glorify it, to take responsibility.
I think is this gives us an opportunity to speak a little bit towards a tribalism in our time. Before for the plague, there was already a growing resurgence of political extremism in the west with fascist nationalist movements and the rise of xenophobia, the fear of the stranger. All of these things have seemed to become ugly bedfellows once again, in our time. In destinations, these, these isms have arisen as a result of, in part of over tourism, amongst other things. Foreign investment gentrification and corruption gave way often to inequality in places already experiencing tourism’s influence as a result.
The tolerance of the foreigner easily turns into the intolerance of the foreigner or war recently, at least in the last six months or so, uh, many people with passport privileges, uh, I have arrived in places currently under the full weight and wake of the COVID 19 virus placing a previously unconsidered burden on local hospitality.
Many locals having lost out on a year of tourist dollars, surrender to the hordes while others seethe in angst and resentment at the potential carriers of disease, each invoking distant memories of conquest. Now more than never, it seems tourism, unchecked, stokes tribalism.
As the tourist industry prepares for its return, as people be grudgingly undone by the consequences of the plague pine for their next trip, it seems doubtful that these signs will be heated, despite their gravitas. If tourists travel tribalism often emerges as a result of their presence, but if tourists stop traveling, tribalism, I imagine still emerges but in part, as a result of their absence, potentially devastating the house of cards that the local tourist economy often is.
What do you make of this growing tribalism in our time?
Stephen: Well, let me wonder about the term “tribalism” for a minute or two.
If you don’t think about it too much, you’d probably inadvertently, unawares, come to the conclusion that tribalism is a necessary inevitable stage that any self-identifying group passes through on the glory road towards a more civilized, more tolerant, more inclusive mmmmmm thing. Right? Okay. So is tribalism inevitable? First of all, the way you said it, I’m just going to infer, you probably weren’t for it.
I think that’s a safe bet. In other words, tribalism, the word itself is a kind of blight kind of shouldn’t be thing, right? The root word is “tribe.” Okay. So what are we saying? We seen tribes have no places in a post-modern world, or are we saying that tribes as a self-identifying group, inevitably give rise to the tribalism that your question is concerned about?
Is that where it comes from? Or is it possible? This is just me wondering now? Is it possible that post tribal peoples are the ones that give rise to tribalism in the same way that sedentary people, quote, give rise to nomadism. Let me take the second part first. How did nomads happen? People started moving.
I’m going to say, Nope, you’ve got the emphasis completely backwards. People moved in every way it made sense. Some people stopped moving. That’s how nomads were invented. Okay. By the outliers and the unconscientious objectors to the thing. That’s how things appear very, very frequently. So we look at the chicken scratches in the dirt and we read it backwards from how it actually was.
So why do people start moving? No, why’d they stop? Cause you got to think a bigger thought that kind of makes a revolution in your cause and effect security to start wondering that way. Okay. So, so I’m, I’m thinking that tribalism is a consequence of people being unable to live a tribal life, a village minded, community-based tribal life. So the benefit of, of a kind of emaciated and diseased retrospection, tribalism begins to look primitive in the old senses of the term and the old associations. It begins to look undeveloped, unconscious, or worse. And then we use the word tribalism now to condemn certain kind of, you know, instantaneous groupings.
And I’m not going to name names, but you know who you are. And then tribalism becomes a lamentable hopefully passing stage on the road to identity, but it’s a collapse of identity. I suspect that’s what tribalism is. And so that’s the, the first part.
Okay. So I’ve written a book which probably nobody will want, I mean, not the buying public, but the publishing sector. It’s about matrimony and this is not product placement. This actually has to do with the question I was just asked. It turns out that an enormous part of the book focuses around the question of what I called “radical hospitality.”
I didn’t see that coming at all when I started it and my understanding of this radicalized hospitality derives from the advent of the stranger. So if we have a minute, let’s see if I can develop the idea. If I can remember what I came up with a year or so ago. Okay. So we have a circumstance that you could call it a hunter-gatherer time.
You could call it my preference for the terms that I’m going to talk about, now. A time that was characterized by the mechanics, the optics and the poetics of trade. I’m distinguishing trade from commerce, now, for reasons that will become, I think, available in a minute. So in this circumstance, trade is carried out endogamously, which is to say everybody’s in on it.
What do you mean by, in on it? I mean that the item that’s being traded, okay, the thing between the two traders is a recognizable thing to them, both. Not just in terms of what is it, or how does it work, but most emphatically, how did it come to be in the world? What kind of cultural patrimony is on display in this thing?
And people with a shared understanding of how their material life comes to be don’t need to elaborate and represent “oh, mucho trabajo (such work!)” Right. Many times nobody needs to say it. Everybody knows what kind of work went into making it. And this shared understanding is the mythic underlay for trade. Okay. That means, though we may not be not known to each other personally, or even in terms of our kinship group, but in an extended kinship situation, we’re recognizable to each other, but partly by how we dress and our material culture, which we share both in terms of literally trading it back and forth.
But we’re trading value. We’re trading worth. That’s the better word, “worth,” right. And worth is what informs our practice. So then based on that, what would a good trade look like that you didn’t have to pay much? Would that be a good trade? Given this, not likely. A good trade would be characterized by the willingness to trade with the same person again.
Now, where does that come from? From the sense that you really took them this time. But wait! The willingness has to be reciprocal for it to happen. So the guy that you ripped off is not likely to want to do it with you again. So, by definition in a trading life, that’s the disaster and the collapse of the etiquette of trade. See?
So my point here is that the way by which it’s undertaken is informed by a willingness to be governed by what’s at stake in the trade, right? Not what’s on offer, what’s at stake. And what’s at stake is cultural continuity in the form of trading.
Okay. So things changed. We know they changed and oftentimes people refer to urbanism as one of the key markers of this change.
So, so let’s go with that for a minute. And we’re asking the question, what happened to kinship? What happened to, to trade? How did it become commerce and what does this got to do with xenophobia? So, what happens sooner or later is you engaged in the let’s call it “the ghost activity” of trade. You don’t know that it’s become a ghost activity. Why not? Because you’ve tried to adapt the poetics and the mythic sphere of trade into a circumstance where the person on the other side of the goods from you is unknown to you in any way at all. This is the advent of the stranger, right? And the stranger comes into our lives in these days in one of three ways, that seems to me. One is by war. One is by misadventure on the road. And I’m talking about the third one, trade. Trade is trying to survive the advent of the unknowability that’s there between us, that’s manifest in: you’re trying to trade me something that I don’t recognize. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know how it came to be.
And it doesn’t mean I’m not attracted to it, but I can’t traffic in the old etiquette, right, because I can’t translate the familiarity. I can’t translate the mythic responsibility I have to my ancestry to conduct myself properly and respectfully and this arrangement. So I have to do something else. And there’s something else we could call “commerce.”
This is the advent of proto-currency. So, instead of a “something,” we have something between us that stands in for the something, that’s a surrogate to do something, right. Ultimately, you have currency that has no material relationship to the things you can buy and sell with it. They’re separate.
Okay. And that separation was very hard psychically on human beings and continues to be so.
So, I have this hilarious circumstance. I used to have a school. God willing, I’ll have one someday, and in this circumstance, people, usually they’re of your generation or younger, and they’ll offer me a “work trade option,” as they call it.
So the word trade, is there again? No, yeah. They don’t say “work commerce option.” Nobody’s ever said that. Why? Because they’re imagining that this, they can get back to the good old days if they just get the money out of the thing. So, I said, well, how do you want it to work? And they say, well, I’ve got this thing to trade for going to the school.
Really? What is it? Well, macrame or helping on the farm or babysitting. And then I have to say, so what’s the currency of the trade? What do you mean? Well, are we talking about hours, which I’m guessing we are? So, are you telling me then your one hour of babysitting that you have to trade is worth one hour of everything I learned that drew you to the school in the first place? Or what’s the currency? And we can’t get any, any peace of mind on that matter at all.
What are you saying? My life’s not worth the same as your life? Uh, yes, although I’m not the one who raised the thing here, but that’s what I’m saying, that your, hour of basic babysitting is not worth what drew you to me. Hmm. Okay. And I need you to consider that. Well, I don’t usually do that. What I say instead is, “you know, you’ll thank me someday if we just stick to the money, do you know why? Because it’s easier. Do you know why it’s easier? Because it’s a surrogate for the trade that we no longer know how to do.” Okay. So, it’s the currency that softens the edges of this encounter with the stranger. How does it do so? It forms a sense of the artifice of kinship, right?
That’s what the money does. Everybody knows money, right? And then the various currencies trading back and forth. That’s all that is, is a stand in for the old kinship. It’s the shorthand that people who are related by blood have when they sit around the kitchen table. They don’t elaborate everything.
In a kinship arrangement nobody stands on ceremony. Ah, standing on ceremony. In North America, at least, that’s a term, that’s a synonym for stiff, unfluid, and awkward. It’s amazing. Wouldn’t you want to be able to stand on ceremony with people you don’t know? Why is the short handedness of kinship the preferred way of going?
Answer is: because it vaguely reminds us of a time when there were no strangers and we were able to operate that way. Right. So it’s a kind of wicked nostalgia. So what does this got to do with what you asked me?
Here’s what happened to the spirit of trade, the best I can tell. Rather than reducing the strangeness of the stranger, which is the solution that people unwilling to do the work tend to opt for. So, you pretend you’re not strangers. The casual stance, right, and how you talk and you drop your G’s off your pronunciation. You know what I’m saying, and even, even your ability to do this in Spanish, I bet you do it in Spanish.
You’ve learned how to make the sound that says we’re both on the same side of this weird moment. Yeah. Okay. So I’m suggesting to you what the spirit of trade did, is it metabolized in some fashion and attached itself to a different kind of etiquette that cultured people reserved for transactions with the stranger.
I don’t mean commercial transactions. I mean, all kinds. Could you say that again? Yes. I’m saying that the spirit of trade didn’t simply vanish, but it was, if you will, it metabolized itself into a formal understanding of how one is with someone one doesn’t know, and in deeply cultured places, there’s an entire etiquette of hospitality that’s reserved for the people who’ve appeared in your midst that nobody knows. Right. And this is one of the things that’s the backdrop of the Odyssey, you know, it comes from your people. It’s right there, right? There’s all this undeclared etiquette of how you treat the wayward stranger. Right?
And the last thing you do is ask them where they’re coming from, where they’re going and what the hell is going on, or how’d you end up here or, no. What did they do? It goes right to the food and right to the wine and the cleaning first, right? All of that stuff. That’s the etiquette of trade, where there’s no trade anymore, where there’s so many strangers that you can’t have the old understanding of kinship.
And the beauty of the arrangement is you’re not trying to recreate artificial kinship by pretending they’re not strange. Instead, you’ve granted them their strangeness. It’s a mutually acknowledged thing. You’re not trying to do something about it. It gives you the opportunity to enact a different kind of hospitality, right, that doesn’t trade on familiarity or on blood kinship.
Now, what does this got to do with what you asked me? Well, I think you’ve probably been doing the math as I’ve been saying it. We have no obligation to be bizarrely familiar. One to the other. The global village is an obscenity because there’s no opportunity to engage the stranger. I’m obliged to treat you as if we’re both extras in a Coke commercial, right. That’s the only way I can be recognized as being friendly. Right. But what if I stood on ceremony instead? What if the stranger becomes in our lives, the opportunity for us to stand on ceremony again the way we never do with people that we know.
So, I have to tell the story from Bali and there’s a certain degree of low grade regret bordering on shame. I was in Bali. And I just have to say in a general way, I’m sorry. I was asked to come there and teach at a conference center, twice, and I did. And you know, of course there was no Balinese in the event except attending to it, not attending it. And, uh, in the circumstance, as I was able to travel around a little bit and be instructed, I guess, by some local people you would say, I asked a question, which is probably contravening their basic sense of dignity and how you are with people you don’t know.
As I saw the proliferation of Western advertising, I saw the kids falling away from the extraordinary gentility of their seniors, in the name of trying to find a way to contend with all the tourists. Right. Cause they saw the gentility was being taken advantage of. So the kids are like, “fuck that.”
Right. But “fuck that” takes the form of riding around on motorcycles with cigarettes hanging and out of their mouth and the old order is within this generation dissolving before everybody’s very eyes. Okay. So, in the midst of this carnage we were invited to come and watch what I realize now was one of the cycles of their creation stories, okay, which are kind of Hindu based and I can’t say much more about them than that. And it was in a courtyard of these temples, which are like “barrio (neighbourhood)” precincts to use a word from here. And they each had their own kind of place where the ceremonies are performed when it’s ceremonial time and when it’s not, guess what they’ve been turned over to.
These performances of these mythic cycles with the figure and they act them out and it’s quite something to watch, but the watching of it is a whole other thing. So, we go in there and when it’s minutes to, and I had no idea what we’re walking into because it’s closed to the street, but then you slip in and it’s a, basically it’s an amphitheater, right, and the place is full and guess who’s not there. There’s no Balinese there. No, this is like tourist central. Okay. And I go there and we’re in the forecourt of peoples’ temples. And these places are extraordinary in so many ways, but they’re cosmogonic in their architecture. Right. So, you’re, you’re in a universe.
Right. And so what’s the etiquette. Okay. To my mind, I’m a guest. It’s not even clear I should be there, but they’re doing it. So is this some kind of acknowledgement that this is okay, or that they’ve worked out the spiritual wrinkles or the cultural dilemmas?
Okay. So it’s just a horrible quandary and you don’t know how to act, but you say to yourself, “if I keep myself from this, you know, I’m pure and I’m uninformed. Okay. If I, if I go and I conduct myself as a guest, maybe I’m less than informed than I was, which is where the story comes from.” So what happens? I go in and sit down, Chris, everything that’s caused you to write this book was there.
Okay. In this courtyard, it was so unthinkably venal. Okay. You got ladies with virtually nothing on the top of them, right? In these people’s ceremony. You got people selfieing till the cows come home before the thing happens, during the thing. Of course they got flashes, right? So there’s all that going on while these people are trying to conduct their thing. No? And I’m sitting in the middle of this and they’re drinking and the booze is flowing. The whole thing. It was pretty distressing, let’s just say.
The next day, the guy who recommended to me as a local man… I couldn’t not ask him. I said, I basically told the story, not that I needed to tell him because he knew what it looked like. And I just said to him, “how do you make your peace with this bad behavior?” Because that’s what I saw. I saw extraordinary levels of grace by the performers and the locals and the guides and no grace coming back. “How do you do it?” This is what he said to me. He said, “well, we invited them, didn’t we? So, it’s not for us to tell them how to behave.”
That’s what the invitation does. It invites the person, not the rehabilitated person. And he didn’t go further to say, “and this is our secret programming for rehabilitating the tourists that if we treat them with enough kindness, they’ll just go kind.” He didn’t say any of that.
And I’m not sure it’s there. I would say, instead, that this is an act of cultural survival in some fashion, that they’re trying to survive modernity and the way they’re doing it is staying true to their sense of grace under pressure and dignity in the marketplace, if you will. And if it doesn’t come back so far in that generation, it hasn’t compromised their dedication to their own take on what it means to be civilized people.
How long can that possibly last? I don’t know. I can’t see it lasting a long time. In other words, if they’re going to flame out as Balinese people, I would rather say, they’re going to flame out as Balinese, not as globalized citizens. And there’s some tragedy in there and it’s another species collapse that’s probably happening, you know, as we’re sitting here talking about it.
So what do you do? Sorry, folks. Don’t fucking go. I don’t mean don’t go to the performance. I mean, don’t go to Bali. Yeah. But then you’re taking, look, I don’t have the solution. Okay. But if you’re asking me, what do you do at the level of the individual with very little volition and consequence in this matter, I can’t think of a solution that includes you going.
In other words, we’ve already tried that. You can be eco responsible till the cows come frigging home, but you can’t mitigate the consequences of you being there. It’s a terrible dilemma, but it’s our fucking dilemma. It’s the dilemma of the ability to be able to pick up and go, or at least what we used to have and probably will have again.
So. So you don’t go and that’s an act of conscientious objection. Okay. And you walk around talking about all the places you never went to and showing home movies, the places you never went, so to speak. In other words, when it comes up you say why you won’t go.
Chris: Hm. Wow. Staying home as an act of conscientious objection, as an act of civil disobedience. Well, certainly moments like that have been strewn across my life as both a tourist and someone who’s lived in a tourist town… that is, being on both sides of the spectrum. And it seems, you know, in what I’ve heard from you today and what I’ve considered in my own life in regards to the tourist world, that what might be lacking is a real sense of enduring consequence to the neighbor, to the stranger, to place, to the foreigner.
But it seems even perhaps in our time that even that is compromised by how we arrive in other places and how we are in our own.
Stephen: You can only be so good when you’re caught up in this web that we’re trying to describe here and your personal intention. It’s just not that consequential. It’s the motivation is not what you lead with. You lead with an acknowledgement of the consequence and that’s going to mitigate your behavior in a way that feeling justified by virtue of your intention will never do.
It’ll never mitigate your behavior because you’re pure of intent, you see, and that somehow absolves you from being a tourist. How can it? So, little example, uh, just doing an interview last week and it’s the good old death and grief interview and somewhere in there:
“so you’re in Oaxaca?”
“Yes, I am.”
“And so you’re there a little bit in voluntarily because of your health thing.”
“Yes, that’s true.”
“So listen, given the fact that you’ve got so much interest in death and all of that, um, what have you noticed, uh, in attending their, uh, day of the dead thing?
I said, “I don’t attend it.”
“You mean you haven’t had the opportunity?”
“No, I mean, I would never go.”
“Why would you never go?”
“Because what makes you think anybody who’s trying to do that work needs an audience of non-participants? That’s why.”
Because what happens is they start looking at what they’re doing through my eyes. Anybody does. What does it look like to somebody who doesn’t know what they’re looking at? That’s what it becomes now, right? So the least I can do for their Day of the Dead is not participate. It’s the least I can do. So, I have no idea what it looks like, and I never will. Am I secretly desirous? No, I’m not desirous. I genuinely believe that it’s better without me and by extension anybody who looks like me. And do I think we should just transplanted day of the dead to where I live? Nope. We’ve got to do something else that acknowledges our history and our, you know, almost lack of history in these matters, not by piggybacking on somebody else’s.
Chris: Hmm, may it be so. May we slowly and surely come to a way of understanding ourselves, viscerally, as people of deep consequence in the places that we live and in the places that we travel to.
Now, Stephen, we’ve certainly asked a lot of you today and I’m very, very grateful for your time. I have one final question for you that was sent to me by Julia and Julia writes:
“I come from a country that depends and endorses tourism greatly often to the detriment of its places and traditions. I too was involved in that business a few times a year and did the job with a great deal of both pride and guilt.
So I’m grateful to be able to ask you this question and wonder with you about it. Now, is all tourism on the take or are there iterations of it that can be down with the health of a place in mind? If the job of a host is to be hospitable towards its visitors, what would the job of a tourist be as a guest? Can the etiquette of hospitality make tourism less on the take?”
Stephen: Oh man. Well, you know, all of these, the elements of these questions all trade in the idea that we have a shared understanding of what each one of those things are and what I’ve tried to do, here, sitting here today is wonder about things like tribalism, homelessness, you know, the things that have an automatic charge.
So, I would say the principle, this is not going to fix anything, but if you’re asking me, the principal obligation of a tourist is to stop doing it.
Dude. That makes … I know it makes problems downstream. I didn’t say it didn’t. Okay. You want me to start somewhere? Fair enough. You know, I’m shooting my mouth off here, so okay.
Wise guy, where do we start? Okay. Arbitrarily, I’m going to start by saying stop. Stop going around. Stop behaving like because it’s in the world it belongs to you, at least as an attraction. Stop imagining that it’s a right to appear in the midst of people who don’t know you.
Tourism is not a result of people being invited. There. That’s, that’s kind of bedrock. Okay. There’s no invitation. So the notion of hospitality probably doesn’t apply when we’re talking about tourism. People can infer what I mean by the word “tourist.” A tourist, like, I can barely say the word without sneering. Sorry. It’s an awful, but it’s, I’m confessing. It’s true. It’s an accusation, the word tourist, right? And the verb to tourist. I mean, I’m designating it as a sacrilegious, desecrating activity. You don’t have a choice in the matter.
Okay. Inevitably, somebody who looks like me goes to a place where people don’t look like me. You become money and you can bitch and moan about that and talk about how dehumanizing it is. That’s all true. Okay. But that’s not where it started and the trick is not to get everybody to see you differently, so that you’re not money to them anymore and you can be a three-dimensional human being like you want to be and be recognized and respected. Come on now. That’s not why you’re there. You know, that’s not why you’re there. And that’s not how you got there either. How’d you get there? Because you could. Because the bullshit luck of birth conferred upon you that particular likelihood.
So you act on it. I’m not free of this. I’ve done it myself. This is where the acknowledgements coming from and you get there and you can’t undo that matrix because you will forever be money to them. Do you think that’s undignified? I understand. You don’t want to be treated that way. I get it too, but that doesn’t mean you’re not money to them.
That’s what you are. “Would you walk away from a fool and his money?” the song said. Well, a lot of local entrepreneurs are not willing to do it. Okay. Cause it’s you or what? A hole in the ground somewhere, maybe. I don’t know, but are you telling them they should go back to the plough? I’m not saying what they should do.
I’m not talking about their end of things. I have no idea how to work it out on the, let’s call it the indigenous end. I really don’t. It’s not for me to say, but the people, you know, that look like me in this world, we have an obligation to retroactively earn the privilege that we’re born to. Okay. That doesn’t mean cleanse it so it’s no longer injurious in the world. It will be injurious in the world. Inequity by definition is injury. Okay. So what do you mean? Aren’t you supposed to absolve yourself of privilege? Well, you friggin can’t.” Come on now. Okay. You could be a poor person in a privileged country. It doesn’t mean you’re not walking around with it too.
Okay. So then you earn it by saying “there’s many things I could do that my privilege confers upon me. After some careful analysis of the circumstance, I realize I’m powerless to contain the consequences.” Okay. So now what? Stay the fuck home. That’s what? And do what? Twiddle my thumbs and look out the window like it’s a quarantine? Okay. It’s not the worst thing. That’s what monastics do all the time, but you could do this with your unsought idleness. You could stop looking at your being at home as the booby prize for not being able to travel. You could start looking at your home as the privilege that you’re trying to escape.
And you could look upon it as, now your home is asking something of you. And now you can hear it ask, which when you were seeking distraction from it, you could never hear.
Okay. Now you’re born to it by the historical accident of mass immigrations and so on. I get it. Me too, where I am. Then, what? Well, you’re not going to be able to… you’re not likely to be able to gain acknowledgement or recognition from the people you’re secretly trying to spare by not going.
Okay. You’re going to have to live with no positive feedback loop as to whether or not this fit of conscience benefits anybody. I didn’t say it was a benefit scheme. I said, withhold your hand. Okay. Because the application of your hand is already documented. But the withholding of your hand… I know there’s going to be terrible a adjustment period to the waning and finally the collapse of global tourism. I mean, I know. Casualties? Yeah, sure. There’s casualties for something that shouldn’t have been not being. Okay. So that’s one of the things we live out. We don’t say, ah, now that I figured the right thing to do, there’s no casualties and there’s no downside.
It’s mostly downside. That’s what trying to change shit means, which is why shit doesn’t change very often because there’s too much downside to cope with in the short term. And no politician has got the balls to be a longterm politician. There’s no such thing as a longterm politician so they can always operate in the sense of upside.
Right. And that can be .Their pitch. So, so who’s going to be the politician for “no more tourism.” Nobody is! Every politician is going to be like “tourism, come on now!” It’s the easiest money there is. What’s easier is easy money. Okay. So, so don’t go. Stay home. Call that you’re act of civil disobedience, right?
Try to get your shit straight at home. Try to realize the stuff you left behind that made you run to a more exotic place is still there when you get back. It’s going to make you run again. And how about this? There’s indigenous of people where you live, right? How come it’s not exotic enough for you? I know this is accusatory, that tone that I’m taking now.
I don’t know how to avoid it. Okay. If it puts you off, I understand. But being offended by the tone I’m taking is not the same thing as being right. Right. So there’s no such thing as being right anymore for the likes of me in this world. So we’ve got to try to do something. It’s direct action and the willingness to stay at home is not punishment for the excesses of tourism or anything else.
There’s a lot of people in these exotic places that you go to that would trade you in a heartbeat for the ability to quote, “go home” to the place that you’re going to go, but they won’t envy for a second your inability to be there.
I should say, as a PS, that folks, if, if you feel in some way besmirched or beleaguered or worse by a tone that eventually came to me and or the adamance or, I understand. First of all, it’s not that easy to try to be lucid and available at the same time, verbally. It takes an enormous amount of concentration and focus and occasionally my “give a shit” informs what I’m saying. So if you know, I certainly don’t mean to offend. So if that’s what’s happened, hopefully there’s more to it than offense. But, what you heard is somebody trying to make sense of things on the fly, not somebody who’s got it all figured out.
And that opens the door for hurt, you know, and I’m not hurt on anybody else’s behalf. I didn’t speak on anybody else’s behalf. You know, I was asked questions. I did my best to be a good guest and in a sense be a stranger to the encounter and take up my end of things, which is to not pretend like I’m amongst people I know and speak shorthand to them, which I know how to do, like you do, but you heard me speak as a stranger as an officially sanctioned outsider on these matters. And I’m just inviting you to that citizenship, the citizenship of outsider status, where we can lay down the grudge about not being included in something funkier than we understand ourselves to be and recognize instead that a certain amount of hospitality we have to extend in the direction of our own homeless self.
So this was a little act in that direction. I thank you for asking me and giving me the chance to… that I’ve never wondered about these things out loud before, I don’t think. So, from a beginner’s point of view, it wasn’t a bad start.
Chris: Not at all. Perhaps beside that hurt there might be some proper grief and even mercy to come, and that might be part of our ways of coming to this thing you’ve called radical hospitality.