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Humanitarian tourism and other infamies

28 September 2017

In some ways, I am grateful that my accident, and its too long recovery, has kept me from taking an active role in responding as I might wish to our recent tragedy.  I sense that my own privileged neighborhood received the bulk of international and local attention not because the suffering was worse for us than for others (like the sweatshop workers trapped in a collapsed building in Colonia Obrero, or the congregation at a baptism killed in the collapse of a church in colonia Guerrero, or the residents of the small communities south of the capital), but because the area has excellent access to the rest of the city (my rationale for living here in the first place), is home to some of Mexico’s better known journalists,writers, and artists (and many more wannabes), as well as first-world foreigners.  I suppose it was inevitable that … given the type of people who live here (along with the majority of ordinary middle-class Mexicans), that we’d be the focus of international attention… if for no other reason than foreigners and tourists have at least some idea of where this area is, or at least have vaguely heard in mentioned… if only as something silly like the “new Berlin”.

The best I could do was to repost calls for volunteers to help in other places around the city, and plead with journalists to give coverage to the wider disaster, and not focus too narrowly on this one neighborhood.  Cynically I suspect the reason so much foreign coverage only showed Condesa and Roma was simple.  Not so much the easy access, as it was that cafes and bars in the area managed in most cases to get back to work.  Take a photo, interview an English speaker or two, and file a story (or upload a post) from the comfort of the nearest Starbucks.

Jorge Zepada Patterson, in his weekly column for Madrid’s El País, notes that not all who descended on the area were those who responded to our collective SOS, nor at least intended (with the least amount of trouble) to tell our story, but those who wanted their own story to tell… or at least the vicarious thrill of having been part of something much bigger than themselves:

 (my translation, photo actually from Nepal, but you get the idea)

Together with the first responders, voluntary and otherwise, who contributed their muscle and insomnia in the first 72 hours after the 19 September earthquake (some of whom are still digging through collapsed buildings and toiling in relief centers), a witnessed a new phenomenon that, for lack of a better name, I will call “humanitarian tourism”.

The Condesa has been turned into a kind of apocalyptic theme park, something to visit, an experience to trophy.

Hordes descended to the attractive and bohemian colonies Condesa and Roma, to take “selfies” in front of collapsed buildings. Dressing up in masks and helmets, the tourists record through their cell phones a landscape of devastated buildings and evicted tenants, of streets strewn with crime scene tapes.

I describe it as a “humanitarian tourism”, because – while apparently intended to help the victims and show solidarity with the fallen — is was, in fact, essentially a tourist expedition: a leisurely weekend trip to the Condesa Apocalypse Theme Park : a place to visit, an experience to collect. The last time I went to a museum in New York I was struck by the fact that most of the visitors turned their backs on Van Gogh’s famous Starry Night; they were not going to the museum to see the painting but to take a selfie with the picture behind their smiling and proud faces. They literally passed the work without seeing it. In return, they came out with the digitized image that bluntly declared: “I was here.”

This weekend I went back to thinking about those false cultural tourists. Unfortunately I had to be part of those who could not return home because of the damage to my own home. Hundreds, maybe thousands, wandered around our house wondering where we would sleep that and the following nights, when we could change clothes or pick up the cell phone or where I might find my abandoned wallet. We all received some help from the wonderful volunteers who had morphed into providential angels.

But we also witnessed legions of visitors attracted by the morbidity of the tragedy of others. The same fascination that a road accident exerts on the rest of the motorists who as survivors are free to enjoy the sight without recognizing, t themselves as simply survivors. I suppose that, in fact, witnessing another’s misfortunes makes us survivors.

Humanitarian tourism is no respecter of differences in social class, age, or sex. I saw the elegant ladies of Las Lomas and Polanco wrapped in 500 dollar leather jackets, with their coiffed hair protected by Pineda Covalin scarves as well as youngsters from the slums who can attest to the fact that disasters feast on the affluent as well as anyone else. Both rich and poor accepted rescue vests, masks, and when there was one, some protective helmet, to take an improvised tour of the damaged buildings. At some point they told themselves that there were already too many volunteers, that “it’s best to stay out of the way” and returned where they had come from Yes, but gratified by having felt the desire to help others and by being able to post a photo on Facebook or Instagram to prove it.

Do not misunderstand me. A week ago in my column, I praised the enormous generosity of the thousands who spontaneously in the minutes after the earthquake, and throughout the following days, put their own lives on hold to save the lives of others. t We can never thank you enough for your effort and solidarity. And, of course, behind every tragedy there are huge crimes: from the murderous builders and corrupt building inspectors who forbid buildings, even, to those who committed assaults in the midst of the catastrophe. t Compared with these scoundrels, the false humanitarian tourism that I describe here is a venial sin. Definitely. But it is a frivolity that I had never observed, or at least not on this scale, in the midst of a sin like the one we suffer. Digital post-modernity, I suppose.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. 29 September 2017 1:21 pm

    I spend about half the year in Mexico City, and I have reservations to return in October, reservations that were made long before the earthquake. I will surely walk around Condesa and Roma, not out of morbid curiosity, but with sadness and a desire to see what has happened in those neighborhoods that I know so well. I may even take photos to post on my blog. (However, I can assure you I will not be taking selfies!) So, I you should see me, please don’t think of me as a tourist, but as a semi-ex-pat grieving for my home away from home..

  2. 29 September 2017 1:22 pm

    By the way, any recommendations for charities to which I can donate while I am down there?

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