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lundi 20 juin 2016


Two tourist spots and two different forms of extraction of your dollar.
At the end of the day we are just dollar signs to the locals at the tourist areas, observed a seasoned travel writer. Locals driven by different needs than the tourists who are either pushed (dissatisfaction with their lives at home) or pulled (attraction of exotic) there, think of their paychecks, tips and other mundane aspects of their lives rather than the cultural aspects of Serbia or the peculiar eating habits of Norwegians. To be fair, the majority of the tourists also have very little interest in the local culture, while paying lip service to off the beaten track, immerse in local culture.
What if the local culture is minimal to non-existent and an imitation, a poor Xerox copy, of the very same culture you came from?
Examples of such fractured societies abound, more common in the Caribbean than elsewhere:
Cayman Islands
Saint Martin/Sint Maartin; the island I just left
The same cannot be said of the islands of the Pacific, where people had been living for thousands of years when the European adventurers of that time arrived looking to “discover”.
In the span of a few days I was in two places, very different from each other, both attracting thousands of tourists.

Siem Reap in Cambodia
Saint Martin in the Caribbean

They are visited by different kinds of tourists, the merits of visiting either is varied. One is very easy to reach, just three hours from the east coast of the USA, but also has direct flights to Paris and Amsterdam, because of a colonial anomaly.
Siem Reap is difficult to get to, have no direct flights from Europe or USA or Australia. Most of the tourists to Siem Reap are either European or Australian; whereas the majority of tourists to Saint Martin are from the USA.

Why do people leave their comfortable lives and subject themselves to heat and flies and humidity? Not to mention unfamiliar food, as in Cambodia or cheap imitation of the bad food from the USA, as in the Dutch Sint Maartin?  Saint Martin is familiar and Siem Reap is exotic. One has a beach and very little else, the other necessitates fairly fit physique and at least a mild interest in history of these millennia old archeological ruins, the largest in the world.
These varying aspects define the kind of tourists who go to either of the places.
The idea of a comparison of these two recently visited places occurred to me when I was leaving SXM, a flight full of Americans going home:
Mainly middle aged
Almost entirely White
Many married couples, mostly looking unfit.
There were some young couples with children.
This variety of tourists would be a rarity in Siem Reap. The visitors to Siem Reap exude gaiety, mainly young single Europeans looking for exciting experiences, in search of off the track adventures along well-trodden paths laid down for the tourists.

What culture?
For whom?
In Saint Martin, many of the workers that the tourist encounter are immigrants from other islands, and ignorant of the rudiments of history of this bi governmental island.
When I was a child, being very curious about the geography (before age 10, I could name a variety of countries and their capitals), I knew that two unique geopolitical entities existed: the condominium of New Hebrides where the islands were governed six months at a time by Britain and France respectively as well as the island of Saint Martin divided between France and Holland, with the locals holding nationalities of their metropolitan countries.
The island of Saint Martin is barren, a producer of salt in the olden times, with a shabbiness, especially on the Dutch side, of a poorly run colony, and the appearance of “France” with their baguettes and bistros on the French Side with prices in Euros to match, where the inequality is camouflaged under the tricolors displayed on Fort Louis.
Locals on either side of the “International Boundary” are poor, but in different ways. Poverty of Culture does not exist in Siem Reap but a culture of can be seen and felt in Saint Martin, much similar in other tourist islands whose focus is USA and its very superficial icons.
Being a traveler and very proud of my millennial culture, but well integrated into the countries and cultures I visit, what I want to tell people on both these tourists spots is this:
Keep your culture, it will always be valuable. It was VS Naipaul, the Nobel Prize winning writer from Trinidad who labelled the Caribbean as Fractured societies. Pablo Neruda exhorted people not to become vessels without anchor in a storm, the autochthonous culture replaced by a poor photocopy of some metropolitan culture.
Give up your culture without being an immigrant, you become a foreigner in your own land. You become shadows of your own selves, not knowing where you are going or what you are doing. On the Dutch side no Dutch is spoken, USD is the currency (the official currency is NA Florints), the orientation is to USA, where they can visit without a Visa on their Dutch passports.
You cannot be Dutch even with a Dutch passport, if you can’t even speak Dutch. (You cannot be a Cuban if you don’t speak Spanish and non-Cubans are not entitled to Cuban nationality)
The history of these islands, even the ones densely populated, are not difficult to comprehend. Their histories before Cristobal Colon largely unknown, there has not been much happening in the last 500 years: all the islands have very much similar histories, warfare involving various metropolitan navies, introduction of sugar and slaves, then indentured labourers from India and China and the arrival of Tourism. Caribbean remains a strong draw for American leisure travelers.
Siem Reap is a Travel of Not Plenty compared to Sint Maarten’s Travel of Plenty. Majority of tourists to Siem Reap do not spend too much money locally, stay in cheap guest houses (in Siem Reap, you can stay at guest houses which are only 10 dollars per day, and eat meals which cost only a dollar or two. Interestingly Cambodia also uses USD as its currency of the day whereas the local Riels are widely available but not preferred). The tourists to Saint Martin better come with some money in their pockets. The hotel I stayed at was a throwback to another time and very generic with immigrants from Jamaica and Trinidad handling its operations, would have bought me three nights at an elegant boutique hotel in Siem Reap.
The flight was staffed by DC based ex-US airways crew, thus friendlier than the usual AA ones and I had my first taste of American Food, after being away from the USA for one month on journeys to the Far East.
Curiously enough, I had a desire to return to Saint Martin, to explore the French side, and I was even told of a resto called Kakao..