I think this poem by Elizabeth Bishop captures an experience I had when I entered a foreign country as a tourist and became a traveler somewhere during the process.
The poem describes mountains, skylines, buildings, flags, and currency in a rote, boring sort of way. It’s like she’s seeing the country as painting on a wall in a gallery or watching a documentary. It’s a facsimile of what really is. It’s not alive. Once she begins to describe the port and her interactions with the local people and other tourists, things begin to feel exciting. Life starts to happen. The pace picks up. There are smiles, worries, movement, people, interactions. The background of mountains, buildings, flags and currency fade away and you’re the moments and the people shine through.
This poem reminded me of a trip my wife and I took to Ireland. I was started as a tourist. My thoughts were: “Oh I will experience Ireland by seeing the wonderful green rolling hills, walking through Dublin, drinking Guinness at the factory, visiting St. Patrick’s Cathedral, touring Trinity college.” I thought the country was the things I had seen in travel books and documentaries. I actually saw many of those things, but what I remember as Ireland is the people and certain moments we shared.
I remember standing outside of Trinity college waiting for my wife and a tour guide who was on break talking to me. I struggled to understand him through the heavy Irish accent, but after a few awkward starts he told me how much Italian tourists frustrated him because they are so pushy and flighty. We shared that frustration with he other. He wanted to know what I thought of Trinity and Dublin and talked to me for about 10 minutes. Mostly sharing about his daily life as if we were best friends.
I remember one night in a pub listening to American blues music (strange!) when a local man asked me where I was from. When I told him Kentucky he began to talk to me about bourbon and the Bourbons he knew from Kentucky. He offered me a taste of his scotch from his glass and I immediately refused “Oh, no, no. That’s okay.” But he insisted. “You have to taste this” putting the glass in my hands and watching my face as I sipped it. He shared some laughs through the night, shook hands, and wish each other well before we left.
I remember a drunk cab ride back to our hotel in which the driver asked us if he had fun. We said yes and he asked what we had done that day. We told him we went to the pub and drank a lot of Guinness. He laughed and said “Oh, well then it’s too early to go home! Let me take you to another pub! It’s too early!” We continued to the hotel, but as we drove he asked how much housing costs were in the U.S. and what we thought about Hilary Clinton running for president. We swapped our political views and shared some thoughts about life. We tried to tip him as we left the cab, but he refused saying he enjoyed the time together.
I remember the street art on our way to see Saint Patrick’s calling for Ireland to leave the EU. I don’t really remember much about Saint Patrick’s though.
I remember our ride to the airport and watching two young school boys throw oranges at a paper delivery man and then run, jump a brick wall, and disappear.
I think that’s the difference between travelling and tourism. Tourism is standing outside, looking in, and being aloof. Travelling is being inside, getting involved, and participating in the life. I think the speaker in this poem is traveler, not a tourist. Her words and descriptions gave me a strong feeling of the difference between them. Tourism is when you look at and consume with your senses. Travelling is when you are involved and a part of the experience.
Arrival At Santos by Elizabeth Bishop
Here is a coast; here is a harbor;
here, after a meager diet of horizon, is some scenery:
impractically shaped and–who knows?–self-pitying mountains,
sad and harsh beneath their frivolous greenery,
with a little church on top of one. And warehouses,
some of them painted a feeble pink, or blue,
and some tall, uncertain palms. Oh, tourist,
is this how this country is going to answer you
and your immodest demands for a different world,
and a better life, and complete comprehension
of both at last, and immediately,
after eighteen days of suspension?
Finish your breakfast. The tender is coming,
a strange and ancient craft, flying a strange and brilliant rag.
So that’s the flag. I never saw it before.
I somehow never thought of there being a flag,
but of course there was, all along. And coins, I presume,
and paper money; they remain to be seen.
And gingerly now we climb down the ladder backward,
myself and a fellow passenger named Miss Breen,
descending into the midst of twenty-six freighters
waiting to be loaded with green coffee beaus.
Please, boy, do be more careful with that boat hook!
Watch out! Oh! It has caught Miss Breen’s
skirt! There! Miss Breen is about seventy,
a retired police lieutenant, six feet tall,
with beautiful bright blue eyes and a kind expression.
Her home, when she is at home, is in Glens Fall
s, New York. There. We are settled.
The customs officials will speak English, we hope,
and leave us our bourbon and cigarettes.
Ports are necessities, like postage stamps, or soap,
but they seldom seem to care what impression they make,
or, like this, only attempt, since it does not matter,
the unassertive colors of soap, or postage stamps–
wasting away like the former, slipping the way the latter
do when we mail the letters we wrote on the boat,
either because the glue here is very inferior
or because of the heat. We leave Santos at once;
we are driving to the interior.