Ten days on Isla Mujeres so far — tangled up on the beach, the sun seeps in my bones as I read books about Victorian women adventurers — Isabelle Eberhardt, who left life in Geneva in 1897 to roam Algeria penniless, have sex and smoke kief, become Muslim and dress as the male Arab she saw herself as; Alexandra David-Néel, the French Buddhist scholar whose forbidden 1924 journey through Tibet to Lhasa saw her so starving hungry that she had to eat the leather from her boots just to stay alive.
When Isabelle prayed to Allah, when Alexandra donned her Llama robes, they weren’t play-acting like other explorers of their time — Lawrence of Arabia, Richard Burton — they were sincere, listening and learning from others with no sense of cultural superiority.
As I read on the beach from morning till night, the other travelers on the island drink and screw and, if they see me at all, ask why I’m no fun. I cling to the notes on Alexandra’s first voyage, “She had booked a single cabin, from which she intended to depart rarely, preferring hours of meditation and study to contact with other passengers.”
I pack up my tent and leave for the mainland on a chugging yellow ferry. On the bus to Campeche, I wonder how the hours will slip away in the fair city of palms and haciendas that shimmer in the midday heat.
Sunday afternoon. I get off the bus and swing my backpack through the streets in search of a place to stay, lumbering among the Maya girls that drove Kerouac crazy with their sweet faces and tiny, birdlike bodies. Pink-cheeked and apologetic, at each guesthouse in the old town I fumble over the Spanish words for “Do you have any vacancies?” But they’re too boutique, too expensive for me on my £10 a day budget.
I end up at a whitewashed hostel, disappointed and relieved to listen to my back which whispers for a few nights on a plump mattress with soft cotton sheets. No more tent tarp or laying foetal on a thin yoga mat. Still, I hate hostels and think they’re nothing more than Western bubbles designed to coddle the young and privileged who are so ‘brave’ to travel in ‘dangerous’, developing countries.
I hate hostels with their German owners and Australian backpackers taking free salsa lessons in Aztec print shorts made in China. I hate hostels because I secretly love them, this hostel in particular with its itinerary designed for maximum Instagram moments — free cooking lessons, fresh fruit breakfast, morning yoga — a cocoon from the heat and crowds and searching Mexican faces for 7 pounds a night.
I drop my bag off, take a shower and head out the door into the late afternoon sun. Listless in the heat, I wander around the main market, buy some leather sandals from one woman, a corn cob from another. As the stars come out, I head back to my hostel. A man’s footsteps catch up behind me,
“Hola. Cómo está? De donde eres?”
“Bien. Escocia. Y tu?”
“Aqui. How are you enjoying Campeche?”
“It’s beautiful, though I’ve just been here a few hours.”
We exchange our titles. Professor of Maya studies. Travel writer, of sorts.
He sucks his teeth, “Are you careful with your job? You have a lot of power. Do you tell people how to behave? How to respect?”
“Uh, sure, if I was writing about Mexico, I’d say that outside the beach towns it’s respectful to dress modestly — no tiny dresses.” I point at my tiny dress and blush, realizing my mistake.
His voice is soft as a eunuch or a grandmother from a fairy tale. “You know, a lot of backpackers here treat the locals like shit.” He whispers, “You’re all very polite when you’re sober, so polite I wonder if it’s just another way of showing off how ‘civilized’ you are in comparison to us. But paradoxically, once you’ve had a drink, you can be so obnoxious. I’ve seen backpackers totally ignore Mexican waitresses, try to touch them. What? They think they’ve given us poor Mexicans jobs, so the pesos in their pocket mean they can act like a king?”
“I’m sorry.” I fumble. “It’s the same back home. People are different when they’re drunk. Especially when they’re in a big group.”
“Why do backpackers come here to get drunk? Why tell yourselves you’re ‘travelers’ not ‘tourists’? You pretend you’re Indiana Jones but when you get here you just get drunk with other travelers. Do you think you’re wanted here? That we need you?”
“Of course not.” I say, scuffing my new sandals against the pavement.
He softens, “I’m not saying don’t come. I’m just saying ‘have respect’.”
“But you know you even have your own tourist police here? Police who speak English and French, just to serve you tourists?” He smiles. “To many Maya in the Yucatán, that’s absurd. ‘Why do tourists get their own police, but if we go to court we can only use Spanish and not our mother tongue?”
“What does the government say about it all?”
“The usual… the tourists are bringing money to the city. The tourists need to feel safe. They’re holy cows! Don’t touch the tourists!'”
I laugh at the imagery. He smiles. “Look at you, walking the streets alone at night. That’s because you know you are a holy cow.”
“But like I say, it upsets many Maya when they see tourists are given so many more privileges than them. Tourism does bring money to a city like Campeche. But what does that do? How many people does it benefit? Two in ten are tourism workers, maybe, but we all have to deal with inflation. Who nowadays can afford to buy properties here? Not us. Foreigners and expats who have the spare money to invest in juice bars and coffee stores — and so the prices stay high because there are people who are willing to pay them.”
“Right,” I say, “So the new foreign-owned store opens up, and the backpackers start going to the fair-trade juice bar with the free Wi-Fi. The local ice cream store down the street struggles because it doesn’t know that tourists want gluten-free options and organic everything, or maybe can’t afford to provide those options?”
“Right. The ice cream store closes down and the foreigner gets rich. Same as always.”
“And as for hostels, they’re Wal-Marts. That hostel up the street? It’s killed everything. Before it opened a few years ago, this whole street was full of guesthouses run by local families. Backpackers would knock on doors, find the best deal and stay in Campeche for a few nights. As each backpacker had their own room and bathroom, that required plenty of cleaners. Receptionists and gardeners were employed too — many people. Now they’ve all closed down. How can they compete with a hostel that can invest in free yoga, free computers, a kitchen, cooking classes? The internet cafe down the street and many of the restaurants closed down within a year of the hostel opening. Backpackers can even volunteer to help out at the hostel for a free bed! Now a hostel filled with 50 travelers only needs to employ a few people, one or two cleaners. So tell me, who is benefiting from the presence of so many tourists in this town?”
I swallow, “I know. You’re right.” I hesitate. “I’m staying in that hostel and I agree.”
“No, don’t cry! I didn’t want to make you cry.”
“I know, I know. It’s just because everything you’re saying is true.”
He pats my arm, “What will the police think if they see you crying on this dark street with me? You’re a holy cow!” He smiles.
“It’s just a shock. All I hear from tour guides and guidebooks is, “We love you! We love tourists! You bring us money and joy. Thank you!” And I’m sure you’re right about hostels.” I hiccup. “I guess we just like them because they feel like home. Even if we’re talking with someone from Iceland or Australia, our lives are so similar that we may as well have grown up on the same street.
“I don’t get it. Why travel if you just want to feel at home? I mean, that’s fine, but why feel superior to ‘tourists’?”
Alexandra David-Néel wrote of how dull colonial life in Darjeeling was — the wives sat around drinking tea and dancing the foxtrot, too full of their own national superiority to ever want to learn from or listen to the ‘Other’. Today? We’ve swapped the foxtrot for salsa.
“At least the tourists are honest.” He continues. “It’s the backpackers who think they’re so special, they’re the hypocrites.”
Alexandra wrote, “The earth is the inheritance of man, and consequently any honest traveler has the right to walk as he chooses, all over that globe which is his.”
Are we “honest” travelers if we pretend to be here for ‘an authentic experience’, yet in reality reduce the locals to background props as we drink and careen in the sun with the Norwegians and Germans who’ll actually get our VICE magazine references? When rich British kids used to visit the colonies as a rite of passage, it was said to “Expand the horizons, and thereby the resumes, of the rich who would later lead the country — but it did little for the colonies visited.” What’s the difference between today’s backpackers and last century’s elite?
Part II this time next week.