“They keep thinking of my good, in their terms”

I may kick myself later for the brutal honesty that follows. Frankly, like Rhett Butler, I don’t give a damn. My 30th birthday is coming up and though age shouldn’t dictate action, goals, or mindset I am a numbers person. I love obsessing over numbers and making them play off each other to get the answers you want. So, I’m trying to attempt a major goal I’ve had for quite some time before I’m 30.

The only thing I ask in return is for your absolute, brutal honesty as well.  I write to ease my active, anxious mind and thread the many wires onto a page in neat, little avenues of clarification. I’ve written for years for myself. I’ve written to bring some method to my madness, but all along I hoped to provide some entertainment and education through my stories. Now is that time.

I’ve written articles for two years now on how the lives of locals are affected by tourism in New Orleans, Belize, and elsewhere. Now, I am looking to channel these interviews into a book. Yes, people have told me it’s a bad idea. That it’s a waste of time.

I am ignoring them anyway.

What I can’t ignore is what I need from you my dear readers. What I need is feedback.

Here is a sneak peek at a chapter. (Note: a few thing will be different in the final version, i.e. places mentioned expanded upon, cultural themes explained, but the general direction is the same. )

Sign-up for my newsletter to learn about pre-ordering and the release or skip to the questions at the bottom if you want to miss the backstory:

“Sometimes, travel is the elemental: the desire to replace the old molecules with new ones, familiarity with its opposite.” - Michael Paterniti

As I climbed the temple steps in the suffocating darkness of predawn I felt excited like never before. I was awoken only 30 minutes before with polite knocking on my hostel door from a German girl I had met the day before in Mandalay, Myanmar (also known as Burma). I met her along with two other foreigners on the rambling bus ride from the airport and its surrounding dusty, rural expansiveness to the city center where every vehicle (registered or not) chaotically avoided mishap while zooming around ancient temples and colonial buildings.

A group of four strangers - myself, the German, a Chinese girl, and a Polish firefighter named Piotr - linked up and were strung together like boats docked in the middle of a channel. It’s on the road as a traveler that you have experiences out of concept for real life. Rarely on a random day between work, the gym, my hobbies, or going out do I meet people randomly and attach myself to them. As a solo traveler however, this happens quite frequently.

The German knocked as soon as they got off their overnight bus to Bagan. She looked as surprised as I did and asked, “Did I wake you?”

“Yes, but I’ll be ready in a minute or two.”

“Oh”, she said, looking past me at my hostel bed, completely made and tucked into the corners, “Are you sure? It doesn’t look like you were.”

I found this peculiarly funny because of her brute honesty. “Well, I don’t sleep in the sheets if I can help it.” It’s true. As much as I travel I am still a germaphobe. I spent my entire month in Asia on top of the cover sheet wrapped in a sarong. Once again, an experience vastly different from “real life”.

We all met in the stillness and uncertainty of the unseen Bagan wilderness around our hostel to await our taxi. Our driver approached from around the corner with his rickshaw wagon attached to a dusty and sleepy looking mule. As we clamored into the back I took mental snapshots of the absurdity and excitement of traveling in a way I’m unaccustomed to and how Burmese locals did (besides walk everywhere) halfway around the world.

Time + Geography = Character

We arrived at one of the thousands of temples in Bagan. I don’t even remember the name of it. As we climbed up the steep steps just barely able to see our hands in front of us I realized how fortunate of an experience it was in. Not many people can say that they watched the sun rise over the “land of a thousand forgotten temples”.

As I watched my step going back down the temple my foot barely had time to make the “crunch” of weight hitting the top layer of crusty dirt before an 11 year-old girl and her younger brother approached me. “You buy, you buy, you buy” they said holding up a string of postcards in plastic sleeves. “No. No thank you.” I said hurriedly, used to the ever present salesmanship of tourist swag from my travels and from living in New Orleans. “You buy?” the girl said again, almost pushing the postcard into my belly.

That is when it hit me. This girl was not unlike many, and not unlike myself. I represented opportunity. I was her way of bringing home money to her family. She was out here hustling in a section of town where all the customers are. Back home I was a marketing director for hospitality and tourism companies. Although not out on the pavement pushing cards, I too was seeking visitors to extract their money during their stay. Her country had just opened up their borders to others to come and spend money as visitors. She was hustling her culture. Exactly what I did.

This is when the real tension of the relationship between visitor and local hit me. I imagined myself as a passive passenger, traveling through Asia under the radar, and simply taking everything in. I didn’t want to insert myself into the surroundings or even necessarily “travel like a local”. I looked back at the whiter faces descending the temple steps and the Burmese children waiting below. There was a visual line of separation between worlds. On top of that, I was picked out of the crowd as someone to haggle with instead of someone out for a sightseeing stroll before breakfast.

Any feeling of “local” I had in the back of the rickshaw was weighted now with a feeling that if something wasn’t done, if people weren’t made aware, if people didn’t care, then this beautiful, tranquil city would soon look like its neighbor, Thailand. Not that there's anything wrong with Thailand, a country that has adapted rapidly to a more East-meets-West way of life with smiling, hospitable locals, neon lights, beautiful history, and loose moral tourism.

Those torn apart “local” feelings also simmered with the rare feeling of awareness. Who was I to say how this city progressed? I was emotional about the experience and the chance I was afforded and wanted others to share it, yes, but did others want the same? Did the girl and her brother want tranquil mornings and to continue to push paper souvenirs? Or, did they see themselves using the opportunity of tourism to build a life they envisioned that was different?  What I lacked was not a general awareness of myself, but of others’ perspectives.

“...what we all want to do, which is find a way to capture things before they dissolve, to not lose our lives to the relentless pace that keeps us from knowing who we are and what we want.” - Michael Paterniti

All of this is to say that after I returned from Asia my lens on tourism had changed. In New Orleans I watched a city struggle to find its story on a changing landscape. With the influx of money came “cleaner” streets, “nicer” homes, and “cultural praise”. What also attached itself were genuine concerns over gentrification, unethical work environments in hospitality, and cultural exploitation.

I love this city and consider it more of a home than anywhere I’ve been. As Kim, a New Orleanian local, proudly claimed, to live in New Orleans you have to be “comfortable with being uncomfortable.” There is always tension. The good with the bad. The floods with the festivals. The tourists with the tourism money.

So, I started thinking, what makes New Orleans a tourism mecca? Is it the way of life? Is it the ease with which visitors become guests? Is it the simplistic veneer the city has that makes it look easy to live here, while underneath the tumultuous undercurrent are as expressive and multifaceted as any other city in the world?

When people talk about tourism in New Orleans they are usually employed in the industry. They see virtue in increasing visitor numbers, hotel room numbers, and attractions. They aren’t wrong, but they occupy a majority (nay, all) of the spotlight. The numbers around how tourism economically helps the city are encouraged to make the news right beside the article describing how our pump stations fail and the SWBNO is going through executive house cleaning.

Recently, the party buses, painted midnight black so their neon lights are more visible, blaring bounce music while careening through the streets as revelers swig from Solo cups and wave out the windows or lean half their body off the side are under scrutiny. Personally, I have never enjoyed time on one, but that does not negate the fact that a modern expression of black culture is being questioned yet again. New Orleans is a bed of creativity which draws people into its web. The city however has a certain picture in mind of what that looks like.

When the city cannot think about how to monetize a culture’s exaltation they critique. When they see it as a hindrance to the antebellum and Jazz decades they depict in tourism marketing they revolt.

“They keep thinking of my good, in their terms” - Wallace Stegner

How can I help? By telling the stories of locals whose voices are dimly lit compared to the tourism marketing companies.

Who should care? You! If you visit New Orleans you should care. If you travel at all and care about culture in a destination you should care. If you live in New Orleans you should care what your neighbors are saying.

It is better to be a guest than to be a visitor. Tourism is hospitality and New Orleanians are some of the most gracious hosts. To cut through the tension of relationships developing in the tourism industry my book will describe different perspectives so we can become aware of the many sides of truth.

“Travel is mostly boredom - and if you’re not bored, you’re pretty sure everyone else is having more fun.” - Thomas Swick

The most important portion of this plea has now come. Thank you for bearing with me. Before I travel I have my own preferences of how to research a place, but I want to know what YOU want to read about a place.

Please read the following and feel free to leave a comment, text me, call me, write me a long letter. Again, who gives a damn what you say or how you say it but I want to hear from you.

Do you want to see a guidebook?

What is it about travel you like?

What do you not like?

Should I include my personal stories in the book?

Would you like inclusions of local colloquiums, history, etc?

Would you pre-order a book?

The thing with travel is that it’s not the place, the meal, or the souvenirs. It’s the story that goes with it.

Thank you for helping me tell others’ stories.

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The travel industry is expansive and in this modern world more and more tourists are becoming "explorers". They are hungry to dive into the culture of a place: to eat what locals eat, to barter at a market, or drink a classic cocktail. 

Unfortunately, not everything is created equal in this scheme. The cycle of economics in tourism drives many decisions in a destination: the city derives income from the increase of tourism dollars, those dollars are spent on more marketing for the destination and also for infrastructure to support future endeavors, local people and jobs are created to support tourism, and then what is earned by individuals is kept in the destination as economic stimulus. This is also a very simplistic way of describing the immense industry that touches almost everything.

What new behaviors are exhibiting (using Airbnb over hotels, Uber and taxis to reach places further away from a traditional downtown, etc.) is the visitors' excitement to experience a place "like a local". What is a local's life like? Well, typically nothing glamorous. Even in a city of extremely good living like New Orleans the everyday is mundane. Locals need groceries, run errands, go to work, but they also go out to eat, go to festivals, and give the destination its uniqueness. 

There, in those words -- "locals make the destination unique" -- is the answer. Instead of continuously writing list of top restaurants or art fairs you should go to why not ask the actual people who will be around you (whether working or joining into the festivities) about what they do?

Give a destination a face. Give locals their voice to protect and rejoice about their city.

Find out about a destination's #LocalLife.