Every once in a while, a phrase sticks in my mind, and I often think about the time a friend and I were dining at the top of a tower in Durban, South Africa, in one of the world’s 27 revolving restaurants (fun fact!), where the walls were decorated with disconcerting cherub paintings (how did they get bodybuilder muscles? is there an LA Fitness in the heavens?). My friend said, “There’s something ever so ‘nearly but not quite’ about them, isn’t there?”
Nearly but not quite. So far, that describes everything I’ve encountered in Savannah. It’s a strange place that seems to be reaching for something it can’t quite grasp. (I’ve been here a whole 19 hours, so you can take my word as gospel truth.)
Also, I can’t believe it took me this long, but I’m finally realizing how much of our country resembles (has it always, or is it starting to?) countries like South Africa or Costa Rica or Colombia with bustling tourist centers surrounded by poverty.
I noticed it first in the west, especially in Yellowstone and in areas like the Black Hills, where I mostly stuck my nose in the air about the families rolling through faux Main Streets, spending money on glittering trinkets when there was so much real grit to experience just outside this grinning facade if only they’d pull their heads out of their butts long enough to see it. I’m not proud of the way I was romanticizing poverty by viewing it as something pure and interesting to “experience.” (I’m also not proud of my judgment of middle-class tourists, especially since I am one in my own right, but it’s the contempt of a present self looking upon a past self, which makes it feel earned somehow? Anyway, I think they can survive it.)
In Maine, I began to understand the desperation of impoverished communities begging for tourists’ money. I think living there opened me to the realities of cash flows, and as I drove by so many rainbow “Open” banners waving along the roadside, it began to feel like, “Please, come in. Please, spend your money. Please.”
Yesterday I strolled through the riverfront and main tourist area in Savannah, and I felt that familiar disdain for lumbering middle class sidewalk hogs and their entitled tween children, the too-loud conversations of drunk 20-somethings outside some microbrewery, and the predictable stream of candy, T-shirt, and tchotchke shops. When I returned to my AirBNB and tried to buy a healthy meal at the nearby supermarket, I found a tiny selection of withering produce and aisles of canned goods. That’s when it hit. I’m in a classic tourism economy.
I don’t know if it’s always been like this and I’m just now noticing, or if things are getting worse, but there is a distinct flavor to these places that’s making me uncomfortable. It’s Haves invading the territory of Have-Nots and everyone just kind of pretending to be okay with it. But it’s in our own country.
You’re not strolling through the streets of a foreign place, where the politics are outside your sphere of influence or awareness. You’re visiting people affected by policies you vote for, from the comfort of your plush suburban home, and you might not even notice you’ve dropped into a fake world created to make you feel at ease, to tease a piece of the pie from your pocket. In a few days, you’ll leave this place and return to your corporate world, where you’ll work to make richer people than you even richer, continue voting to keep more for yourself, and maybe plan your next vacation to a fantasy world tailored to your tastes. Later, you’ll remember this place as a nice town where you once had some great saltwater taffy.