Thursday, July 26, 2007


Once again it's Thursday, and once again it's time to figure out if I've had any thoughts worth exploring. Well, thank goodness my thoughtful husband takes the time to comment on my blog - last week, Paul brought up historical restoration in his response to my comment on travel v. tourism. This topic seems to go hand in hand with what I was thinking about - and raises a question: what are artifacts for?

In Norway, we went to Haakon's Hall . It had been a medieval feast hall, which eventually was turned into a storehouse. At some point in the 1800s, the historical significance of the building was realized, and they set about restoring it. The "restoration" was a fanciful take on what a medieval feast hall would have been like, based more in the aesthetic and mood of the time than in actual reproduction. During WWII, the Hall was seriously damaged when a ship blew up in the harbour. So, in the 1960s, about 100 years after the original restoration it was once again restored. At that point in time, they had to decide - try to recreate what was just lost, or try to undo what was by then considered a vulgar artists rendering? The decision was for the latter, and Haakon's Hall today is supposed to look more like it did in its original form. Nobody considered giving it yet another facelift to match the thoughts and mores of the 1960s.

In the Orkneys, where there have been successive waves of civilization since the stone ago, strategic locations have been repeatedly built upon. As Paul mentioned, there was one site with 3 layers of fortification, and they were trying to figure out what to do - should they restore the first layer, or destroy the first layer to get to the older foundations? Should they just leave it as it is? Should they let tourists come and climb on the ruins, or should they cordon them off, like Stonehenge ?

In comparison to stonehenge, there are standing stones in the Orkneys ? that were mainly carried off to make fences. I look at that and i think it's a shame - but if I was a medieval farmer that wanted to keep my sheep from running off, and I didn't worship the sun, why would I leave that perfectly good builing material there? There's a fundamental tension in these questions between function and beauty, and between progress and preservation. Should we keep things because they meant something (i.e. religious symbology) to someone at some point, even if they don't mean that to us now?

This question extends beyond monuments to smaller possessions too. Should I not use the good dishes to eat off because they might break, and they were handed down from my grandparents? Do we really need to inherit a silver tea set from both sides of the family? If we did, should we use it? If we don't want to use it, should we hold onto it? As material consumption skyrockets, these questions will be more pressing for our generation than ever before. Families used to have only a few nice pieces to pass down. Paul and I already have a house full of nice stuff, and in 30 years, we could hypothetically have inherited another house or 2 worth. Are we beholden to these possessions because they belonged to someone else?

And back to buildings and sites - what is the point of restoring them? What are we trying to accomplish? To understand another way of life? To retain some aspects of that way of life in our modern world? Do these goals trump more pragmatic considerations? As we begin to realize that the level of consumption on our planet is unsustainable, should we be preserving buildings and momuments that have recyclable material, or could be adapted to a more relevant function?

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Traveller or Tourist?

I have put it upon myself to be disciplined and write at least once a week. After all – I must have at least one thought a week that is worthy of fleshing out in some form. But the week is slipping away from me, so I have to get down to work, and try to get something together before today is over.

Last week, there was an article in the Globe and Mail about how the “new seven wonders of the world” are being destroyed by over-tourism. It talked about the bind that developing countries are in to exploit their sites while wanting to preserve – tourism can often be the best way to preserve ancient sites (as opposed to, say, oil and gas development . . .), but it can also do them in in the end.

So this got me thinking about travel and tourism. To me the difference is that a tourist goes somewhere to consume and experience (check off the box in the travel guide, get the picture by the landmark), while a traveller goes somewhere to experience it (move a bit slower, get to know people, get out of your comfort zone a bit).

I have always tried to be a traveller, but of course have not always succeeded. When I lived in Scotland, I spent my weekend jaunts within the country, really getting to know it, rather than rushing off on an EasyJet special for a weekend in Venice. When I was in Ecuador, we didn’t go to the Galapagos. This was partly because it would have doubled the cost of the trip, but also because I didn’t think that it was fair to tread on an incredibly fragile ecosystem when I am not a huge animal person, and would be doing it just because it’s what you do in Ecuador.

But then there’s the side of me that wants to just see things that I have always heard about, like Angkor Wat in Cambodia (mentioned in the news article as one of the spots that is being worn down in tourists). Should I not go because I would be adding to its destruction? Or, since it’s something that particularly captured me (I remember reading about it in high school French, and thought it sounded amazing), is it more acceptable for me to go there, whereas for others who are fascinated by animals, it would be acceptable to go to the Galapagos?

And deeper into that urge to be a tourist is the truth that I also have the desire to consume experiences. Where does this urge come from? It is because we think that having these experiences, which have been talked about by other people and built up in books and movies and TV, will fill something in us? Is it rooted in a general dissatisfaction with our lives, that we always want to go somewhere else to find something that will change us (the latest issue of Geez is about “finding the wonder” and a lot of the articles are about slowing down and finding the wonder right where we are)?

One of the most prominent times when we had to face this tension between wanting to be tourists and wanting to be responsible travellers was in Brazil. A big part of the reality of Brazil is the favelas (slums). Growing up the side of hills, overshadowing the luxury of life in Ipanema and the other ritzy neighbourhoods, these neighbourhoods of shacks are hotbeds of poverty and crime, and examples of the huge divide between rich and poor in Rio. If you are in Rio, you get a sense that to really understand the city, you have to understand the slums. And so, there are favela tours. You can join a group in an SUV and view the slums. Meet people who live in them. For many of these companies, the proceeds of the tour goes directly to the community. So – we were torn. Would going on the tour be a way for us to gain compassion and understanding for these people, and to give them the means to pull themselves out of this situation? Or, would it be some kind of sick human zoo experience, like when rich Victorians used to go to Bedlam to view the crazies? In the end, we didn’t feel like we had enough time and information to make an informed decision, so erred on the side of caution and didn’t go on the tour.

Where does this leave us? I wanted to go on the favela tour, but didn’t know if I should. I want to go to Angkor Wat. Should I? I want to spend 4 months travelling around the Mediterranean. If I don’t have 4 months, should I go to Greece for a week, or not go at all? I guess in planning trips, we should examine our motivation. Why am I going? Am I going to consume an experience so I can write home about it, or am I going so that I can really EXPERIENCE an experience? If we are going to consume an experience, maybe we should stay home. Or, can even that mode of travel be saved? Should tourism continue, in the hope that every now and then, someone who just wanted to snap a few pictures will unexpectedly have their life changed by a real interaction with another culture, with nature, or with herself?

Another Globe Article on the subject today:Space Travel

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Beauty Myth

Submitted this for publication a while ago. Didn't get picked up. Going to post it now instead.

I’ve been biking to work, and I’ve been feeling good about that. It’s a bit longer than I used to ride to school, and I’m proud I’ve risen to the challenge. Every morning I walk into my office building in spandex shorts and a t-shirt. I was self-conscious at first about being seen in my bike gear, but I got over it. I’ve been feeling good about that too – feeling good about doing what’s right for my health and for the environment and not letting my paranoid perception that everyone is watching and judging me get in the way. I’ve been fighting the voices in my head that whisper the Beauty Myth, that tell me that my outside is more important than my inside and that a less-than-rock-hard butt and an asymmetrical face make me a less worthy human.

It gets harder to beat down the voices, though, when they are reinforced from the outside too. The other day, one of my friends had biked across town, and was doing some shopping, so she was walking down the street in her bike gear. A man roller-bladed past, and yelled “you better get a thong for that fat ass.” When I heard this story, I became self-conscious about my own spandex-clad butt, which rolls through downtown Ottawa daily. Then, I got sad and angry. I know that if I look at fashion magazines, or peer too closely at various lines on my face in the mirror, that I am inviting the voices in my head to start their nattering, but how are we supposed to fight the Beauty Myth when it attacks us, completely unprovoked? And where does this guy get off? We are in a supposedly post-feminist society, but some jerk still thinks it’s appropriate a) to yell something incredibly personal and degrading to a total stranger and b) to suggest that a woman should be wearing thong underwear with her exercise gear (with the implicit suggestion that the shorts are for him to look at, not for her to be comfortable while doing physical activity). The demons, clearly, are not all in my head.

So here I am – a modern feminist woman, and the Beauty Myth is the beast on my back, but worse, because it’s inside of me too. I want to be a dragon-slayer, but sometimes I have Stockholm Syndrome and succumb to its scaly embrace. When this happens, I need the help of people who love me to get back in the fight. I have been blessed with relationships with strong and intelligent women, each beautiful in a different way. I have men in my life who believe in me, who have never suggested I am limited in what I can achieve because I am a girl. We all stumble and get seduced by the Myth at times, but these relationships remind me of what’s important – of where my real worth and beauty come from. This is my community, these are the people who know my soul, and whose opinion I want to cherish – not some yelling drive-by creep.

When I am reminded that I am loved, it makes all the difference. I’ll continue to wear my spandex shorts. They’re good for riding, and riding makes me strong and leaves a light footprint upon the earth. I’m trying to make peace with my body, and then move beyond it. I’m made in the image of God, who is divine, and I’m called to follow Jesus, who saw to the heart of people. I want to do the same, starting with myself.