Alternative Tourism

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A bare-chested 70-year-old man burst into our room, shouting something in Spanish and waving his arms. It was 4am. My boyfriend and I had been asleep: it was our first night couchsurfing in a stranger’s house. His voice boomed around the dark room for a minute and then he slammed the door shut and stormed down the hallway. I turned to my partner in bed, we looked at each other, and having no idea what else to do, we decided to roll over and try to feign sleep. Then the chainsaws started…

I’d been couchsurfing for a year at this point, and this was without a doubt the weirdest experience so far. We’d arrived late the night before at this small farmland in the backwaters of rural Uruguay. Our host Pedro, who we soon dubbed Crazy Pedro, had picked us up from the bus station on his clapped-out moped around 7pm. He seemed nice and quite smartly-dressed, although you couldn’t help but notice he didn’t have any shoes on. ‘Fine’ we figured, we’d both been living in flip flops for the past year so who’s to judge? Then we arrived at his ‘house’. I use inverted commas intentionally.

On the couchsurfing website he’d described it as a large farmhouse with three double rooms, a beautiful farm of friendly animals and a private beach. It sounded dreamy and, on honest reflection, a bit too good to be true. As we arrived to what can only be described as Dorothy’s Kansas crib after the tornado, Crazy Pedro explained to us that this was his grandfather’s house – which until yesterday, had been abandoned for 35 years. This he said with a gleeful and slightly manic smile. Super, we thought. It got more disappointing and all the more strange inside: derelict, broken furniture; a dank bathroom with no running water (bucket and hose outside for manual toilet flushing); and the small red handprints of a child sliding down the walls (they weren’t blood apparently – he was a school teacher and had invited one of his kids to paint the walls… reassuring? Definitely not.) We spent the night eating BBQ-ed sausages indoors – Crazy Pedro decided it was fine to light a fire in the middle of his kitchen floor – and watching our host dance around to acid house music until the early hours of the morning. This all appeared quite eccentric and a little bit loopy, but he didn’t seem dangerous and so we figured it was fine. That was until we heard chainsaws outside our bedroom window at 4.10am.

Rightfully assuming my role as the wimpy girl, I begged my partner to go outside and see what the heck was happening. I gave him his pocket knife just in case. Crazy Pedro was outside in his boxers talking with the (similarly undressed) 70-year-old. “This is my Dad – he and his friends have come to fix the roof, sorry I forgot to tell you!” he explained and waved at a clan of men clambering onto the roof. Ever so slightly reassured, my partner came back to bed and we decided to try and leave for the city and ‘civilization’ that afternoon. In the end we were stranded on the farm for a couple days with no bus service, but in that time a fondness for Crazy Pedro blossomed and also a huge appreciation and admiration for his unconditional acceptance and generosity of spirit. He proudly showed us his very strange town (at one point warning me not to breath too deeply as the paper factory let off hazardous fumes) and took us for a detailed tour around his collection of 280 pencil sharpeners. He was without a shadow of doubt a little bit nuts, but his warmth and enthusiasm couldn’t be faulted.

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Crazy P was my strangest couchsurfing experience, but it was definitely an ‘experience’ and I look back on it with befuddled but positive memories. In total I’ve surfed about 50 couches – with a boyfriend, with a female friend and also alone as a single girl. They’ve all been enriching experiences and I’ve made some fantastic friends along the way. It never ceases to amaze me how ready people invite a stranger into their home and share their lives with open arms. It gives you an incredible sense of humankind. And it makes you turn into quite a hippy.

If you are reading this and thinking “How do you surf a couch? A sofa won’t float in the sea!” then you probably aren’t part of the new wave tourism movement, yet. Couchsurfing is an online community (Hospitality Club, Tripping and the quite aptly named Global Freeloaders) where you search online for members in a certain area and connect with them in the hope of sleeping on their couch for a night or two. Sometimes it’s a couch, sometimes it’s a bit of floor space and if you are lucky it’s a spare bed. There’s no money involved – it is simply an invitation from a stranger to a stranger to come and stay at their home and get to know their way of life. And it’s taken the world by storm, with well over 4 million members so far.

Couchsurfing is one of the many forms of new, alternative tourism. The world of travel has changed. People don’t just want to stay in an all-inclusive hotel and visit the same tired tourist attractions. We want to get out and do stuff, meet people and try and ‘live like a local’ for a while. It’s all about hands-on ‘experience’ rather than looking on from a distance.

Vacations used to be about relaxing, catching up on your zzzz’s and making a dent on that never-ending list of holiday reading, but many people take time off work… to work. Working holidays are increasingly popular with tourists going to farms to harvest or take care of animals. Take WWOOFing as an example. Another community website, here you can search for organic farms online and swap your hard labour for board and food. This is one of a multitude of websites offering accommodation for a couple hours work a day. Internships are another popular way to get an extended working holiday where you gain your keep with an honest day’s work. Here in Mendoza the harvest time is always buzzing with gringos working as a grape picker or intern in a winery for a month or two. In the Uco Valley there are numerous projects where tourists can work in exchange for stay – check out Finca Ogawa (www.fincaogawa.com). And if you really like working the land you can buy a small vineyard and make your own wine with projects such as The Vines (www.vinesofmendoza.com) and Casa Palmaro (www.casapalmero.com). If you really don’t want to spend much more than a day getting your hands dirty then a day’s grape pick or olive oil making with Zuccardi winery (www.familiazuccardi.com) is a safe bet.

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If work feels like too much, well, work… then another new wave tourism option is skills development. Week-long courses learning a new skill, whether that be cookery or a language, are increasingly ‘a la mode’. It’s usually very distinct culinary destinations like France or Thailand that are most popular with tourists, but Argentina too has its share of cookery schools. Language courses are particularly popular with the relatively easy Spanish dialect of Argentina. In Mendoza, check out Fundacion Brasilia (www.fundacionbrasilia.com.ar) and Intercultural (www.intercultural.com)

Nothing in new tourism though beats ‘local experiences’ – learning to be a gaucho with an Andes horseback tour, making ceramics with native artisans or even going to a local footie match and sitting in the ‘poplar’ seats count. The most popular multi-skill tour learning locals in Mendoza is the Caminos de Altamira.

Beyond the niceties and CV boosting advantages of working holidays, skills tourism and local experiences, you also get the more voyeuristic and morally dubious genres like disaster, horror and favela tourism.

A surprising number of tourists actually travel the world to visit different natural disaster sites – whether it’s to pay respects to the deceased, marvel at the power of nature or just to say they’ve been there – this is a booming tourism sector. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005 most people avoided the decimated area of New Orleans, but a handful of disaster tour operators sprung up out of the wetlands too – offering tourists a bus tour around the destroyed houses and devastated communities for a modest fee of $50US. There was such a large footfall of ‘disaster tourists’ that the number of tour buses on the road started seriously impeding rescue efforts, and they were banned from the state.

The horror genre falls into a similar bracket with many of the world’s most visited tourist attractions actually being horrific murder sites. Auschwitz may only have a town of 45,000 residents but almost one and a half million tourists come each year to see the place where up to 4 million Jews were murdered.

For $150US you can walk around Chernobyl – the site of the world’s worst nuclear attack. No shorts allowed and Geiger counters essential.

But this is all small beer compared to Ground Zero in New York, which receives over 9 million visitors a year and has seen hotels in the immediate neighbourhood double. Again, it’s rather down to individual opinion as to whether they are cashing in on human suffering or teaching a valuable lesson in history.

Favela tourism equally splits travellers’ opinions. A couple dozen tours are on offer in Rio de Janeiro’s slums giving travellers a glimpse into life in some of the world’s most impoverished and dangerous neighbourhoods. They include peering into the raggedy shacks of people living there, a stop at local handicraft markets for those all-important tourist souvenirs and end up in a ‘true’ favela-style rave. All with an air-conditioned van and security guard. Or for those looking for the more ‘authentic’ experience, you can visit the favela on the back of a scooter. Again whether this is making a circus out of poverty or gentrifying a stigmatized neighbourhood and supporting sustainable projects, is down to the individual opinion and probably more so down to the individual project.

Whether you find yourself riding on the back of a scooter in Rocinha, picking grapes in Uco Valley or waking up to the sound of chainsaws in Uruguay – one thing is certain… a four star package holiday in Magaluf doesn’t quite cut it anymore.

By Amanda Barnes

Published in the June/July 2012 edition of Wine Republic

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