Profound new documentary by NYU Anthropology Professor Pegi Vail is ostensibly about the impact of backpacker tourists on once distant climes and cultures, but it implies even more about the way our now dominant “Western Mentality” has overrun our fragile planet and potentially brought it to the breaking point.
Quests made popular by films like Lawrence of Arabia and generations of “desert loving English” have reached crisis proportions now that we can fly almost anywhere we want and the people there to greet us want our money. (JLH: 5/5)
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Gringo Trails is a terrific new documentary by Pegi Vail, an anthropologist currently teaching at NYU, who has also worked with National Geographic and the Soros Open Society Foundation. She’s curated exhibits in collaboration with the Museum of the American Indian, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Museum of Modern Art. And she’s involved with The Moth, a public radio storytelling collective.
Gringo Trails begins with an interview with Yossi Ghinsberg, an Israeli who finished up his army service in the mid ’80s and went on a trek–like many Israelis do–which brought him to the northeast corner of Bolivia (at the edge of the Amazon Rainforest). Once there, he and his companions faced the most disastrous of circumstances. Through voiceovers, Ghinsberg recalls his time in Bolivia, witnessing the greatest floods the Amazon had seen in at least 10 years. His tale of survival after separation from his group and the natives who saved his life form the basis of Gringo Trails.
Ghinsberg’s three-week triumph of lone survival in the Amazon jungle has become a milestone for adventurers who want to go somewhere where almost no one not native to the area has ever been before. In the years since his rescue, backpackers have followed, so much so that as one American man who is traveling with an Israeli woman jokes: “The guides here speak better Hebrew than I do!”
From the story of Yossi Ghinsberg, Gringo Trails takes off into a general meditation on these rapidly multiplying backpackers who buy stacks of Lonely Planet guidebooks and then show up in droves in formerly inaccessible places. Some are trekking to the great salt desert in the southwestern corner of Bolivia while others go like Yossi to the rainforests in the northeast corner of Bolivia. Then they go from the African desserts surrounding Timbuktu to tiny islands off the coast of Thailand.
The common element in all of these “adventures” is the lone backpacker looking for a natural “unspoiled” place. The problem occurs when backpackers in the plural start inundating these places. The obvious result is that they quickly lose the very characteristics that made them attractive in the first place. The backpackers endanger native–human–populations as well as local wildlife.
A haunting sequence shows a forest guide warning the backpackers in his group not to touch snakes: “You’ve got mosquito repellent on your fingertips and this is extremely toxic.” Of course the young backpackers want to show how fearless they are, so one of them captures an Anaconda snake, and the rest line up to stroke it. They can’t help themselves. They need to stroke the snake so they can go home and say: “I stroked an Anaconda snake!” There is no real danger for the human, but it’s extremely dangerous for the snake. Wildlife population scatter as they attempt to flee the humans who are invading their environment–humans who leave behind them a disgusting mess of plastic water bottles and other non-organic “First World” detritus.
The quandary depicted in Gringo Trails then goes in an even more metaphysical direction: What it is about the human personality that makes us want to go to places no one–that is, no non-native–has ever been before, only to end up destroying the very thing we went to find? Although other movies are not Vail’s primary reference point, it’s clear that movies such as Lawrence of Arabia and Out of Africa have fed a “First World” longing to test oneself against a “Third World Wild.”
On the other hand, most of the people in the local populations are extremely poor. The backpackers think they are being parsimonious and careful with their spending. They don’t want to be Capitalists and travel like pampered tourists. They think they are roughing it. But from the POV of the people in the local populations, these backpackers have a tremendous amount of money. As backpackers start trekking regularly to these formally inaccessible places, guesthouses start springing up along with tourist houses, hostels, restaurants and all kinds of accommodations for backpacking tourists who tell themselves that they’re living cheaply on an adventure.
So the backpackers have become a source of income, and no matter how many responsible people in the community–or in the government–try to enforce the rules, there will always be those willing to do things they are not supposed to do, because they know tourists will pay for what they want. Seeing the consequences, Yossi Ghinsberg–for one–now uses his personal prestige to encourage the building of eco-friendly facilities. But are people on either side of this financial equation willing to be truly honest about the damage they are doing? Probably not.
Once I left the theatre, I started thinking about Out of Africa, a movie that I really, really love. When Baroness Karen Blixen (the Meryl Streep character) first meets Denys Finch-Hatton (the Robert Redford character), he is out on safari with Masai warriors. Then time goes by, and after World War I, he starts taking people out on safari. To be blunt: He takes wealthy people out to kill lions just for the sake of killing lions. The paying customer–the tourist of the early 20th Century–can tell everyone back home that he killed a lion, just like the backpacker of the early 21st Century can tell everyone back home that she stroked a snake.
Midway though Out of Africa, Denys goes out to look for new safari locations and he takes Karen with him. It become an incredible romantic trip! They make love–for the first time–in a tent!! Everything is pure, beautiful, and natural as they ride their Jeep through herds of wild animals!!! When they take their first plane trip together, the Savannah below is filled with natural beauty. But later you see Denys flying alone, and the land below him is a barren patchwork of Jeep ruts. Denys and his colleagues and his customers have plowed their way through the Savannah… Gringo Trails captures this same feeling of melancholy. Like Denys, Yossi wanted to test himself. But when he succeeded, he blazed a trail for others, and he ended up destroying what he most loved in the process.
Gringo Trails provides an excellent mix of context and history with a perfect meld of first person and third person points of view. It tells a profound story about the nature of man’s relationship to Planet Earth. We all think: “I am just one person and I am going to do what I want to do.” But if we all do what we want to do without thinking about the larger consequences, how soon will it before before we end up destroying our planet?
Top Photo: Tourists from all over the world converge on pristine places…
Bottom Photo: …which are no longer quite so “pristine” after the tourists have congregated there…
Photo Credits: Icarus Films
Q: Does Gringo Trails pass the Bechdel Test?
One of the surprising elements of Gringo Trails is how many women are out there backpacking. One might have thought this was a “guy thing,” but no. Based on the footage captured by Vail and her team, I would guess ~ 40% of these travelers are women.
One the one hand, this is a good thing (“You Go, Girls!”), but obviously they can be just as thoughtless as their male counterparts…
Looping back to the snake-stroking incident all I can say is: Shame on you, sister!!!