Just back from an uneventful event in Brazil, giving a keynote to the local ecotourism conference (ABETA), a four-day affair filled with eco-earnestness and reams of meaningful data. But it reminded me of the last time I was in Brazil, some years back, in a less-solemn and less-structured time. Then I didn't stay at an eco-lodge....I stayed at the Sheraton Rio Hotel and Resort. I had flown not just from Los Angeles, but all the way from Hong Kong. I'm not good with jetlag, but this was especially bad, and when I arrived on the afternoon flight, the hotel manager asked me to join a small group in a lounge at 5:00 for a private reception. There a stately gentleman introduced himself to me as Hans Stern, and when I told him I was in the travel business, his face lit up, and he invited me to dinner. I accepted, and asked if he meant in an hour, at 6:00 pm, my usual dinner time, and he said no, he would come around and pick me up at 11:00 pm in front of the hotel.
Bleary-eyed and fuzzy-headed, I waited out front at the anointed hour. When I told the concierge that a gentleman named Hans Stern was picking me up, he shared that Hans was one of the richest men in Brazil, the precious gem mogul, and so I expected a stretch limo to come rolling up to the curb....several did, but I looked in each, and no Mr. Stern. Finally, a Volkswagen bus puttered up to me, and the door slid back. In the front passenger seat was Hans Stern, who signaled me to get in the back. I slid in and asked why the modest transportation, and he told me his son had been kidnapped recently, and after he paid the ransom, his security insisted he go low-profile.
Then I saw there was a woman sitting next to me; in the soft overhead light she looked strikingly beautiful and quite young. She reached over and introduced herself at Ruth Stern.
"Are you Hans's daughter?"
"No," she laughed. "I'm his wife."
"You look so young. Are you his second wife?"
"No," she laughed again. "His first...we're the same age....but the plastic surgeons are sooo good here in Brazil."
That's when I first found how illusion can trump reality in Brazil, including, in not just a few cases, its fabled ecotourism enterprises.
Three hours later, belly full, I was back at the Sheraton, utterly exhausted, a cuttlefish out of ink. As I crossed the lobby the organizer of my event saw me, grabbed my arm, and insisted I join him for a drink. I did, and after downing a caiparinha I found another on the table. Then the two spoke to each other, and I found a third. Then I vaguely remember dancing at some unknown hour before stumbling to my room, and falling naked into my bed.
Then, sometime in the deep of the night, I awoke and headed for the bathroom. I think I still thought I was in my hotel in Hong Kong as I headed straight down the hall, opened the door, walked a few steps, and heard a click behind me. I spun around, rubbed my eyes and found I was naked in the hallway of the Sheraton Rio Hotel and Resort...
Not the first time I imagined a reality and found it to be really imaginary.
Take my small-headed conceptions about the beginnings of ecotourism.
When I founded Sobek in the early 70s I thought Brazil was the pioneer in this space....I had read about Teddy Roosevelt's adventures down the Amazon tributary called "The River of Doubt" in 1914, and I filed that as the start of a green travel movement. But I was wrong.
The origins of ecotourism can be traced, I now believe, to Switzerland, and the Romantic poets and artists who traveled there in the late 18th and early 19th centuries--Lord Byron, Percy Shelly, Mary Shelly...who wrote Frankenstein there...William Wordsworth, John Ruskin and others...and with a concept they articulated as The Sublime---
It was one of the most profound revolutions in thought that ever occurred--the transition from a loathing of Grand Nature to its celebration.
It's interesting that if you look back before this period there is virtually no literature that praises Grand Nature....nothing in Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare or Milton...it's all about the human form, about delicate beauty, about ordered gardens and symmetrical patterns.
That's because Nature was something to avoid, to fear, to conquer, to tame or plow....Mountains were the lairs of dragons and demons. The Alps were an icy semi-circle of teeth that bit off Italy from the rest of Europe.
When the original travelers on The Grand Tour crossed the Alps they closed the curtains of the carriage. Some even blindfolded themselves -- The Alps were warts on the skin of the Earth; boils on its face.
So, when did they pull back the curtains?
Blame it on the Industrial Revolution, which motivated record numbers to leave farms and crowd to the cities. Suddenly places like London were dirty, smoggy, crime ridden---this was the setting that gave Charles Dickens his work. People lost faith in God and humanity.
But when the poets traveled to Switzerland they found a landscape that was clean and green, dangerous and overwhelming, and it made them feel more alive; it made them believe in something powerful--and they called the feelings they evoked as
"An Agreeable Kind of Horror"
"A Magnificent Rudeness"
"A Rapturous Terror"
These were feelings on the other side of thought and language....this was the Sublime.
These poets, especially Byron and Shelly, were the Rock Stars of their day, and when they praised in print wild Nature, their fans followed foot. And soon traveling into Nature was a rage. Today it is called ecotourism.
But just like my wrong turn to the bathroom, I think ecotourism today thinks it is in one room, when in fact it is in an entirely different one...
As the concepts of ecotourism have evolved they have become more and more analytical. More data driven; more about cost/benefit analyses, about benchmarking; about quantifying guilt....
And the real motivation for ecotourism is in a room full of magic...
What the visiting poets showed in Switzerland was the power of narrative, of storytelling; of the romance, mystery and the danger of wild places....and these attributes argue, often subliminally, for preservation, and visitation. Most people won't be compelled to visit a place because it uses certain light bulbs or soap or low volume toilets; or hires locals; or carbon offsets, or is "certified," though these are good practices, often necessary ones.
What most folks seek, I believe, are the unfathomable shadows where the wild things are.
Too many eco-lodges and destinations have become internment centers mapped and planned with no blank spots. The trails are well-marked and monitored. The buses are built for comfort. Around the world at eco-lodge poolsides and lobbies visitors watch from a safe as distance ethnic spectacles and performances, loaded with Post-it Note mysticism. The deep, rich cultures and traditions are too often reduced to dinner shows for the mobile rich. In these brief, one-sided encounters, there is little chance to understand the people behind the dances and battle cries, no real celebration of a vibrant, living culture. Visitors are offered the bread crumbs on the floor beneath the big table of cultural apperception.
In these dynamics, there is little room for true discovery.
Yes, the wilderness is vanishing, and cultures are fading, but what saves them are not dry statistics and doomsday scenarios, but rather the emotional sumptuousness and connection that comes from visitation. A good story can inspire someone on a couch in a city watching his television or computer screen to get up, step out the door, and see and feel the witchcraft of wilderness. Once so touched, travelers become the most passionate advocates for preservation, as the trees and brooks and wild things are then as family.
If a place can be unmediatedly wild, without the requisite security and compliant spaces, without adult supervision, it is then faithful to our childlike imaginations of wilderness. The natural sublime is as much about awe as real danger....the peril of avalanches in the Alps for the Romantics; the risks of the rainforests in Brazil for Teddy Roosevelt, and for travelers today. The sublime attracts like moths to a flame, where we feel most alive when we can imagine our own demise.
And, ecotourism in its original manifestations was sublime, but we have moved to a different room.
Ecotourism ought to be the great, original adventure, an individual tale of privation, courage, constant vigilance and danger. Done right, it is a journey undertaken with only a fragmentary map constructed out of a patchwork of accumulated local lore and the occasional milepost marked "here be dragons."
The ecotourism movement may have become too circumscribed. There is a powerful quality in being open-ended, vague at the borders; of being sufficiently unpolished that a visitor can expand upon it in his own mind, projecting himself into its narratives. Too many ecotourism providers today are like unctuous butlers of the imagination, ready to serve every need or desire as it arises; they don't leave anything implied, unstated or incomplete. They don't allow us to get lost.
The room we want to be in is one that gives ready and vivid access to wonder, wisdom and breathtaking beauty. It's simply the magic of an accidental discovery in a wild place, a flitting moment and the resin drop of revelation transformed by luck and alchemy into amber...