April 26th, 2013
You wouldn’t know that the picture above is of an 800-room resort. I was in the Dominican Republic last week, a “destination” for a family wedding. I took this shot early morning, before people started moving like sleepwalkers towards the cavernous hall where breakfast was being served. This was one of those all-inclusive spots where you pay for flights, meals, and drinks in advance, and then show up with nothing but money for tips for the staff. It seems as if the whole world partakes of these vacation spots. The 800 rooms were fully booked and there was absolutely no chance of getting a late check out because plane loads of tourists were lining up to check in while we were thinking of shaking the sand out of our suitcases.
The whole time I was there I thought of the late great American novelists David Foster Wallace and his famous essay, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” Wallace went on a one-week cruise ship and ended up describing the “supposedly fun” experience as utterly despair-inducing. I can’t say I was really ever in despair in the DR but Wallace’s account of the cruise was uncannily similar to the all-inclusive experience. In a word, that experience is marked by excess—excess of food, drink, sun, beach, sloth, people, you name it. It’s hard to complain when you’re steps away from a stunning white sandy beach in the middle of a chilly Canadian April, but then it’s hard not to reflect on this strange construct of a vacation, one in which almost all decisions have been taken away from you. Perhaps it is that very fact that’s so appealing to so many. After slogging it out in the work-a-day world, it’s probably comforting to many people to not have to think about what the next moment might bring. Everything has been arranged and ordered for indulgence, from the native jungle to the buffet lines. To parasail or not to parasail: that really is the only question.
The picture above shows just how well manicured that jungle forest has become. One can only imagine the labour involved in sectioning out such a large parcel of land for human habitation—villas and walkways and pools, gardens and restaurants, all carved out of a very wild landscape. The resort planners saved a swath of the original natural environment and put up signs informing the vacationers that there was a “natural conservatory” on the premises. So it is that nature has become part of the spectacle for the ambulatory tourist. One day a couple of guys were roaming around one of the gajillion pools with a camera and a large boa constrictor. They were intent on draping the snake around the necks of the eager and fearless and taking some well composed tourist pictures. They found a remarkably high number of willing participants, especially little kids whose parents encouraged them to smile for the camera: nature at once personified and commodified.
Every morning upon walking out of our villa and moving towards the breakfast lines I felt as if I were on some large movie set—or, worse, a compound of zombies. We were all white, sleepy, self-satisfied, and way too many were grossly overweight. A bottomless supply of piña coladas didn’t help. Haiti, destitute and still recovering from the effects of the earthquake, was just on the other side of the island, so close and yet so different. I wondered: did Sean Penn ever come over to the DR to clean up and escape the rubble of Port-au-Prince?
It’s interesting how despite one’s best efforts it’s difficult not feeling like an elitist snob. Large crowds of obese automatons can do that to you. I am sure the tourism trade is doing good and necessary things for the island economy, but is this really the best way our civilization has of spending some hard-earned downtime?
The wedding, by the way, was lovely.