A Small Place

This book—dewey-decimaled in the 917.297s—was nestled against a wall of brand-name travel guides like Fodor’s and whatnot. Strange, I thought as I plucked it from its odd bedfellows. Inside, Jamaica Kincaid blasts forth a travel guide for Antigua like no other, excoriating the tourists who arrive, bellowing rightfully about the abuses of the English colonists and slaveholders and the stink they left behind that local politicians whipped into corruption unimaginable, fuming at the racists who still hoard money and refuse to build the library, hospital, and other infrastructure to help the island’s progress.

Her opening paragraphs are like nothing I’ve read before. She takes dead aim at you, the tourist. She discusses how easily you float through customs and how you’ll be cheated by the cab driver and how you stare out the window (to get your money’s worth) but don’t notice the bad roads or terrible schools…

You see yourself lying on the beach… you see yourself taking a walk on that beach, you see yourself meeting new people (only they are new in a very limited way, for they are people just like you). You see yourself eating some delicious, locally grown food. You see yourself, you see yourself… You must not wonder what exactly happened to the contents of your lavatory when you flushed it. You must not wonder where your bathwater went when you pulled out the stopper… Oh, it might all end up in the water you are thinking of taking a swim in; the contents of your lavatory might, just might, graze gently against your ankle as you wade carefree in the water, for you see, in Antigua, there is no proper sewage-disposal system.

Better, brutally, this, which goes on for a beautifully long paragraph spanning multiple pages but I’ve chopped to the bits I like best (emphasis mine):

The thing you have always suspected about yourself the minute you become a tourist is true: A tourist is an ugly human being… And so, ordinarily, you are a nice person… But one day, when you are sitting somewhere, alone in that crowd, and that awful feeling of displacedness comes over you, and really, as an ordinary person you are not well equipped to look too far inward and set yourself aright, because being ordinary is already so taxing, and being ordinary takes all you have out of you, and though the words ‘I must get away’ do not actually pass across your lips, you make a leap from being that nice blob just sitting like a boob in your amniotic sac of the modern experience to being a person visiting heaps of death and ruin and feeling alive and inspired at the sight of it; to being a person lying on some faraway beach, your stilled body stinking and glistening in the sand, looking like something first forgotten, then remembered, then not important enough to go back for; to being a person marvelling at the harmony (ordinarily, what you would say is backwardness) and the union these other people (and they are other people) have with nature… since you are being an ugly person this ugly  but joyful thought will swell inside you: their ancestors were not clever in the way yours were and not ruthless in the way yours were, for then would it not be you who would be in harmony with nature and backwards in that charming way? An ugly thing, that is what you are when you become a tourist, an ugly, empty thing, a stupid thing, a piece of rubbish pausing here and there to gaze at this and taste that, and it will never occur to you that the people who inhabit the place in which you have just paused cannot stand you… They do not like you. They do not like me! That thought never actually occurs to you. Still, you feel a little uneasy. Still, you feel a little foolish. Still, you feel a little out of place.