On the Seriousness of Tourists #13

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I don’t remember the itchiness of the canvas chair or the ants that crawled up my leg.  I don’t remember it being too chilly in the shade and too hot in the sun.

What I remember are the blades of grass between my toes.  They tickled.  I remember the pealing bells of an ice cream cart.  I remember peace.  He squeezed my hand and pushed the hair from my eyes.  He kissed me goodbye before going to buy me a cone.

Did he know then it would be the last cone he’d ever hand me?

I will never know.

On the Pretentiousness of Travelers #4

I should probably ask.  But then he’ll smile.  He’ll talk to me in Mandarin.  I won’t understand and the moment will be ruined.  They’ll pose for me.  It won’t be candid.  And I imagine myself a photojournalist—at least on this trip.  I should ask.  But at least in China, at least in the Forbidden City,  I want to capture a moment.  I’ll just, kind of, put the camera off to the side, and just, kind of, snap.

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The little boy points at me.  I’m caught.   I smile.  There’s no going back now.

The boy touches my camera.  I hand it to him.  He clicks and takes a picture of my shoes.  He laughs.  He points it at my face and clicks again.  The boy’s hair is so shiny, I stop myself from touching it.

The man mimes looking at the camera.  I take the camera from the boy and click the button to show them the pictures I’ve taken.  I show the Summer Palace and a funny picture of me on a bicycle navigating the streets of Beijing.  I show the man the photograph of him.  He touches the screen.  He grins, his teeth yellowed and crooked.  I  wonder if I should offer to pay him.  I am an exploitative piece of shit, I think.  I remain silent:  My tourist Mandarin escapes me.

He mimes writing and points to my backpack.   I give him my journal and a pen.  He writes in characters I don’t understand.  He nods.  I nod.  He smiles.  I smile.  He points to the journal.

I have no idea what the characters mean.   I wave and back away.  I will never take another candid, I say to myself.  He waves.  I wave.  And again.  We smile, we nod, we wave.  I am everything I hate, I think.

Later, at the hostel, I ask the host to translate.  It’s an address.  She shows me where it is on the map—not too far from the Forbidden City.

I wonder if he goes to the Forbidden City to think.  I wonder if he takes his son to see all the tremendous sites of his country.  I wonder if he feels the magic of the Forbidden City as I did.  Yet still, I also wonder if he noticed the red paint drips on the cobblestone the way I did.  I ache with regret that I didn’t engage in conversation.  All I have is the photo.

When I get home, I print the photograph and send it to him.  I write in simplified Mandarin, thank you.

谢谢.

 

On the Seriousness of Tourists #12

What are those two leotarded people doing?  Budapest.

Tourist:  Can I take a picture of you by the fountain?

Pink Man:  Nope.

Green Man:  Nope, nope.

Tourist:  I’ll pay you.  Seriously.  I’ll pay you.  My son will love this, seriously love this.  He’ll think you’re from another planet.

Green Man:  We don’t take pictures without Blue Man.

Pink Man:  We do have the blue suit in that backpack over there.

Green Man:  Yeah, get in the blue suit. Then we take the picture.

Tourist:  I can’t get in a unitard.  I’m from New Jersey!

Pink Man:  Then no picture.  Not without Blue Man.

Green Man:  Nope, no picture, nope.

The tourist stares at the backpack.  It looks abandoned.  At home, he’d be worried it was a bomb.  But here he just wonders if the blue suit will fit him.  He wonders if it’s clean.  He shudders.  He thinks of his son’s bright eyes and obsession with UFOs.  His young son, who doesn’t yet know fear, who tells him that of course he’d get on a UFO and go exploring.  “It’s space, Dad,” he says.  “You have to go see what you can’t see or you’re just a chicken,” he says and squawks before descending into giggles. 

Tourist:  Is there a place I can change?

Green Man:  Blue will look good on you.

Pink Man picks up the backpack.  Green Man and Pink Man lead the man toward a nondescript building.  Horror movies always begin this way the tourist thinks.  He suppresses an urge to run, to squawk like a chicken.  Green Man bends to pick a dandelion. 

Green Man:  My girlfriend loves dandelions.  I say they’re weeds and she says who cares, beauty is beauty.

The tourist slows.  He sees what he couldn’t see.  Pink Man and Green Man so free of self consciousness, so free of shame.  Unitards on grown men.  He giggles. 

Tourist:  I actually really do look good in blue.