The Special Places
Posted on December 29, 2012
A good friend of ours recently wrote a blog post about how a place he once loved to visit had become ruined by successive waves of development (http://priorthoughts.blogspot.com/). This is an extended version of a response I wrote to him.
Pat and the girls and I have talked about this phenomenon: the way a place is special and because it is special becomes more popular and that very popularity ruins it. It seems awful and yet unavoidable.
- We’d list Luang Prabang in Laos, a place that seemed to defy time when we were there just two years ago and yet now I read travel articles about it and they mention new resorts and we imagine the Luang Prabang we experienced is already disappearing.
- We went to Cozumel almost 30 years ago when it was a sleepy Mexican beach spot. Not it sounds like Cancun – -that is, dreadful.
- Pat and I spent every New Years Eve in Quebec City when we were just married and it was a family holiday there and you could stroll into any restaurant and get a table without a reservation. We went back a few years ago and it had become a crowded noisy carnival.
Ironically, there were probably people in those places when we loved them that were pining for an earlier incarnation we never knew. Were there people in Nassau in 1962 who bemoaned the newcomers and how they had ruined the place? I think maybe.
It’s why when we discover a place we almost hate to share the details. Port Clyde, Maine is one such place – frozen in time and tranquility. Prince Edward Island is largely untouched I think. Neither is luxurious, but both special and charming and not yet ruined.
More wealth in the world, more people on the globe, and more cheap travel (and travel reporting) makes it hard to keep places special. Travel reporting is full of “undiscovered gems” that are then rendered “discovered” by virtue of the report itself.
There are variations on this dynamic. For example:
- We travelled all over the Soviet Union in the early 80s and that version of those places is almost certainly gone forever (and mostly for the good, but not entirely – there was a lot to like about it then oddly).
- I bet people feel that way about Cuba.
- We certainly feel like we saw Syria when it was undiscovered and largely unvisited and obviously not in ruins and the bloodbath it is today. Whatever comes next will not look like the Syria of just two years ago.
- Our first trip to China in 2002 feels like light years ago compared to the China of today.
Obviously, getting out from under despots and escaping poverty are unquestionably good things. However, sometimes societies trade political tyranny for the tyranny of consumerism and materialism without fully recognizing the price and what’s being lost in the bargain.
Money changes things. It’s true for people. It’s true for organizations. It’s also true for places and the cultures that are situated there. What a complicated calculus: a place like Port Clyde could use more money to create jobs in a poor state, improve schools and services, and improve the lives of the year-around locals. The development that would drive those dollars would ruin Port Clyde for those who love it as it is, almost always wealthier outsiders and newcomers, but sometimes enlightened locals who can resist the allure of economic development or at least see its hidden costs. I’m not sure any society has managed its own transition well. I can’t think of a place that somehow reclaimed its soul after it was “discovered.”
The two things that seem to fend off the “it was once special” dynamic are difficulty of access and climate. PEI remains charming because it is still hard to get to (a long drive or expensive flights with no non-stops) and it’s peak season is about…oh, three weeks long. Also, some of our very best trips have been in offseason, when the hordes have left and the locals reclaim the place. When traces of its former charm can again rise to the surface.
Maybe one needs to treat any and every visit to a place with a Buddhist acceptance of change and temporal appreciation of the moment. As we experience it, it was never thus before and never will be as is again.