Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Gringo Trails

Pegi Vail's documentary, Gringo Trails, gets to the heart of what I have felt whenever I've traveled to heavily-touristed parts of the world, remote outposts with nary a soul in sight, and everywhere in between. Enjoying myself more in some places than in others, the feeling that I was a guest-bordering on-intruder often nagged at me. Is this place better for my having been here? Am I better or having been here? Why did I come here? In some places, it is easier to be a part of the tableau without standing out too much, but in others, this is simply not possible. So as you are watching and observing your surroundings, others are watching you. What is it we seek when we set out to travel? What do I seek and why?

Just avoiding the snowstorm that hit the East Coast last week, I visited New York City on a day trip during a longer week with family in Connecticut. My last visit to the Big Apple was in July 2013; before that, I lived in the city from 2007-2010. It is no surprise that every time we return to a place, it has changed and so have we. I found expected changes like more cranes, new venues, but this time I had a greater appreciation for the excitement of the city that I didn't always feel when I lived there. I'm not sure why.

On this trip, my goals were to spend time with several friends (success), see the new Whitney (bust), visit Dia:Chelsea (also bust), and to walk the newer parts of the High Line (success). I wanted to see the Frank Stella black paintings at the Whitney, but the Whitney is closed on Tuesdays. I also wanted to see Robert Ryman's white paintings at Dia:Chelsea, but that venue is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays during the winter months. No black paintings, no white paintings. This girl couldn't win!

I walked north of where I'd last been on the High Line (in 2010 and just where Spencer Finch's The River that Flows Both Ways is located). It was bitterly cold, but sunny, and as I made my way from 29th Street south, I blew this way and that once I was up on the trestle amid the withered prairie grasses. A handful of intrepid idiots like me (mostly tourists, judging by their clutched guidebooks), passed under The Standard, and finally descended in front of the closed Whitney.

In Chelsea, I felt good passing by many vintage buildings housing furriers, upholstery and fabric sellers. I hope they remain in business. I met a good friend who gave me a tour of Alpha Workshops and then we had fortifying "penicillin soup" and a delicious lunch - which temporarily transported me back to Athens - at Uncle Nick's. Later, I stopped by Chelsea Market, expanded considerably in the last five years. It also appeared to be populated by tourists taking pictures of themselves and each other and the shops inside. It was like a suburban mall, but I guess cooler. Oh yes, there were guidebooks there, too.

Another friend and I stopped in to the New York Public Library to see the Women in Printmaking Exhibition, a well-curated show in an intimate setting.

New York City ranks among the most crowded gringo trails in the world, but for the most part, our footsteps there are welcomed - and more sustained - by commercial, cultural, and political interests. Not so for so many other places in the world, though they also welcome tourists and ostensibly have the infrastructure to cope with them in the short-term. But they may lack long-term solutions to the problem of what to do when the place has been traveled to death. How often do the benefits of tourism to a given country outweigh the detriments? And on a lesser, but equally important, note: to what extent do travel writers (myself included) contribute to the detriments?