Recently, Jessica Carey-Webb wrote about “Favela Chic,” a Paris nightclub built on a favela theme which, as she puts it, “exploits the colors, sounds and sites of Rio for the client who can spend a mere 9 euros on a caipirinha.” Jessica aptly diagnoses the problems that come from repackaging poverty as romantic or picturesque, and then selling the cleaned-up images of someone else’s life for profit.
Her post (along with this one from Sam Ginsburg) reminded me of this article, from Garden & Gun Magazine, which describes a Clarksdale, Mississippi hotel that consists of a series of restored sharecropper’s shacks marketed towards “blues tourists” who want to experience the conditions that nurtured John Lee Hooker and Sam Cooke. The owners bought a couple of the shacks just to have a space in which to drink beer and hang out. But in one owner’s words, “Soon enough, here come the European travelers wondering if they could ‘let’ them.”
The owners obliged. Now, according to Garden & Gun, “the shacks have unmatching linens and bubble wrap stuffed between the heating unit and the window.”
Of course, this type of “poverty tourism” can, hopefully, kindle a sort of empathy, and Garden & Gun latches onto this possibility:
When night comes, so does the chill. You might think it would be unsettling to sleep in an abandoned house, and yet, returning from a night in Clarksdale to turn the key of your shack is strangely comforting. Maybe you realize these homes have known a lot more nights than you have.
And the owners of the B&B seem to take their role as cultural mediators seriously:
But there is something solemn as they reflect. They see themselves as having stumbled into roles as caretakers of history, though not the kind of history you cull from textbooks and museum placards and recycle at dinner parties. For to enter and sleep between the walls where a farmer named Robert Clay raised seven sons is a history lesson that hushes you.
Still, as Jessica notes, that’s almost exactly what the proprietors of Favela Chic claim. “All of our work is about showing that the favela is valuable, that the dignity we preach does indeed exist,” one owner says in Bianca Freire-Medeiros’ book Touring Poverty. That claim is laughable when you’re talking about an overpriced theme bar. But while the “Shack Up Inn” may be a more respectful enterprise, it seems to me that there’s still something off about relatively privileged visitors paying to sleep on mismatched sheets in a drafty shotgun shack.
Some good things have come from poverty tourism, though. In his remembrance of Gabriel García Márquez, John Lyons recounts meeting the Colombian author, and telling him of visiting Gabo’s hometown, Aracataca, and there seeing (picturesque, poor) women washing clothes in the river. Gabo responds by telling Lyons about his own experience as a poverty tourist:
“I did something similar with Faulkner,” he said. And he told a story about traveling all over Mississippi with his wife looking for what had inspired the creator of Yoknapatawpha County, the literary model for García Márquez’s Macondo.
In fact, as Mario Vargas Llosa noted in his 1971 study of García Márquez’s work, Historia de un deicidio, it was precisely Mississippi’s misery that drew Gabo to the Deep South. As he traveled by bus through the region, Vargas Llosa tells us, Gabo was looking for “un mundo anacrónico y claustral, como el de su propia región, sobre el que gravitan obsesivamente las proezas y los estragos de una guerra civil, habitado por los derrotados… dominado por el fanatismo religioso, por la violencia física y por la corrupción moral, social y política.” García Márquez was looking for what inspired William Faulkner, not Willie Dixon, but the idea is the same: he traveled to Mississippi to see poverty and ruin, and it fed the creation of his own version of home.
If the Shack Up Inn had been around then, would Gabo have checked in? The question seems absurd. Still, when you picture him as Vargas Llosa does, Greyhound-ing around Mississippi “con los libros de Faulkner bajo el brazo,” it’s hard not to see him as a precursor to those blues tourists clamoring to sleep in sharecroppers’ shacks.
*photo credit roadfood.com