The Banana Pancake Trail

I’ve seen a lot of new discussion recently of comfort foods on the tourist trail. I thought I would excavate comments on this from my “Rumour of Calcutta” book. Hence the following reminiscence:

From Chapter One: “The confusion which reigns in this kind of tourism derives from a predicament where the consumption of its product – insofar as the product of tourism is more than snapshots and souvenirs – entails no obvious or easily accumulatable tangible possession. ‘Good works’, experience, and cultural capital is less easy to reinvest. However, all the productions of these travellers – comments, letters, photos, and so on – amount to an overwhelming ethnographic archive that would repay investigation as the script of the ongoing dynamics of capitalist appropriations and ongoing constructions of cultural difference. More than this, low-budget back-packer tourism plays a significant role in the world order of the capitalist cultural economy, and not only through the enormity of representations it helps produce. The ability to move to conveniently inexpensive market and service centres through the facility of international travel yields a relatively high buying power with attendant ideological, habitual and attitudinal consequences – back-packers who can live like Rajas in Indian towns at low financial cost. An expanding economy revolves around middle-class youth travellers, and engraves the principles of consumption upon even the most ethereal aspects of their lives. The hypocrisy with which some travellers are condemned for renouncing materialism while looking for the cheapest guest house room or dorm for their ashram stay is relevant here. It would be an error to think that the global low-budget ‘banana-pancake trail’(4) is not an important component of the ideology as well as the economy of touristic consumption.”

FN: 4 “I have used this term to refer to the duplication throughout Asia of budget guest-houses serving touristic ‘comfort foods’ which are little different to the fare available in such places world-wide. Peter Phipps takes up this issue in a thoughtful study of Australian budget travellers (Phipps 1990:16). A number of the ideas I raise in this work were originally worked out at the Gnocchi Club, and I am indebted to Nick Leneghan, Chris Francis and Peter Phipps.”

From Chapter Two: “Much remains to be understood about the ways we justify our actions to ourselves, and travellers are no different than other communities in this. The conventions of the banana-pancake-trail provide confusion minimising familiarities, as does the sense of closed community developed in the Modern [Lodge Guest House]. Volunteers have their roles already defined to an extent, there is little demand upon them to invent their own cultural spaces and responses to what they find as unfamiliar.
“The worst thing about travellers in India is listening to them moan about what a bad time they’re having – prats” (Catherine)”

From Chapter Four: “While travellers who stop ‘long-term’ in Calcutta disconnect from the conventional circuits of tourism to a degree, the non-glossy aspects of Calcutta can be ‘marketed’ as well. When the ‘everyday’ becomes more interesting than the monumental, difficulties and incongruities become routines of pleasure. Large hotels and swimming pools are ignored in favour of the rough romance of the banana-pancake trail and cheap ‘local’ colour. New conventions emerge to cater for market differentiations, so that recently one large travel publisher released a City Guide to capitalise on a very suburban experience of the city. The map promoted an ‘informed’ experience of Calcutta, including sites of various charity organisations selling handicrafts, emporiums, missions, and cultural markers for a kind of ‘alternative’ or ‘intelligent tourism’ that doesn’t seem too far removed from any other mode of consumerism. The danger here is that everything can be fitted into the mould of consumption (in this case through a kind of alternative policing of space).”

From Chapter Seven: “of course it is not enough just to raise questions about the moral propriety of first world youth taking holidays amongst the people of the third world; it is not enough to encourage discussion of such contradictions in cafes along the banana-pancake trail (as twelve year olds fetch tea from 7am till midnight)”

There is much more to say about the comforts of home, about the possibility that backpackers have in the third world of living the lives they can only read about in glossy celebrity lifestyle mags at home, about the psychic economy, and material economy, and of security in the ‘guest house’… much more… check the signage in the photo of the glorious Hotel Modern Lodge: ‘ideal place for foreign tourist’. Says it all really – and so I am off to Japan on wednesday – Tokyo ikimasho!.

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