The pleasures and pitfalls of travel
Review of Indians on Vacation by Thomas King.
Closed borders and travel bans have brought travel and tourism to a halt over the last year. Thomas King’s latest novel offers the reader a vicarious vacation told through the travels of Bird and Mimi, a middle-class Indigenous couple from Guelph, Ontario.
They are in Prague on vacation. This trip is one many they undertake to follow the trail of postcards sent by Mimi’s uncle Leroy who disappeared nearly a 100 years before during a European tour. The novel is written in short sections, alternating between the present and the past, signalling the present by a variation of the phrase “so, we’re in Prague.”
You might see yourself in Mimi, the trip planner with an itinerary and guidebook in hand. Or maybe you’re more like Bird, preferring to observe people from a seat at a sidewalk cafe or seeking downtime in front of the hotel TV, even if you don’t understand the language.
Along for the trip are Bird’s demons of despair, depression, self-loathing, pessimism and a chip on his shoulder. He would like to pretend they don’t exist, but Mimi has given them all names and likes to bring them out in the open and get Bird to talk about his “problems.” The demons make us think about the baggage we all carry.
If you’ve been to Prague or any of the other places recounted, you’ll recognize the popular tourist attractions that Mimi and Bird visit. Bird describes the absurdity of tourists flocking to see the non-functioning Prague Astronomical Clock. By contrast, Bird and Mimi’s side trip to Budapest confronts them with the ugly realities of the refugees that fill the Budapest train station and sends them right back to Prague, filled with guilt and helplessness.
Bird reflects on his life and purpose – what he accomplished as a photojournalist. He was known as the “Indigenous expert” who covered all the major contemporary Indigenous events. For over 40 years, he took pictures and wrote stories but quit in despair that nothing had changed. He is pushed by Mimi to believe in something, even if at the end “there are no happy endings.”
Indians on Vacation is an entertaining read with laugh aloud moments; it has an honest and rich dialogue. Sly jabs challenge stereotypes. Even the title is somewhat subversive, says King, in that it pokes holes in the popular imagination that Indigenous people don’t go on vacation. The story gains depth when it reveals Bird and Mimi’s personal history and comments on the inequalities experienced by Indigenous people.
Travel was one of the topics discussed with King in a virtual interview with Adrian Harewood at the 2020 Ottawa International Authors Festival. King admitted that he’s not that keen on travel, but his partner is, so he’s along for the ride. He questioned whether travel really does broaden one’s experience and make one more tolerant of others. People are pretty much the same anywhere, said King, and increased travel hasn’t seemed to change people’s tolerance for differences. One expects to see something new on vacation, but it’s not often that we are surprised or delighted as tourists are mainly led to centres that recreate the local culture. Getting off the map for authentic experiences is difficult and often unsafe.
This novel left me reflecting on our own travel and if it has helped us to see the world from a different point of view. I look back on the experiences that surprised and delighted us, mostly centering around people we’ve met that have enriched our understanding of the culture, history and politics of the region. That in turn keeps us interested and aware of events that occur in those places and, hopefully, does help break down our own walls.
The pandemic is an opportunity to rethink tourism and our travel decisions, particularly the opportunity to transition to a low-carbon economy. At the same time, we cannot ignore the job losses and global economic impact of that transition and its direct effect on so many lives and countries. There are no easy answers, but perhaps we can begin by engaging in conversations about responsible and sustainable travel.