Monday, September 17, 2012

La Caminata

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with a pseudo experience.

Hey, I enjoyed sitting in the one-room Sturbridge Village school house pretending it was 1820 and I was a post-colonial girl book-learning the 3 R’s from a school marm. That was until I thought about it for a moment, and realized that, if I had been a schoolgirl in 1820, what I would really have been experiencing was:

  • An unheated classroom full of smelly kids
  • Kids who’d been sewed into their long underwear in October, and wouldn’t be taking it off until May
  • Kids who had impetigo and head lice
  • Virtually no books
  • Other than a few that were boring and preachy
  • Teachers prone to physical violence*
  • No pasteurized milk at recess
  • A fetid outhouse when I had to go (no doubt full of rats)
  • Lard sandwiches and wizened, wormy apples for lunch
  • A barn-load of chores waiting for me when I got home, chores that generally had something to do with manure
  • That is, if I didn’t die of diphtheria or typhoid fever on the long walk home

So, in fact, sitting in that schoolhouse on a balmy summer’s day, listening to some historical recreator pretend to be teaching something while a bunch of tourists looked at their watches while pretending to be learning something, did not quite give me the echt schoolgirl of 1820 experience. It just let me soak up a tiny bit of the look and feel.

Nothing wrong with that, of course.

But what to make of La Caminata Nocturna, a theme park of sorts in El Alberto, Mexico, that provides:

…a simulated experience that allows tourists to act as migrants attempting to cross the border. During the four-hour Saturday night trek, participants must evade immigration officials and border patrol agents, while trying not to trip and fall in the dark wilderness. (Source: Huff Po.)

La Caminata (Spanish for hike) goes more than a few steps beyond parking your carcass on a splintery bench at Sturbridge Village.

The 7 1/2-mile hike starts with border patrol agents in pickup trucks with sirens and flashing lights in hot pursuit of the "immigrants." Caminata participants must climb under fences, run through the brush, dodge low-hanging tree limbs and, most importantly, hit the ground if they see a flashlight.

When I first read about this, I was prepared to completely scorn it. (Seriously, my lip had already begun to curl.)

But, having looked at the film clip, I’m actually leaning towards the idea that we should maybe have more of these ersatz experiences on offer.

Forget Rock and Roll, or Baseball, Fantasy Camp.

Maybe provide people with the opportunity to spend the night in a homeless shelter, and see how many of them come away claiming that people who are homeless want to live that way. How about paying for an excursion that has you pretend that your next doctor’s appointment is in an under-staffed clinic in a poor area of town. (And you think that last wait you suffered through was terrible, what with nothing to occupy you other than thumbing through a bunch of dog-eared, 9-month old Golf Magazines.)  Fake towns where you can spend a week or two pretending to live on a minimum wage job.  (but with lodging at least as clean and comfy as the average Motel 6.)

Of course, in all these circumstances, you’d have the psychological advantage of knowing you had an out, that the experience wasn’t really real.

And, of course, people have done all of the above. A member of the Board of St. Francis House (a Boston center that provides day services to the poor and homeless) spent a couple of days and nights living on the sleeps to see what our guest go through. Barbara Ehrenreich, a few years back, did serious time in dead-end jobs (while understandably keeping her health insurance going), and brilliantly chronicled the experience in Nicked and Dimed.

They just haven’t paid to do it in a theme park.

But back to La Caminata,  which I actually like for a few reasons.

First, I must admit, that in the film trailer, the patrons weren’t a bunch of middle-class American tourists. (It truly helped that there were no overweight middle aged couple in matching windbreakers, white sneakers, and fanny packs.) They were a bunch of middle-class Mexican tourists. Which, somehow, worked better for me.

And, not that American tourists wouldn’t – the average tourist of any stripe isn’t going to casually sign up for a forced nocturnal run through rugged terrain – but the tourists in the clip, while yelping about the cactus needles, seem to really understand that what they’re enduring ain’t so bad:

"Keeping in mind that [immigrants] experience this a thousand times worse, because they have to worry for their lives," another explains, "then this is easy."

But the very best thing about La Caminata is that it employs a lot of the El Alberto locals and, since 2004, has kept many of them from having to run the immigration gauntlet looking for a way to make a living.  Over the last few years, the population – which had precipitously declined – started to perk up again. And El Alberto is no longer the ghost town it once was.

Some people regard La Caminata as a “training camp” for prospective illegals. But a tour guide believes it has the opposite impact and, in fact, discourages night-crossings by showing just how unpleasant and dangerous they are.

"Some people think we are training people," he said. "If we were training them, we'd make it much harder!"

Which probably would weed out some of the tourists willing to pop for the $18 to run the course.

Anyway, there probably won’t be anything comparable springing up in the States. We’re mostly content sitting on our couches, watching how “others” buy their wedding gowns, decorate their homes, and pawn their possessions. And congratulating ourselves that we’re smarter than Honey Boo-Boo.



*As distinguished from the mental-torture regime I went to school under

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