Robert De Niro Is a Tourist and You Ruined Burning Man
Noticing our odd habits of perspective.
Down in the Caribbean, in the former British West Indies, there lies a tiny, pristine island called Barbuda (pronounced Bar-byew’duh). It is one-half of the independent two-island country of Antigua and Barbuda, though it’s one-half in name only; it is far smaller than the main island of Antigua (that one’s pronounced An-tee-guh), and it’s far less developed. In fact a prominent portion of Barbuda is a natural reserve and bird refuge, and many Antiguans use the word “untouched” to describe it.
Barbuda is also a bit harder to get to. Antigua now has a first-class airport that accepts direct flights from New York and London, making it a sort of gateway to the rest of the islands dotting the region. But to get to Barbuda, you can either catch the ferry, which departs some mornings at about 9 (hey, it’s the islands), and only once per day when it does run, or charter a private boat or perhaps a flight on a little eight-seat propeller plane.
Despite what the locals say, Barbuda isn’t precisely “untouched.” (Is any place really?) There are three hotels, plus some other smaller beach cabin rental places dotted around its coast.
But soon there will be a fourth hotel. The inimitable Robert De Niro seems to have taken a liking to this relatively unspoiled slice of paradise, and has solidified a deal to develop a five-star resort in Barbuda. Michael Bloomberg thought enough of the plans to become an investing partner in the development, after touring the country and liking what he saw.
In conversations about the development with the locals and with visitors, the same question would inevitably arise: Will adding this resort property, particularly with the backing and cachet of such big-name players, spoil Barbuda — one of the last unspoiled spots in the Caribbean?
The question calls to mind a quote that pops up on the internet from time to time: “You are not stuck in traffic. You are traffic.”
The idea gets to the heart of the solipsistic bias prevalent in all humans. When we personally visit a place, we imagine that we are experiencing it the right way; we become part of a place’s magic — we add to its rich tapestry and leave each destination just as we found it, but return with a richer view of humanity as a whole and of that locale in particular. We become more worldly, better humans, and the places we visit retain their special qualities.
But then, if word gets out about a place and it becomes more popular for other travelers (especially people from the same place as us), something changes. The supposedly hermetically sealed location suddenly becomes threatened by ruination…by globalization…by (gasp)…tourists.
This is, of course, unmitigated B.S. That place you love that’s getting “ruined” by tourists? Someone else could have said the same thing about you when you were there. We’re all tourists. Robert De Niro is a tourist. No one is above it. And just like with traffic, we’re all in someone else’s way.
It’s like that new restaurant you stumbled upon that’s now forever too crowded.
And it’s like that band you discovered when you were 14 or whatever. They were new and exciting. They grabbed a hold of your brain and expressed a view of the world you always felt but that had never been articulated for you before. And nobody else knew who they were!
Then they released that new song and people started asking if you’d heard of this “new” band. And despite your love for them, which should logically entail a desire to see them succeed as artists and continue to make their music, happiness was decidedly not the first emotion triggered by their growing success. Perhaps you felt a little bit protective of them, as if their music was yours alone.
Nobody’s music is ours alone (unless you make it yourself and keep it to yourself I guess). No road or Waze shortcut is ours alone. No place is ours alone, except the inside of our own heads, which also happens to be where so much trouble originates, thanks to the staggering list of cognitive biases that we are all subject to.
So if I ever go to Burning Man, I’ll try not to complain the year after that it all went to hell because of all the Silicon Valley “tech bros” (or whoever the enemy of the day might be) — that it was so much better when I had gone, which was coincidentally right before it got ruined. Because nobody “ruined” Burning Man, or that exotic locale you once visited, or that secret restaurant (the exception might be SXSW...). All of these things just changed. Or maybe we did.
So if I ever penetrate the wilds of Alaska, I won’t lament the stranger’s footprints I stumble upon in the snow.
And if I ever run into Robert De Niro . . . well, I won’t do anything because I’m sure he gets pestered by plebes quite enough. But inside my distorted human brain, I’ll also wish him good luck in his endeavors, and good fortune to the wonderful people of Barbuda and their lucky guests.
Because everybody’s a tourist.
Posted on May 20, 2016