Posts Tagged With: Responsible Tourism

Adventures with Vouchers: You will be the falcon and I will be…

Birds!

Birds!


I don’t have any great affinity for birds. When the voucher popped up for a Birds of Prey Experience at the English School of Falconry, I basically thought: why not? The English School of Falconry sounds like one of the most English things you can possibly do. Bonus: it was in a town called Biggleswade, and oh wow did I want an excuse to say the word “Biggleswade” as many times as possible. I had visions of Harry Potter and Hogwarts and Hedwig. I want a self-sacrificing owl, you know? Plus, I always loved that tagline from the silly SNL sketch starring a falcon named Donald.
Barn owl

Barn owl


Now that I think about it, I don’t think we even hung out with any falcons.
Eagle

Eagle


My friend from Manchester drove down with her husband and met me at the Biggleswade train station (the town is so small and off the beaten track it is only open in the morning, shut and locked by 3pm). Driving through Biggleswade was sadly unimpressive. Arriving at the GPS-directed address, we drove through a strange world of hangars and muddy fields before arriving at a none-too-well marked lawn parking area and a further muddy walk to the school’s office. My friend’s husband just wanted to observe, having come as chauffeur and photographer for the day, but they made him pay GBP15 for the privilege. He’s a good sport, so he ponied up the cash and we raced to meet our group, having arrived a squinch late.
No, I'm not scared. (Yes, I am.)

No, I’m not scared. (Yes, I am.)


So then we held some birds. They were big and heavy and pretty. They were species of eagles, I believe, but I wasn’t paying that much attention. They were just big and heavy and pretty. Then we went to a little fenced in area where we got to catch some kites (maybe?) and owls, little ones. By catch I mean we held out our gloved arm, and one of the trainers called the birds (each bird has a name, like Trevor) and they came and landed on us, knowing they would get some food for obeying. Some birds were less obedient than others, and at one point I had two little owls on my arm. Which was pretty cool.
Two for the price of one

Two for the price of one


We moved to a bigger field for some hawk catching. At this point I got a close-up look at what they were feeding the bigger birds: torn up pieces of tiny, fluffy chicks, their yellow down smeared with blood. I didn’t want to think about that too much.
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We watched a flying show, in which our tour guide, a cheerful and well-versed young Englishman who seriously looked like he was 12 years old, gave a running commentary on the different types of birds he showed off – egrets and pelicans as well as more owls and eagles. Maybe a falcon.
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We went into a caged in area where we go to hold, bare-handed, little five week old owls. Four of them perched sleepily on a diagonal wooden rod, and it was awfully rude of us to disturb them. But they were very cute, sitting on my friend’s shoulder and nibbling her hair and ear, burrowing into the furry hood of her sweatshirt (as usual in this glorious land, it was late April but cold, cloudy, and windy.)
It tickle-hurts.

It tickle-hurts.


We were then free to wander about looking at the caged birds, most of whom were lazing about for their midday siesta. Birds are tremendously pretty. Who knew?
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I actually had a lot of fun – it was great to see my friends for a couple of hours, and I fought off my terror at allowing birds to fly at my body (I have walked through New York City on more than one occasion and felt an imminent pigeon attack strategizing around me.)
Blue eagles are awesome

Blue eagles are awesome


I got some fun photos, which is, unfortunately the point of the experience. Despite our well-educated guide, who could spit out facts at the rate of four a minute, I didn’t get a sense of why the English School of Falconry exists. Why do they train birds? What purpose do the birds serve? A glance at their website listed “conservation” as one of their goals, but conservation from what? I imagine if I had read the little placards near each bird station I would have a better understanding of which birds are endangered, and how the centre helps breed and repopulate them.

But do they ever free them back into the wild? Could they even survive? These birds are so dependent on humans for treats, why would they even want to leave? I know I wouldn’t. Is that good, or bad? Ecotourism in a paradox. I’m just not sure if I agree with it. Near the beginning of the day, as we waited to hold some of the bigger eagles, we watched a bunch of enormous birds nestling in their feathers. Occasionally one of them would start to flap its wings and launch itself off the perch where it rested. Inevitably, they landed two feet away, their feet tied with rope to that same perch. There was something sad about watching birds try to take flight and failing. It was a terrible living metaphor.
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Still, I had a good day. Does that make me a bad person? I pushed the metaphors out of my mind and just enjoyed the beauty of the birdies. I am uneasy with myself for this unthinking submission to a photo op. The twenty or so cheery English who were part of our group didn’t seem to be overthinking the moment, oohing and aaahing as the birds sailed around us. It’s just hard to know if the centre does more good than harm.

Baby!

Baby!


But how else was I going to pretend I was Harry Potter for a few hours?

What do you think? Is this kind of “interactive” nature experience good or bad for, you know, actual nature?

Scorecard: Vouchers – 1 Me – 1

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Categories: London, Travel Musings | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Souvenirs

I used to collect shot glasses when I traveled. I think it started with my first Hard Rock Café experience in high school, but it expanded beyond generic restaurant chains. Now I probably have…I’d like to know how many I have. I have over 20 from Hard Rocks alone (I know, don’t judge) so I wouldn’t be surprised if I have 75. All that cheap glass, made in China, has sat wrapped up in a box for a decade. I always meant to display them – I even had two racks – but I was never quite that organized in my decorating.  Now they live in my storage unit. If I ever get around to living in my own place in America again, they will get…I don’t know, sold on eBay? Would anyone want a collection of someone else’s travel memories? I replaced shot glasses with magnets, but they are fun and cheap and easy to display. You can’t totally break your addiction to tacky kitsch I’m sorry to say.

These days I am more discerning about what makes an appropriate souvenir, a true and revealing, unique memento of a place. I try to avoid things that are mass-produced in China (magnets notwithstanding). I tend to buy art books (and postcards, which are not cheap anymore, a euro each at most European museums) of collections I like. But I also try to get something locally made that really evokes a culture. My parents often come back from trips with small prints bought from street artists. Since this fits my art geek persona, I dig it. Some sort of rendering of a locale, created by someone who lives and works there – what could be a better way to remember a place?

They aren’t so easy to come by.

I wanted a hand-carved Buddha in Thailand. I didn’t see them anywhere – I ended up with a gold-plated tacky thing that exactly matched all the Buddha statuary I saw there. I purchased it at a temple gift shop, theoretically blessed by a Buddhist monk. Okay. I wanted to get a wall hanging of some sort in South Africa, but didn’t see any real artists creating anywhere we went. There were some nice prints of the townships that were unique and interesting…but I don’t know, that doesn’t seem the sort of thing a white person should have hanging on her wall. I got this instead:

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The man I bought it from said it was hand-carved, and explained the polishing process. I don’t know if it’s true. On the other hand, my local guide-friend explained Africa doesn’t have any infrastructure for mass-production, even though I saw this pensive guy in a lot of places alongside roads. I think there are popular motifs and these Zimbabwean (wait, what?) men hand-make and sell them. I hope so anyway…

On the other hand, when you look at that, do you think: South Africa? Probably not. I love the colors and smoothness, the minimalist play on Rodin’s “Thinker.” Of course, this means I bought a souvenir that is an imitation of a Western European masterpiece.

Oops. Not doing so well with my local quintessential souvenir, am I?

Still, I find it thought-provoking and beautiful, and when I look at it I think of my two weeks on the bottom of the world. At least it’s not cheesy, like a giraffe (because I didn’t see any giraffes there and it would be all LIES!)

I went to Amsterdam in October and was once again determined to buy art. I love that city, its quaint and lovely architecture. I was hoping to get a local artistic rendering of the city itself.

This is what I ended up with:

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So, yeah.  Doesn’t look much like Amsterdam, huh? I didn’t have time to check out every corner of the city for local art markets, so my options were limited. I stumbled into one small patch of artists’ tents, and none of the artists had painted their hometown. I bought a few postcards from a man who did prints of his Amsterdam etchings, but they were black and white, not really what I wanted.  This artist (Rebecca) did abstract impressionistic landscapes with gloppy paint, like a much latter day Van Gogh. This is her home, and her vision. Why should I dictate what she chooses to paint to suit my touristy needs?

But no one’s going to know I bought that in Amsterdam.

So despite my good intentions, I guess I’m not buying hand-crafted, ideal souvenirs that capture the spirit and identity of a place. Nothing show-offy that immediately tells people where I’ve been. I’ll keep trying. I guess it’s good that I’m conscious of how my purchasing power effects the places I visit. I’m putting my money toward those who create locally. I think.

Should you worry about supporting local artists and artisans? What are your favorite souvenirs? Talk to me, dear reader.

Categories: Travel Musings | Tags: , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

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