Keeping It Real

As the number of untrampled corners of the globe dwindles, the hunt for the “original” experience is reaching fever pitch. Leslie Woodhead ponders the explorer’s dilemma.

“They want a tribal encounter,” the tour guide tells me. We’re watching a group of excited middle-aged Belgians who have just spilled out of mud-spattered Toyota Land Cruisers, brandishing video cameras as they advance on the natives. It’s an extraordinary and unsettling spectacle.

A scatter of Mursi—cattle-herding nomads who make their tough lives in Ethiopia’s Lower Omo Valley—offer themselves to the visitors and their cameras. The adventure-tourist trail has only recently reached this remote area, where some of the earliest evidence of humankind was excavated by Richard Leakey in the seventies. But the Mursi are quickly learning how to play the game. The nearly naked men and women, tall and elegant, blue-black in the shade of a leafy tree, are traditionally unembellished. Today, however, decked out for the guests, they are fantastically daubed with white and orange clay and adorned with rhino teeth, cowbells, animal skins. Most of the cameras focus on the women, who display big clay plates in their stretched lower lips. As the tourists record the scene to show their friends back home, they are also bargaining enthusiastically to buy an assortment of jugs and bowls and baskets and, of course, the lip plates. For the Mursi, these plates—which require the slicing of a woman’s lower lip and the removal of her bottom teeth at puberty—are the defining symbol of their identity. Now they are souvenirs as well.

The Belgians look happy with their “tribal encounter,” so the guide, from Discovery Expeditions of Antwerp, is happy, too. “They are very authentic,” he tells his charges. Ten minutes later the visitors are gone, leaving only a swirl of dust.

Over the past 30 years, I have been spending time with the Mursi, creating television documentaries about their lives. I’ve learned enough about them to know just how far from authentic that episode was. In the hour before the Belgian group arrived, I had seen how the women dressed up to look as exotic as possible in hopes of attracting the tourists and their money. Decorating themselves and their children, festooning their bodies with cattle ornaments, they looked like no Mursi I had ever seen before.

As travelers with a taste for the intrepid grow jaded with last year’s exotic destinations—Bhutan, Borneo, Antarctica—the yearning to boldly go in search of that new, wilder frontier becomes irresistible. The current appetite for adventure calls to mind those 16th-century conquistadores in South America and their hunger for plunder. As a glorious Randy Newman song puts it, “They’d conquered what was behind them and now they wanted more.” These lyrics also advise the unfortunate Indians fleeing from the European adventurers to “hide your wives and daughters, hide the groceries, too.”

Adventure tourism is driven partly by a taste for acquiring bragging rights over some undiscovered dot on the map. But it also has to do with a feeling that the world of the 21st century is just too…worldly. So many of those edgy places have become domesticated, and even Mount Everest Base Camp resembles a suburban garbage dump. As social commentator Ross Rudesch Harley said, “Travel beyond the world of commodities has itself become a commodity.” We want to rediscover the thrilling freshness of Lewis and Clark’s first foray into the unknown spaces of America 200 years ago. In the age of Google Earth, that’s an elusive business. Plenty of people, though, are keen to offer us a safe adventure—with a return ticket.

How about a no-frills holiday in Chechnya? The prime minister of the war-ravaged republic is keen to develop a tourist trade. After trudging through the ruins of the capital of Grozny, visitors have to take refuge in a military base at night. But there are plans for a $5.8 million aqua park, and Chechnya’s 700 separatist gunmen would undoubtedly add that frisson of adventure to your trip. Or you might try a company in West Papua called First Contact. Kelly Woolford, a former tennis coach from Missouri, is offering a chance to be among the first people to make contact with a tribe that has never met anyone from the outside world. The area where Woolford claims the “lost” tribe survives can only be reached after crossing raging torrents and scaling dizzying gorges well supplied with snakes and spiders. The real buzz, however, is the suggestion that the region is still a refuge for cannibals. Disappointingly, an individual who recently signed on with First Contact reported that when he finally met up with a few of the tribesmen, they were wearing plastic beads.

And that’s the problem, of course. The ultimate frustration of adventure tourism is that someone has always been there before you. However daring your quest, it seems, you’re destined to repeat the dismal experience of the English explorer Captain Robert Falcon Scott, who in 1912 trekked hundreds of miles across Antarctica to be first to the South Pole, only to realize that someone else had gotten there weeks before. Instead of a pristine nothingness, Scott found a Norwegian flag to welcome him, along with a pair of reindeer mittens and a letter to be delivered to the King of Norway. (Nowadays such once-epic voyages are far more routine—just after Christmas last year, a 33-year-old British woman journeyed alone to the South Pole; she said she sustained herself by listening to Harry Potter on her iPod.)

My work as an itinerant filmmaker has taken me to some of the earth’s more remote places: the scorched deserts of Niger, where men wear makeup as garish as that of any glam rocker and compete in male beauty contests; a tiny artificial island in the South Pacific called Foueda, where the local fishermen grind seashells into currency and live in terror of fearsome sea spirits. Inevitably, the adventure tourists have been ahead of me. Created more than 600 years ago as a haven from enemies, Foueda is no bigger than a few tennis courts, a mass of coral rock piled onto the bed of a ravishing lagoon. But even that now has its own tourist attraction. I watched as the islanders built a house of culture, a palm-roof hut to hold their spiritual relics. Carved birds, food bowls, bamboo flutes, and drums were once so sacred that people risked their lives just by touching them. But the natives were sure that the place would be a hot spot for anyone who made it to their lagoon.

When I first went to the Lower Omo Valley in 1974, I discovered another way of living. The Mursi had never heard of “Africa” or “Ethiopia,” and the only white man most had ever met was anthropologist David Turton. My guide, interpreter, and savior in Mursi country, Turton had lived with the warrior Mursi since 1969, learning their language one word at a time and gaining their trust. Amused by his sun-flayed face, they called him Red Boy.

Most of my experiences on that first expedition were unwelcome and uncomfortable. The Mursi were at war with a neighboring tribe, and we had to negotiate our way across their beautiful but unforgiving country, trading cloth and beads for porter service and trying to film as we went. We walked hundreds of miles, drank the blood of cows with locals, found snakes in our sleeping bags, and tried to stay calm when we discovered Mursi youths wearing some of our precious film stock as body decoration. The Mursi pitied us for our weary feet and lack of livestock. They asked how many cows I wanted in exchange for my daughter, and if white men shed their skin like snakes. After a few weeks, though, I couldn’t recall any other life or imagine leaving. When I did return home, I found I had malaria—but I was hooked.

Going back in the eighties and nineties, I observed how things were changing. By 1991 the Mursi were talking about the strange whites who occasionally found their way to the Lower Omo. “Even very old women come and totter about taking pictures,” a Mursi named Aringaton told me. “Is that normal for white people? Why do they keep shooting us? Do they want us to become their children?”

As those tourists and their cameras began showing up more often, the Mursi’s bewilderment turned to hostility. There were reports of their threatening outsiders, demanding money for photographs. Perhaps it wasn’t surprising that hungry, struggling individuals would try to exploit their only asset, their own “exotic” bodies, which seemed to be of such interest to the strange foreigners with cameras.

Witnessing that encounter with the Belgians on my most recent visit, I realized that the Mursi had worked out an uneasy compromise. They would submit to being photographed in return for tiny payments and sell their lip plates and cowbells and milk bowls for money to feed their children. But they were still visibly resentful. As three tourists circled around, snapping away at a man with his wife and baby, he suddenly turned aside and spat on the ground. He crossed his arms over his chest and glowered at the cameras, a single black feather in his hair quivering with indignation. Then he accepted a few shabby banknotes and strode away with his family. A couple of Mursi women were bargaining to sell ivory bracelets, hippopotamus teeth, and a lip plate. “You could buy two or three cattle with the money,” a man named Choidari said. “If your wife has a big lip plate, your cattle compound will be full.” Then he added that if I bought his warthog tusk, he would use the money to get a cow. “I’ll call it Leslie,” he said, laughing uproariously.

The inevitable end of the adventure-tourist trail usually arrives that way—the exotic first encounter is domesticated by contact. We change the wild place we set out to uncover by going there. My little filming voyages have undoubtedly played a part in changing the Mursi. Ironically, the more I got to know them, the less exotic and strange they appeared. Given their love for ceaseless debate and discussion of everything, they sometimes seemed like noisy, opinionated friends in a New York bar.

Unfortunately, the challenges to their traditional way of life may soon become even more dramatic. Part of their territory has been taken over by a Dutch conservation group and remodeled as a wildlife park. The Mursi have hardly been consulted and their future is uncertain. For me, after more than 30 years of studying this incredible tribe, the prospect of its confinement in some kind of theme park is upsetting, to say the least.

Tourism is now the biggest business in the world, and the tourist has become the focus of a swelling clan of academics and cultural observers. Sociologist Dean MacCannell has identified tourism as the defining emblem of modern life, in which people, driven by restlessness and mobility, yearn for something authentic. Observers of the adventure-travel boom talk about “staged authenticity,” “pseudoevents,” and the impossible pursuit of “more strangeness and more familiarity than the world naturally offers, a lifetime of adventure in two weeks,” as historian and cultural pioneer Daniel J. Boorstin put it. The result, he wrote, is that travel “has become diluted, contrived, prefabricated.” And famed writer Paul Theroux suggested recently in The New York Times that “Travel, except in almost inaccessible places, is no longer the answer to finding solitude. And this contraction of space on a shrinking planet suggests a time, not far off, where there will be no remoteness: nowhere to become lost, nothing to be discovered.”

So how can the determined adventurer preserve a sense of that elusive authenticity? Committed wayfarers I’ve talked to say there are a few essential ground rules. “When the traveler’s risks are insurable,” Boorstin noted in the classic sociological tome The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, “he has become a tourist.” Abandoning the safety net of the package trip and the organized tour is crucial. Theroux insists on traveling alone and dealing with the harsh and sometimes isolating realities of other ways of being. Filmmaker Brian Moser told me he had poisoned darts fired at him by a group of natives he had lived with in South America. He says there are still people and societies unchanged by outside contact, existing in the depths of the Brazilian rainforests or the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean. But like the Andaman Indians, who recently attacked visiting helicopters with blowpipes, these tribes are necessarily intent on preserving their isolation at any cost.

In fact, the determined adventurer may soon have to aim for the stars. Space tourism is not far from becoming a reality: Virgin Galactic is already taking bookings for 2009, though at $200,000 a ticket the price would challenge the most adventurous budget. But even in suborbit you may not be able to escape: A giant new logo for Kentucky Fried Chicken reportedly can be seen from space.