Updated: July 29, 2018 12:20:55 pm
I suppose when most people think of ‘travel’, images of snowy mountains or beaches crop up in their minds. A trip to a nuclear fallout site or a ‘tour’ as a Mexican refugee illegally trying to cross into the United States would probably be far down in a typical travel junkie’s list of things to do. But in a peculiar phenomenon called dark tourism, travellers steer clear of the usual tourist attractions and instead opt for more morbid places. You know, those related to death, massacre, nuclear fallout and other macabre stuff.
I was aware of the concept before but only in a vague way. I thought trekking your way up a steep cliff also constituted dark tourism. Apparently, it doesn’t. Netflix’s new travel series Dark Tourist gave me a concrete idea about this type of tourism. It is hosted by New Zealand journalist David Farrier. I found the presentation of Farrier quite nice. He is self-effacing and amiable and prone to understating things – not somebody you would expect to host this kind of show. But it works.
In the first episode, Farrier visits Latin America – specifically Columbia and Mexico. In Medellín, the home of the last century’s dreaded drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, he goes on a sort of guided tour where his cab driver is an Escobar lookalike. Later, things become more realistic as he meets a real hitman of the Columbian narcoterrorist who has turned his former profession into an amusement exercise. He pretends to shoot a man lying on the ground and it appears as if he still remembers those days fondly. Farrier struggles with the fact that he is actually being charmed by the man, a murderer who killed hundreds of men (said to be over 250) for his master.
Farrier’s next stop is Mexico. In a poorer quarter of the city, the worship of Santa Muerte, a saint associated with death, is rising. The Catholic church frowns upon the cult, calling it Satanic. A priest he meets says drug traffickers, thieves, rapists, they worship Santa Muerte. Farrier meets Dona Queta, the lady behind the shrine to Santa Muerte and founds her to be a kind, old woman. After talking with her, he concludes that the worship of Santa Muerte isn’t so Satanic, after all. “They aren’t actually worshipping anything evil. They’re just not scared to look death in the face. This is good,” he says.
In the last part of the episode, he gets to play a helpless tourist escaping the lawlessness and violence of Mexico to the peace and prosperity of the United States. US President Donald Trump gets a mention in regards to how one of his prime election promises was to build a wall along the border separating Mexico and the US and not allowing illegal immigrants to cross into America. Farrier is part of a team of dark tourists and the ensuing ‘ride’ as an illegal Mexican migrant is more realistic than he bargained for, with robbers and narcos and sounds of gunshots.
All this is interesting but also pretty superficial. One 40 minute episode included at least three places so that is the best one can hope for. Probably one place per episode would have been a wiser choice. On the brighter side, places and ‘attractions’ in the episode were not really included for cheap thrill value but also for mild (though also superficial) political and social commentary. For instance, the way the poorer Mexicans found solace in their obscure religion. This particular characteristic differentiates Dark Tourist from Reza Aslan’s CNN show Believer that relied on sensationalism to sustain itself.
Dark Tourist has been criticised by many publications for obvious reasons – one being that not many people would want a nuclear fallout site, where many people died painfully, to be seen as an attraction. The Guardian has called the show “shallow and sordid”. The Washington Post wonders whether there isn’t an ethics editor at Netflix ‘who could have suggested, “It’s always going to be too soon for an irreverent look at serial killing?”’
But just like dark tourism, Dark Tourist would have its own niche. We can debate the ethics of its existence, sure, but dark tourism does have its own appeal to many people. Also, you can enjoy Dark Tourist regardless of whether you are into dark tourism yourself or not. I’ve seen only the first episode so far, but want to finish the whole thing soon. Stay tuned for the whole review.
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