Why is eating at McDonalds any less real than walking through rice fields with a tour guide?

Sanne van Oosten

When travelling, I want to experience the “real” Indonesia, thus explaining why I think Couchsurfing is the best way to travel. However, when meeting some Couchsurfers for a bite to eat, two of them (independently from each other) suggested to meet at McDonalds. It felt wrong eat at McDonalds, so instead of fries we ordered rice and we decided to choose the burger unique to Indonesia: the so-called Prosperity Burger. Even though the price level in Indonesia is much lower than what we are used to in Europe, a McDonalds meal in Indonesia costs only slightly less than it would in the West. Good thing the burger is called a prosperity burger.

During our trip we’ve been approached by many tour guides. A popular marketing technique is for guides to carry a book around in which their tourists can write a review about the tour. It reminds of trip advisor in a pre-internet era. We’ve already flipped through numerous books like this and we couldn’t help noticing the many thankful remarks from tourists in having experienced “the real Indonesia” through the help of their tour guide. But what is “the real Indonesia?” Of course, we can never answer this question, but in the eyes of the reviewers it usually meant something along the line of seeing the poor side of Indonesia; a visit to the kampong, seeing how people work in the rice fields, and going to villages where horse drawn carriages outnumber combustion motors.

Why do tour guides continue to show us Indonesia’s poverty while Couchsurfers underline Indonesia’s prosperity? Tour guides know what they are doing and have thought it through long and hard, Couchsurfers are much less scheming. However, the selection of people who participate in Couchsurfing are by far a representative sample of society as a heavy selection bias determines who participates in Couchsurfing and who does not. Not only are Couchsurfers usually part of the most prosperous and educated inhabitants of a country, they usually have already travelled or are planning to travel to the Western part of the globe.

But that still doesn’t answer why tour guides know so well that their Western tourists want to see the impoverished side of Indonesia. Is it because the West prefers to reduce Asia to a backward region which will never encompass the civilization and modernity of the West? Even though this is an appealing explanation for a sociology graduate, I don’t think this is the explanation that is the most relevant here. Tourists want to experience turning their world upside down and want to amaze themselves by their ability to escape from that what is familiar to them. In sum, tourists want the weirdest possible experience that they can get. Strolling around a popular tourist destination amongst masses of other tourists just doesn’t give that special vibe and neither does a visit to the McDonalds.

Working as a tour guide in Amsterdam I use the same method. When giving tours to foreign tourists I underline the progressive side of Amsterdam: coffee shops, legal prostitution and the site of the first gay marriage. However, I usually give tours to domestic tourists. These tourists cannot be entertained with stories about legal prostitution, decriminalized marihuana and gay marriage. These laws apply to all of the Netherlands, and it would be weird to explain people from the Netherlands what their own laws are. Therefore, a whole other approach needs to be taken when entertaining domestic tourists on a tour. An approach that gives my domestic tourists the feeling that they’ve really had “the Amsterdam experience” is to go back in time about five decades.

In the fifties and sixties the ambiance of Amsterdam was completely different than it is today. People were relatively poor and a specific local culture, unique to Amsterdam, was experiencing its heyday. Current inhabitants of Amsterdam will know exactly what I mean. It was the time of folk music, brown café’s and legendary local figures. Now, the inhabitants of Amsterdam are much more mixed. People from all over have moved to Amsterdam for work or study and Amsterdam is becoming a cosmopolitan mix of prosperous people. But what’s ever exciting about that? My domestic tourists would be somewhat disappointed if I underline the current culture of Amsterdam and therefore much more prefer that I talk about Johnny Jordaan (a folk singer), Magere Josje (a legendary prostitute) and Zwarte Joop (the former king of crime). And, since my main goal is to give them “the real Amsterdam experience” that is what I do.

Not only Western tourists in Indonesia want to experience poverty, Dutch tourists in Amsterdam want to experience that as well. This gives them the experience of having an insight in what local culture really looks like, thus creating an air of “reality.” Indonesia has a great divide between rich and poor. Maybe the combination of Couchsurfing and tour guides gives a view of what these two sides of Indonesia are like. Eating at McDonalds or Kentucky friend chicken and drinking coffee at Startbucks shows you the real Indonesia as walking through beautiful rice fields.

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