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Changes in Lattitude
By Jim Kent

Jimmy Buffett died the other day.   This was bound to happen sooner or later, but it’s still not easy for me.  


I am not a parrothead.  Having attended a few of Buffett’s concerts, it looked to me like most parrotheads were the sort of amurricans who have maybe spent a couple of weeks drinking and snorkeling at resorts in Cancun and Tahiti and then forever after loudly proclaim that they’ve been to Mexico and the South Pacific.  They haven’t. 


Instead, I was part of a subset of Buffett fans who lived large parts of the life his songs were about.  During a couple of years in the Philippines, a year in American Samoa, and shorter stints in Cuba, Guatemala, Uganda, and elsewhere, I knew and recognized the “Banana Republics” expats, the old  soldiers and sailors from “Sending the Old Man Home,” the tourists in “No Plane on Sunday,” and many, many other characters.  


Met a lot of drunks.  Except for the officers’ wives, almost all were men.  A few of the guys were cheerful drunks, and a few were pugnacious, but most were just lugubrious.  Decided not to become a drunk.   Didn’t want to turn out cheerful.


Might not have taken the job in American Samoa if “Margaritaville” hadn’t been on the charts at the time and tugged me back to the little latitudes.  I was already what my family (and probably others) call a Third World junkie, but hadn’t actually realized it until then.  I have now had enough colourful episodes of food poisoning to recognize the symptoms of its onset.  


And so has daughter Kate.  She became a certified Third World junkie when she came to Cuba with me and a bunch of my students, and she can’t shake it of any more than I can.  She has since, for example, spent some time working in eSwatini, back when it was still Swaziland.  We are both working on figuring out some other term for “Third World,” which has fallen out of favour.


We prefer normal hotels to resorts, and wandering around town meeting the locals to hanging out at the pool with the turistas.  Most of these are people in short pants, eerily often from New Jersey, complaining about the weather and denigrating the English skills of the staff.   We all suppose we are not turistas, of course, but I was recently brought up short by this observation: 


“Tourism” is what we call travelling when other people are doing it. And, although people like to talk about their travels, few of us like to listen to them.  Such talk resembles academic writing and reports of dreams: forms of communication driven more by the needs of the producer than the consumer. (Agnes Callard, “The Case Against Travel,” The New Yorker, 24 June 2023)


This hit me especially hard because I have committed academic writing for precisely the reason Callard mentions.  However, I prefer Kate’s formulation, which I think meshes nicely with Buffett’s:


Tourists are like Dorothy:  Wherever they are, no matter how wondrous it is, they just want to go home.  Travelers are like the wizard:  Wherever they find themselves, no matter how strange it is, they make the most of it. 


So thanks, Jimmy.   Go well.

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