From Colombia, South America to Columbia, South Carolina

We spent our last days in Colombia at a coffee and banana plantation in the coffee region of the country. We were the only guests in a really nice hotel which meant that the owner was all over us, recommending sites, telling us about everything and asking to hear every detail about our stay. So we talked a lot, and after I had talked to the Dutch owner of the Salento hostel earlier, I was curious to hear her thoughts, being a native Colombian. The original conversation was around employment and tourism. The Dutch man had told me that Salento had too many hotels and hostels and that the government was about to stop giving out new licences. I thought that was weird because there were so many tourists and it could really boost the town but he said people didn’t like the way it was going. He also said that, as a business owner, it was very difficult to find good workers because "most people are lazy and want to work as little as possible", and that they don’t see tourism as an opportunity but as something that is complicating their lives. I don’t usually give an opinion when people are ranting because I don’t want them to stop — it’s my small addiction. But what I did point out was that it was interesting to me that there were so many places to stay but when you look for them online, you only see three. All owned by foreigners. What is happening is that foreign Westerners open up hostels and know how to cater to foreign tourists. They create a presence on tripadvisor, they advertise on Google, and they make sure they appear on travelers’ blogs with links. Most locals do none of that. They have a sign outside their place and that’s pretty much it. So the Dutch place is packed and the others are empty. No wonder the locals resent them.
Back to the coffee region. She gave us a tour of the coffee plantation and explained that her family had this normal quality one, and a very high quality coffee one in another town. The difference between one and the other is the skill of picking the coffee beans. So, when they are ripe they are very red. And when they aren’t, they go from green to yellow to orange.
The pickers who only pick the red beans are rare and sought after and make great money. The others, not so much. This was fascinating to me. The difference was not the plant or the bean or the soil. It was the picking. She explained that one green bean will lower the quality of a whole sack of red beans. I asked her why there weren’t more skilled pickers, or why they didn’t just pick the reds, and she said with frustration that most people want to reach the minimum amount of beans and go home. She opened a bag that someone had just picked that morning to show her point, and there it was, a multi-color mix of beans. They see they are green, but they pick them anyway.
What we saw in her small town was that people just hang around in the evening along the main street, talking, laughing, walking from one end to the other and eating. I wondered what spending 30 minutes a day creating an online presence would do for their business, but I guess they don’t see it that way. They seemed content and I was jealous.
And if I’m rambling, I might as well mention that the coffee region is undergoing huge development efforts supported by the government to attract tourism. The small town we stayed at will probably look completely different in two years. And one morning over breakfast I met two girls from the Capital that came to the town for work. They are social workers and their job is to meet and talk with people who must be moved in order to build a bigger highway that will attract more tourists. They are also supposed to negotiate the price these families get for their to-be-destroyed homes. They admitted that with what they get, they will have to move to a different area since they will not be able to afford a similar place at a nearby location. Beautiful. I can see why a tourism overflow doesn’t seem like a great thing for them.
And then we traveled to the USA. We hit the road immediately and slowly shed the inevitable culture shock that we got when landing. We drove to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee and stayed in an Airbnb place in the middle of the gorgeous forest with the Smokey Mountains surrounding us.
We got to talking with the owner of the property about, surprisingly enough, tourism and employment. So, the situation is completely different but not less difficult to digest. Pigeon Forge and neighboring Gatlinburg are mainly tourist towns. Tons of attractions, restaurants, hotels, and cabins that fill up in high season and then empty out and wait for the next round. Most work is in this industry and most salaries are minimum wage. The guy told us most people have to work 2–3 jobs just to make ends meet. So they run from one shift to another and can afford to shop at the dollar store and Walmart and they finish the month wanting. The huge difference to me is that in the US you are surrounded by all this stuff, stuff they make you feel you need, and once you get it, there is more and more stuff. So you (I) can never relax because there is always something next on your list of stuff you need to get/have/try/eat to feel like you have made it. And there is this insatiable need of abundance. On the one hand people want more of everything, and on the other, no one is allowed to tell others that so much abundance is maybe very destructive and limit anything. It seems like the worst thing you can do in the US is create a limitation and say there is something they can’t be or have. The clearest example for me are the food and drinks. And here is some criticism to my dear Dollywood.
Going there was a dream I have had for many years and it did not disappoint. I was actually very surprised by the differences between Dollywood and Disney World. There was not much merchandise, there weren’t speakers blasting Dolly Parton all the time, the atmosphere was very chill and didn’t feel like I was being forced into any feeling or experience. However, the food situation was hard. I am a vegetarian so the options were limited to begin with. Take out the fried pork/chicken/corndogs and what you are left with is pizza.
I ordered one slice of pizza and what I got was a one pound slice of it. Four times what I can really eat. The child’s portion was half a pound and came with french fries and chocolate milk. So I’m thinking, fine, they love this abundance. It makes them happy. But twice in different roller coasters I saw people removed from the rides because the seat could not accommodate them. This was hard to see and made me wonder what vicious circle has been created. How can they send someone away from a ride for being larger than allowed, and then serve one-pound slices of pizza as the healthiest option at the park?
And why are all the souvenir shops filled with second amendment mugs and t-shirts?