The Little Guys

Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.

Where we are: Seoul, South Korea

The Little Guys

I’ve been reading a lot lately about what Western Europe looks like without tourists. Parisians are appreciating their city without having to dodge tour groups. The water in Venice’s canals is clear, for the first time in years. Museum attendance is down, which is obviously not great for the museums, but as someone who vastly prefers to enjoy art in solitude, I can only imagine how much more pleasant the Louvre must be right now.

But those huge institutions, like the Louvre, are not the ones I’m worried about. They’ll be pinched, sure, but they won’t disappear. The fundraising apparatus will kick into high gear, the government will chip in, and France’s grand patrimony will be preserved. London has been outlasting pandemics for two thousand years. Plagues come, plagues go, while Rome is eternal.

Instead, I think of the restaurant owner in the little village on the Turkish coast—he was barely hanging on when we were there, but even so, his innate generosity was humbling. I wonder how he’s doing now. I think of the Senegalese guide we hired when we went to The Gambia for the weekend; he had some kind of problem with one leg that required him to use a crutch. He engineered a powerful, memorable weekend for us, one we talk about often. I wonder how the devastation of tourism is treating him.

Just five months ago, we were in El Salvador, at a beach famous for its surf break. El Salvador’s tourism industry is, at best, in its infancy. The manager of our hotel was a young Belgian woman whose whole family was in hospitality, in her home country. She had visited El Zonte on a surf trip, and fallen in love with the place. When we met her, she was on a mission to help pull the country up by its bootstraps. She had hired local at-risk women to work in the hotel, and was teaching them the skills and English they would need to make the place a success. It was a painstaking process; we watched her guide the front desk clerk through the check-in process, helping her with sentences that would’ve been instinctive for us: Welcome. How can I help you? Do you have a reservation?

Better to teach a man to fish, right? Until the fishing industry collapses, and he’s left with an empty net and nothing for dinner. I wonder if that young woman has been riding out the pandemic in El Salvador, or if she went back to Belgium. If she stayed put, I wonder how long she’ll last? There was a coffee shop up the ‘block’ (and by ‘block,’ I mean dirt track) that was owned by a really nice young man from Washington state, and his El Salvadoran wife. He had been in the country doing NGO work, and had decided to stay and invest, to try and help make the world a better place. His mother was there for a visit while we were there, and we went every day for an iced mocha and a chat. I assume the mom went home, but I wonder if he’s still there, with his wife and daughter, a precocious toddler.

It’s easy to read headlines about how bad things are for airlines, or hotel chains, and see only faceless conglomerates. The numbers don’t really sink in, because those are huge corporations—they’ll either muddle through, or raise prices, or declare bankruptcy, and life will go on.

Instead, I think of the naturalist in the Galapagos, who opened a small inn, because he couldn’t make enough as a tour guide to feed his family. I wonder who is keeping an eye on the giant tortoises now? More than that, though, I wonder who is feeding his family?

From my writer’s notebook: Speaking of pandemics, and museums, and artistic genius, I’m currently loving a podcast called Quarantine Genius. It’s about how various artists throughout history whose works reflect the plagues they lived through. If you’re looking for a good listen, give it a try.

Take care,


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