“Be yourself. We won’t tell:” some thoughts on HBO’s Westworld and the curiosities of tourism to Mexico

By: Julia Hieske 

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Fictional advertisement for a fictional themepark – via imdb.com

I recently watched the first season of HBO’s new blockbuster series Westworld and, I admit, it had me hooked right from episode one.[1] Westworld is about a Western-themed amusement park where rich visitors can do pretty much anything they want. Those visitors do not pay thousands of dollars just to go horse riding and drink whiskey in a makeshift saloon. No, while they certainly do not mind the whiskey, they are after the ‘real deal.’ Westworld, the park, is inhabited by androids so lifelike they scream and cry when you abuse them, bleed when you hurt them, and die when you kill them. Designed to cater to the customers’ every need, the show suggests those androids, women, men, and children, are not so far from human beings, after all. Without wanting to give away too much, then, it is safe to say that this show is about negotiating what it means to be human. It gives much food for thought about morality, the power of narrative, and, yes, about feminism. Yet, while I would love to talk to you about all those things over a pint or two, this article will look at another aspect of the show because, for me, Westworld is all about tourism.

While the corporation behind Westworld insists on calling them ‘guests,’ the visitors to the theme park are essentially tourists. These guests are offered a real cruise-ship-like package deal which includes their transport, equipment, and accommodation in the park as they are brought into Westworld by means of a steam-powered train which they board all suited up and armed for their personal cowboy adventure. Having seen it all, the affluent visitors are looking to experience something new. The novelty, for them, is connected to two things: authenticity, on the one hand, and nostalgia, on the other.

Tourism studies have long since agreed on the fact that the quest for authenticity is crucial to the tourism industry. It has been extremely difficult, though, to pinpoint how authenticity should be defined exactly. To be marketed as ‘authentic’ to prospective tourists, locations must strike a balance between the familiar and the unfamiliar. If the first prevailed, the place would be perceived as boring or mainstream. If the latter dominated, though, the destination would seem overwhelmingly foreign and travelling there too stressful to call it a vacation. Think of it as the difference between an all-inclusive resort vacation in Cancún and a zoological expedition in the jungle. While during the first, sheltered in a hotel district, you might even forget where you are – after all, beach resorts all over the world are not that different from each other – bug collecting in the rain forest will possibly not be something many people associate with a vacation. The solution to the dilemma, so to say, is to bring some jungle into the resort. Bits and pieces of nature – palm trees, cacti, exotic flowers, et cetera – or artefacts from indigenous cultures decorate the otherwise modern and often sterile environments of the tourist centres.

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Actor in Mayan clothing in Cenote  – http://www.xcaret.com

Another strategy to provide tourists with the thrill of authenticity are performances of native or native-looking dancers and actors who are brought in to stage traditional dances and rituals. In the case of the Mexican Riviera, there are even theme parks that contain within their premises the whole package of what Mexico’s culture, history, and natural beauty have to offer, or so it seems. From cenotes (natural sinkholes or wells) and Mangroves to “Mayan walls,” a “Mexican cemetery” and “Prehispanic performances,” parks such as Xcaret and Xel-Há, sell a taste of Mexico to the tourists too cautious or lazy to venture out of both the tourist and their comfort zones. In many of the touristic centres which are exemplified by such “Disneyfied ecoparks,” – the Lonely Planet’s words, not mine – cultural heritage, as well as wild nature, become spectacles contained in restricted areas and adjusted to the current trends in the industry.[2] The same is true, dare I say, for the native inhabitants of those areas who become props positioned there to accommodate tourist imaginaries.

Sound familiar? In Westworld, the series, the corporation’s biggest selling point in the promotion of the park is the authenticity of experience. Of course, here, the concept is taken up a notch. After all, we are talking about the tourist who has seen it all. Resembling in its basic thought, perhaps, the ‘authentic experience’ of a trip to a township or the thrill of a bungee jump in the wilderness, Westworld, the park, promises a ride that is even more exciting. The ticket to this artificial world is supposed to have bought its holder the adventure of a lifetime. The trip promises to reconnect the guests with their primal instincts and the park offers plenty of adrenaline in its so-called narratives. The thrill of chasing bandits, playing cowboy, and paying the brothel a visit (‘what happens in Westworld stays in Westworld’) is balanced, though, by the fact that as guests, and in contrast to the humans used as props in the park, they cannot be harmed. On the one hand, this lets them go through a cathartic experience of sorts, on the other, however, some of them become unhinged by their powers of superiority.

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Westworld: a different ride altogether! Rachel Evan Wood, James Marsden, and two horses- via http://www.threisonlyr.com

For me, it was hard not to be reminded of colonial or imperial travellers in the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries, here. Not only did many of them travel to those countries with an Orientalist perspective of assumed superiority over the natives, the excitement associated with a firsthand experience of the real or imagined dangers there, oftentimes, seemed like a welcome adventure. Take, for example, Fanny Calderón de la Barca, the Scottish wife of a Spanish diplomat, who moved to Mexico in the late 1830s. The vivid accounts of her travels deserve an entire article dedicated to nothing else but them but, for now, I want to highlight only one of her many anecdotes. A recurring theme in her letters spanning two years, as well as in plenty of travelogues from the same period, is her fear of bandits. Again and again, Fanny mentions rumours about robberies and several times she even expects to finally run into a bandit with such certainty, she is sure to have only escaped one by a hair’s breadth. Funnily enough, though, she would eventually leave Mexico without having ever had an encounter with a bandit whatsoever. Nevertheless, the topic seemed to have excited her so much, her writing makes the impression she must really have enjoyed telling her (almost) dangerous anecdotes.

Banditry, then, became some sort of a staple topic in Anglo-Saxon travel writing about Mexico. So much so, that it has become part of the imaginaries tourists have had about the country ever since. Regardless of the actual risk, what rather interests me here is the excitement of mystery and supposed danger, that could be enjoyed as long as one was safe. Their guaranteed safety, therefore, allows the guests in Westworld to live the ultimate tourist experience: all the adrenaline, the anecdotes, the souvenirs – in episode one, we see a couple getting their photo taken which also features the man’s first killed bandit – and none of the risk.

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Rodrigo Santoro as the bandit soon to be taken care of by a guest – via imdb.com

However, there is yet another factor that links the experience of the guests in the series’ theme park to that of tourists now and then. Nostalgia, as we will see, plays a huge role in both Westworld and tourist fantasies from the nineteenth century to the present. In the show, one of the biggest selling points of the park is that it allows for its guests to step into a world that belongs to the past. Evoking the spirit of the American frontier, Westworld provides narratives of exploration and fights to the death which provoke exhilaration that, to such an extent, is hard to be found in their everyday lives. Fundamentally, however, the theme park offers a ride to a simpler existence, where good and evil are easily distinguished and primitive impulses are not constrained by a complex set of laws. When, in episode one, for example, a guest shoots two robbers, we can see how the expression on his and his wife’s faces changes from initial shock to elation and pride. And, while the series quickly develops an intricate web of storylines featuring guests who do not seem to stick to any moral code, the first episode makes an effort to show us Westworld, its opportunities for – erm – ‘character development,’ and the results of a trip to the imagined past from the perspective of ordinary, seemingly decent people like the couple I just mentioned.

Doing what I do, that is, working your way through a ton of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century travelogues and tourist guidebooks to Mexico, you cannot help but notice the similarities. Take Charles Macomb Flandrau, for example, a writer and temporary plantation owner who marvels about the supposed lawlessness of the Mexicans and notes that he has “grown to regard battle, murder and sudden death as conventional forms of relaxation.”[3] After the Mexican-American War (1846-48), the former Mexican states and new U.S. territories were seen by many of the U.S. settlers who moved there as some sort of new frontier. The same was true when U.S. Americans began to flock even further south during the government of President Porfirio Díaz. For many, the renewed spirit of exploration was inextricably linked to a sense of Manifest Destiny and the disregard of the indigenous population. Nevertheless, they were not only lured there by the promise of making a fortune in the mining, coffee, and rubber businesses or the railway companies, they were also smitten with the picturesqueness of the rural villages and their inhabitants. While early travellers and, later, entire tourist groups visited these places and raved about their simplicity and beauty in letters and travelogues, their admiration was generally restricted to the visual, almost voyeuristic pleasure of observation. Their wonderment at the otherness of the indigenous people, their culture, and dwellings, thus, did not keep them from appreciating their modern homes upon their return. On the contrary, and this is true for the contemporary tourist, too, visiting poorer areas, indigenous cultures, and rural communities often seems a welcome change from the busy lives of members of modern societies, who, then, return feeling something on the spectrum between appreciation of their privilege and confirmation of their entitlement.

The yearning for a simpler existence that is connected to the past drives tourist fantasies to this day and it is the motor behind all kinds of advertised experiences, from ‘digital detox’ and ‘back to nature’ retreats to voluntourism and tours to the hinterlands. Let’s not forget, though, that tourist destinations are always projections to some extent. Just like the fictional Westworld, Xel-Há, Xcaret, and the likes thereof are the culmination of an industry that represents concepts of authenticity, culture, and the past which accommodate often nostalgic and romanticised tourist imaginaries. It is through the commodification of such concepts, then, that tourism can offer both Westworld’s guests and real tourists the opportunity to grasp the intangible.

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Actor re-enacting Mayan ballgame, a ritualistic event which concluded in a human sacrifice by decapitation and disembowelment – via www. xcaret.com

The series has a point when it provocatively suggests that the right amount of money can buy its owner virtually anything – even a free pass to act out one’s darkest fantasies – because it reminds us of the fact that tourism is always a matter of privilege. It also shows us that much of what we secretly might look for in visiting a place is linked to a yearning for authentic experience and nostalgia for a simpler life. Nevertheless, other than the bleak picture painted in HBO’s Westworld, I think travelling or tourism in real life still gives room for hope. Travel, in my opinion, has the potential to broaden our horizons and put things into perspective. It can be transformative, in a good way, if we let it. But let’s see what the second season of Westworld will have to say about all that when it comes out next year. I will be watching on the edge of my seat.

 

 

[1] Westworld. HBO. 2016. To avoid confusion, reference to the show will be made in italics, while references to the park itself will appear in standard font.

[2] Lonely Planet Yucatán. Lonely Planet Publications. 2003. p. 125.

[3] Charles Macomb Flandrau, Viva Mexico!. D. Appleton and Company. 1908, p. 115.

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