Like A Swarm of Locusts

Swans floating in the waters of Hallstättersee. December 2018.

Swans floating in the waters of Hallstättersee. December 2018.

The 25 pounds of camera gear on my back bobbed up and down with each of my brisk footsteps, which echoed down the seemingly endless tunnel. From the day prior, I knew this tunnel to be about half a mile in length, cutting through the underbelly of a small mountain. Tungsten ceiling lights illuminated the tunnel every 50 meters or so, with the occasional one giving off an eerie flickering. The Airbnb I stayed at was situated some two miles from the village of Hallstatt. Being a college student, I typically opted for the cheapest lodging that I could find. Consequently, as an amateur photographer, I typically found myself traversing considerable distances in the darkness of the night in order to reach a location, which often had more expensive lodging nearby, for a sunrise shoot. Despite the walks consisting of lengthy battles against my fear of the dark, the momentary suffering had always been worthwhile in past shoots.

This time, however, I found myself questioning if this journey had been rational as the tunnel further intensified my fears. My head swiveled back in trepidation every few meters, each time certain that I may see the silhouette of a Krampus-like figure standing in the middle of the road. My first, and only, negative experience with the fabled Austrian Christmas season had certainly been seared into my mind. The previous night saw the village run amuck with children adorned in costumes as the half-demon, half-goat monstrosity, while brandishing little gleaming knives that, I hoped, were simply aluminum foil. One of the little rascals had crashed right into me as he rounded a corner, yelling something in German while waving his little dagger. Before I had time to discern whether or not this was an attack on my well-being, the little imp had run away.

The cold, damp air was swept away by a crisp, December breeze as I finally breached the tunnel’s end, thank goodness. What had started out as the faint moonlight of a waning crescent moon was now replaced with the early glowings of dawn. Like a warm hearth, the twinkling lights of the village ahead glowed warmly against the dark silhouette of the Alps that surrounded it. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hallstatt is the epitome of what it means to be a quaint village. Incredibly small, the village itself could be walked across in 10 or 15 minutes. In the back, the asphalt road turned into cobblestone as it branched into small alleyways between the beautiful, wooden buildings, which boasted that distinct Central-European village architecture. Its houses situated themselves along the snow-dusted Salzkammergut mountainside. The surrounding peaks, which resembled something of an impenetrable defense, loomed over this small gathering of civilization as if protecting it from all harm. In the early minutes of dawn, the air seemed frozen in time. Not a sound was to be heard, nor a person to be seen. The only movement to break this stillness was the tranquil grace of swans gliding across the glassy waters of Hallstättersee. Even the ripples left in the swans’ wake seemed to resemble the very essence of serenity and elegance.

Walking north through town, I finally found myself at a small hill in the road that curved outward toward the lake, yielding a most spectacular vista of the village and its surroundings. Another photographer had already situated himself a few feet from me and we exchanged quick smiles. I began setting up my own equipment along the sidewalk’s railing, where a large poster had been hung. A few shots here and there, but when the clock struck 7:33 a.m. there was no sunrise, alas. The overcast skies had briefly hinted at a magenta hue before returning to its grey disposition. No matter. He and I both leaned on our respective areas of the railing, simply admiring the view. Even though this sunrise shoot didn’t go as planned, the scenery was still well worth the walk through the darkness earlier. The village was slowly waking in the distance, with tiny figures beginning to stir up and about. As I absorbed my surroundings, I felt a great sense of refreshment and peace wash over me. However, this lasted only a few minutes before I heard something, both familiar and yet misplaced, that made my ears perk up.

It was Mandarin. A crowd’s worth of Mandarin.

I quickly turn my head to be greeted by at least two tour buses worth of people. They completely clogged the narrow road, from the railing to the residential buildings alongside. When the first of the herd saw the view, numerous “WAHHH’s” and “O YOOO’s” escaped their mouths. My eyes glanced back at the poster next to me, which had the words “QUIET PLEASE!” plastered across in loud, red paint. I then read the metal sign next to it, which pleaded for travellers to be quiet and conscientious of noise during sleeping hours as the houses nearby were all residential. I was immediately angry and frustrated with the ignorance of the group, but then realized that perhaps they could not read the sign, which was in English.

Before I had a chance to say anything, however, the group quickly swarmed around me and my equipment, clamoring for the best viewing angle to snap a shot from. The other photographer near me was nowhere in sight among this massive wave of pandemonium. I started packing up my gear in fear that it may get trampled, knocked over, or even stolen in the commotion of it all. While I was doing so, I realized the person next to me was the group leader. I stood up and tapped him on the shoulder. While pointing at the two signs, I explained to him in Mandarin what the signs said and kindly asked that he tell his group to be quiet out of consideration for the locals. The people around us were so loud that he asked me to repeat what I just said and I found myself raising my own voice to be heard.

I hadn’t even finished what I was saying when he broke eye contact as he turned away and just started nodding, in a very “yeah, yeah whatever” manner. Just as I was mid-thought as to whether or not this guy was seriously going to walk away from me like that, he just yelled “Everyone! The signs say to be quiet here, OKAY? Alright carry on.” Everyone then yells, even louder, the same thing for the people further back, all the while I’m just running my hand through my hair wondering if I had just unleashed even more damage.

As the commotion around me grew louder, my thoughts jumped back to memories of Eibsee in Germany, from one week ago.

* * *

I stood on the famed shores of Eibsee, one of the most gorgeous lakes I had ever laid eyes on. Its turquoise-tinted clear waters gently lapped around the shores of the Bavarian forest. There, I met a European photographer named Joonas Linkola, who happened to be good friends with many of the European photographers that I looked up to. The sun had already risen but sat behind Zugspitze, Germany’s tallest mountain. He and I chatted for half an hour or so as we waited for the sun to break the mountain ridge.

We talked on and on about landscape photography, his friends, our life stories, my study abroad experience thus far, and our future travel plans. On that topic, he asked, “Are you going to Neuschwanstein Castle, by any chance? It’s right around the area here.” I eagerly exclaimed that I was and asked if it was really as magical as the pictures seemed. This was, afterall, the legendary castle that inspired Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom.

“It certainly is! You’ll never see anything quite like it. It’s a huge, magnificent piece of architecture situated at the top of a hill in the foothills of the Alps. But when you get there, you’ll probably see all of China.”

A question mark floated through my head. His last sentence seemed so completely unrelated to anything we had talked about that I needed a few seconds to consider if I had misheard. Not one to typically jump to conclusions, I was somewhat surprised to find myself wondering if his remark had been somehow directed at me. However, I quickly realized he wasn’t even making eye contact. Then I thought maybe he meant it’s so high up that you can see China? Fat chance. I asked him what he meant.

“Tour buses, man. Enough to be a small army. Those Chinese tourists just flood the entire place, from the parking lot at the bottom of the hill all the way up to the castle itself,” Joonas said, with a great sense of disdain. “They’re all so inconsiderate and rambunctious, like a herd of elephants trampling through a village and leaving nothing but carnage.”

Although Joonas meant no harm and none of his words were directed at me, I left Eibsee with a mildly bad taste in my mouth. Born in a first generation home back in the States, I strongly identified with being Chinese. As I made the car ride over to the castle, I couldn’t help but feel as though I too had been implicated in Joonas’ recount. To some degree, I sympathized with Joonas’ perspective. From my own experiences in Shanghai and Beijing, I recalled that Chinese tourists could often be remarkably loud and lacked complete self-awareness.

Despite my sympathizing for where Joonas was coming from, I started wondering how other tourists were not just as at fault? From my few months in Europe, it was clear that there is a long running joke among Europeans of how uncultured and brutish American tourists can be. From mocking our lack of languages beyond English to our rush in everything from a sit down meal to checking off the boxes of a travel itinerary. Even among my fellow American abroad students, there were quite a few who were particularly boisterous and inconsiderate to the local communities. Some drunkenly scream throughout the streets of Vienna well past the mandatory quiet hours starting at 10 p.m., while others, in their drunken state, had destroyed property at the hostel our field trip stayed at.

By the time I had somewhat convinced myself that Joonas may have been exaggerating, I found myself in the reality of it all just a few hours later. As I reached the entrance to the castle grounds, there was a sea of heads ahead of me. Truthfully told, like a small army attacking the castle, the tour guides led the charge with a wave of selfie-stick wielding Chinese tourists. As I muddled my way forward, I found myself being pushed and shoved as the group moved around me.

They were loud. They were pushy. They were disruptive. Above all, there just didn’t seem to be an ounce of respect coming from them.

* * *

As I pushed my way to the edge of the crowd in Hallstatt, I found myself in the cross hairs of two others. Whether they themselves were travelers too or locals, I know not. I do know, however, that I felt a sense of shame wash over me. Suddenly, I was grouped with the very people who had just left such a sour taste in my mouth. Grouped with the scores of tour buses that steamroll through these quiet roads. Grouped with the swarms of tourists who yell and wave their selfie sticks around. Grouped with the reason why other tourists, like myself, can’t enjoy the scenery. Grouped with the reasons why some locals, like Joonas, grow to dislike tourists.

Grouped simply because I looked like them.

Perhaps this shame had to do with being raised in a town that was 95 percent caucasian. Or perhaps this had to do with study abroad in a predominately white European city. But perhaps not. Perhaps it’s simply not being able to have respect for those who show none for their surroundings, those who are guests in another’s home and yet disrespect the place. To then be grouped with the same people I didn’t have respect for due to their behavior.

But what if people just enjoy things differently? I had heard plenty of stories of pickpocketing before I even got to Europe and these Chinese tourists surely also heard similar tales. It can be scary to venture, by yourself, to a foreign country that doesn’t speak the same language as you. There’s certainly safety in numbers, as well as reduced culture shock, if you can be surrounded by people like yourself as you try new experiences. Additionally, I recalled my Viennese finance professor telling me that China built a true-to-size replica of Hallstatt because they simply adored the village that much. Imitation is the greatest form of flattery, some say. Not that that really excuses the behavior I witnessed that day.

Sheer numbers and selfie sticks aside, even just the noise seems to invade the very peace that surrounds such a surreal place. Like a locust swarm wreaking havoc throughout a farm, these tourists loudly rip through a place and leave as quickly as they came. Only that, unlike a locust plague, this group leaves more than what was once there: overflowing trash bins, litter on the streets, and even trampled village property. The tranquility hovering over Hallstatt seemed to be ripped asunder by the mayhem they unleashed. Even the swans seemed to duck their heads into the water to drown out the disruption.

Although it was glaringly obvious that the Chinese tourist groups were causing this mayhem, I wondered to myself: would I not feel just as annoyed and angry had this been any other group? Few things can irk me more than seeing litter, especially in situations close to nature. Yes, these specific tourists had littered right before my eyes the day prior, but I had seen more than my fair share of littering from people of all backgrounds and appearances. Maybe I just found it easier to blame the most visible and loud group for all the issues I saw through my traveling. Perhaps the underlying issue, that I should instead be focused on, is simply a tragedy of the commons. There are too many people experiencing these places to the point that no one can enjoy them anymore. With Chinese travelers typically opting to go in large tour groups, it can be very easy to point a finger at them.

As soon as I took my first step away from the crowd and towards town to catch the ferry, I felt a tap on my shoulder. “Can you take our picture for us, please?” a woman asked, in English with a thick accent. Puzzled as to why she asked in English, I thought maybe she wasn’t Chinese like the rest of the tour. As I raised the phone up, she spoke in Mandarin to her family to come closer together and to smile. A bit flabbergasted, I handed back the phone with a blank expression stretched across my face as she said “Thank you,” in English again.

What about me made her think I wasn’t a Mandarin speaker? I thought I mingled pretty well with the rest of the crowd. I looked down at my clothes: white sneakers, light washed jeans, and a black down jacket. I looked back at them. Evidently this crowd had a strong taste for Gucci shoes, LV belts, and YSL purses, but certainly not everyone did? Even if she knew everyone on her tour bus and realized that I did not belong, why would her instinct be to use English? Physically speaking, I looked just like them, so I thought at least.

As I ambled along back to the village center, I couldn’t quite grasp the feelings of both shame for being associated with a group I disliked so much and yet at the same time to not be accepted as one of my own people?

By the time I reached the ferry dock, the noises of the crowd had faded into the distance. I sat on a bench and watched six or seven swans dance across the water, while I waited for the ferry. I breathed in the peace around me, savoring it for as long as I could.

The stillness in the air left me alone to my thoughts.

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