Tahitian dance chronicles, part two: Going to To’ata

It was February and I’d been taking Tahitian dance classes for six months. I was now loving my twice-weekly wiggle as well as hanging out with my sometimes cranky but always lively retired Tahitian classmates. My hips were really starting to move and my rolling ueue shake was getting so fast that the teacher grouped me into the more competent half of our class.

Now the warm-ups were more complicated, with moves like the afata (hips like a box) that I just couldn’t get right. At least the previously aloof ladies in class were now being helpful.

“Follow me,” Tania would say, bringing me over to copy her. “See you bend the knee, keep it bent, straighten then straighten. Move the hips in a square to the count of four.”

We had also started learning the choreography for two aparima, slow, graceful dances with swaying hips and lots of wave-like arm gestures. The dances were less blatantly sexy than our fast otea, but embodied a quiet feminine beauty.

I still was adamant about not performing in the show until the day our teacher Heirani announced that we were going to start making costumes.”We’ll start with our more [grass skirt] belt and headdress,” she said. “All the feathers, shells and pandanus are provided by the school and we’ll be sewing together Saturday morning.”

Grass skirts, fluffy belts, big hats and a sewing circle: this was a culture freak’s girl-time nirvana. I couldn’t help it, I wanted to wear an outrageous costume made out of leaves and shells and make it myself with the help of the locals. I told everyone that I was going to make the costumes then decide later if I was going to do the show or not. They all nodded calmly as if to say, “yeah, sure, that’s what they all say.”

When I showed up on Saturday to make my first costume I encountered a new surprise. There were at least ten other classes at the dance school and on costume day everyone was there together as a group. I knew almost everyone. There was my good friend Amel, my swimming buddy Niouk and my carpool partner Karine. It dawned on me that although I knew all of these people danced, I had never appreciated what dance had meant in their lives. After 15 years I was suddenly in a club I hadn’t realized existed. For all these years I’d been missing out on this beautiful and essential part of Tahitian culture. Now whenever I saw these friends outside of dance all we talked about was choreography and costumes.

There was a Gala rehearsal and I went. We learned how we needed to move around the stage while doing our moves in relation to the other dancers. I was used to my class of around 15 women but now we were a group of 200, ranging from age five to 75 in all shapes and sizes.

After this rehearsal there was another and then another. A live percussion orchestra played the songs we’d been dancing to in class and suddenly we were a complete, massive and organic piece of performance art. Heirani added a Monday class so we could practice more often and one morning a week was dedicated to costume making. I had a list of plants I needed to gather for my show skirts including strips of red banana trunk fiber and 50 green ‘ti leaves. Every time I was invited over to someone’s house I’d troll their garden for material.

“Yeah I’ll have a beer, and you don’t happen to have a red banana tree or some of those elephant ear vines in your yard do you?”

My fingers were sore from sewing and my legs and abs were sore from dancing so much.

During rehearsals we began to see what the other classes were up to. One day instead of practicing with my group I sat and watched the Advanced-Pro class of beautiful young women. Suddenly my class’ dances were put in perspective: we were the background music. These sirens were so outrageously lovely and moved so fluidly with such sexuality and grace that I realized no one at the Gala would be watching — could be watching — anyone else but them. It dawned on me that the athletic suppleness of Tahitian dance is made for young and limber bodies but the open-hearted culture allows everyone to take part in the fun. We all had our place in the show in the way that suited us best. Every aparima and otea told a story and created a frame in which the Advanced-Pro girls could set the stage on fire. And these dancers were literally going to set the scene aflame with giant fiery batons for one of their fast otea dances; my group would perform a gentle aparima with humble little candles just afterwards.

Our show was supposed to be at the Gauguin Museum Restaurant in the low-key village of Papeari, but there was some problem and the location was no longer available. Heirani announced we would now be dancing at To’ata Amphitheater in Papeete, the biggest venue in the country where all the big professional dances and the Heiva I Tahiti performances take place. Posters were put up all over the island, Heirani, was interviewed about the show for several local TV shows and articles were written about our troupe in the newspaper. Our show would be one of the biggest and first performances of the dance season leading up to the Heiva. Some of the Advanced-Pro dances would go on to the Heiva.

Without really being conscious of what had happened, I had gone from casually taking dance classes to committing to dance in five different numbers in front of over 2000 people in the capital city. But I was ready — I was having a ball and couldn’t have cared less if my hips made thousands of people giggle.

Yesterday: Tahitian dance chronicles, part one: Getting hooked
Tomorrow: Tahitian dance chronicles, part three: Dancing towards a new adventure

[Photos: Celeste Brash]

Tahitian dance chronicles, part one: Getting hooked

Early explorers were struck by its sensuality, Christian missionaries banned it shortly after their arrival, and the open-minded 1960s began to revive it. Today, the uber-fast hip shaking of Tahitian dance is again ever-present in French Polynesia. The best performances can be seen at the Heiva I Tahiti festival at Papeete’s Toa’ata Amphitheater in July, when locals and foreigners flock to watch some of humankind’s most spectacular dance extravaganzas. Accentuated by flamboyant costumes and live traditional percussion orchestras, the festival’s singing and dancing competitions are an unrivaled Polynesian highlight.

I’ve lived in French Polynesia for the last 15 years and have always been in awe of Tahitian dance. Although I’d been tempted to take classes, my busy lifestyle and distance from dance schools made it hard for me to make the time. But when my family and I decided to return to live in the U.S. in the near future, I knew my remaining months in Polynesia would be my last chance to explore the culture’s greatest performing art. I signed up at a school in a nearby town and hoped my schedule would allow me to keep it up. I had no idea what I was really getting myself into.

I’d been to some amateur dance school performances over the years and invariably there were French students whose hips just didn’t move like those of the girls who had grown up in the islands. It sounds mean, but it’s impossible to watch a show without snickering at them a little; everyone does it.

When I told my husband I was going to start dance classes, he immediately said, “OK, but please don’t do a show — that’s just way too embarrassing.”

In other circumstances this might have been rude, but I knew exactly what he meant. No, I was with him on this one: There was no way I was going to dance on stage as the stiff white girl.

I decided to take a morning class, which ended up being full of retired Tahitian ladies. I already knew one or two of them but to my surprise my reception was cool. They had all been dancing together for years and I was crashing their party with my thirty-something-year-old hips that moved like the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz. Still, the fast toere wood drum music and my talented teacher, Heirani, made me immediately love learning to fa’atere (quick hip flicks while shuffling on one’s toes) and varu (a figure-eight hip roll) across the wood floor of the hot dance studio. By the end of each class all of us were drenched in sweat and had grins stretched across our faces.

Soon the choreography got more complicated and my ineptitude shone through more. I’ve always been good at remembering stuff I read, but movement memory is another discipline. We’d learn a dance on Wednesday and by Friday I’d have forgotten it. Meanwhile, Isabelle, a French math teacher and one of the few other new students, seemed to have a photographic memory for choreography. Everyone was friendly with Isabelle while I was still the annoying new girl, messing up the dances. Someone organized a luncheon for our class and forgot to invite me. I tried not to be hurt but I was starting to feel like a real loser.

A few months into classes, Heirani announced our first rehearsal.

“We’re doing a show?” I asked in my now expected cluelessness.

“Yes, we do a Gala performance in May every year,” said Timerii, who I’ve known forever but who was aloof with me in class. “You should do it, it’s fun.”

“Oh no,” I said. “I’ll just mess it up for you.”

“Well, as it gets closer you’ll want to do it, you’ll see,” Timerii replied in a surprisingly encouraging way.

I didn’t go to the Gala rehearsal and then left the country for about a month for work. My first day back to class I showed up jetlagged but enthusiastic to learn what I’d missed.

“Ah, Celeste,” said our teacher. “You’re the only one who hasn’t passed the test.”


She put me up at the front of the class — my test was to teach the warm-up session. I was tired and had no idea what to do. I swayed my hips back and forth and waved my arms around a bit but after a few minutes the students just stopped and mumbled things like, “Jeez, can’t you come up with something better than that?”

Just as I was about to run away and never come back I spotted Arvella, a retired school principal, at the back of the room waving at me in the wall-sized mirror. She began doing all the movements I was supposed to be doing and silently motioned me to follow. By looking in the mirror I could cheat and follow her. My students mimicked me even though they knew I was watching Arvella; by the end everyone told me I’d done a splendid job.

It was hard catching up on the choreography I’d missed but the new dance was such a beautiful blend of classic Tahitian moves and modern ideas that I was spellbound and determined to get it right. Tahitian dance is filled with symbolism and this was our Earth otea with arm movements that mimicked sprouting vines; it looked a like Shakira doing Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” An otea is the fast hip-shaking type of dance that Tahiti is famous for and I loved the athletic energy mixed with Polynesian grace.

Suddenly my hips were starting to really wiggle. During our warm-ups where we would all shake our hips as fast as we could in a circular movement called a ueue, I started to get nods of approval from fellow students. Even Heirani seemed pleased.

There was another luncheon and I was invited. We drank vodka-coconut cocktails mid-day on the beach and laughed together.

“Aw, Celeste,” they all cackled. “You have to do the Gala with us. You’ll want to, you’ll see.”

Tomorrow: “Tahitian dance chronicles, part two: Going to To’ata”

[Photos: Josh Humbert and Celeste Brash]

17 great destinations for romance

Some say that romance is a lost art – but it’s not. It’s just hiding, waiting to be uncovered in some of the most beautiful places around the globe. Whether you are trying to show that special someone that they truly are special, making a proposal, or rekindling the flame you once had with your spouse, setting the stage is your first step to success. Whether you are searching for the perfect romantic spot close to home or halfway around the world, the following 17 destinations are sure to bring out the romantic in each of us.

Paris, France
Who could leave Paris off a list of romantic places? You simply can’t. Montmartre is the most romantic neighborhood in “the most romantic city in the world.” Begin your tour of this hilly district with a ride up the Montmartre funicular as it glides along on its heavenly ascent to the Basilica of Sacre-Cœur at the summit of the highest point in the city. From here a dazzling view of Paris unfolds before you. Amble slowly, hand in hand, and wind your way along romantic back alleys and cobblestone streets, taking in the magic of the artist’s corner of Place du Tertre, descending the stairs of Rue Foyatier. and concluding at 15 rue Lepic where Amelie Poulain immortalized romantic conjuring at Cafe des Deux Moulin.Rome, Italy
With more than 280 resplendent fountains, a “Rome-antic” tour of this city must undoubtedly center on a day of gastronomy. Enjoy a cafe latte near the Fountain of Triton followed by a tour of Palazzo Barberini. View the Barcaccia Fountain and make your way up (and down) the Spanish Steps for fantastic vistas of Rome and savour a calzone from an authentic Roman trattoria.

At Piazza Navona, view the Fountain of the Four Rivers and the Fountain of the Moor followed by an alfresco dinner and soak up the sights and smells. A bewitching time to enjoy the Trevi Fountain is late at night when mystical illumination cast spells and shadows. Before the effects of a day filled with romance takes over drop in to Il Gelato di San Crispino, reported to be the best in Rome.

Florence, Italy

In E.M Forster’s novel “A Room with a View,” Lucy Honeychurch found romance (and the view) in the orange and rose-scented hills of Fiesole overlooking Florence. Grab a table and soak up local flavor as art and culture surrounds you. Book your own room with a view at Hotel degli Orafi.

London, England

Place the sights of London at you feet aboard the London Eye, the largest ferris wheel in Europe rising 443 majestic feet above regal London. Pop the question in a private capsule kitted out with a bottle of Pommery champagne and decadent truffles. The 30 minute rotation of the capsule allows plenty of time to overcome any objections.

San Francisco, California

The “City by the Bay” is as photogenic as Grace Kelly. There’s something almost transcendental about Golden Gate Bridge, the cable cars, Coit Tower, Alamo Square, and Lombard Street that naturally stirs up salacious appetite. We’ve been smitten for years and the affair hasn’t seemed to ebb. The bar on the top floor of the Mark Hopkins Hotel offers stunning, 360-degree panoramic views.

Venice, Italy
A gondola ride in Venice has a heavenly price tag, but is a memory to last forever. There is simply nothing quite as romantic as settling into a red velvet-cushioned gondola as your gondolier paddles slowly through quiet canals and under historic bridges as you drift back into the 16th and 17th centuries. A bottle of Valpolicella beforehand at the Piazza San Marco and your gondolier could sound like Pavarotti.

Budapest, Hungary
Once considered the Paris of Central Europe, Budapest offers a heady blend of Eastern and Western European culture. Stroll over the Danube at Chain Bridge and take the funicular up to the Gothic Quarter with resplendent views over the city. Revel in centuries-old architecture and reasonably priced, hearty food and wine. Budapest is the only large city in the world with 118 natural thermal springs supplying nearly 20 million gallons of healing water every day. One of the most impressive is Gellert Spa.

Bruges, Belgium

Think Venice without the crowds. Medieval Bruges abounds with Gothic churches, 17th-century mansions, sparkling canals and flower markets. Most other European cities you’re looked at with disdain for eating on the street. Bruges responds with pedestrian-friendly pommes frites (fries in the US), stuffed into a paper cone, dusted with salt and slathered with mayonnaise. Go to the Louvre for art. Go to Bruges for chocolate. Consider the possibilities at the town’s official website.

San Diego, California
Can’t splurge on a romantic weekend in Paris? Budget-conscious Americans can retreat to a “staycation” in La Jolla, an affluent suburb of San Diego. San Diego can be your affordable base to tour this romantic getaway blessed with 366 days of warm sunshine, trendy boutiques, swanky restaurants and an active arts and cultural community. Toss in a few sumptous stretches of beach, ranging from quiet coves to heady surf, and you have a place that most closely resembles the French or Italian Riviera. Accommodation ranges from a Best Western to the opulent La Valencia, known as La Vie. La Dolce Vita, stateside.

Buenos Aires, Argentina
The South American capital of Buenos Aires breathes sensuality. Voyeuristic spectators can observe on city streets as couples maneuver between emotions of love and hate, contempt and passion, repulsion and desire, all within a 3 minute dance known as tango. Ditch the marriage counselor back home and take lessons at La Catedral in the microcentro.

— The above was written by BriBuenosAires, Seed contributor

Bora Bora, French Polynesia
Nestled amongst the Leeward group of the Society Islands of French Polynesia in the South Pacific, Bora Bora is still somewhat of a hidden gem. Many have heard of it, but few have actually experienced its beauty. The island itself is surrounded by a lagoon and a barrier reef and is home to an extinct volcano. The lagoon holds some of the most truly breathtaking water you will ever see.

With average water temperatures in the 80’s year around, there is never a lack of water activities available for couples to partake in. For the more adventurous at heart, take a trip inland to the massive peaks of Mount Pahia and Mount Otemanu. Bora Bora may take a little longer to get to, but if you are looking for a not so well trodden path to romance, then it is well worth the trip.

San Juan, Puerto Rico
San Juan is the second oldest European-settled city in the Americas, giving it a rich cultural and archaeological history. With average daily temperatures in the 80’s all year around, the weather is perfect for strolling downtown along the old streets that are covered in cobblestones or lounging on the white sandy beach with the ocean breeze blowing by.

San Juan has somehow managed to blend a modern metropolitan city with the antiquities of the past in a way that offers something for everyone. The pace is slow in keeping with its Latin roots, but vibrant nonetheless. The island of Puerto Rico is only 100 miles wide and 40 miles across making day trips to the tropical rainforests that cover the interior or the less crowded beaches of Ponce an easy drive. Beautiful beaches, stunning history and warm tropical nights filled with the sounds of Latin music – a definite recipe for romance.

Savannah, Georgia
Savannah is for the hopeless romantic. Take a step back in time to an era where romance was still alive and well. Savannah sits along the Savannah River and is only about 20 minutes from the Atlantic. Some of America’s most treasured eighteenth and nineteenth century architecture can be found in Savannah’s large historic districts.

With warm summers and cool winters, the weather in Savannah is usually agreeable. It’s almost impossible to walk down the streets of old Savannah and not envision ladies in antebellum gowns riding alongside their beau in a horse-drawn carriage. If old fashioned romance is what you are looking for, then Savannah is your city.

Bali, Indonesia
The island paradise of Bali covers about 2,000 square miles and is located at the westernmost tip of the Lesser Sunda Islands. With a history that dates back to at least 2000 B.C., the Balinese people are an interesting mix of Chinese, Arab and Indian. While you can find modern conveniences on Bali, you may also encounter pockets of native people that are forbidden to have contact with outsiders. If seclusion and privacy are your ingredients for romance, then Bali is the spot for you.

With temperatures in the 80’s year around, you will definitely want to find your own slice of beach paradise while you are there. Bali has gorgeous white sand over much of its beaches, but if you want to see something unusual, check out the black sand found on the west coast. Bali is one of the few places left where you can still find a secluded little cove along the beach to make your own little romantic hideaway for the day.

Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Puerto Vallarta can be found along the Pacific Coast of Mexico, in some of the most crystal clear water on the planet. The city itself somehow manages to blend modern restaurants and shops with centuries old architecture and culture. With perfect weather year around and breathtaking sunsets daily, you are bound to feel romance in the air here.

While you will find American tourists in Puerto Vallarta, you will find a more sophisticated class of tourists – this is not Cancun’s party central. Just a short drive to the north or south and you will find lovely little towns for shopping or more private walks along the beach. Mayan ruins and tropical rainforest canopy trips are also perfect day trips from Puerto Vallarta. Grab a margarita, pull up a rock and watch the sun set over the Pacific Ocean.

New Orleans, Louisiana
The Big Easy. If you like music, culture or people then this is the romantic city for you. The French Quarter in New Orleans is a world unto itself. Definitely skip Mardi Gras, but any other time of the year it feels as though you have been transported to another time and place where music and love are perpetually in the air. The people (or more appropriately – characters) that you will encounter in the French Quarter just seem to exude fun, happiness and romance. If you want to spend some time alone, follow the ocean along Interstate 10 for a day trip and soak up some of the most beautiful scenery the south has to offer. If you aren’t in love when you get to New Orleans, you will be when you leave.

Santorini, Greek Islands
Imagine watching a breathtaking sunset from your Santorini villa perched on the side of a volcano overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. It’s like being inside a Hallmark card. The views are like nothing found elsewhere on the planet. Black sand beaches cover most of the island but a gorgeous and unique red sand beach can also be found on Santorini. If you are feeling adventurous, there a number of islands close by, all within an easy day trip and just waiting to be explored. Romance seems to be carried on the wind in the Mediterranean and Santorini is a perfect example

— The above was written by Leigia Rosales, Seed contributor

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Trade Mocked

You were a cheerleader, you dated a cheerleader, or you hated the cheerleaders. As I recall, that’s how high school worked.

Thanks to travel PR, that same primeval paradigm lives on long after graduation. That miniskirts-shouting-slogans thing still works, whether you’re a used car salesman, Miley Cyrus on VH1 or the tourist board of a small Balkan nation. When it comes to selling your destination in today’s busy world of busy people, a country’s name just isn’t enough–just like school spirit, you need colors, a pep band, a mascot, a brand and most important–a cheer.

It’s tragic but true: tourist boards don’t trust their country’s name to inspire appropriate thoughts in your brain. Toponyms are too open-ended and too untrustworthy–also, way too obvious. For example, what’s the first thing that pops into your head when I say . . . Monte Carlo? How about Australia? The Bahamas? Kuwait? The Gambia?

Whatever you’re thinking, it’s not enough. Tourist boards want you to choose their destination over all others, then allocate all of your vacation days to them and then come spend your money on very specific things–like miniature golf by the sea or hot air balloon rides across the prairie. In short, they want your school spirit so much they’re churning out cheers to fill up all the Swiss cheese holes in your mental map of the world.

Like a good cheer, a good destination slogan is simple and so memorable it sticks in your head like two-sided tape. Sex sells, but then so does love: “Virginia is for Lovers”, Hungary offers visitors “A Love for Life”, Albania promises “A New Mediterranean Love”, while the highlighted “I feel Slovenia” spells out sweetly “I Feel Love”. Meanwhile, Bosnia & Herzegovina call themselves “the Heart Shaped Land” and Denmark’s logo is a red heart with a white cross. Colombia and Dubai have red hearts in their logo. Everybody else uses sunshine.
There is a direct correlation between sunshine deprivation and travelers with disposable income–sunny places sell, which is why Maldives is “the Sunny Side of Life”, Sicily says “Everything else is in the shade”, Ethiopia quizzically boasts “13 Months of Sunshine”, Portugal is “Europe’s West Coast”, and Spain used to be “Everything Under the Sun”. Spain was also the first country ever to have a logo-the splashy red sun painted by Joan Miró in 1983. Some destination logos work–like the black and red “I LOVE NY” design of Milton Glaser that’s been around ever since the 70s. Others fail to grasp the spirit of a place (cough, Italia). Reducing one’s country to a crazy font and some cheesy clip art often detracts from that country’s best assets. Like nature.

When chasing the crunchy yuppie granola suburbanite dollar on vacation, you’ve gotta roll out Nature and promise them the kind of purity that lacks from their daily life. British Virgin Islands claims “Nature’s Little Secrets” while Belize counterclaims with “Mother Nature’s Best Kept Secret”. Switzerland urges us to “Get Natural”, Poland is “The Natural Choice”, Iceland is “Pure, Natural, Unspoiled”, Ecuador is Life in a Pure State, “Pure Michigan” is just as pure, Costa Rica is “No Artificial Ingredients”, and like a clothing tag that makes you feel good, New Zealand is simply “100% Pure”. New Zealand also wants us to believe that they’re the “youngest country on earth” but that’s pushing it. The youngest country on earth is actually Kosovo (Born February 2008)–so young they’re still working on their slogan.

And there’s a tough one–how do you sell a country that’s just poking its head out from under the covers of war and bloodshed? Kosovo’s big bad next-door neighbor Serbia asks us frankly to “Take a New Look at Your Old Neighbor”; “It’s Beautiful–It’s Pakistan” steers clear of the conflict, Colombia owns up to its knack for kidnapping by insisting, “The Only Risk is Wanting to Stay”, and Vietnam nudges our memories away from the past and towards “The Hidden Charm” of today.

Our nostalgia for simpler, better, pre-tourist times invokes our most romantic notions about travel: Croatia is “The Mediterranean as it Once Was”, Tahiti consists of “Islands the Way they Used to Be”, and Bangladesh employs a kind of reverse psychology to insist we “Come to Bangladesh, Before the Tourists.” Such slogans of unaffectedness mirror the push for national validation by tourism, where actual authenticity is second to perceived authenticity, hence Malaysia is “Truly Asia”, Zambia is “The Real Africa”, and the Rocky Mountain States make up “The Real America”. Greece is “The True Experience” and Morocco is “Travel For Real”. Everybody wants to be legit.

Countries without the certified organic label try merely to stupefy us: Israel “Wonders”, Germany is “Simply Inspiring”, Chile is “Always Surprising”, Estonia is “Positively Surprising”, “Amazing Thailand” amazes, and Dominica claims to “Defy the Everyday”. To that same surprising end, Latin America loves trademarking their exclamation points (see ¡Viva Cuba!, Brazil’s one-word essay “Sensational!” and El Salvador’s “Impressive!”)

Where punctuated enthusiasm falls short, countries might confront the traveler with a challenge or a dare. Jamaica projects the burden of proof on its tourists by claiming “Once You Go You Know”, Peru asks that we “Live the Legend”, Canada insists we “Keep Exploring”, South Africa answers your every question with a smiley “It’s Possible”. Meanwhile, Greenland sets an impossibly high bar with “The Greatest Experience”.

Working the totality of a country’s experience into a good slogan is a challenge that often leads to open-ended grandstanding: “It’s Got to be Austria” might be the answer to any question (and sounds better when spoken with an Austrian accent). Next-door Slovakia is the “Little Big Country”, insisting that size is second to experience. Philippines offers “More than the Usual” and small, self-deprecating Andorra confesses, “There’s Just So Much More” (I think what they meant to say is, “come back please”). Really big numbers carries the thought even further: Papua New Guinea is made up of “A Million Different Journeys”; Ireland brightens with “100,000 Welcomes”.

When all else fails, aim for easy alliteration, as in “Enjoy England“, “Incredible India“, “Mystical Myanmar”, and the “Breathtaking Beauty” of Montenegro. (For more on the correlation between simplistic phrases and high mental retention, See Black Eyed Peas-Lyrics).

The point of all this is that today, the internet is our atlas and Google is our guidebook. It’s how we travel, how we think about travel and how we plan our travel. Punch in a country like Tunisia and you’re greeted with a dreamy curly-cue phrase like “Jewel of the Mediterranean”–Type in next-door neighbor Algeria and you get a glaring State Department warning saying “Keep Away.” In a scramble for those top ten search results, destinations compete with a sea of digital ideas that pre-define their tourist appeal. It’s why we’ll never find that page proclaiming Iran “The Land of Civilized and Friendly People” but why a simple “Dubai” turns up Dubai Tourism in first place, along with their moniker “Nowhere Like Dubai” (which should win some kind of truth in advertising prize.)

That aggressive, American-style marketing has taken over the billion-dollar travel industry is obvious. Nobody’s crying over the fact that we sell destinations like breakfast cereal–that countries need a bigger and brighter box with a promised prize inside in order to lull unassuming tourist shoppers into stopping, pulling it off the shelf, reading the back and eventually sticking it in their cart. I guess the sad part is how the whole gregarious exercise limits travel and the very meaning of travel. By boiling down a country into some bland reduction sauce of a slogan, we cancel out the diversity of experience and place, trade wanderlust for jingoism, and turn our hopeful worldview into a kind of commercial ADHD in which we suddenly crave the Jersey Shore like a kid craves a Happy Meal.

Nobody’s ever asked me to join their tourist board focus group, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have my own opinions and tastes. For instance, my daily reality is a stereo cityscape of car alarms and jackhammers. Any country that simply placed the word “Quiet” or “Peaceful” in lower-case Times New Roman, 24-point font white type in the upper right hand corner of a double-truncated landscape spread–well, I’d be there in a heartbeat. Better yet–how about a one-minute TV commercial of total silence. (“Oh, wow honey, look!–that’s where I wanna go.”)

This is probably why I’ve never been in a focus group. For all the focus on authenticity and reality, I find most tourism slogans lacking in both. For the most part, they are limiting and unoriginal, easily dropped into any of the above categories. Even worse, today’s slogans challenge actual truths gained through travel experience. One day spent in any place offers a lifetime of material for long-lasting personal travel slogans. My own favorites include Russia (“Still Cold”), Turkey (“Not Really Europe At All”), England (“Drizzles Often”), Orlando (“Cheesy as Hell”), and Ireland (“Freakin’ Expensive”).

As a writer, I must argue against the cheerleaders and in favor of words–the more words we attach to a destination the better the sell. I think it’s safe to assume that Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia has done more for Argentina tourism than any of their own slogans. Similarly, Jack London gives props to Alaska, Mark Twain mystifies us with the Mississippi, and Rudyard Kipling keeps sending people to India. All four authors wrote about love, nature, and sunshine. They wrote long books filled with enthusiasm and punctuated with exclamation marks. They made us fall in love and yearn for places we never saw or knew.

No matter how many millions get spent on tourist slogans, today’s trademarked PR phraseology has generally failed to hit the mark. Perhaps they’ll make us rethink a place–reconsider a country we’d somehow looked over, but can a two or three word slogan ever touch us in that tender way, make us save up all our money, pack our bags and run away?

I don’t think so.