As you can imagine, the dark tourism industry has a bit of a public relations problem. For a start, the “dark” part of the name conjures up visits to torture chambers, mass graves, and other creepy places. And sadly, the word “tourism” now implies inappropriate selfies that offend the laws of God and man, to say nothing of the boundaries of good taste and personal safety. Roll it all together and it spells trouble.
The term “dark tourism” was coined in 1996 by John Lennon — no, sorry, not the famous singer-songwriter speaking to us from beyond the grave, but rather a Glasgow academic by the same name who, with colleague Malcom Foley, wrote a book called Dark Tourism: The Attraction of Death and Disaster. Their work makes a thoughtful and intelligent point: no place is purely historical. We arrive at any famous site already steeped in a social, political, cultural, and media-inspired context that shapes our experience. And that’s especially true when we stand in places where history — red in tooth and claw — produced a cataclysm on such an epic scale that its reverberations still make us tremble today.
Those of us who remember the day the Twin Towers fell arrive at the National September 11 Memorial with our hearts full and our minds replaying news footage that’s permanently imbedded in our psyches. When I visited, I found the memorial’s pools an oasis of silent respect. A Spanish friend told me over lunch last Sunday that he'd had a different experience. “I went to Ground Zero and wanted to get one clear photo of the memorial. But everyone was pushing in front of me, and like —" He pantomimed taking a grinning selfie. “It was crazy. I finally gave up and left.” I suspect those were younger visitors, for whom the site was ancient — not personal — history.
Lack of respect is a constant theme in the Dark Tourism world. It’s not easy to publicize disasters without attracting ghouls and morbid thrill seekers. The Dark Tourism website opens with the plea, “PLEASE NOTE from the start: dark tourism, as understood on this site, does NOT include anything voyeuristic (like 'slum tourism'), NOR does it include 'war tourism' (travel to current war zones) or other 'danger tourism', NOR 'ghost hunts' or anything 'paranormal' … It furthermore distances itself from disrespectful tourist behavior such as selfie-taking at sites of tragedy.” Clearly not everyone is taking the high road.
Visitors snapping inappropriate selfies with the dead recently sparked drastic steps at the Sedlec Ossuary chapel in the Czech Republic. To be honest, the chapel was a bit macabre right from the start, decorated with bones from nearly 60,000 human bodies. A nineteenth-century artist was commissioned to arrange them in columns of skulls, a literal coat of arms, and most famously a chandelier that includes every type of bone in the human skeleton. But adding sunglasses and baseball caps to the skulls and taking grinning selfies of yourself kissing them — yes, I think we can all agree that’s a bit much. Ossuary officials have declared that you now need to apply for a photo permit three days in advance, and they beg you to treat the bones with the decency you’d demand if they were your own.
To be fair, it’s not easy to know how to behave around 60,000 dead bodies. I suspect the high jinks spring from the bewildering rush of unfamiliar emotions sparked by being in such weird surroundings. Placing ourselves in circumstances that shake us out of our usual habits of thought and behavior is one of the great benefits of travel,. But of course, it can go too far.
During a visit to Riga, Latvia, I was stunned to learn about Karosta, the old Soviet prison hotel offering a full immersion experience. You’re yelled at by guards, dragged outside to do exercises in the yard, and, if you pay extra, you get to wear a prison uniform, sleep in a cell on a wooden slab, and suffer interrogations and punishments all night.
“Why would anybody in their right mind want to do that?” I asked a Latvian schoolteacher over dinner.
She laughed. “I take my students there every year.”
“How old are they?” I asked, aghast, imagining first graders handcuffed to radiators while burly guards screamed abuse at their little heads.
“Teenagers. They love it.” She explained that kids born in post-Soviet Latvia are eager to discover how they would handle themselves under hardships like those suffered by their parents and grandparents.
“Don’t even think about it,” Rich said. To be honest, it didn’t take much for him to dissuade me. They lost me at sleeping on wooden planks under a thin blanket. And I didn’t even want to think what the bathrooms (if any) were like.
It’s easy to scoff at the more excessive forms of dark tourism, but the fact is every traveler spends times at places where death and disaster have left their mark. The question is whether we’ll find a way to learn from our experiences. Like the Riga teenagers, we need to confront the specters of our common past if we are to figure out how to live with the horrors of the present day.
I recently returned to Seville’s Inquisition Museum, which I’d visited eleven years ago when it first opened. At the time, I’d found it pretty underwhelming. Clearly city officials had said, “Look, we need something about the Inquisition, but for heaven’s sake, put a positive spin on it!” And lord knows they tried. The site is long on talk about tolerance and human rights, and gives only the haziest information about the horrors that lasted from 1478 to 1834.
The second time around, I was shocked to discover the museum had fallen into near total disrepair. Water leaked from the ceiling into buckets. Parts of the floor buckled dangerously. Most of the screens were blank. Whole displays had been removed, leaving just a single wall with posters about famous figures of the Inquisition. There was almost no one around, just a few stray tourists gazing bewildered at the blank walls.
And I realized this is what happens when you water down history: it becomes meaningless.
I don’t need to tell you what a scary world we’re living in. Wrapping my mind around the wilder aspects of our collective past reminds me how tough times can get, but also how resilient and creative human beings are. We survived the Inquisitors, the Soviets, the Nazis, and countless others who were determined to remold the world to fit their narrow image of how it ought to be. “In the depth of winter,” said Albert Camus, “I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” Dark tourism can lead us into the depths we need to visit if we’re to find our own invincible summer.
Have you visited any dark tourism sites? What did you discover?
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“We ought to do good to others as simply as a horse runs, or a bee makes honey, or a vine bears grapes season after season without thinking of the grapes it has borne.”
Right now, in pride of place on my refrigerator, I’ve stuck a printout from a site called Lily’s Legacy, on which I’ve scrawled, in large red letters, “We are doing this!”
Lily’s is a California sanctuary for older dogs who find themselves alone in the world. And while founder Alice Mayn is busy trying to get them adopted, neighborhood volunteers in the “Cuddle Club” spend time on her comfy couches, petting these sweet old animals and letting them know they are still loved. When Rich and I return to California next month for a long visit, one of the first things we’re doing is signing up for that job.
In theory, of course, it’s for the dogs’ benefit. But frankly, I think we’ll be the ones getting the better deal here. For a start, it’s a chance to deploy our siesta skills, honed during fifteen years of living in Seville. Rich is particularly gifted at dropping off to sleep anywhere, and I foresee he’ll be doing some deep, cozy snoozing with the beasts. And then there are all those tremendous health benefits that come from hanging out with dogs, including boosting our immune system, strengthening our hearts, lowering our cholesterol, making us more allergy resistant, and reducing the modern world’s pervasive sense of isolation and depression. I wouldn’t be surprised if Lily’s Legacy added many dog years to our lives.
One of the great things about community service is that it comes in all shapes and sizes: soup kitchens, hospice, or just cherishing an abandoned animal. And the benefits tend to flow freely in both directions. These days, I get the impression some think that working for the common good is an old-fashioned virtue, if not an outright sign of weakness, but I am convinced it makes us stronger, as individuals and a community. Studies have shown that just witnessing acts of kindness and compassion gives us a high known as “moral elevation” that boosts our optimism and inspires us to more altruistic behavior. If we start an upward spiral of altruism, there’s no telling what might happen.
More good news: you don’t need to be a saint to indulge in altruistic behavior. In fact, you don’t even need to be human. (Although if you are reading this right now, I suspect you probably are.) Take the story of Odin, a Great Pyrenees dog that refused emergency evacuation during California’s devastating Tubbs Fire of 2017.
“Despite the sounds of exploding propane tanks, twisting metal, and the hot swirling winds, Odin refused to leave our family of eight bottle-fed rescue goats,” said his owner Roland Hendel. “He was determined to stay with the goats and I had to let him do it.” He added, “I was sure I had sentenced them to a horrific and agonizing death.”
Incredibly, all the animals all survived. Oden emerged with a singed coat, melted whiskers, and a limp, but he’d stood fast, protecting the goats and a few terrified baby deer who joined the little flock. Hailed as a hero by his family, Odin will, I suspect, be fed steak dinners for the rest of his life.
There have been countless human heroes in the Californian wildfires, too, including nurse Allyn Pierce, who in 2018 drove straight through the Camp Fire inferno to rescue patients in the intensive care unit he manages. Eventually, after two trips through the flames, he and other first responders got everyone to safety. “I just kept thinking, ‘I’m going to die in melting plastic,’” Pierce recalls. He posted this photo of his truck, toasted to a color he now refers to as “Custom Campfire Marshmallow.”
I don’t think any of us knows what we’re capable of in a truly desperate situation, and sometimes an entire nation can astonish you. I particularly love the story of young King Zog, the first and only monarch of Albania, who came to the throne in the turbulent run-up to World War II. As leader of a small, beleaguered nation with a population that was three-quarters Muslim, King Zog had plenty on his plate already. But he quietly let it be known that the entire population of Albania stood ready to help European Jews who were fleeing for their lives. Why? Because the Albanians have an ancient code of honor that forms the backbone of the national character, and one of its key concepts is besa, offering shelter to those in need. For the Albanians, it would have been unthinkable to do anything except welcome and protect their desperate neighbors.
“Jews, who had escaped from other countries and who had literally been branded on the forehead with a J, were astonished to learn that the local population was jostling amongst themselves for the honour of sheltering them, for the honour of saving their lives,” wrote the publication Diplomat. “Neighbours even shared the privilege, based on their ability to contribute to the welfare of their ‘guest.’ In one case, a rich neighbour fed the people in their care, while a poor neighbour gave them a bed to sleep in each night. No threats of punishment or death could cause these people to waver in their commitment.” Albania was the only country in Europe whose Jewish population grew tenfold during World War II.
This chapter of Albanian history remained largely unknown until an American photographer named Norman H. Gershman stumbled on the story and began photographing those who had hidden Jewish families — in some cases housing them in the attic while German soldiers were billeted downstairs.
“How many people,” asks the film, “would lay down their lives for a stranger?” Most of us (thank God) will never be called on to make that kind of sacrifice. But there are plenty of smaller ways to show our decency and compassion. Often they’re nothing noble, or even particularly dignified — bringing a meal to a sick friend, buying the person in line behind you a cup of coffee, sprawling on a couch with a drooling Labrador and trying not to wonder if it has fleas. Sometimes it’s a simple as a thoughtful message on social media.
Five minutes ago, as I was putting the finishing touches on this article, I learned that yesterday, February 17, was Random Acts of Kindness Day. For a moment, I felt a pang of regret that I’d missed it. Then I realized I was looking at it all wrong. I now have 364 days to pay it forward in preparation for the next one.
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Show of hands: how many of you actually like going to the dentist? Anyone? I certainly don’t. In fact, I pretty much need a shot of novocaine just to call and make the appointment, especially if I’m trying out a new dental practice. And that goes double in a foreign country. I’m such a coward that until now, I’ve always managed to be in America when it was time for dental maintenance. But last week, seriously overdue a cleaning, I gritted my teeth and booked an appointment with a Seville dentist. He came highly recommended by a friend, who mentioned — in some detail — his vivid good looks and luxurious hair. No, sorry, I don’t have any photos to share. You’ll just have to use your imagination.
But the really striking thing about my visit to his dental practice was how efficient and painless everything was. If you’ve ever suffered through x-rays taken via a series of uncomfortable vinyl-clad carboard inserts jammed into your cheeks, you’ll appreciate that I simply rested my chin on a support and the machine rotated around me like something out of Star Trek. The cleaning was all done via water pressure, without a single jab to the gums with a sharp metal implement. Before I knew it I was back out on the street with a brighter smile and a couple of complimentary bamboo toothbrushes.
It’s natural to be nervous about health care in a foreign country, and you're wise to be cautious, do your research, and seek the best available care. With a bit of luck, you just might find yourself pleasantly surprised by the whole experience.
For instance, last April, just before starting our five-month Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour, Rich underwent a very minor medical procedure and was told to have the dressings changed, by health professionals, every other day for the next month. Our first stop was a clinic in Heraklion, Crete. Having emailed ahead to discuss his case — and his willingness to pay full price in cash — Rich was greeted with considerable enthusiasm. He was whisked to the head of the line and a neurosurgeon was summoned to change the bandage. It was all very gratifying, and the care could not have been better. Eventually Rich decided to try the free public health facilities, which turned out to be equally as clean, professional, and competent. And did I mention they were free?
Two weeks ago here in Seville, I dropped in to see an 87-year-old friend and found her fretting about an earache. I walked five blocks to the nearest public health center and made an appointment for later that same day. The doctor — thanks to the universal medical records system — had my friend’s full history at his fingertips. Unlike the US, they don’t make you undress and get into a paper gown every time you visit, nor do they send in a nurse to take all your vitals. The doctor determines what body parts need to be examined and focuses on those. In this case, he peered into my friend’s ear and checked her blood pressure, which has been problematic in the past, but was OK now.
He tapped a few keys on his computer and told me he’d prescribed a mild pain killer. When I asked what pharmacy he’d sent the prescription to, he looked at me strangely. “All of them,” he said. You’ve got to love the efficiency!
Not being a Spanish citizen, I don’t qualify for the public medical system and I’m required to have private health insurance. Rich and I pay 2,600€ ($2845) a year for outpatient coverage for both of us with Sanitas, a private carrier geared to expats. We get unlimited office visits and (brace yourself) house calls. And they reimburse us for 80% of any costs we incur — for instance, those fees from the private clinics in Crete.
My Sanitas insurance doesn’t cover prescriptions, but that’s OK because the meds I take are affordable here. For example, in the US a 90-day supply of thyroid tablets retails for $132; my drug benefits reduce it to $9.93. In Spain I pay just 3.85€ ($4.21) for the same Merck pharmaceuticals. This insurance doesn’t cover dental either, but like the meds, these services are reasonably priced. I paid 50€ ($55) for x-rays and teeth cleaning; in the US those services typically run $200 to $300. I’ve read that in Los Angeles, these services can cost up to $3,800; I can only assume that to justify those prices, the cleanings are done by actor Ed Helms, reprising his role as Stu the Dentist in the movie Hangover.
Sometimes our concerns about foreign medical care make us do extraordinarily foolish things. When an American nurse I know got food poisoning in England, she insisted on immediately flying back to the US rather than getting treatment from local providers. I don’t even want to imagine what that flight was like for her, her husband, or anyone else in the vicinity.
Why would she put herself through that kind of suffering? Because she believed the American health care industry, which has spent billions of dollars trying to convince us that they provide the only decent medical care on the planet. And that any health services outside our borders will be so medieval we’ll wind up with something worse than whatever we walked in with. None of that is true. The World Health Organization’s 2020 rankings place the quality of healthcare in the US at number 37 — well below, for instance, France (1), Spain (7), Greece (14), Columbia (22), and Morocco (29). Yes, below Morocco, folks! The UK is ranked a healthy 18, suggesting my friend could have received better care there than in her own country.
The World Health Organization ranked countries by the care process (preventative care measures, safe care, coordinated care, and engagement and patient preferences), access (affordability and timeliness), administrative efficiency, equity, and healthcare outcomes (population health, mortality amenable to healthcare, and disease-specific health outcomes).
Of course, for major issues, flying home may prove sensible. It’s easier to navigate a known medical system, with familiar doctors who speak your language and specialize in precisely what ails you. And if you’re traveling in a poor, rural region known for substandard medical care, you'll want to head to the nearest city. But most of the time, our health issues can be dealt with locally. Rich’s legendary first aid kit is our first line of defense, a visit to the pharmacy comes next, and, if necessary, we research local clinics online. You can also check with the nearest US embassy or consulate; they often have lists of English-speaking doctors. Sadly, not all providers have been as handsome as my dentist — indeed, many look more like Elmer Fudd or Margaret Thatcher — but they’ve all proved to be competent professionals who took good care of us in our hour of need.
Journalist Bill Moyars once said, “When I learn something new — and it happens every day — I feel a little more at home in this universe, a little more comfortable in the nest.” The more I learn about healthcare in other countries, the less anxious I feel about what would happen if I got sick on the road, and the more comfortable I am about moving freely around the world.
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Lots of us dream about taking a job overseas, and when I heard that Jo Maeder, bestselling author and former top New York DJ, actually took the plunge, I wanted to know how she did it. We’d met up in Seville, and the conversation turned to travel with a purpose and the many ways that having a focus for our journeys offers opportunities to dig deeper and learn more about other cultures — and ourselves.
What inspired you to work abroad?
It was June 2017 and oppressively hot in North Carolina. I had to get away. I used to travel every year. Somehow it had been nine since my last real trip. I’d fallen into The Freelancer’s Quandary: when you have the time to travel, you don’t want to spend the money because you’re not working. When you have the money you don’t have the time because you’re working.
I was determined to hack at least two weeks in France, in a nice place, for under $2,000 including airfare. If I could make the trip a résumé builder it would be guilt-free, though I didn’t want it too work-related or it wouldn’t feel like a vacation.
How did you find your overseas job?
I Googled “travel work exchange” hoping to find a small business with no time to do social media and update their website. Based on reviews, I narrowed the choices of “cultural exchange” sites to HelpX.net and Workaway.info. You’re expected to work five hours a day, five days a week in exchange for room and board. You pay your travel expenses. Some hosts offer a small stipend. They’re rare. There were opportunities all over the world from farms to child care to remodeling. I used keywords related to the freelance marketing work I did.
Like online dating, you can only do so much for free on these sites. To connect with a host you have to create a profile and pay a membership fee. HelpX is €20 for two years. Workaway is $42 a year for one person, $54 for a couple/friends. HelpX is where I found my incredible match at the Hotel de Cours de Thomazeau in Castillonnès, France.
What kind of work did you find?
I was nervous because it seemed too good to be true. Would I end up scrubbing floors? It was an 18th century hôtel particulier [château] in southwest France near Bergerac owned by Jennie and Ron Whetton, a British couple (so no language issues). They had used only one other HelpXer, however her review of them was full of superlatives — always a good sign.
Jennie and I worked out that I would help with online marketing, social media, and their website. I still wasn’t sure about this and only signed on for two weeks. Then my wanderlust exploded and I figured as long as I was there, I’d see friends in Toulouse and Provence. My entire time away was 24 days.
How much did you pack for the trip?
I was reading your blog at this point and challenged myself to do the whole visit with one carry-on bag. It would not only eliminate the baggage time-waster when switching flights, it would give me hope that I was becoming the Minimalist I longed to be. (My mother was a Category 5 hoarder. I'm eternally afraid the apple won't fall far from the tree.) I used my trusty 20-year-old Travelpro carry-on and a roller "briefcase" for my computer.
How did you get along with your hosts?
Jennie and I were about the same age. She loved that I wasn’t a gap-year kid who had to be continually managed (not that the previous HelperXer was, but that was her biggest fear with outside help). I was so focused on my work for her that she often pulled me off the PC. “You can’t work all the time!” she’d say, then take me to an antique brocante (second-hand market) in another quaint town, to visit a friend, or to see a photo exhibit in a medieval church.
How were your living accommodations?
Need I say more?
What did you learn from this journey?
I would never wait another nine years to travel again. I would do this over and over in a heartbeat. I came back happier and more confident. I had no idea my life was about to change dramatically in many ways.
A sad part of my trip was that, right before I left North Carolina, I learned my beloved brother had not conquered his prostate cancer as we had thought. It had spread to his bones. It made me realize how quickly it all can change; how short our time is here. I made a trip to Lourdes and brought back a bottle of water for him. I had an experience there I’ll never forget. I went into a small room that had a statue of Mary. I lit a candle and prayed for my brother. It wasn’t the first time I had done this on the trip, but I felt something, a reverberation in the room, when I lit that one. It was like God put his hand on my shoulder and said “All will be fine.”
My brother lived almost another eight months. When he passed, I was heartbroken, naturally, but I knew he was finally at peace and not suffering. It was the same feeling I had at Lourdes.
A few months after my return, it was discovered by accident that I had an extremely rare non-cancerous tumor in one of my adrenal glands that had been pumping out ten times too much adrenalin on and off for years. I was at high risk for a stroke or heart attack. It was a miracle it was found. I’m a new person since it was removed. I’ve never felt this good! Would they have found it had I not gone to Lourdes? It depends on what you believe. It certainly didn’t hurt that I went there.
What I do know is that all that worrying about money and not enjoying life could very well have been killing me. It was also no wonder I’d been unmarried for 30 years despite wanting to be remarried and trying, trying, trying to find The One. It was now clear I could barely live with myself much less someone else.
I stopped coloring my hair and embraced a “this is me, take it or leave it” perspective. I changed careers and became a charity fundraiser and auctioneer. It’s lucrative, seasonal, highly gratifying work that leaves plenty of time to travel. I fell in love with a wonderful man who craves travel too and has plenty of time for it. We met — where else? — online. I said in my profile that with the right person, 1+1=3. He’s a mathematician. At last, I’m a “we” instead of a “me”. My sojourns are fulfilling in ways I never imagined possible.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain and my home state of California. Right now I'm on a Nutters' World Tour seeking eccentric people, quirky places, and wacky food so I can have the fun of writing about them here.
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Winner of the 2023 Firebird Book Award for Travel
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