It’s difficult for backpackers to escape the package-deal tourism industry. Philipp Laage takes a trip to Vietnam – and comes face to face with his own shortcomings.
‚We’re nearly at the South Pacific!‘
Excited, Janet points towards the small patch of high ground. I gaze around me in amazement. To our right is a peacock. He’s not fanning out his tail, not looking at us, not making a sound. To the left a woman is lying on a plastic sun lounger. She’s very broad, with a colourful tattoo on her shoulder. A boy is sitting next to her almost lifeless-looking body, staring at us with empty eyes. He must be her kid, I think – the resemblance is uncanny.
We climb a few steps up the slope and walk past the lagoon glittering in the sunlight. Beneath a waterfall people are splashing around. They’re not naked, although I’m firmly of the opinion that you need to be sans clothes in order to lounge about under a waterfall. At the same instant I discard the thought; no, it wouldn’t be a good idea. Nobody wants to see that lot strip off. In other cultures people swim fully clothed, and that might be better than these tiny swimsuits. A clear point in favour of Hindu-ising the West.
Above the waterfall are three cabins. ‚Those are Junior Suits on the edge of the rainforest, with a view over the lagoon!‘ explains the woman guiding us, enthusiastically.
‚Spending the night here is a real adventure!‘
Nearly at the South Pacific? Bit of an exaggeration, lady, I think. That’s just the rainforest! But the woman knows what she’s doing. There’s a tunnel, a hidden path: a shortcut directly to the South Pacific.
I let the words dissolve over and over on my tongue:
I’ve dreamed about it for years, ever since I read a gripping adventure story in a comic book as a boy …
‚… on a boat trip in the South Pacific, Micky and Goofy drop anchor in a lagoon on a small island, where they discover the remains of an extinct culture. Among the ruins they find an enormous ruby. At that moment, Peg-Leg Pete appears on his sailboat, having brought useless bric-a-brac to sell to the sailors and islanders. Pete immediately senses that Micky and Goofy have made a valuable discovery, and spies on them with a bug. Wanting to steal the ruby from Goofy, Pete exploits his weakness for mermaids by dressing up as Mermaid Clarissa, who tries to charm Goofy into surrendering the precious stone.‘
‚Just as the ruse is about to work, an approaching hurricane reaches the three of them, whirling them away along with all sorts of flotsam and jetsam. A pelican is drawn into the hunt for the ruby, rescuing Micky and Goofy from the storm. The ruby, however, falls deep down to the ocean floor …‘
Even today, my hair stands on end (in excitement) when I remember the pictures of palm trees and mermaids. Real ones, of course – not Pete as Clarissa. I would never have fallen for that one.
The South Pacific is a bitter disappointment.
What a terrible disappointment, children.
We’re standing in front of the South Pacific and there’s a hole in the sky.
Trap sprung! You fell for it, didn’t you? South Pacific – ha!
Ok, all jokes aside.
It’s time for the truth.
* * *
No, you can’t even get from Mars back to Earth! It’s too expensive, people. But actually I’m kind of liking it here. The settlers have done a great job!
As we enter the module, the first thing we’re given is a kind of watch. That’s pretty retro, I know, but it’s got no display. It’s actually just a chip: my key, my wallet, my identity, which everyone has had since the mid twenty-first century. Not subcutaneously, mind you, but in a skin-friendly version you wear on your wrist.
It was a fabulous idea to build such an enormous recreation module in the colony on Mars.
While I settle into my room (we’re staying in the ‚coastal town‘) and change into my swimming trunks, I say to Marianna: ‚I think it’s even better than those original tropical rainforest things on Earth.‘
It’s true: the atmosphere in here is very pleasant. It’s an even twenty-six degrees Celsius, the air is good, the noise level is perfectly bearable. From the window I look out towards reception; there are loads of Mars colonists just starting out. They seem cheerful. Many of them are rather busty, even the boys.
That must be life in space, I think. It makes you unusually well-rounded.
The hangar is enormous. The biggest on Mars. Even on Earth there are only three ones that are larger! The so-called dome on the ‚Tropical Islands‘ where we’re currently staying is 360 metres long, 210 metres wide and 107 metres high, I read in the information broschure.
‚The indirect lighting system works with the UV-permeable membrane on the south side to ensure that the dome remains bright throughout the day, even in winter. The light and warmth help the plants to grow and allow visitors to tan naturally.‘
I turn another page. ‚The 7,000 cubic metres of water in the South Pacific (28°C) and the lagoon (32°C) are cleaned with the latest ozone purification technology. The water is of drinking quality. The two swimming pools made of high-grade steel guarantee the very best standards of hygiene. The water depth is nowhere more than 1.35 metres.‘
Great, I think, and start to feel a bit excited.
‚Marianna!‘ I say, ‚listen to this! The biggest indoor rainforest in the galaxy! Let’s take a quick look around then head down to the South Pacific.‘
Flamingos are standing around a small table. They don’t fly away. ‚Not enough space to get going,‘ explains the botanist enthusiastically. ‚But they have a great time here!’ So do the turtles. They’re helping themselves to the flamingos’ food.
The South Pacific is a dream. A strip of blue sky has even been hung from the dome, with a small tear in it. It reminds me of a quotation, an African proverb, that I saw recently on Facebook (it was written on a picture of a sunset):
‘Dreaming means looking through the horizon.’
You couldn’t find a better translation of that sentiment into reality, I think, feeling grateful.
Then we’re allowed to fly. A man pulls us through the air with a rope. Well, not us, exactly – we’re sitting in a hot air balloon (using helium instead of hot air). Is there anything you can’t do here? Thousands of people are having the time of their life right now.
‘Over there is Angkor Wat!’ shouts Marianna. She’s right. You can get a massage there, I read. I probably will. ‘Yeah, great,’ I reply, adding reflectively, ‘So if the one on Earth falls apart we’ve got a back-up copy.’
But then something else dawns on me. The other people here: they’re not like me.
* * *
Did you notice the little boy in that film? The really little one? As awkward as he looks trying to dance Zumba – that’s how awkward I feel here.
As we saunter past the shops, I remark in a half-whisper: ‘Marianna, everybody here has these tattoos. If I had one too …’ I can’t finish the sentence, because we’re brought to an abrupt halt by an orderly line of people queuing. Is it here, then?
There are some boards around with pictures on them, surrounded by indecisive-looking visitors like prayer wheels in a Buddhist monastery.
‘So it’s here …’ I repeat under my breath.
This is where I’m going to get my badge, my sign – my attempt to become part of this community, to be drawn into it, perhaps, like a Borg into the collective consciousness in Star Trek. I hope that doesn’t sound desperate. Is my self-esteem being negatively affected by the atmosphere on this planet? Who knows.
After circling the boards just four times I know exactly which design I want. I join the end of the queue and wait for my moment.
With a stunning brown tattoo expertly placed on my shoulder blade, I hold my chip up to a reader and pay. Eight euros. That’s really pretty good!
We walk proudly onwards.
‘That was easy!’ I say.
I observe the other people here, and get the feeling that they’re nodding at me knowingly whenever our eyes meet.
The theatre is only a few steps from the balloon station. We stop, confidently flashing our chips at the doors. They open. There are a few scattered round tables; it’s not full, but it doesn’t spoil the atmosphere. Acrobats and tightrope-walkers are performing their routines, while minimally clothed, extremely good-looking dancers gyrate to exotic music. Fab! We clap like crazy.
Evening arrives, but that’s no reason to throw on extra layers: it’s still a solid twenty-six degrees. Here there are people splashing around 24/7. Nobody has to leave if they don’t want to. A few people are making themselves comfortable on the deckchairs, ending the day as they spent it.
Many others, including ourselves, return to their rooms at some point: to the lagoon, to the coastal town, to the tepee villages or the luxury suites on the edge of the action.
Night falls over the dome, and I doze off into the wild world of dreams.
Bathed in sweat, I’m startled awake. It’s not the temperature that’s to blame – the air conditioning is working perfectly. No. In my dream I came to an unexpected realisation: I did it.
I’m a tourist among tourists! Here, in this folkloristic world of make-believe I can’t raise myself above the herds of my apathetic compatriots. ‘But I’m a traveller! A traveller!’ I mumble, shocked.
I don’t belong here!
My self-image is under threat. I’ve got to leave the plebeian masses behind me. My attempt at assimilation was just theatre.
I’ve got to get out of here.
* * *
I bid this bizarre place a hasty goodbye. The sliding doors open, and I’m no longer standing on Mars or the South Pacific but at a bus stop, beyond which is a huge carpark filled with cars.
This place has been here for years, about fifty kilometres south of Berlin, a world of big dreams: once it was a Soviet air base; after the fall of the GDR they were going to build gigantic CargoLifter airships here. I still remember reading about it. It was an impressive plan, but sadly they couldn’t raise the money. Only the hangar was completed.
Then came perhaps the greatest dream of all.
A real tropical landscape, the biggest of its kind. Summer and winter, day and night, this was going to be the place where people could take short holidays. A place of superlatives.
It has remained a dream. This is a strange kind of waterpark, painstakingly and in places successfully decorated. A place worth a visit, if you bring money and imagination, and leave your intellectual side at home.
Only a few people will come here in the belief that they’re saving themselves a trip to an exotic country in the sunny southern hemisphere. If they do they’ll be disappointed. And anybody who does come away thinking that this is an adequate substitute for the real rainforest is working with a decidedly below-average understanding of the world. This is no visit to the tropics.
It’s a visit to Mars. And that’s pretty damn awesome.
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