On December 26th, as I waited for a ferry to take me from Fajardo to Culebra, I noticed a poster for the Luis Pena Nature Reserve (more accurately, for the Cayo Luis Pena, part of the Culebra National Wildlife Refuge). As I gazed at the dazzling blue waters, the painfully-white glistening sands, bewitched by the promise of the colorful aquatic creatures that surely played and frolicked below the waters of that oceanic snorkeling and scuba-diving paradise, I felt myself succumb, yet again, to that tyranny of the poster and the guidebook. And yet again, I felt the terror of that most fearful of things: the inadequate, not properly-realized, not fully-to-be-treasured, the missed-opportunity vacation. For if there is one mode of oppression that the tourist poster and the guidebook have the market cornered on, it is in making us feel like failures even when we manage to put down the laptop, take our fingers off the keyboard, dock the smartphone and head, bravely putting away our calendars, for the wilderness.
The artfully put-together tourist poster–like the illustrations of those improbably delicious-looking concoctions in cookbooks–promises us a glimpse of the impossible, the seemingly inaccessible. The photograph of the attraction in question will undeniably be of “postcard” or “coffee-table book” quality; fit to be mailed to friends, but somehow always felt to not be possible to actually visit (surely the photographer was granted special access to that Shangri-La, which beams at us from the poster?).
The poster, or the guidebook, assure us with a devastating two-fer, that this place has been visited, and even more damagingly, that if we do not visit it, we have somehow failed. The guidebook does this especially acutely with its listing of the “essential,” the “must-see,” the “ten things any visitor to X must do” and so on. These can be resisted perhaps by rhetorical devices like “Well, that’s what the editors of that guidebook think, but what do they know?” But such rhetorical bluster is just that; under the weight of the prescription, even our resolve crumbles; we become acutely conscious of the need to play by the guidebook’s (and the poster’s) playbook: Visit this place! Have these experiences! Or else!
The tyranny of the poster is perhaps more benign: one can console ourselves that even if we were not treated to precisely the same image as that currently visible, we might have seen a variant of it. But there is the rub. For the gloss and the finish of the poster assures us we didn’t see the advertised excellence, we merely saw the weaker, insipid version made available for our plebeian viewing. So we seek in our vacations to make sure we visit those places recommended by the guidebook, perhaps even in the order suggested, and we might even squirm ourselves into precisely those locations that will facilitate the takings of those photographs that will approximate the tourist poster with the greatest fidelity possible. How else would we assure ourselves of the authenticity of our experiences if not by total adherence to a template provided for us?