Approaching the Cosmos... Hotel: Travelling the World with a Gay Sensibility by Robert Champ
This is a book of travel essays by a man who certainly has covered the world. I've chosen to review it here because so many of the pieces are concerned with places in Mexico, such as Oaxaca, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico City and Guanajuato as well as my own familiar territory here in Ajijic and the Lake Chapala area. Other locations include Russia, China, Ireland, Paris, the French Riviera and some U.S. cities. In fact, for me one of the most interesting articles was about the author's running away from home in Kansas City with another boy and hitchhiking to San Diego. This happened in 1953 when Champ was 16. It's quite an eventful story and one can't help wondering if this was what got him launched on a lifetime of travel writing.
Don't be put off (or attracted) by the sub-title's reference to a gay sensibility. There was nothing that I could find, other than a casual reference to a travel companion such as "Rick" or "Bud" that indicated any kind of special orientation. In other words, you won't find a list of gay bars or steam baths or whatever in any of the locations that are written about. If that subtitle wasn't there I don't think readers would notice any kind of different slant to the stories.
Reading Champ's essays is more like reading a journal than a straight travel guide. One wouldn't turn to this text for basic travel information about routes and hotels and attractions. Certainly there are descriptions of Tienanmen Square and the Louvre and the Great Wall. But there's much more about his travel companions, for example, when he was on guided tours. And there's a lot about various incidents along the way, such as the hassle of dealing with customs in Moscow airport or various difficulties Champ and his companion had getting into Paris from the airport. In Russia, for example, his official Intourist guide comes in for heavy duty criticism. Indeed, he doesn't make Russia sound like a very attractive place to visit.
One of the problems I had with reading these essays is that there are no dates on any of them so that it's impossible to know if he's writing about visiting China or Russia or Ireland last year or twenty years ago. It makes a difference to the reader's orientation to have that information.
I enjoyed the accounts of all those journeys but it is on the subject of the various Mexican locations - specifically here in the Lake Chapala area - that I have to take issue with the author. I've lived here for seven years and my experience of the place is quite different from anything that he describes. The vast majority of gringos living here are simply not the ignorant, discourteous, insensitive boors that Champ describes. I'll quote just one paragraph to give an example:
"Recently, at comida, an angry foreign woman was observed petulantly flinging her foil-wrapped butter patties and tricorn packets of coffee cream to the floor of the restaurant. The waiter was insulted but had no clue to the meaning of the ugly infantile outburst. Others, made limp by too many umbrella cocktails or vodka rocas, shouted stentorian insults at their table-mates or imprecations at the waiter. They obviously cared little about the feelings they had hurt, the anger they had generated, or that they were guests of the country. The lack of style was what most shocked Mexicans. That the outsiders often made no effort to learn even the most rudimentary Spanish was the least of it.
"The rubes typically resided in new gated gringo ghettoes and smugly regarded their fellow foreigners as slum-dwellers if they lived in traditional Mexican neighborhoods, regardless of how charming the latter could be, especially those in the village. On learning that the home of an acquaintance was in Ajijic, a ridiculous American woman sneered, 'Oh, you live down there with all those people? How awful for you!'"
And so on, for quite a few pages…
We've lived very happily in the dreaded village for seven years and we wouldn't live anywhere else. And it's interesting that on every street in Ajijic, you'll find a new house being built or an old house being totally renovated by gringos who seem to be only to happy to be there. I simply have to say that the attitudes he describes lie completely outside my experience of the place or the people.
I could go on at length about my reaction to Robert Champ's descriptions. However, I have to report that I recently had the good fortune to meet the author and to discuss my difficulties with his book. He, of course, defended his words and in the end we decided that the best way to handle this difference of opinions is to allow him to provide a rebuttal to my review right here. It would also give him an opportunity to explain that rather strange title he's chosen for his book.
So here goes - allow me to introduce Robert Champ…..
"I thank Alan Cogan for offering me the opportunity to respond to his review of Approaching the Cosmos….Hotel - Travelling the World with a Gay Sensibility.
The "….Hotel" of the work's title merely completes the notion of where my ventures led me - well beyond, of course, the gargantuan Cosmos Hotel of Moscow. Our complicated and fascinating planet really is, after all, a cosmos by any reckoning.
Mr. Cogan's observation that my book's subtitle ought not to put off readers fails to capture my intent. In deciding on the subtitle, indeed I felt it would be dishonest to lead readers through my long travel odyssey without making note of my sexual orientation. And I never thought that the caveat suggested by the G-word might conjure up distasteful or racy imagery, including bath-houses, something Cogan seems to have expected. I believe one's blackness, Jewishness, Catholicism or, yes, gayness, confers, because of unique life experience, unique perspectives.
To argue, as Cogan does, that 'readers would not notice any kind of different slant to the stories' absent the subtitle, fails to grasp an essential element of, say, the chapter on Spain, in which the author is at pains to suffer the sexual aggressiveness of one randy British ex-pat housewife who obviously assumed the author is straight. In a chapter on China, when Murray asks Matthew if he is 'trying to get decorating ideas,' the ambiance clearly evokes a gay stereotype. Identifying the narrator's orientation works for the integrity of the pieces as well as the writer in a number of other instances as well.
The commentator takes me to task for finding his beloved expat milieu on Lake Chapala's shores an often unsavory collection of auslanders who might have been better disposed to staying home in the first place. Cogan cites instances in which I skewer Ajijic's gringos for mistreating Mexican nationals, yet he rather blithely states that he and his wife 'have lived happily in the dreaded village for seven years'. Not once, though, do I criticize the town or its natives - or its old-time expatriates. My salient complaint, by contrast, is consistently about the very 'insensitive boors' - outsiders all - whom Cogan chooses not to notice. He also misses entirely the point about the overbuilding and threats to the local carrying capacity when he glows smugly about 'a new house being built or an old house being totally renovated by gringos who seem to be only too happy to be there.' What, then, I must ask, about Ajijic's Mexicans? What about the critic's 'most courteous and friendly people you'll ever meet?' Are these foreigners resettling at Lake Chapala, or are they national denizens there? Surely not the former, I say.
True, many expats are polite and fit in comfortably. But many of the foreign community's unamusing grumps with their gringo bucks and rude manners have for nearly a decade been mucking up the region's hitherto peaceful social tenor and dramatically changing its physical character. I've been alternately visiting and living in Ajijic for over 20 years (and visiting Mexico often since 1966). I think Cogan fails to see the negative trends that I and many others who've lived here a long time have been lamentably and painfully witnessing in recent years. I would surmise the man arrived too recently to be affected. A Canadian, Mr. Cogan may be so comforted by the sunny climate that he has immunized himself against the changes. I rest my case on long experience not exclusive to the purview of my own personal observations."
Dear reader/browser: this is Alan Cogan again simply saying that obviously Robert Champ and I are both sticking to our individual viewpoints. I'll leave it to you to make up your own mind about " Approaching the Cosmos…Hotel."
Available from Amazon Books: Paperback
Approaching The Cosmos… Hotel
Xlibris Corporation, 2000
Travelling the World with a Gay Sensibility
By Robert Champ
Available from Amazon Books: Paperback