South American Travel Notes, Part Four

To those who haven’t experienced the beast outside of its natural habitat of strip malls and gated communities, the Ugly American seems an outlandish caricature, a literary device employed to make a point about modern capitalism. Unlike Nessie or Sasquatch, however, this monster really exists. You can see him every summer in Europe, and at the famous Mayan archeological sites, and even in distant wilderness destinations seemingly antithetical to the UA’s penchant for pampering and conspicuous consumption.

Even in the jungle, where the enormity of Nature dwarfs even the most massive ego, oblivious Americans populate the eco-lodges and biological research outposts, spreading their noxious brand of international goodwill. While encamped in Peru’s Tambopata region, a national park that’s home to some the most diverse flora and fauna on the planet, I came across the UA, which, sadly, has become endemic to the remotest corners of the travel industry. These loud and flamboyantly demonstrative Americans, incomprehensible as it seems, are utterly oblivious to the byproducts of their self-absorption, which are manifested in absurdly noisy pronouncements of complaint, boredom, and inane personalization of every familiar sight and sound. To all unfortunate enough to encounter this breed of traveler, the UA appears to be a hugely overgrown baby, whining away the time until his next (unsatisfactory) meal.

Surrounded by rare bird species and endangered monkeys, some of which can only be found in a small tract of Amazonian jungle, the Ugly American views the environment as a perfect opportunity to declaim (loudly) about money, flight schedules, and the interchangeability of parrot species. Exposed to a world that has nothing to do with fame, fabulousness, or wealth, the UA is lost. The only way to cope with this profound cultural dislocation is to view the glorious strangeness through a prism of familiar cynicism.

Naturalists like to remind their students that 99.9% of the planet’s species are now extinct. We look forward to the day when the UA joins that list.

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