Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Fear and Loathing in Lancaster, Part Three: Gawkers

Welcome to "The Gods Are Bored," crying holy unto the forgotten deities of many lands! Help them regain the love they have lost! Our operators are standing by to take your call.

You knew it was coming, didn't you? How can one visit Lancaster, Pennsylvania without addressing its most pertinent topic?

That topic is Amish people as a tourist attraction.

If you want to see something nauseating, get in your car and drive east of Lancaster to the two little Amish towns that are the most prominent tourist traps: Bird-in-Hand and Intercourse. Both towns lie along PA Route 340, about 3 miles apart.

People take bus trips to these towns to see the Amish in their buggies and plain clothes.

Granted, the Amish do stand out from the rank-and-file. It's hard to ignore those little black horse-driven buggies. It's impossible not to peer quickly into the depths of the buggies as you pass, in order to see the odd people inside. If you drive past a farm, and some man is working in the field with a horse-driven plow and a straw hat, it does grab your attention. We're human. Anything out of the ordinary interests us.

The Amish themselves have a love-hate relationship with the tourist trade. On one hand, they cash in on it big time. There's a ready customer base for their food and other goods. (The furniture and quilts are mostly made by immigrant labor now.) They have nothing against commerce. They have big families to feed and to provide farms for.

On the other hand, being stared at and photographed for a lifestyle can be exceedingly annoying. These aren't hula dancers being paid to wear leis. These are religious people who wish to remain aloof from the worldly world.

How do the Amish handle the unseemly tourist stares? They tell their children that we're all going to hell, one and all, no exceptions. Heaven is completely populated by Amish. No Old Order Mennonites allowed. Old Order Mennonites drive cars. Black cars, yes, but cars are worldly. To hell with them!

It must be weird to be an Amish kid, growing up amidst a stream of seasonal gawkers who are all doomed.

My daughter The Heir and I had a long day to spend in Lancaster as we waited for the start time on an 8:00 p.m. wedding. I freely admit this. We could have spent the day in Lancaster, itself a charming small city with art galleries and a town market for the ages. Instead we headed out to Bird-in-Hand and Intercourse to people watch.

Except the people we set out to watch weren't the Amish. They were the kind of people who would be attracted to watching the Amish. How postmodern! We were watching people who were watching people.

The first thing you notice about Amish Country tourists is that they're mostly overweight, and they dress almost as if they want to be the quintessential opposite of the Amish. Tight jeans, bright t-shirts, flip-flops, big hair. And everywhere you look, people are eating. Fudge, kettle corn, cake, pie, jams, jellies, sausages, funnel cakes. What the people can't eat on the spot, they buy in quantity to take home.

What's interesting, though, is that one can purchase the same kinds of foods (with the exception of the pies, jams, and sausages) at any Jersey Shore town. For that matter, all these foodstuffs can be had at carnivals and county fairs. So why do people hop on buses and ride into the pig-reeking countryside? Just to see the Amish.

There are Amish keychains and Amish t-shirts, and stuff that says "Intercourse Is Great" and lots and lots of souvenirs having to do with God and angels.

So you go look at the Amish, and you eat fatty foods, and you buy a t-shirt that says, "I Looked at the Amish," and you get on the bus and go back to Baltimore.

Talk about a weird ritual. Truthfully, as I looked around at the teeming throngs of gawking tourists, I sort of saw the point the Amish make. I wouldn't want to be in heaven with these people either. I know I shouldn't lump all tourists together, that everyone's an individual, but there was an awful lot of unseemly worldliness on display.

Heir loves cheesy tourist attractions, but she drew the line at Bird-in-Hand and Intercourse. However, our day of forced visitation to Lancaster County was not completely devoid of fun. Tomorrow I'll tell you about the fun. Suffice it to say that the fun did not include photographing men with beards in blue shirts.


THE Michael said...

Although we aren't really aware of it, humans keep various odd varieties of themselves in Zoos, and those that we deem "mainstream" or "normal" visit these odd ducks in their "zoos". Those in the zoos peer back out and try hard not to laugh. Chimps, tho, DO laugh at us and even do ruder things like fling poo. Wouldn't it be funny if the Amish flung horse manure at US?

Maebius said...

Being raised in the midst of hte Mennonite regions, I always am cunfused and saddened by the spectacle of spectating that goes on here. Know why the Amish dolls have no faces? It's because only god can make a face and a soul. Likewise, the very Old Order Amish I have met really dislike photographs (Graven Images) and tend to avoid the tourists.

Those readers with a pagan-minded liberalish worldview already know something of their plight, as the GOP and Religious Right gawk at us weirdo's, and the Amish are just a more marked distinction in disparity.

My uncle used to drive the Amish around town, since it is permissible to ride in cars, just not own them, especially in the case of an elder needing supplies and not able to hitch up the horse for long-distances. They are a wonderfully friendly group of people if you accept their ways.
However, like you said, those of us 'tourists' are all damned to Hell, so are mostly acknowledged and ignored. There's no real revulsion towards us outsiders that I've encounterred. It's more a resigned acceptance of our mere existance. Like misquitoes.

Nettle said...

I think it's sort of intriguing that the Amish are a tourist attraction, especially in light of what you say about food. How many of those tourists have ever seen anyone who produces their own food? It must be compelling, in some murky atavistic way that leads to buying jarred pickled eggs.

There's a thought here that I can't quite articulate, but it has to do with the tension between contempt and longing that always seems to show up in American conversations about "simpler" lifestyles - they grow their own food, like third-world poor people, whom we pity and revile! but they are strong and sturdy like our pioneer ancestors, whom we idealize and revere! and all that confusion gets sublimated in funnel cakes and tacky quasi-religious souvenirs...

Maeve said...

Up here we have Hutterites, who do allow for some modern machinery. Maybe that is why they don't get tourists out to their farms gawking as they go about their business.

I've always had a respect for these communities, who hold on to their beliefs and try to make their way through a rapidly-changing world. With sometimes better and sometimes worse success.

It's still a little disconcerting to be at the store and see them in their traditional garb buying ordinary things like coffee creamer or toilet paper though. For some reason, I think many of us have this unacknowledged notion that these sort of communities are entirely self-sufficient and self-contained in some deeply mysterious manner.

A Wild Celtic Rose said...

My only experience with the Amish was in Brookevillle Ohio where I was visiting family.

I wanted to pick something up at the Ben Franklin store in the local strip mall.

It was August, very hot and humid.

I was wearing shorts and a sleeveless shirt (nothing risque) which the last time I checked was perfectly acceptable summer attire, even in Ohio.

An Amish family pulled up with their horse and buggy and made it quite clear with their glares/dirty looks that I was a harlot doomed to burn in hell.

I have no desire to go gawk at them.

lucy said...

The first time I came to the US, my friends and I did a bus tour to Niagara Falls and Washington DC. We drove through an Amish area on the way and were horrified when the bus slowed down in front of an Amish school and the guide told us "they don't like having their photo taken, but we're in the bus so they can't do anything".

Alan Joel said...

An interesting commentary on the unconsciousness of the general society, which isn't, after all, surprising. Humanity evolves at a sluggish rate at best. Your post brings to light some of the grosser oddities of being human. All good fodder for thought and for making individual conscious efforts at being less judgmental, more accepting, and looking within instead of staring without!


we have a lot of friends around here..i see them in town all the time..with the exception of thier clothing and the good behavior of their children..they's just folks.they know me from the family dollar so i always get waved at..makes me feel good..
i'd die for a tshirt from intercourse..