Alaskan boat people
|Alaskan boat people? No, this has nothing in common with
a desperate venture across the South China Sea in a leaky tub. Quite the
reverse, in fact. The Alaskan boat people issue is a particularly extreme
example of another phenomenon, the traveller
vs. tourist issue.
There are essentially two ways to see South East Alaska. One is to do it under your own steam. This might be very low budget, living in Youth Hostels, eating beans and sleeping on deck on the local ferries. Or it might be a very luxurious affair, moving from one well-appointed hotel to another, or even seen from the home-from-home of your own 45' recreational vehicle complete with tumble drier, jacuzzi and drawing room. What all these routes have in common is a certain amount of flexibility, and actually staying in towns for more than 12 hours.
The other way to do it is from a cruise ship. Basically, you board ship in Vancouver, and ten days later you're in Anchorage. In between, most days are spent docked somewhere, and most nights are spent scoffing what is by all accounts splendid food whilst steaming off to tomorrow's location. To quote one passenger, "you are completely pampered from one day to the next."
|Unfortunately, this level of pampering seems to temporarily diminish
any kind of intelligent thought-process.
The picture to the right is taken from just outside the visitor centre in downtown Skagway. As you can see, the giant cruise ship is plainly visible (a clue: the giant cruise ship is floating on the sea). Amongst the rather surprising questions overheard in the visitors' centre one afternoon were these two gems:
"Where do I go to get the bus back to the cruise ship?"Not to mention their photographic exploits. You know those strange little toys which roll along until they bump into some obstacle, then careen away in a random direction to the next encounter? Introduce a swift click of the shutter at each bump, and you get the general idea...
|Still, these people do play an important role in the local economy. This picture illustrates the approximate layout of the town:|
|Roughly speaking, the way the Skagway economy works is this. Every morning the cruise ships dock. About 20% of the passengers get into minibuses and go for a tour of the historic sites. The rest prowl around the tutt shops buying various curios. The tutt shops and minibuses are manned by locals, who need to relieve the boat people of enough cash between May and September to get them through the winter.||What's tutt?
For the uninitiated, "tutt" is a word used to describe any particularly tasteless piece of memorabilia. Amongst our favourites are the Bill and Monica Russian dolls, the seal fur cod piece, various massive stone carvings of local people killing things, and a lot of pieces of wood carved into the shape of something almost completely unlike a real totem pole.
|Fortunately for the inhabitants of Skagway, the boat people seem to
have an inexhaustible enthusiasm for the accumulation of tutt. One final
example. There is an occasional shop, amidst the sea of tutt, selling hiking,
climbing and camping gear. These are located a couple of blocks off the
main drag, and inside present islands of sanity. There are knowledgable
staff, a lot of maps, and a few hikers planning their assaults on different
peaks. The atmosphere is calm, almost studious. The nearest things to a
tourist item in the room is a book on the local flora. Enter one boat person.
A careful inspection of the room, the tentative approach to the assistant,
then the question:
"Do you sell Alaska ashtrays?"
Author's note: a vote of thanks to tall Andrew ______ from Boston, who provided a lot of creative inspiration for this page.