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Monday, February 16, 2009

More reflections on offbeat travel: when the mainstream starts to have kitsch appeal

To continue from my previous post's reflections on offbeat travel... it seems that conversely, and curiously, out-of-favour mainstream attractions can come to have kitsch-appeal to some. Now when exactly that starts to happen is something I find intriguing. Take Australia's 'big things', the Big Pineapple, Big Banana, Big Sheep, etc. And yes, please take them, Australia has hundreds of them, and we really have no need for them anymore. Once popular with Aussie families when they first opened in the 1960s and 1970s, these big old beasts have been largely forgotten by locals, lying empty and abandoned for the last couple of decades. Indeed the Big Lobster (pictured), which we drove by a couple of weeks ago in Kingston, South Australia, is even up for sale. Yet, while these colossal creatures no longer interest Australians, they're obviously fascinating to foreign travellers. They're included in all the guidebooks and writers such as Danny Wallace currently on the road in Australia scribbling for The Guardian about his 'Big Adventure' still seems to find them oddly compelling. Although the same can't be said for his travelling companion and Australian wife. I can't help but wonder how many readers have stuck with the series. And how many travellers are actually considering a trip to Oz created around visits to big things. The poor things! I can think of a lot more engaging ways to theme a road trip in Australia. But each to their own I guess. So what are your thoughts? Do you have examples from your own countries, or from your travels, of popular attractions that may have fallen out of favour with the mainstream but now have some kind of wonderous kitsch appeal?

15 comments:

Travel Muse said...

We Americans are fascinated with this sort of thing. We have similar attractions here (the Big Donut, the Doghouse, etc.) Bill Bryson sought them out for In a Sunburned Country. It was actually quite charming how he described his visit to the giant Lobster.

Sandy O'Sullivan said...

I say this with no small amount of shame: I love the big things. I really do. I want to put it down to the formative experience of my first visit to anywhere being the Big Banana at Coffs, and still stop there for a chocolate covered banana on the road between Sydney and Brissie. I've even been known to time it to ensure that it IS open when I go past. I also have a toilet stop at the big prawn at Ballina (though its been a couple of years, is it even still there?), and its not for the food, I'm a veggie, I always have a toilet stop there.

I have tried to work out what I love about them. I do know that I love them more when they are a bit run down, so it probably is all about nostalgia. I consider myself to be fairly conservative traveller in other ways - I love art galleries and good restaurants, the experience of being in a place, that kind of thing. But I love the Bigs in Aus much more than I love the Bigs in the US, even though I am an avid US road trip traveller. And I can't completely say why. You'd think I'd be able to see the culture of America in a (very opaque) nutshell through these strange, strange lenses in ways that I totally wouldn't in Aus... but for some reason they are intriguing to me... maybe it's because its all so unexpected. We are a big landscape, and maybe that's why we have the big, but really the BIG bigs are the other kinds of landmarks, natural or artificial... like the Syd Harbour Bridge/Opera House or, I dunno, like the magnetic termite mounds at Litchfield National Park... I mean they look like massive grave stones... they look bigger than the Bigs... you know? But then they aren't so conveniently located either. They aren't on the road from here to there for me (as a rule), and so I see them less and also I can't appreciate a fruit cream sundae like I might have at The Big Pineapple.

Here's the last thing... I have a weenie bit of pride about the Bigs. I have some concerns that tourists of a certain nationality want to see us as crass (I think you know what I'm talking about *cough* The Guardian *cough), and while that can be frustrating, the alternative IS to buy into the Aussie cringe that we kind of got bullied into for decades. And I don't mean that we should be embracing all things crass about Aus, but it IS a part of our cultural landscape, and I don't really want to forget it, no matter how much I know that it frames us in a certain way.

Amanda said...

Last I heard Berri's Big Orange was up for sale too, because - get this - it wasn't a profitable attraction! Surprise, surprise. I have to admit to an odd fascination with Aussie Big Things myself (I often write them up at Jaunted - because the big American audience seems to like them) but I do cringe at the same time. Having said that, I'm a little sad we don't have a Big Thing in Perth.

Kim Wildman said...

I really do love Australia's "Big Things" - I've been fascinated by them for years. I even wrote a piece for Ninemsn, called "Big, Bigger, Biggest", you can see it here:
http://travel.ninemsn.com.au/article.aspx?id=654337

They were always a highlight of my family's long road trips we took almost every year from Brisbane all the way down to Melbourne to see our relatives, so they bring back plenty of fond memories.

Sandy O'Sullivan said...

I forgot to answer the question you asked. I have got some favourites, some of them BIGS as it turns out. But my favourite kitsch appeal stuff is often about food. Like going into Waffle House in the US (and people watching, it's the most amazing place for that... especially watching the people who work there). Or going into performance-style ice-cream places where the creation is actually pretty bloody artistic, if odd. And both of these are clearly kitsch, and sadly I think they have that amazing cross-over of people experiencing them as an everyday experience, and others of us experiencing it as total theatre.

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Travel Muse - I expect Australians probably inherited the pleasure for all things large from their American cousins... I've read Bryson's book (years ago), but don't remember the Big Lobster bit. I'll have to take a look again.


Hi Sandy - well, once again, thanks for your insightful reflections. I think I write posts in the hope I'll get these kinds of comments from readers.

Look, I also have to admit a fondness based on nostalgia - we share similar childhood memories - but now they're looking a little bit too worn and wonky (some appear as if they might topple over), and I think well and truly need to be put to bed (like a certain sheep who will remain nameless).

But while it's part of my cultural landscape too, I'm quite happy to let those big things stay as part of my memories. Having said that, I've noticed that since I've been gone, over the last decade, Australians have indeed embraced the very things they used to cringe about. Now that's going to have to form another post I think!


Hello Amanda - and apparently the Big Pineapple is as well! But then we've been noticed a lot of 'for sale' signs about the country as we've driven around it these last few months. Well, you have the Merino not too far from Perth, and then there's the big prawn up at Exmouth... perhaps you need to create something a little closer yourself?!


Hi there Kim - well, I'm going to have to check out that story of yours - in addition to reading your book! From the sounds of it, like Sandy (and probably Amanda), it seems we all share similar childhoods, of summer holidays and coastal road trips punctuated by tacky sights.


So we all have an excuse for these gigantic things being some kind of guilty pleasure formed from fond memories, but what really intrigues me is what the attraction is for foreigners, particularly people like our Guardian journalist...

Lara Dunston said...

Hello again Sandy

Oh fantastic! There's another post for me - food as performance and entertainment! Thank you!

Watching people eat those colossal all-you-can-eat breakfasts at those Vegas hotels, their plates piled high volcano-like, is pretty entertaining. And repulsive too actually. And kind of kitsch I guess.

Tamara said...

I think Sandy hit the nail on the head - I find these types of attractions are often seen as garish and brash by the offbeat traveller and yet as they age, take on their own story and become dilapidated they take on the role of curiosity.

I'm off to Australia in April - will I go to see a big? most probably and the more run down the better.

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Tamara - well now you've got me confused - I thought these 'big things' were exactly the kind of sights the offbeat traveller loved. ;)
I definitely agree with you that they have their own kind of charm, don't they? Enjoy your trip! Shame I'll miss you - I'll be back in Dubai. :(

Tina said...

Greetings, everybody! Peterman's Eye Travel is hosting a photo contest and J. Peterman will be judging the entries! Thought I'd share...

http://www.petermanseye.com/contest

Cheers!

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Tina

Well, you know how much I love Peterman's so I'll be sure to check it out.

Thanks!
Lara

Prêt à Voyager said...

Fascinating. I never would have guessed "big tacky things" would show up in Australia too. Sadly, I would be happy to visit them just to bring back a funny story and a good smile.

Anne

Lara Dunston said...

Oh really, isn't that funny?

But the thing is that they're a bit more sad than they are funny these days... a bit too run down some of them, in my opinion.

Mark H said...

They are getting seriously run down but overseas visitors must still have albums full of Australia's Big things, going on how many stop for the quick happy-snap. Sounds like many are struggling financially now too. I wrote a post some time back (http://www.travel-wonders.com/2008/09/obsession-with-size-australia.html) about this same thing as I discovered as I flicked through old photos, what an embarassing amount of Big things that I have bagged with my camera over the years. Theer are meant to be over 150 of these Big things sprinkled across our grand land...

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Mark

Oh, I'll have to check out your piece - thanks for the link. It's funny, one of the phone companies (Telstra or Optus perhaps?) has an ad on the big things on TV here in Australia at the moment - if you're here, you've probably seen it. It makes them look kind of cool, but the ones we passed on this trip were very run down, and weren't looking so cool anymore. If they ever did.