As a tourist visiting Amish country, you have to decide whether you are there merely to laugh and point at people with gnome beards driving horse-drawn buggies, or whether you are there seeking greater anthropological understanding of a plain and devout people. Respectfully. Without laughing or pointing.
This was the question that was put to me by the non-Amish who run the Visitors’ Centre in the Lancaster County capital of Intercourse (Pennsylvania), and for the sake of wanting to belong to the second category of person, I paid $US5 to see a film called Who Are the Amish?
During that 15-minute presentation, I discovered some interesting facts. Firstly the Amish are an offshoot of the Mennonites who themselves were part of the Anabaptist movement in Europe in the 16th century. A Swiss bishop named Jacob Ammon led the breakaway in 1693, declaring that mainstream Christianity (and the Mennonites) had embraced a worldliness that would lead to the destruction of community and a breakdown in man’s relationship with God. And so, in an age when high-tech meant getting the steel plates right on your printing press, the Amish had the forethought to be suspicious of new technology.
They also decided to separate themselves from the world, both physically and in appearance, a separation that has now become so interesting that some four million people travel to Lancaster County every year to see them do it.
The film stressed that the Amish are a “plain, humble and devout people” (a humility that is maintained despite success in growing phenomenally sized pumpkins), and that no group in American history has so consistently conscientiously objected to involvement in war.
More worryingly for me was that they also conscientiously objected to Amish children having to attend secondary school beyond year 8. About 25 per cent of young Amish are now leaving the community (although overall numbers are growing), so hopefully their 8th grade education is doing the trick in the wider US as well.
I walked with a friend out of the Intercourse Tourist Centre, past the public telephone box that Harrison Ford used in the Peter Weir-directed film Witness. Interestingly in the film, the phone box was fictionally located in the nearby town of Strasbourg instead of Intercourse, (the Lonely Planet said it was because of Intercourse’s “goofy” name) evidence perhaps that for all their conservatism and strict rules (like the ones keeping rubber tyres off farm tractors), the Amish are still more comfortable with sexual references than the American film industry. Alternatively, “intercourse” means something completely different in the Amish’s local Dutch-German.
By the time I reached the hire car, it was time for a moral decision on whether driving around gawking at people who said “yes” to straw hats, but “no” to button-up jackets (with all their worldly implications) was a justifiable way to spend a day as a tourist. Could this legitimately be described as “people watching”, or was it the process of turning the unlikely Holy Land that is western Pennsylvania into an open-range zoo.
Just then, a horse-drawn covered buggy pulled out in front of us, my friend Harry shouted “there’s one”. The decision was made. We began a slow-speed pursuit, looking for opportunities to overtake so we could get ahead and grab a photo of the buggy on the long lens.
It should be said that we were not seeking to photograph the Amish people themselves, for the “plain people” regard a photograph as a graven image, but we figured that they were safe behind one-way glass (jacket buttons are out but one-way glass is
in) and their horse hadn’t expressed an opinion. Eventually we negotiated the manoeuvre, and took a photo of the buggy as it was being overtaken by a speeding Coca- Cola semi-trailer. A photo that I plan to enlarge and sell off to the anti-globalisation movement. So many layers of meaning, man.
For the rest of the day, we didn’t gawk or intrude, choosing instead to glance respectfully for extended periods out of the corners of our eyes. At one point, a particularly gnomish elderly man in long black coat and straw hat waved vigorously, and we thought the human interaction that would transform our voyeurism into a joining of cultures was upon us. But then we noticed that an equally gnomish man with an equally non-existent moustache was right behind us, waving as vigorously as the first man.
I didn’t speak to an Amish person, and drove out of Lancaster County and back to New York City that night. On the subway under 96th Street the next day, I spotted a Hispanic man wearing a perfect Santa Claus outfit. He had a long white Santa beard descending from his chin, but with no fake moustache, making do with his own wispy offering. Still in people-watching form, I sized him up, gave him a smile, looked away, then sized him up again, and gave him another smile of unbridled Christmas cheer. Then I looked down again, and when I looked up, an enraged Santa was just centimetres from my face.
“You know what, I’m about to completely lose it,” he screamed. “You know why? Because some people don’t know how to mind their own f—ing business.”
I snapped my head down and stared at the platform as Santa sauntered off up the platform. It was surely a message in two parts. On the one hand, a God who makes his pumpkins big and his buggies with one-way glass was speaking out on responsible tourism. And secondly, New York City was getting back to normal.