Sitting at a cafe this afternoon, sipping on two cups of coffee, I had a taste of bittersweet revelation. With not much else to do and all the time in the world to think, it became all too apparent what the state of the cultural immersion can bring. Not in all cases, but in many, we find ourselves separated from the very people that we came here to learn more about. In this cafe in the center of Cuenca, a bit pricey if I may say so, were two worlds. Up above on the second floor was a group of traveling tourists talking loudly over their meal. And on the outside of the cafe were the street vendors, artisans, and indigenous selling their various goods. One of the tourists was wearing an Ecuador soccer jersey, but she didn't really get it, just as so many other tourists never do. In the short of it, they were trying to immerse themselves in the culture, wearing the national jersey, but sitting in a cafe that the locals would most likely never enter.
When you get down to the root of the problem, it might come from a lack of understanding of the two cultures, or a misrepresentation in the media, or just a set of expectations that are never quite met, because after all, expectations are what you have before you have experience. Those who have never been to South America might imagine what they've seen in the movies or read in books. Perhaps there is a cartel fighting the government in the streets in Colombia, or a half-naked tribe roasting human flesh deep in the Amazon in Brazil. But of all these wild expectations, there is rarely the expectation to just find regular people carrying on their every day lives, and when a tourist comes across this realization, they can often find themselves upset or frustrated.
One example of this that stands out particularly strongly in my mind is from February of this year. I was in Peru, on Wayna Picchu at the sacred ruins of Machu Picchu, a holy ground for backpackers and Inca descendants alike. I wanted my friend to take a picture of me in front of the ruins when a woman from Illinois started barking orders to her. "Move more to the left, yeah! Oh, this looks awesome! Do it again but from this angle. Hey, honey, take a picture of me doing that!"
My friend and I looked at each other and without saying anything silently agreed that we had had enough of this lady, slowly backing away. But she wasn't through with us yet. Two days later we found ourselves in Lake Titicaca, touring the same islands in the same group with her. At one point we were in the Uros Islands. These are man made floating islands on reeds, and only a small number of families occupies each one. This woman was trying to force the small children to eat their reeds with her for a picture. "Yes, because that is truly authentic," I thought to myself.
The worst of it came when she became upset and pouted, "I want to see the naked children running around like National Geographic!" It's one of the most disgusting things I've ever heard a tourist say, and I don't know if I'll ever be able to forget it. I was about to tell her my mind, but I decided to just bite my tongue. This woman, who maybe was making her first trip to South America, was somehow expecting to find a wild pack of savages running around. Yet when she found that they were normal people who wore clothes, she was upset. In her mind, South America had gone and sold out while she was on the plane from Chicago.
And this is perhaps a greater problem for the connections between North and South Americans. At some level, we expect modernity when we visit a new place. We want to be able to check our email and sleep in a place with nice accommodations. But some of us also want to pretend that we are 18th Century explorers, running through the jungle with a machete to find the lost tribe of wherever. And when we can't consolidate the fact that, yes, this culture has advanced into the 21st Century and is developing, we feel cheated. At some level, we expect the backward culture that has come to be associated, incorrectly, with South America. Yet when a rustic lodge in the middle of the jungle that has wireless loses the connection for a couple of hours, we can get antsy and ticked off.
Even when you go to a village on a tour, in what seems to be authentic and legitimate, you're only running the gauntlet on something that a thousand tourists have done before. If they dress you up in traditional garment and dance with you, it's part of a process to show you a piece of the culture. But you're not really in there. You're just viewing from behind a glass at a respectable distance. They most likely need to take you to the crafts store so you can buy the goods which help sustain their lives, so that they can live in the modern world. That is, now that they're not living like savages anymore.
This is the reason for the looks from many of the locals given to those passing through the cities and villages for just a couple of days. It's more than just a language barrier. It's a cultural barrier, and though an artisan might smile and say you look lovely in those earrings, what they're really thinking is that you look silly trying to blend in with the pajama pants and alpaca sweater. In the cafe, I could see people looking at the jewelry, with the dealer smiling and politely offering consul. But once a transaction was completed and the buyer left, the smile immediately left the seller and they went back to sitting glumly by the merchandise. Because they remain outside the expensive cafe while the tourist goes in to buy a lunch that's twice the price of meals down the street.
A couple of weeks ago I read an article by Hunter S. Thompson called, "Why Anti-Gringo Winds Often Blow South of the Border," from a collection of work by him called, "The Great Shark Hunt." This article, though written decades ago, talks of the frustration of foreigners in South America, and the mutual disdain held by the locals. It seems that a lot of the sentiments included in that article still hold true today. There are, in fact, many Ecuadorians and other South Americans who love foreigners and travelers. After all, there's a large market for tourism, which generates money. But there are also those who feel strongly against our influence and presence. The same ideas are felt in the United States for sure, but at least foreign tourists in the U.S. aren't hunting down the elusive McDonald's, running around town looking for the fattest people eating hamburgers. Or maybe they are.
So when the dust settles and the tourists sit around by the side of the road, backpacks in tow, sporting the new soccer jersey of the team they never heard of, donning the new jewelery to show that they were there, you can often see the locals looking at them with curiosity. They're definitely not from here, but they don't look like the Americans on TV either. Their own breed. They are gringos, no matter where they hail from. And they most certainly do not belong here.