Touristing in South America

The spell-check points to an error in the title. It is right, there is no verb “to tourist” which might allow touristing to escape notice. One can engage in tourism but that is a bit distant and to be a tourist is passive. No I think that I was touristing as it was an active process with all of the consequences one expects from a verb.

More specifically I was on a heavy schedule (change bed every night) trip around Peru and then on to Ecuador (with most of that in the Galapagos). Don’t worry this will not be a travelogue with 500 pictures; rather it is a reflection on the impact of the tourist. In fact, and to be posh, I think we are here in the territory of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. That’s the one that highlights the fact that the behavior of the observed is influenced and changed by the awareness of the presence of an observer.

I became concerned about this, and considered establishing a “tourists against tourism” movement when we visited Lake Titikakka. We were brought to the amazing floating islands that are made from cut reeds. Each island presented a team of singing and dancing young women as our boat made its way to the island that was, I presume, targeted for our groups’ visit. There the local team welcomed us and showed their crafts and worked on us 1-1 to cajole a sale. They were playing a role and this was clear as they prepared for the next group to arrive. Their dress and their story may have been genuine but there was no doubt that it was designed to market and sell. Tourism was making them change their cultural evolution and only a pastiche of what used to be real was allowed to be shown that day. If they had adapted jeans and T shirts they were not allowed ‘on stage’ with them. Such pseudo-reality was not necessary as driving through the Andes we saw many people in villages that were dressed as one would anticipate from the guide books….complete with amusing little bowler hats.

But then what right do I have to be critical of this effort to please a tourist? After all this is a very poor country. Its income per capita is 15 fold lower than Ireland at approximately 4000 $ per person per annum. Tourism is the gold seam that must be mined. Many young people we met had, as their aim in life, to become a tourist guide just as in other countries it would be to become a Doctor. And this points to the under-lying reality of the country. To move up, individuals and countries can only start from where they are and with time, effort and luck they may get to a better place. In the process they and their country will be changed, and that will have positive and negative consequences.

The effects of globalization and our ability to fly to any part of the world in relatively large numbers include the homogenization of the culture of the world. But if we are happy to contemplate a second life on the computer then it is possible that we should not worry about real people maintaining a living image of what used to be in their then unvisited worlds.

An unfortunate corresponding thought suggests that the same logic applies to the world’s energy. If what is available and cheap locally is imperfect (e.g. polluting coal), but it is the only source available then it follows, from the tourism analogy, that it is justified to use it. But we now recognize that change is never local and that a global perspective is needed.  I think the comparison fits but recognize that again there is a judgmental aspect to the analysis. We cannot just freeze things in time and like the old game of musical chairs, condemn forever those left standing because they did not happen to be sitting on a chair of comfort at this time in history.

So you can see why I felt I was touristing in South America; I was having an active role in distorting what was going on in the communities that have to play a role to successive boat-loads of visitors. In the process something will be gained and something will be lost. It is not a passive activity. In the past it was bus loads of American tourists that visited the west coast of Ireland with their blue-rinse perms. We sold them plaster thatched cottages that played “When Irish eyes were smiling” (made in Japan – China did not exist then!) and they thought we were charming. We acted our rogue role until we could afford not to do so. I hope that those in Peru reach a similar day when they can be themselves. And if that means wearing wonderfully eye catching colourful dresses, then so be it.

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