Contemplating Tourism as a Privileged Traveler
Updated: May 19, 2020
I returned from a study abroad program this past Summer, 2019. We were studying African and Indigenous resistance to colonialism through arts and culture within a Peruvian context.
People, naturally, keep asking me about my trip. “Was it incredible?!” My response has been, “I wouldn’t use that word to describe it.” Formative, perhaps? Life changing? Critical thought provoking? Heart opening? Pandora’s box opening? Deeper down the rabbit hole-esque?
It was definitely NOT a vacation. We were participating in experiential learning for perhaps 8-12 hours a day, plus travel, reading a plethora of literature, writing reflections and trying to find time in between all of this to process and digest the information and feelings.
In the constant reflecting on my trip to Peru, it is not so much on the internal war with Shining Path or the Peruvian government’s exploitation of Amazonian Tribes, or the glorification of the Incas while modern day Indios (Indigenous people) are frowned upon, not even the horrific spiritual colonization of ayahuasca and spiritually hungry people looking for quick fixes through shamanism on their 2 week vacations. What has stuck out the most to me since being home has been tourism. Because, after-all, that is what I was above all - a tourist. And what does it mean to travel to a place that is impoverished (yet full of resilient people) from a privileged, imperialist place?
I have decided to write this blog as an offering to process my own thoughts and feelings around extremely complex and systemic topics such as colonialism, globalization, capitalism and climate. I feel there are five pertinent pieces to my contemplation on being a tourist and I will break them down as such:
1. I am flying to Peru, to learn about Peruvians as a climate activist?
Is it just me, or is it a tad bit ironic that I am getting on an airplane to create a carbon footprint, which roundtrip emits 2.7 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, which is more than the average Peruvian per capita emits in an entire year?
What a lack of congruency on my end when, “...the richest countries that produce[d] the most emissions are the least affected by heat when average temperatures climb to just 2 degrees Celsius [3.6 degrees Fahrenheit] while poorer nations bear the brunt of changing local climates and the consequences that come with them,” says Andrew King, a climate research at the University of Melbourne in Australia.
However will I be able to justify this with future travel? Especially when traveling from the U.S.A. to impoverished countries? And even when traveling to other imperialist countries, if I am truly in solidarity with humanity, then I am still contributing to the cumulative amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. We are in a climate crisis and I question my own “necessities” at whose expense?
2. Bargaining. No. Just no. Don’t do it.
Even without the knowledge of what I am about to write, if we are coming from imperialist countries and visiting impoverished countries, how dare we bargain?!
We visited a small Indigenous town*** of weavers in the Andes, 15,308 feet into the clouds ~ in one of the most precious places I have ever visited in my entire life. It was here where the community showed us how they cut the fiber from the alpaca, but not before a sacred ceremony with prayer of honoring the animal and the fetching of it.
After lunch, we took a hike through the valley collecting herbs, berries and bugs. After scavenging for a few hours, we returned to the village where they taught us to scrub the fresh cut alpaca fleece with an herb that acted as a detergent. We watched it turn from dusty cream to bleach white in a matter of minutes. The fleece, full of this green herb was then draped over a shrub to dry out in the blazing sun. Once it was dry, hours passed as the herb was plucked micro-piece by micro-piece from the small bit of fleece. From there, the dying began. There were more colors than my favorite colored pencil box could produce. And upon the dusty earth, we learned how to dye the fibers from our early morning foraging. Towards the end of the day, we were taught the meditative practice of spinning the fiber into yarn.
That night, my friend Emma (another student) and I, sat underneath a milky way sky feeling almost as if we could reach out our arms out and play with the stars.
The following morning we experienced a weaving class. I do know that everything takes practice and with consistency and dedication we can learn to perfect our skills, but weaving is no easy thing. And they were teaching us massively basic stuff. Nothing like the intricate condors, serpents, alpacas and native plants they weave into their tapestries. After our hands-on workshop we were allowed to observe the women as they weaved elaborate designs into masterpieces while they spoke in Quechua, giggling at one another's commentaries. Some men would stand around the periphery and watch, but in the center were the women, the children - and us.
A woman named Elena held up a finished piece. It was probably one foot by three feet in length. “How much do you sell that for?” I asked.
“200 soles,” she responded. Which is equivalent to about $60USD.
How long did it take you to make that?” I asked.
“About six weeks,” was her answer.
“How many days a week do you work on it?”
“How many hours a day roughly?”
Hmmmm, I thought. I did the math in my head: eight hours a day (x) six days a week (x) six weeks, equals 288 hours. $60USD divided by 288 hours, equals… 21 CENTS an HOUR!? And that’s not even including all the prep that came BEFORE sitting down to weave. Wow. I thought. Wow.
Now before I take you into one of the artisan markets of Peru, I thought it would be appropriate to add here that on another trip, we had met a woman named Venuca Evanán from the community Sarhua who gave us an incredible tour of her art studio near Lima. Along with her commentary, experiencing her heart-felt-feminine-political art was truly empowering. Something that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about was when she explained to us that in Peru and in the broader global community, the contemporary art world makes a fine distinction between artisan work and “art.” In other words, artisan work can be seen as more hands and craftsy, while art is worth hanging on walls in museums and being critiqued and so forth. However, Venuca is pushing back against that narrative and is displaying her ART in contemporary exhibits across the globe.
How many of you have been to an artisan market? If that is not art, then (besides nature) I don’t know what is?
That brings me to one of the artisan markets I visited: I couldn’t help but notice the quantity of Spanish descent Peruvians bargaining with Indigenous women trying to lower their prices. I felt my blood boil and by hearing it for a third time I finally jarred in, “How dare you try and lower her price! Do you know what it takes to…”
In retrospect, I can see for many reasons, that I would not choose this approach again. I did quiet him quite quickly and he did end up paying the price that the woman was asking. However - my blood was boiling due to his ignorance. Yet I was once ignorant to these processes, I still am ignorant to billions of things and in fact and ultimately, I am being hypocritical by attacking him in this way. How you ask?
So now that I know something, does that gives me permission to attack others about it? No. I really don’t think so. In my opinion, it is my responsibility to cultivate empathy and compassion for this person standing in front of me. He is another me. I didn’t know until I knew. So why would that give me permission all of the sudden to look down upon him? Are we not here to learn? And in the end, I can tell him all I want, but it may go in one ear and out the other. Because no one really hears anything until they themselves are ready to hear it.
I lived in Mexico for eleven years and I spent a good portion of my trip in Peru reflecting on all the things I missed while living in Mexico. Yet, it is only now that I am ready to absorb this knowledge and there is no use in beating myself up for not knowing before. We are living within a system that has set up many structures so that we do not know things. So that we do not know other sides to our histories other than white-washed ones. We are not meant to think critically or ask questions. We are meant to blindly trust doctors and not taught to empower ourselves or access our own inner healing abilities. We are made dependent and if we diverge from that and start speaking out or educating others, we become voices of dissent, outcasts and are ostracized.
3. How my passport and privilege locks us into perpetuating cycles of class.
Do you know people who travel around the whole world and buy beautiful tapestries, art and clothing and then bring it back to “first world countries,” and then mark it up 300-600% from what they bought it for? Yeah. Let's break that down:
I earn US dollars - on a global scale, that makes me better off financially than most of the world.
I have a US passport - in comparison to most other countries in the world, I am able to travel wherever I want with little effort at borders. Need I mention the Muslim Ban or the current concentration camps at the US-Mexican border?
Therefore, I am able to travel to “developing countries” and my money most likely goes a long way.
I can buy 20 Shipibo-Conibo necklaces, Cusco-esque bracelets, woven tapestries and pay to document an extra suitcase or two to get all this stuff home.
Upon my arrival, I set up shop at festivals or heck, I may even have a store of my own. Now, something I bought for $60, I can mark up and sell for $300. Something I bought for a dollar, I now sell for $15 or $20. “What? People like exotic stuff! I know I do! Forever 21 does NOT have this stuff.”
The only reason I am able to do this is because of how globalization, colonization and capitalism have set the world up so that I may privilege from it! “Isn't that right honey? Lets go buy our home in Mexico for the Summers, because everything is so dang cheap there.”
What a sense of entitlement we have. Whatever is left to obtain still, we want it. And we call it appreciation in lieu of the critique of cultural appropriation. (I am not saying I do not believe in cultural appreciation and its potential authenticity, but the line is quite fine and it is much more the latter than the former).
4. Cultural Appreciation? Hmmmm.
Even here in the United States we are standing on stolen ground, whose original protectors are people whose lives depend greatly upon their relations to the land and the water. We are standing on land of people who are still very much here today. A resilient people who endure centuries of land theft, broken treaties, forced removals, twice - sometimes thrice relocated. And when we begin to understand the depth of what this means, then I think it becomes easier to understand how our “good intentions” through our own spiritual starvation, disconnection from our own ancestry or curiosity in general about the world can be interpreted as a continuation of colonialism.
Still today there are songs, ceremony, land, mountains, animals, water, clothing, regalia, etc. that have survived the robbing of land and resources, the genocide of peoples, animals, languages and cultures. So when someone from a dominant culture (lets just use the word borrow for those “well intended” folx) “borrows” these elements that have made it through all the injustices, it is understandable how this can feel like stealing. Especially when there is a romanticism around a culture from whom you are “borrowing” alongside an ignorance to their history, their current struggles and actively standing with them in solidarity to support those struggles.
If it is truly the time of healing collective wounds on this planet, then we really are going to have to be open to giving up things that we think we are entitled to, when there are other cultures explicitly telling us that it's harming them. And it can’t be looked at as a painful sacrifice, that is another form of privilege and entitlement. We must ask ourselves, how important is wearing this headdress or is this feather in comparison to the authentic relationship that I should be building at this moment with the very people that my ancestors have created deep wounds in?
5. Reciprocity with consent
One way to change things up is to give back. What does it look like to give to the community we are visiting? Have we created authentic relationships that allow us to ask what we can do for that community? Does it look like painting a community mural in a mechanical district with consent? Does it look like cleaning up streets filled with garbage? Does it look like arts and cultural exchange? Does it look like making hosts a meal? Or upon departure, writing them a thank you letter with a gift? Is it giving back to the land? Does it look like going home and being an advocate for long term solutions like systemic change, decolonization and climate justice? Could it be that I am an editor for a magazine and can use my platform to create space for these voices to be heard? The possibilities are infinite, but for me, the most important takeaway is authentic connection and giving back, making the land and the people feel honored in the way that the land and people honored us.
***I wrote to a wander woman on Instagram once who takes epic pictures of herself on these amazing mountain tops. I noticed though that she never said WHERE she was. Well, I wanted to know, so I wrote to her asking if she could please share the locations. This was her response: If I posted where I was people would flock to these places and they would become exploited. The earth has magical places everywhere. Go make your own adventures!
It is for this reason, I have not promoted specific places in my post.
Alexandra Blakely has Scandinavian, English and Ashkenazi ancestry. She is a settler on Duwamish and Coast Salish territory. She is a Senior at the University of Washington majoring in Comparative History of Ideas/minoring in American Indian Studies, volunteers with 350 Seattle and uses music as a platform for social change and internal awareness. She is in a constant search for an alternative to the word “American” in reference to the social construct of “nationality.” For in both North and South America, we are ALL Americans.