On today’s backpackers and the Victorian elite

Part II of What’s the difference between today’s backpackers and last century’s elite?

sierra norte meadows, mexico

“I’m curious.” He says. “Did some of your friends and family tell you not to come here?”

“Of course! Drug gangs on every corner, Mexico’s the worst.” I wink.

“And who is going to steal from you? A Mexican guy on the street? No way. Much more likely you’ll get your things stolen by someone going through your bag in the hostel.”

“True enough.”

“Who is going to hurt you? Last year, in that hostel, two Australians raped a British girl. They were so drunk they didn’t even remember doing it the next morning.”

“That’s awful.”

“So, why do you travel?” He says, taking off his glasses.

“Me?” I flounder, “Uh, to see nature, meet new people.”

“Mexican people?”

“Of course.”

 “Do you speak Spanish?”

“Um, not really. I’m trying.”

“Oh really.”

I wilt. “I could try harder.”

Why don’t you make more of an effort?”

“Fear? Fear that it’s a waste of time. I could probably read a book in the time it takes me to learn just 15 new Spanish words that I’ll immediately forget. Fill my head with beautiful words in a language I understand, or be a language-learning failure?”

“You need to get over that.”

“I know.”

“I’m doing research on the attitudes of backpackers coming to Mexico. I’d like to ask you some more questions about the subject. Come to my place and we’ll talk.”

What do you do when the most interesting, articulate, forceful person you’ve met in months asks you back to their house? I do what Alexandra in her scholarly earnestness would do, what Isabelle would do in her want for adventure. I do what my father and boyfriend would plead with me not to do — I go.

We walk and talk, and five minutes later we’re inside his old, colonial apartment. He starts up his dusty PC in the living room. As it whirrs and strains to boots up, I look around.  Heavy furniture, old-fashioned and bohemian without trying to be. In front of me, a huge dining table covered in a lacy pink tablecloth overflows with books, dirty plates, and half-drained coffee cups. Books everywhere, piled ten high on the floor — thick tomes and flimsy journals, the complete works of Noam Chomsky, old Lonely Planet guidebooks to Mexico. Framed Maya art covers the walls.

“Computer’s taking its time.” He pats its top. I sit opposite him in a hard-backed chair. “So tell me,” He says. “What do you know about Maya?”

Fuck. I haven’t been here on a quest to learn all things Maya. Mexico has been no more than a backdrop of heat, ocean, and beach while I’ve been wandering the Sahara and Tibetan steppes with Alexandra and Isabelle.

 I tell the truth, “I just watched a YouTube documentary about the history before I came.”

“Tell me what you learned.”

He wasn’t supposed to ask me that. He was supposed to let me off, like everyone else does. It’s a shock when a stranger deliberately provokes. I was brought up on the well-meaning false praise of Western culture, grandma’s kitchen cupboards still covered in muddy finger paintings from when I was four. And I want to impress this man, to let him know that we’re not all bad.

“So the Spanish came and conquered, and the locals were tortured. Spanish at the top, mixtos in the middle…”

Mestizos.”

“Right, mestizos in the middle, indigenous people at the bottom. Same today, right? And, uh, what else, the Maya were really advanced astronomers and, um, had calendars that made everyone think the world was going to end last year and built pyramids and…other stuff.”

“You know how it feels to be reduced to anthropology museums curated by white people, like we don’t exist, like we’re no longer here, already consigned to history? There are 11 million Maya living in Central America today. 11 million. Did you know that?”

I shake my head. During colonialism, we never thought we had anything to learn from ‘backward’ natives and ‘noble savages’. Has anything changed? Look at me. I’m still reading about white women from a century ago rather than learning from the people around me.

“The Mexican statesmen and upper classes try to portray Mexico as being more mestizo than it really is. It’s a myth created so we don’t realize how badly Mexico is controlled by whites with indigenous people at the bottom. And is the history of Maya people written by Maya? No. By white people. It’s absurd.”

He continues, “With a Western background it’s impossible to truly understand Maya culture and history, and so it’s impossible to write accurately about it. People can’t help but see through the cultural prism of how they were brought up. White people took our land, our way of life, and then when our history is also taken away from us too, how can we even know who we are? And then you wonder why we have an inferiority complex? Why we dye our hair and lighten our skin to look more like you? In my university department, what we’re trying to do is reclaim our history. We’re literally questioning everything that has been written in the post-Hispanic period, and comparing it to all the records we can find from before then. That’s the only way to really get an accurate understanding of our history.”

He opens a Word Doc on his computer. “Anyway, first question. Do you tolerate other cultures?”

“Mmm, a person I’d rather respect. No, wait, appreciate.” He smiles as he types my words onto the flickering screen. Right answer.

“Ok. You’re walking down the street on a dark night. There’s a black person on one side of the street, a white person on the other. Where do you feel more comfortable walking?”

I shirk the question and answer,”I feel most comfortable next to whoever is the woman.”

“That’s cheating. Let me tell you something. I studied in Spain for a year, in Seville. I can’t tell you how many times I was stopped and harassed on the street by policemen who thought I was Moroccan. I felt so small. So dirty and weak. You can’t imagine.”

“That’s terrible.”

“And now the Spanish are coming here looking for jobs! Asking for the same rights as Mexicans! They didn’t think the immigrants in their country should get the same rights as Spanish workers, but now, oh ho! Now it’s a different story.”

“Ok, but I think I can sort of know how it feels to be made to feel small and vulnerable — when a guy catcalls a girl on the street, it’s not to tell her she’s beautiful, not really. It’s to intimidate her and make her feel like she’s being watched in the most uncomfortable way.”

“Not the same.”

“Fine.”

“Next question. Do you ever have anti-American sentiments?”

“Sure, I guess. I’ve talked about ‘fat Americans’, ‘dumb Americans’. Which is pretty dumb in itself.”

“Why dumb?”

“If you’re always looking at the faults of others, you can’t see your own.”

“Right. Europeans, Dutch, British, German — they’re so proud of themselves, how ‘multicultural’ they are. Paradoxically, right-wing parties in their countries are getting more and more votes. Are they really so much ‘better’ than the US? Superiority is very dangerous, but these backpackers definitely act superior — they just can’t see the similarities between themselves and the immigrants who come to their countries. The immigrants are poor, uneducated, brown. They expect immigrants to learn their language, but don’t see why they should learn Spanish if they come to Mexico. ‘Oh, but we’re just visiting.’ they say. Why should that make a difference? The backpackers are peso kings, educated, white — so what? Just because they have money they don’t have to be polite?

“They forget that they were just born with more opportunities than the immigrants who come to their country. They aren’t smarter than them, they aren’t better than them. They were just born with different options, that’s all. There are three options for the people from my village: stay, go to somewhere like Cancun and clean-up after rich tourists, or go to the US and work lowly jobs as an immigrant. I was lucky. A local minister saw something in me, and helped with my education so I could go to university and eventually become a professor. I was able to support my younger sister through university. Now she’s a doctor. She lives here with me.”

“You have other brothers and sisters?”

“Six older sisters.”

“Are they ever envious of you and your little sister?”

“No. They’re happy, they all have lots of babies, they’re married in a nice community with grandmas and grandpas and cousins and aunties all around. Don’t project. Don’t assume the Western woman’s way of living is free and independent and that everyone wants that life. My sisters don’t want that life. Would you go to a Maya village for a visit?”

“I guess? Sure.”

“Why?”

“Because Lonely Planet tells me to.” I smile, teasing.

“Ah, Lonely Planet.” He smiles. “They have good maps, I’ll give them that. But why do you listen to what writers who aren’t even from Mexico have to say about this country?” He flips open one of the guides. “Look here at the authors’ page — Noble, Waterson, Bartlett, Armstrong…not one Mexican name, not one of these people is even from here — Berlin, Vancouver, Melbourne. It’s like looking at the Maya history books all over again.”

“Can I see?” I flick to the box of text I was thinking of,

“Ah, but here it says that you shouldn’t take photos of locals when you visit indigenous villages. So that’s kind of telling people to go in with respect and behave politely.”

“What else does it say about visiting these villages?”

“Ah, here, in the Chiapas section it says a visit to the region’s indigenous villages are one of the most interesting experiences you can have…you can see healing rituals being done in local churches, the markets are worth visiting…”

“Mmhmm. Written by?”

I flip back to the authors’ page, “Kate Armstrong, from Australia.”

“Do you think you’re wanted in those indigenous villages because an Australian recommends it as a day trip?”

“I’m not sure. Not if I dress disrespectfully, not if I take pictures without permission, not by everyone. But maybe by some of the market sellers I’m wanted. And a local tourism official probably recommended these villages to the writer. So yeh, I guess I’d think this writer would say if we weren’t wanted, if our presence was damaging to the local community.”

“Of course a tourism official will say the villages are a great place to visit. It’s not their village. You think most Maya like all the tourists coming in and gawping at them like they’re monkeys in a zoo? Right now, any tourist can roar into any Maya village in a 4×4. Does Lonely Planet mention the Maya movement to make at least some of their villages off-limits to tourism?”

I try to imagine Edinburgh Castle becoming the plaything of, say, rich Chinese, its walls suddenly turned into rock climbing walls for over-privileged Beijing teens whose guidebook insists this is the number one thing to do in the Scottish capital. I try to imagine centuries of rock reduced to dust, history eroded under Adidas-clad feet so some tour companies can make a quick buck.

Is it the fault of the Chinese for not asking if what they’re doing is ethical? Who would they ask anyhow? The local guides who will pat their backs and say, “OF COURSE it’s ethical,” before extending their hand out for a tip?  Is it their guidebooks’ fault for not discussing the ethical problems of climbing ancient rock, for not mentioning the discontent among the local community who doesn’t see a cent from the practice? Or should those travelers question the practice for themselves? Would simple common sense stop people from following their guidebooks blindly?

I think of Uluru, still climbed today against the wishes of local Anangu people. We break and subsume a race, stomp all over their spiritual landmarks then tick those experiences off our backpacker bucket lists. And for what? Maybe tourism in its entirety is neo-colonialism. “Still, what if you go to a village with an open heart, to listen and learn?”

“Sure. But first, just ask a local, ‘Is it ok that I’m here?’ That’s all. Talk to the people. Communicate. Treat them like humans.”

“But I can’t communicate, I don’t know the language. Anyway, I’m pretty sure the argument here would be the same as always — money. If I’m bringing money to the community, buying a juice, a sandwich, maybe a handmade scarf while I’m here? Then it’s ok?”

“Are you going to buy a handmade scarf in every Maya village you visit? Or just a coke?”

“Uh, probably a coke.”

“Ah, the black water of capitalism.” He smiles, clasps his hands together and looks at me. “And tell me, what do you think about homoeopathic medicine?”

“Oh, I don’t really know so much about it.

“There’s a whole field of medicine you haven’t studied?”

“Well, I’m healthy.”

He takes off his glasses. “Oh, really? Interesting. That’s your problem in the West. You wait for the problem to show up.”

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