Continuing the Debate

It continually occurs to me that I am in an advantageous position while traveling abroad, and specifically in places of significant cultural diversity such as Dinamarca. The longer we are here the more differences and similiarities there are between United Statian culture or what is often refered to as “western” culture (although I am quite sure Peru is west of many things..), and Shipibo culture. As two of the most priviledged and edjucated people in the town, Natali and I as world travelers and intellectuals are witnessing a cultureal clash that I spoke of earlier.

The next questions to ponder are; why and how did this clash occur?

Looking around town it is easy to pick out “that which does not belong” like a game on the back of a cereal box. Steel framed stucture with a tin roof to house the cement and steel well, telephone poles with powerlines, 2 or 3 or 4 stores selling rice, eggs, soap, cookies in plastic wrappers, canned fish (somwhat ironic in a fishing community), beer, cigarettes, and the list goes on. I have also spotted no less than 3 TVs, and bernardo has a motorola cellphone as well as a digital camcorder. Natali has mentioned much of this in another post already so I will move on.

How is it possible that we find these things here? I am beggining to believe that it is because of priveledged “íntellectuals” like ourselves. As we travel around the globe we act as both ambassader and sales associate for western culture and thought. Be it intentional (as it seems to be with engineers without borders, who brough the powerlines) or unintentional (as in our case) we like the Borg of StarTrek are assimilating cltures faster than we know.

In a lengthy conversation with Natali the other night we talked about how small events can have world changing effects. As in Mitch Albom´s book “The Five People You Meet In Heaven”, seemingly insignificant events such as a glance, a smile, or a frown, can be the very event that begins a chain reaction ending with anythign from a birth to a death.

Even coming to Dinamarca could be traced back to a smile or a frown, or perhaps a really intense philosophy class one evening which led me to visit Natali in her office to say hello instead of taking my usual bus home. There, during a google search for volunter opportunities in Peru I came across Village Earth, an organization which worked with the Shipibos on sustainability. After a few emails, our plans were set. If a small event such as a decision to visit Natali one night provoked by a smile or a frown brought me to a remote village in the Amazon rainforest, what kinds of events could be caused by a set of powerlines, candy wrappers, or a television?

This is why we´ve decided to not wear raincoats. This is why when I ask Natali if she thinks it is OK to take a picture, that she steadily replies “I don´t know, I feel bad.” This is why I save my iPod for homesick nights in our mosquitera listening to Wilco, Explosions in the Sky, and the Guess Who. What effect will our being here have on this culture? Indeed much if not all the westernized things in this town came from interaction with people who alrady had it. I am worried what my being here my cause…

Let us step back before we step even farther and consider this in reverse. If the Shipibo came to NYC it would seem quite rude to ask them to hide away their identies, as I feel I should in this village. And alternately, they would feel quite awkward walking throught the streets in their traditional dress. Given this, why do Natali and I feel comfortable in our traditional dress? Why do we need to hide our identities away?

I believe this has something to do with matters of dominance. Western culture is not in danger of being wiped out. Ontop of that, we are flooed with ideologies of competition including the idea that we are the best of the best, the would be role model of the world. And, unfortunately, whether it is our so called necessities, such as, bottled water, clean pressed clothes, or a steak whenever you want it, we in one way or another love and appreciate the western culture that we live in, and even the most hippie, liberal, radical, progressive among us is a part of, and for THAT reason we enjoy and feel comfortable in our “skin.” Although I appreicate where I am and that I am here, I do long for the soft bed in my house in CT, or the possibility of having something different for every meal during the week,…. you know, I would really love some cold water right now….how elitest is that?!

In most cases we do-good travelers are oblivious to those who are watching and developing desires in awe of our confidence as we portray a false view of success and “the good life.” This makes me wonder how I should be presenting myself to the Shipibo. As I begin to remove items from my “ok to show” list I wonder just how far we ought to go. How much of my identity as a western, technologically obsessed consumer, fragile and pale from a pampered life, should I hide…whether I like those facts or not, they seem to BE me.

The Shipibo don´t wear raincoats and indeed an indigenous inhabitant of the rainforest wearing such a thing is as ridiculous a notion as they come. One might think, “well, ok, then why would they want one? Wear yours, they´ll probably think your crazy. They aren´t going to want that.” Maybe not, but as we deconstruct the notions of success we can see that even the ridiculous has a place.

A similar instance is the infiltration of the UGG boots. These fuzzy suede winter boots are traditionally worn by young women from early fall till mid spring, accompanied the whole while by short skirts and a tanktop. It matters not that it is 2 degrees C outside, the boots need to be worn, and they shall only be worn with skirts. Here we see that, although physically ridiculous, the desire to mimic those we find attractive or successful outweighs logic.

So am I, Chris, poor college student, without a thought of what I will do with my life…gulp…successful????


Indeed I am successful. Where the average Peruvian in the Ucayali gets by on less than 58$ a month, and a Shipibo in Dinamarca has a hard time making change for a 5 soles coin… (less than 2 USD) I have pockets full of 100 soles bills. Of course notions of what makes someone successful can very, but the very fact that I at the age of 21 can travel 6,000 miles on planes that cost thousands of soles to visit a small village and lazilly teach english, just because I want to… is about as successful as the Shipibo can imagine.

Of course I don´t want to impose false realities on these people, I don´t want them to envy the US, (which I barely like myself..). I want them to feel happy being them, and I would like to make sure that I don´t mistakenly tell them otherwise.

Going back again to the perhaps laughable but truely insightful world of Gene Roddenbury´s StarTrek: The Next Generation, staring Patrick Stewart as the firm yet empathetic and visionary leader, Capt. Jean Luc Picard, we find the prime directive. That imporant StarFleet doctrine that prohibits those with more technology from interfering with the happenings and histories of civilizations less “developed.” To let them develop on their own time.

It seems to me then that we ought to treat the Shipibo as a culture able to develop themselves and consider not introducing them to the westernized world just yet. One wouldn´t give a set of car keys to someone who has never been in a car before… and it is not because they are not capable of driving or a lesser person, but because they have yet to understand the complexities of the vehical and it´s dynamics. Similarly the Shipibo do not seem to understand aspects of trends, economics, markets, recycling and so forth, yet they have stores, plastics, and technology.

Alas, this post is quite long, and I fear my rambles have left my readers bored or confused or both…I shall cut my syndication from written to typed short and end with the following:

Like Fransico Pizzaro who, in attempting to conquer Peru and it´s surrounding lands, spread small pox far ahead of his troops, killing many of the Incas before he reached their cities, we are are killing culture in places we don´t even know exist. Whether we try to explain the dangers of western culture or simply keep in mind the concept of the globe traveling ambassador, we need to recognize the beauty we are capable of destoying, the diversity we are smuthering.

I have a vision of a day were peoples, no matter how small and remote their villages are, are confident in their culture. I have a vision that everyone can visit and interact and trade ideas fairly and appropriatly, comfortable in their own skin.

And of course, these questions and comments will lead to more…


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