A French tourist pulls a small child dressed in the traditional dress of the indigenous people of Peru, the Uru people who live on the floating islands in Lake Titicaca, towards her daughter and instructs them both to play. She then proceeds to take pictures of the two playing. ‘Oh my God, isn’t it cute?’ says the American tourist who is sat next to me.
Cultural tourism is a new one on me. Feeling uneasy about the local’s performances for us is a Naive way of describing the experience. Let me start at the begging and get to why I think we need to leave the Uru people to live their lives without cultural tourism.
We took a speedboat from Puno to see the infamous floating Islands, our guide explained how they were made and we were then permitted the opportunity to get off the boat and stand on the island itself. We learned how they make the Reed Islands and in fact, the Reed and its floating roots are used in almost every aspect of traditional day to day life. We were offered a ride in the ‘taxi’ a large sturdy boat also made out of the ever-enduring Reeds. This is perhaps where the trip could have ended…
We rode the surprisingly spacious and sturdy boat-taxi down the lake. The president of the island affectionately called it their ‘Mercedes Benz’, the local’s nickname for the big taxi boats. The women of the island, dressed head to toe in the eye-catching traditional dress, sang a song in their language (Quechua) and danced for us as we left the Island. The performance ended in them saying in unison ‘Hasta la vista, Baby!’ The boat full of tourists laughed. Oh, if only it had ended there.
We returned and were invited in to see the locals homes, we mused over how they have electricity and a fuse board using a generator, they asked us our names and we all learned a bit more about each other. Sudently conversation turns and we are being shown tapestry after tapestry, made by the lady of the house. ‘look at this one’, ‘do you like this one’, yes it’s all very beautiful we say. We are being sold stuff now, expected to purchase something. we go outside and stalls have appeared with crafts for us to purchase. I feel relieved when we finally drift away on the speedboat. Some of the tourists asked to dress in the traditional outfits and are taking pictures with the locals. Am I the only one who feels this way? I try to communicate with Mark. ‘Do you feel really awkward?’ Yes, he says, although unlike me he has seen this sort of thing before, in India.
We travel to the Island of Taquile next, I am looking forward to a little trek and enjoying the scenery. What would typically be a relatively easy walk is made tough by the altitude. The views are stunning, the gates we pass to mark the begging of a new community are ornate, locals and tourists seem to coexist happily in a way I am far more used to. The locals going about their business, and us walking through.
We stopped for lunch, traditional food cooked by a local family. After lunch, we were treated to various performances by the family who cooked us the meal. Whilst everything we witnessed was extremely interesting and had I have been learning about the culture in a museum or another establishment preserving and documenting a way of life, I would help been delighted.
We watched the family come out of the house one by one, each one performed skills such as soap making or weaving, they didn’t look happy, they looked like this was another day at the office. We were told to clap after each performance, twenty or so western tourists with their camera’s taking pictures and commenting on how interesting it all was. And finally, it all ended with music being played, singing and dancing by the family. I was pulled up to join the dancing, I was naive enough to think this made it less of a performance. And then for the 5th time that day a tip jar appeared and we clapped and we tipped and left the family in peace, I hope!
Not only are tourists, in my opinion destroying this communities self-belief, pride and traditional way of life. We have made them believe that they need more than they used to have, they need more money to live a different kind of life. But worst of all we have made them look at the white face and western world as some kind of financier and dependant. Generations of children may grow up knowing no other life. Our generation has a responsibility to learn from past mistakes.