I’m jaded. I’ve moved, on average, once a year for the last ten years. I’ve spent four of the last ten years living abroad. Some of the students have asked me how many countries I’ve been to and it took me more than a minute to figure it out. I’m still not sure if I’ve remembered everywhere I went in Europe. Does flying through connecting airports count?
I don’t open this paper in this way to boast -- I’m sure you’re both well traveled. I understand how fortunate I am. I tell you so you understand that the grinding poverty, the street calls, and the garbage everywhere just doesn’t impact me in the same way it used to. I don’t feel a powerful call to effect change in places where I know my mite would mean nothing. I’ve been part of an organization that professed to effect great improvements in the paths of entire countries, when in reality all I saw was that we made things much worse. The involvement of a white North American do-gooder in local affairs is not a valuable use of my time or anyone else’s. That loss of my youthful enthusiasm and idealism is a little sad, I think, but also maybe inevitable. Maybe you can relate. Perhaps, as a part of this conversation, you might offer me some wisdom as I navigate my changing perspectives.
I interviewed Yumi in Tikal and Jamir (Jam Jam) at Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM), as we walked back from the caves. Their jobs depend on tourists and the tourists come to see the natural areas and the cultural artifacts that they show us. It’s not surprising that they both viewed the preservation of those places as important and as a crucial part of their cultural heritage.
Yumi told me that her tour company had increased “ecological tours” over the last few years. What tourists want has changed from what we’re doing -- on and off the bus in short stints -- to multi-day treks to far-flung places. People want to go into the jungle and walk five days to see untouched, unexcavated, rarely-visited Mayan sites. I noted that this was a lower-energy-impact mode of tourism and Yumi agreed with me, but her reassurances that her tour company cared about ecological and energy impact seemed rote. She was just repeating what I was saying, not fully understanding the question, or perhaps not knowing whether her tour company really cared about such aspects of their business.
Still, she had strong thoughts on the behavior of her fellow Guatemalans. She explained that all the people cared about was cows. Owning cows, getting more cows, and cutting down the jungle to feed the cows. Her community’s treatment of their cows reminded me of Jared Diamond’s discussion on cows and their place in Viking culture as Greenland collapsed.
She could see the problems around her: climate change, deforestation, pollution, but didn’t see that people cared. She thought modern civilization was close to collapse; that the Mayan structures we were seeing would long outlast anything we moderns have built. Houses that were constructed thirty years ago just fall apart. We didn’t discuss her lifestyle choices or whether they related to her viewpoint on the environment, but I note that it’s interesting she doesn’t have children at an age when most Guatemalan women certainly would. She even told me that if she wasn’t working as a guide, she would be a housewife. Her mother was (is?) a housewife and a seamstress, her father a farmer.
She made different choices for herself -- Deke asked her about whether she was breaking barriers as a woman-guide and she told him that she was one of three and that the government had kept her application for six months before allowing her to start training. She’s still not sure why they allowed her into the program at all. She’s always had aspirations beyond wife and mother -- when she was younger she wanted to be a nutritionist.
Deke’s line of questioning exposed a lack of awareness in my own approach to Yumi. It’s normal for me to see women in any job I might habitually interact with. My understanding might be different if I were in computer science or working at higher levels of government, but even in the historically male-dominated military my particular career field had plenty of women in positions of all kinds. I’m much less aware of gender-power-access issues than I once was, and especially in a more traditional nation like Guatemala, my lack of awareness led me to make inaccurate assumptions about Yumi and her work. In my interview, I assumed she was more like me and that we had more similar shared experiences than we actually had.
In some ways I think that perspective can be valuable for connecting people cross-culturally -- it’s easier to talk to someone we perceive as more like us than different, but at the same time, it’s a dangerous trap to fall into, especially if I wanted to try to enact some program or policy that Yumi and her community would support. Her priorities are likely very different from mine, and while she might complain about people prioritizing cows over jungle preservation, I don’t know what her response would be to some do-gooder trying to take away her father’s cows and put back the jungle. Nobody wants to give up their piece of the pie, especially when it’s a smaller piece.
I suspect that daily exposure to the collapse of one’s own ancestral civilization might have a salutary effect on how one views the present course of life on this planet. Yumi struck me as particularly aware of the ecological crises of our time, and the inevitable ramifications thereof. Aware, but similarly helpless. I’m from a rich and powerful country and I feel as though my personal choices mean little in the great scheme of things and that I have no ability to change the course of events. Yumi is from a small border town in a tiny, desperately poor country, just as aware of the coming future as I am and just as helpless in the face of factors beyond her control.
Jam Jam had a well-honed patter about Mayan history and legends and he viewed it as his solemn duty to espouse as much of it as possible to his tour group. I appreciated his approach very much -- he made a long walk interesting and his background information transformed the tour of the caves from a fun adventure into a much richer and culturally connective experience.
On the way back from the caves, we discussed his views on the ATC park and on the Belize-Guatemala border. Belizians come into the park to cut down hardwood trees and sell them for construction and furniture. Jam Jam thought the park needed more staff and actual patrols to enforce the borders and preserve the land. He said that the park wasn’t just protecting the caves and the artifacts in the caves, but also the jaguars and the birds and the other creatures that lived in the sanctuary. He had a great affinity for these animals; not surprising, given his five years of working for the Belize Zoo right after high school.
He was also upset about Guatemalans coming over the border and taking hardwood and poaching, though the Belize-Guatemala border issue kept cropping up with other tour operators and seems to be more tied to the socioeconomic differences between the countries than questions of ecological conservation.
While Jam Jam did have strong views on the need to protect and conserve ecological resources, he also understood and empathized with the people who were struggling to make a living and feed themselves and their families. He wasn’t sure what the solution was to grinding poverty.
He had a unique perspective on the archaeological sites that he showed us. In general, he preferred for most cultural artifacts to remain in the ground and in the caves. He valued that he and the tourists he brought in could see the original objects, laid out exactly as they had been more than a thousand years ago. He also commented that the government could not afford to preserve and maintain most of the artifacts if they were removed, especially since they needed to be preserved at the same temperature as the cave, and so for this reason it was better to leave them be.
Like Yumi, Jam Jam is facing an interesting demographic shift and change in role. He discussed how one of his grandparents had 13 siblings. His father was one of five. He has just a couple siblings, and only two children. There’s a component here, like in many countries, where increased education and access to resources concomitantly decreases family size. He also seemed quite pleased and proud of the fact that he was able to run his own tour company as an independent contractor, and I wonder if access to technology and education (his father was a teacher) may have given him more opportunities than the average Belizean. His command of English was excellent, as were his spot-on pop-culture references, though he has certainly picked up many skills in this department during his many years as a guide.
Unlike Yumi, Jam Jam did not seem as interested in the world beyond the park -- though perhaps his taciturn response to questions in this direction was more about diplomacy with visitors and fear of political reprisal. He was very cautious around questions that brushed on political topics or might seem critical of the government’s decisions. I don’t know enough about politics in Belize to know what kind of consequences he might face if word got around that he was speaking negatively about the current people in power to visitors. After speaking with him, I realized that if I wanted to probe more on environmental issues, I would also need to have a better understanding of and sensitivity around the contemporary political climate.
At the Baboon Sanctuary, the class also spoke with Dwayne about his experiences. It was a briefer conversation and I did not participate as much as I did with the other two, but he expressed his deep and abiding love for the forest and animals he helps to protect. He wished that more land owners would join the sanctuary in the future. He explained that the more he was able to watch the Howlers, the more he understood of their intelligence. He told us that fighting fires -- an impossible task, given the equipment available to him -- to protect the land was his true passion. My impression was that he was very interested in passing on his knowledge of the forest and of traditional bush medicine to his visitors.
The three folks I’ve interacted with all share a respect of and appreciation for the areas they work in and protect, as well as an interest in educating tourists. Obviously. They’re all tour guides. If they weren’t interested in the places they protect and good at talking to people, they wouldn’t have lasted in their jobs. The paper we’ve been asked to write is going to have some inherent bias just from the limited options we have for interview subjects, though that’s going to be an issue even with a more advanced foray into the world of ethnographic research. Every interview subject has their own motivations for sharing their opinions.
It’d be trite to conclude this piece with something about how these people with very different backgrounds from me and who grew up with many fewer opportunities are more similar to me than they are different. I can look and see some perspectives we share. I feel the same way about the Oregon forest as Dwayne does about his. It’d be hard for me to love his forest as much as he does; the heat is oppressive. I fear the dangers I do not know that seem to lurk behind every rock and stick. How many times have we been warned to touch nothing in the rain forest? I feel the same way about the preservation of cultural artifacts as Jam Jam. I would largely like to see what was taken in North America returned to the tribes from whence those objects came, to the extent that it’s possible, and certainly maintained and preserved where that’s not. I agree with Yumi that civilization is on its way out, and that most people don’t care. Once, I would have left you with the easy and safe similarities.
There’s more going on, though. A vast chasm separates me from folks who grew up in this place, and I don’t think I have it in me to bridge the gap. Happy expatriate or immigrant, I am not. I want to go home to my air conditioning and the comfortable illusion of recycling. I do not understand the family and community focus that people from Latin American cultures often hold as a primary value, and that our subjects seemed to as well. Independent, separatist American that I am, estranged from my family of origin and newly established in Portland, I just don’t have the kinds of connections with people and land that the locals seem to.
They have more to teach me than I have to teach them. I’m not sure I overlap enough in background to understand their lessons.