Tourism isn’t just for the sites. The first time I was in the small town of Huancarani I was passing through to the rainforest on the eastern border of Peru. Some middle school friends and I were on our summer vacation traveling with parents and our science teacher. There was a big tour bus and a guide to show us all the majestic sights from exotic birds to Incan ruins. We were tourists good and proper. Venturing into foreign lands, however, can be done a variety of ways, each revealing a select window into the local culture. On my first trip to Peru I was biking, rafting, and going on museum walk throughs. In Huancarani I was treated to soup and chicken. This time I came to volunteer, a tourist to the droves of indigenous people living on two dollars a day.
Honestly I found myself better received when I was the first kind of tourist. As the white guy with a camera around his neck I paid to see things and then went back to the hotel or on to another archeological display, but as a volunteer I was stepping into people’s everyday lives. There is still a growing sentiment in the international aid community, relevant to all volunteering, where field workers realize they aren’t actually helping but hurting. I feared succumbing to this second type of tourism and frequently I did whenever the clinic workers found it more useful to do it themselves than teach a tall gangly gringo the ropes.
Constantly coming up short and observing others complete tasks their way led to an inwardly sickening feeling that I was little more than a medical tourist. It didn’t take long before that frustration turned itself on the Month of TDC: low income communities are probably tired of western-good-intenders constantly peering in upon the details of their personal lives. I have already noticed that Andeans, and especially children, are weary of getting their pictures taken probably because they understand their face may show up on an NGO website with the implied caption of ‘Help Me I’m Poor’. Taking up space whilst trying to help those on two dollars a day was turning out to be an unwanted foreign influence that would not bring any less stress to an already stressful life.
The point is that an aid based volunteering role carries with it a responsibility that large hawaiian shirts do not. The solution, I found, was two fold and became evident when I was actually useful around the clinic. First, study the subject and it’s setting before trying to go and further it’s cause. The real help for a medical clinic would come from someone with a solid understanding of treatment, local practice, and the Spanish language. Although my castellano is up to par, my knowledge of doctoring goes little farther than taking blood pressure and cleaning wounds. Bringing about valid aid to those in need demands a set of learned skills that truly serve that need.
But it’s the second part of the solution which is pertinent to the two dollar a day challenge: In order to live on less – in any country – there exists a mindset born of a social/cultural standing that develops around a life with limited resources. A culture of the poor, if you will. For an outsider to investigate such a mindset without being intrusive he or she has to exercise a great degree of respect and cultural sensitivity, so as to ensure that both parties benefit without the tainted effects of invasive tourism. My fifteen-year-old tourist self was oblivious to this fact and it wasn’t until I began this month’s tour for understanding poverty that caution really made itself clear.
That being said, I then ran into something born of a two-dollar mindset that extinguished any desire I had to understand a culture of the poor. It happened when she took out the knife…
To Be Continued