|Quito from my hostel|
|A rendition of Quito by Guayasamin...|
Throughout my travels I've watched tourists of all kinds come to these poor parts of the world, and I've always admittedly been quick to criticize so many of them. After living among the local population in a certain place for a certain amount of time, it is easy to forget who you are, and to become critical of the obtrusive nature that tourism can have on the lives of local people. On the other hand, living among families that would have nothing were it not for the services that they provide to tourists, I can easily appreciate the positive benefits of tourism. My travels through Central America consisted of the cheapest possible rooms I could find, a basic, healthy diet of fresh produce and street food, and public buses everywhere I went. Today, after getting back from my guided tour of the city, I took a cab to grab a bite to eat, and then took a cab back to my luxurious hotel. To be fair, I'm not here by choice, this week of activities is organized and funded by the organization that employs me; being a part of it has been a personal challenge and incredibly revealing, and even somewhat enjoyable. A few of us interns and a group of about fifty students from all over the world who are here to study in Ecuador, have been touring around the country in a manner that would have made me cringe not too long ago, and even still now. It is hard to become immersed in a culture when you view it from the window of a private bus and then return to a sheltered hotel where locals who aren't filthy rich are strictly prohibited from entering. I'll never be able to come to terms with the fact that those with more money are simply treated better than those who are poor. For all the disdain that this guided tour has stirred within me, there are certainly a few positives that I feel have come of it. The other day we went to a mainly indigenous market town in the Andes, where locals make a living off the purchases by tourists. As we converged on the central market with our money belts zipped open, the locals all prepared for the impending sales that were sure to come. Each of those students took with them souvenirs and memories that will last them a lifetime, and in exchange they left much needed and well deserved money. Even more importantly however, many of these students have never left home before, and just by them being here, slowly exposing themselves to something new and foreign, they will take something home with them that will be far more significant than a trinket or a local craft. They will take home with them an experience and an understanding of the world that hopefully they will share with those back home who choose to not look beyond their own borders.
The idea of tourism is a controversial one that consistently stirs debate and raises deeper philosophical questions about the nature of our world system. That we as middle class citizens in the rich world, can come to the poor world and live like kings and queens is a clear sign of economic and social injustice on a global scale. That we in the rich world even have the ability to go about and see the world is an indication of class advantage that is hard to come to terms with for any conscious traveler. As the global economic system continues to revolve around capitalist principles however, what logical sense does it make to abandon tourism as a viable source of economic production for any given population? Tourism has the ability to raise entire communities out of penury, while at the same time ensuring the protection and continued recognition of the environment. As poor nations continue to move towards resource extraction and other damaging forms of production, tourism is an economic alternative that actually encourages the discontinuation of extraction. Most importantly, tourism is a way of spreading the wealth of the rich world into the hands of the poor world, while at the same time allowing for an important exchange of culture and language, and thus a more socially globalized world. Albeit, this is all ideal, and only happens when tourism is practiced sustainably, but it is something that cannot and should not be looked over in the constant search for sustainable development. These are some of the ideas that I will be grappling with over the next six months as I work with a university here in Ecuador on issues of sustainable development and tourism. I look forward to sharing my thoughts and ideas, and I'd appreciate any opinions you may have to offer.
I write this now from a small hacienda just outside of a place called Rio Bamba in the Ecuadorian Sierra. To arrive here we drove along winding roads which cut through the endless green highlands between the two chains of the Andes mountains. These hills are tilled for agriculture steep up the slopes - a result of colonial land ownership and indigenous displacement. Tomorrow we will climb part of the Chimborazo, the mountain furthest away from the center of the earth due its proximity to the equator. I've never been at such a high altitude, I'm anxious to see what it will do to me.