Mel in Chile: The South Part 2

For those of you who have been following (don’t worry, I don’t have high expectations. Kidding- I actually suspect hundreds of thousands of people read my blog. Wow this must be the world’s biggest parenthetical insert) this post “The South Part 2” is the second of a three part series that reflects on the ten day excursion I took with my program in the South of Chile.  I apologize to readers who do not like long sentences.

We left Ralco after three days and two nights of relaxation as well as an hour long research methods class sitting on grass, in a circle, with a mountain split three ways as the background.

We headed for Valle Elikura. This valley, located close to the Pacific Ocean, between Contulmo and Cañete, has a population of about two thousand. Valle Elikura is historically territory that belongs to the Mapuche indigenous peoples. While there continues to be a strong Mapuche population, many of the families are also mixed with one of the parents being Chilean. Here we participated in a homestay for five days.

lake

A lake in Valle Elikura

During the day we had several planned events as a group; lectures, hikes through native forest, discussions with community members, community work, and most importantly time to be with our host family. Many families in the community have built cabins on their own property where they receive tourists. We were broken up into groups of two or three and each group lived in the cabins. The cabins are separate from the main house, but all we spent a lot of time with the family during meals and free time.

An important reason we traveled to Valle Elikura was to learn about the concept of community tourism. Many of us have traveled outside of the country. In these instances we have all participated in tourism where we experienced a different culture. At first glance, tourism seems as nothing more than exciting new adventures. Through this program, I have studied the legacies and implications of tourism and came to realize some unsettling characteristics.

Many times tourism, especially showcasing “other” ethnicities, resonates with colonial legacies. I will give some clearer examples.

1. Recently wed US couples travel to Fiji and are greeted by locals dressed in “traditional attire” and presented exotic drinks.

2. Twenty something young women step out of their comfort zone and take a much deserved vacation in India where they ride an elephant and get henna tattoos

3. Bold backpackers arrive to the desert village of San Pedro de Atacama and walk around the dirt streets of the village center passing through stores with “hand made/local” products, touring agencies, restaurants, and hostels made of adobe. Meanwhile Atacameño people, whose culture is being replicated for consumption, are nowhere to be seen.

I hope you get my point. Most times, the purpose of tourism is to explore, or more directly, consume, a different culture. The colonial legacy comes mainly from two circumstances. The first is that many times tourism is imposed on communities. The decision to welcome tourists in particular territories originates from higher political or economic agencies. Touring agencies offer services, companies build nice hotels, and the local people in the stores selling “artisanal products”. Tourists are not aware that the “local” people selling artisanal souvenirs are simply hired to sell. They do not own the store and they did not make the product. The souvenirs may not even come from the culture. The overwhelming majority of profits generated from tourist related activities are channeled to national or multinational companies. Another source of the colonial legacy in tourism becomes apparent when we look at the characteristics of the tourists and of the people in the regions they tour.  It will not take long to realize many tourist are from western and/or ex colonizing countries while the destination is usually an exotic country that also most likely an ex colony.

In Valle Elikura, the practice of community tourism is trying to break this relationship. Through community tourism, the Mapuche community appropriates tourism as an instrument through which they assert agency. Tourists who stop in Valle Elikura stay in a cabin that directly belongs to a family. The tourist will buy food from families in Valle Elikura. If they want to purchase artisanal items, there are a few people  in the valley who make the items from start to finish.

Take Rosa for example. She has a store in front of her house where she mainly sells knitted items. Rosa shaves her sheep to get the wool. She washes the wools, spins it and prepares the thread so it is ready to be died. Rosa takes plants of different colors from the garden in front of her house and boils them to produce the color for the wool. She takes the threads and leaves it in the die so the wool absorbs the color. Rosa takes the dies wool and begins knitting apparel to sell in her store. The prices are incredibly reasonable.

The objective for community tourism is to decolonize both the local community and the tourist. The tourism has control over how tourism of their culture and in their territories will happen. The money generated over tourist activities is channeled directly to the families of Valle Elikura.

In my opinion, the tourist still consumes a vision of the “other” culture they traveled to see. However, in the case of community tourism, the community “shows” its own culture. More importantly the local community can directly communicate with the tourist. The communication can be a way of educating visitors on issues that may be misrepresented by the media.

The distinctive characteristic of community tourism is that the community voluntarily decides to receive tourists and how they will administrate tourism.

During our trip, we also learned about Mapuche history, their struggle for autonomy, and their effort to maintain unity within a now diverse indigenous group (diverse in terms of political views, religion, way of living, etcetera). The community was not only welcoming, but also incredibly patient in discussions with a group of young students from the United States like us.

Running

I went on a run to the river and sat down a bit to take in the scenery and a quick photo!

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