It was fascinating to read Angelyn Fairchild’s “Wifi and human excrement: how tourism is changing life in Peru’s Andes Mountains” today after studying chapters on the Incan culture of the 14th-16th centuries for my Non Western Civilization course at CBU. The article highlights three small villages nestled into the remote and craggy pockets of habitable space along the Andes Mountain range in eastern Peru.
Tourism is changing an area that has been relatively free of outside influence for hundreds of years, which by circular thinking, is the attraction. There are ruins like the Incan site of Maccu Piccu, and the Incan Trail is composed of many stretches of stone walkway that were constructed by the Incans. The lure is understandable and it has brought thousands of visitors a year. But as the government of Peru has begun to highly regulate the permits for trekking along the Incan Trail, many have set their sights on the surrounding hills, valleys, and indigenous peoples, creating an entirely new type of economy in a relatively untouched region.
The article frames the story by noting that the tiny village of Huallhuaray, which is only accessible by foot, will finally be reached by road in 2018. As the residents ponder how their lives might be changed, the article focuses on how other villages in neighboring areas have fared. I was struck by the nature of the trekking economy and what the article calls a “feedback loop.”
Adventuresome tourists, (a group that I consider myself a part of) desire to go to remote locations that are untouched and encounter people groups and cultures that are outside of modern influence. Their presence creates a new economy, whereby members of the “untouched” communities are now introduced to modern culture and their needs. Lodging, amenities, and trail side bathrooms now all provide employment to members of the community and it thrives due to the influx of interest from the outside world. In turn, this creates a shadow of the former culture and, as such, is less desirable for trekkers looking for an indigenous experience.
While it highlights Huacahuasi as a community that has adapted and thrived on this exchange with trekking tourists, it still is nonetheless altered by their presence with less young people speaking the local language and spending more time on the newly installed Wi-Fi which now offers a window to every culture in the world. So that’s the best outcome. Other places have all but disappeared. The valley community of Soraypampa is but a skeleton of its former self. Most of the residents have moved on, leaving behind only those that run campgrounds, trail toilets, and one big mountain lodge.
I find it very noteworthy, in light of my civilization course, that these things all happen because of the construction of a road. As we have seen throughout our studies, reliable roads always bring cultures together. Goods are traded, cultural practices are blended, and people groups are assimilated when roads are built. Notably, this occurred 700 years ago in Peru as the Incan engineers created an astonishing 25,000 miles of roads that connected and united more than a hundred societies.
This is still happening in 2016.
Paved roads allow for an influx of technology, of more efficient building materials, increased wealth and and easy transfer of goods, services, and resources. It also brings those who are interested in the last frontiers that exist on our planet. All of these factors contribute to the development of a society but also to the blending of cultures. Of course, the first things we ask ourselves is, “is this a good thing or a bad thing?” I think that question is maybe a little wide-eyed and naïve.
We know that these sort of interactions are inevitable. Development brings both good and bad results to a region, and because we live in an increasingly connected world, it is unavoidable.
This phenomena, of what I call “development guilt,” was on display in my own heart on my recent trip to Northern Uganda. Ravaged by years of war and instability, the north is beginning to creep out of the turmoil and the development of the area has been notably progressing with every trip. On my last trip, I visited the new market in Gulu. It is a gleaming and large building built by the government with low cost stalls for Ugandans to buy and sell everything from custom tailored clothing to dried tilapia from local fish farms. It is definitely a fantastic step towards a thriving economy. In my heart, however, I confess to lamenting the loss of the old market. It was an international market that looked like something out of National Geographic. Hastily constructed of crooked wooden poles from local trees lashed together to form the walls and display tables, sellers would call to customers as they walk among the flies and thatched roofs.
Shamefully, I admit that it made me feel alive. I was seeing how these people lived everyday and wow, it was so different to my life back in America and boy, am I grateful for what I have and I’m so thankful that God has brought me here. I had to check my heart and repent during my last trip because I felt loss as I stood on the terrace overlooking the stalls of the new multi-level, concrete and steel market. It was truly a development worth celebrating.
While the concept of development is not always beneficial, as highlighted in the article, I think we need to deal with the myth of indigenous people. We romanticize their simple, albeit challenging, lives by connecting them to a way of life that only exists in history books and memories heard from great-grandparents that talk of growing up on a farm in the early 1900s without running water or an indoor bathroom.
We want to see it, but we don’t really want to live it. We want Wi-Fi, a decent place to relieve ourselves, and we only want to stay in their world for a few days so that we can bring back audacious stories and an Instagram feed that is the envy of any travel blogger. What we should celebrate and participate in, then, is communities like the ones noted in the article that are intentional about preserving their culture even while new cultures come streaming in. Furthermore, I like that they have found a way to turn outsiders into contributors; benefactors that foot the bill for a sustainable culture in the face of modern interests.
This is also the way that we need to continue approaching cultures with the gospel of Christ. Most missionary agencies and denominations have long abandoned the methods of the 19th and early 20th centuries that made significant advances in the gospel while sacrificing cultural practices around the globe.
We should always applaud organizations, churches, and individuals who make every effort to celebrate the diversity of language and culture when communicating the gospel. In this way, indigenous cultures and people groups can, hopefully, solidify their histories and their practices and will not be forgotten. In this way, they won’t go the way of some ancient civilizations that seem to disappear from historical record with no apparent cause.
Hopefully, at least, history has taught us all this much.