Responsible Tourism, Cultural Tourism and Fair Trade

Today, I want to write about the easier aspects of getting back to Oaxaca in a month and what that means.  I can imagine the menu that Reyna Mendoza Ruiz and I have settled on for the cooking class we will offer participants in the Oaxaca Women’s Writing and Yoga Retreat:  Lifting Your Creative Voice.

Our cooking class menu:

  • Salsa de chile pasilla oaxaqueño
  • Ensalada de nopalitos
  • Mole enchiladas con pollo or mole enchiladas con champiniones
  • Helado de zarzamora con cajeta

I can almost feel the Oaxaca sun warming my back as I sit at this moment in the unseasonably cold North Carolina chill.  If I close my eyes, I can imagine the scrub oak covered hills and grazing sheep, the organ pipe cactus, the curl of a cooking fire, the smell of fresh ground corn tortillas.  I look forward to Magda’s tamales coated in spicy chocolate mole and a cold bottle of Indio beer at the Las Granadas courtyard table.  I want to hover over the freshest, ripest avocados, gently squeezing them as we trail Reyna through the village market.

The women who join me for this educational creative writing retreat will be inspired by the beauty and simplicity of the environment.  By being there, we will contribute to the economic well being of our host family and others who depend on tourist dollars to feed their children, buy alfalfa for draft animals, and wool for looms.  There is reciprocity and interdependence in this economic relationship.

They provide a place for us to retreat and experience a world apart from our own.  We offer, I think, a fair trade — appreciation and respect for artistry and culinary skills that is compensated.   While we experience being in a different culture, we engage in a place of learning and coming to a mutual understanding for who we are as human beings, through intimate connection without judgment for right/wrong, better/worse. Is this authentic?  I hope so.

I would be interested in hearing from you about what you understand the term “cultural tourism” to mean.  What does an authentic travel experience mean to you?  Can you actually have an authentic relationship with people in a foreign country as a tourist who comes in with dollars, looks for the best espresso café and sits watching the passing parade, negotiates the best price for the handwoven cloth at the local market, then hops on the flight home after a week or so, leaving behind the folks who earn $8 a day if they are lucky enough to have employment.

Do any of us really want to go that deep?

2 Responses to Responsible Tourism, Cultural Tourism and Fair Trade

  1. I am finding after being in mexico this past month that I, too, have raised many of these questions. I had a discussion yesterday with a taxi driver after my friend and I tried to find the local collectivo to take us somewhere. Somehow we got on the wrong one and ended up having to take this taxi. When I inquired with the driver about the whereabouts of this collectivo that my local friends take daily to work, she replied by telling me it did not exist!! While my spanish is not excellent, I was able to tell her that I know it does, as I see it everyday. In a long-winded explanation, she told me that that collectivo was not for me, a tourist (I have been living here as I had explained) but for the paisanos. While I understood her, on a level, I too am living here, daily having to take taxis or hitch rides the 7 km to work. A taxi costing me $5 each way doesn’t seem much, but to the people here who make $12 a day, it’s almost their entire payday. As much as I want to ride with the locals, I am living in a tourist town where no matter what, I look like just that-a visitor. I honestly felt bad about the experience as I like to do what the locals do when I travel. This was the first time someone verbally pointed out that I was different and couldn’t do as the locals do. 🙁
    Next week is Oaxaca. I can’t wait to take a cooking class, walk the markets, buy fabric, experience the beauty of the city. Ultimately this is a tourist-y thing to do, but as you pointed out, it is reciprocal. Through dialague, mutual personal interests, a connection is made. We cross-culturally teach each other in everything that we do as humans, all the time. Here we get to do so in other languages-the language of food, art-all of it. “Cultural tourism” has everything to do with respect. Do unto others, in a sense.
    While the frustration I felt yesterday was very real, I simultaneously understand the meaning behind it. So I’ll try again next week in Oaxaca. I know collectivos go to the villages and as I am not renting a car ($$$) so that I can support artisans instead, I aim to find them.

    • Dear Lindsay, THANK YOU for your honest, heartfelt, open and informative comment. We have a lot to learn from each other, and the best way we can do that is by sharing our experiences on a very gut level. I appreciate your taking the time to write. For ex-pats living anywhere in the world, we never fit in nor would we ever “pass” for local, as much as some of us might try! There is a great lesson in that — humility. We better appreciate what immigrants to the U.S. feel and are more sympathetic. Even if we are struggling financially as an “impoverished middle class” in America with our net worth declining, our home values sinking, and our job prospects nil, we probably have “much more” economically than the average person in Mexico. It’s an important lesson as we travel — awareness of what we bring from our collective history of cultural arrogance and entitlement. Good for you that you are very self-aware. I often get charged more for the same moto-taxi ride that locals pay less for. I figure that it all evens out in the wash. They may have cultural stereotypes of me, too!

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