Feeling Conflicted While Traveling

I am currently traveling in South America and feel conflicted in how to deal with “good white people” on my journey. 

I have always been quite interested in the history of the Americas, and I am thankful to now be here and experience at least a small part of the continent for myself. My first stop was Lima. That’s where I landed so I decided to stay a few days. I did a great bike tour with a very knowledgable tour guide. At the outset of the tour, he made a statement about Pizarro ‘founding’ Peru. I apparently, without noticing it, reacted very strongly to the statement. From that point onwards the tour guide told us a different history and differentiated between pre- and postcolonial speech. I am very clear that the Incan empire was also violent and built on expansion and power. But it does not compare to the greed, conquest and destruction that ensued under the Spanish conquistadores. In the words of DuVernay, I am not here to argue history, though I could. 

What bothered me was the fact that no one else seemed concerned with this aspect of the storytelling. 

Back at the hostel where I stayed, I was surrounded by mostly white Europeans, all of whom were on long journeys through South America, all of whom were content with consuming and not giving back, all of whom were simply traveling from beach town to beach town with the exception of World UNESCO sites like Machu Picchu. 

Now I have arrived in Cusco where I will stay at least a month. I found a non-profit place to stay where I can also offer things like yoga, meditation and possibly work with local kids. I knew the place was owned by an American, a white woman, but she has a Peruvian partner. And I assumed that the make up would be different. But I am again surrounded by an all white crowd, mostly women, all from Northern American and European countries, Australia and South Africa ::: the great oppressive nation states. And they all offer “their own forms of yoga” and other energy and healing approaches originating from POCs. 

It is impossible to forget the devastation this city endured in the 16th century as it is the main attraction of tourists today. The large churches of the main squares built on top of temples with stolen bricks. And today the destruction is still steeped in greed and consumption. 

My conflict derives from the fact that I have chosen to be here, to live with these people who consider themselves good white people. They mean well. But do they? Do they question these things that I question. From what I can tell, not diligently. They see their contributions positively and aren’t interested in a great deal of digging. They give back in a way that feels good to them, self-congratulatory, nursing their white guilt away on the teets of organic superfood smoothies and quinoa, staples that the locals can barely afford anymore. 

I seek something else. The only other brown bodies I’ve seen here at the house thus far are the cleaner and the Spanish teacher, both very kind women with big hearts and a lot to offer. And I have already made a point of befriending both of them. I have my first Spanish class tomorrow. Not so that I can feel good about myself, not to feel less an outsider, but in hopes of true connection. I want to know their stories. I want to understand why the cleaner’s three daughters have moved to Chicago. I hope to understand my suffering better by learning about theirs. 

To mean well is nothing more than a pass to perpetuate exploitive behavior. 

One comment

  1. rebeccawadlington · March 1, 2015

    I have been following the Peru hashtag on WordPress for a while and I think I’ve been waiting for a post like this. I worked in Morrope, Lambayeque for two years with the Peace Corps and experienced thoughts similar to yours too many times. There is a magical thing to learning some Spanish and taking the time to talk to people. I met some amazing people with great stories who were more than willing to talk to me even with the limited Spanish I had in the beginning. I wish you the best of luck and enjoy mi querida Peru!


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