Calidris Controversy: People Safaris

Tourists visiting a San community.

Imagine, for a moment, if every morning at 11:00, your doorbell rang and 20 strangers stood on your doorstep. As you welcomed them, they would troop through your home, peering at everything from photos to furniture, asking questions about your family and living, what you eat for breakfast, your clothes, your hairstyle, your bathroom habits. They might poke around in your possessions or want to hold your baby. They might express incredulity or disgust at your cultural practices. Later, you would be expected to demonstrate how you do your laundry or apply make-up. Most of all, they would want to photograph you in every imaginable setting, including with them draping an arm over your shoulders. You smile through all this because you don’t have a lot of money and you know these strangers do, and you hope that at the end of all this, you can sell them one of the paper airplanes you fold in the evenings.

On a trip to Thailand earlier this year, we sailed off on a three-day small-ship cruise in the Andaman Sea. The first morning, the captain informed us that we’d be using the Zodiac to head ashore and visit a village of the Moken, sometimes called the “sea gypsies.” My companion and I discussed it and decided we did not want to participate, and I told the captain we’d be staying aboard. He seemed offended and demanded to know why. In the moment, all I could come up with was “We prefer not to.” As paying customers, I don’t think we really owed him any further explanation, but later, as we watched the others pile into the dinghy for the transfer to the island, I mused over my resistance to the excursion.

Wildlife and birding safaris are a thrilling blend of excitement—you never know exactly what you’ll see—stalking, waiting, patience, and photography. But “people safaris,” trips to “authentic” spaces where people really live their lives and are willing to sell their privacy for the entertainment of tourists, are a different kettle of fish.

The Web abounds with awkward snappies of grinning tourists posing next to locals who look anything but happy about the situation. While I’m interested in how other cultures live, I respect indigenous people too much to want to invade their homes, gawk at their families and customs, and buy cheap facsimiles of traditional crafts.

The staging of stale tourist-focused demonstrations of artisanal techniques that once might have defined an entire family’s identity and standing in the community disturbs me. A craftsperson is meant to create, to challenge her skills by practicing her craft, not mindlessly repeat the same dumbed-down routine over and over each time a boatload or busload of foreigners shows up.

Almost invariably in these “cultural tours,” the visitors are “given the opportunity to buy” locally made products, racks of poor-quality carvings, beaded keychains, baskets, or painted clay knickknacks that are churned out somewhere and designed to fit a price-point attractive to tourist wallets. While the sellers may not be allowed to apply real sales pressure, there is an unspoken expectation: the items are cheap for a “wealthy foreigner” like yourself, the sellers are indisputably poor, you’ve presumed upon their community and their hospitality, the least you can do is buy some souvenirs, right?

Except that I’ve made a conscious decision to avoid buying useless stuff. Gone are the days when I filled my suitcase with doo-dads and cheap gifts for family and friends. I walk through the Salvation Army thrift store aisles lined with crude Somalian carvings of giraffes, crappy toy musical instruments from Guatemala, and shabby embroidered placemats from Thailand, and I know I’m not the only one who is rejecting this flotsam.

I also don’t see this kind of relationship with the displaced as sustainable in the long term. Will the grandchildren of these people still be selling tourist junk and staging demos of traditional medicinal practices in order to scrape by financially? I sincerely hope not.

Maybe I’m wrong and maybe these human zoos are a good way to bring much-needed cash into subsistence-level communities. If people choose to do this because they can earn money at it, I certainly cannot say they shouldn’t do it, but I don’t feel comfortable being on the receiving end. Since we, the tourists, come and go as we please, and we have all the money, there’s a power imbalance and a whiff of colonialism that makes me very uneasy.

How do you feel about “people safaris”? Have you experienced one? Did you enjoy it?

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2 Comments

  1. Thanks for putting the issue so succinctly. I feel a similar discomfort about “people zoos”, as you put it. There are better ways to support indigenous communities.

    • I’m glad I’m not the only one, Barry. I did visit a “cultural village” in South Africa, but that was a bit different. The staff (or what Disney would call “the cast”) did not actually live in the village, it was just a day job. I felt that they were basically performers who happened to play roles as villagers. So there wasn’t that sense of intruding on people’s private space.

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