We walk into the hostel bar. A group of white backpackers are dressed as ‘cholos’ (indigenous Peruvians) in ponchos and beanies. They are entertaining the other backpackers by play acting a ‘traditional wedding’ between two of the (white) travellers. Everyone is laughing at the pretend ceremony. An actual Peruvian seems to be leading this weird act of cultural misappropriation. I guess his job is to entertain the gringos and keep them at the bar so they keep drinking.
We are with a couple of friends. I look over at Mao. He looks quietly horrified. What the actual fuck is going on?!, he says with his eyes. Why are a bunch of privileged white young people dressing up as one of the most marginalised groups of people in Peru, and finding it hilarious and unproblematic?
If the actual scene in front of us isn’t bad enough, the backpackers volunteering at the bar aggressively try and make us participate in whatever the hell is going on, completely ignoring the look of horror on our faces.
This is the second time we’ve entered the hostel universe in Cusco. The whole thing makes me feel deeply uncomfortable. I’ve spent months thinking about why, so have decided to pen some reasons down…. [fully tasting the irony of writing this from my own place of white privilege, but hey Mao wanted me to post this].
Unchecked white privileged
Yes 21 year old backpacker from the US/EU/AU with the bracelets and harem pants, you are incredibly privileged. No amount of time on your yoga journey can change that. I wouldn’t think it’s necessary to point out your privilege when every day you pass elderly people trying to make a couple of dollars selling sweets, or blind people busking because they don’t have any support from the government. But it doesn’t seem that your privilege computes.
Just because you’re carrying your belongings in a bag and you have a limited daily budget, does not mean you are subjected to the systemic oppression, racism, and difficulty people face every single day in Peru. And no, you should not expect to pay the exact same price as a local for everything, unless of course, you would also like make less than $400 a month. It also does not make it ok for you to try and get out of paying for things like bathrooms. No, bathrooms here are pretty much never free. They also cost about $0.20, of which that money goes to a family trying to get by. So when you refuse to pay on ‘principal’, you are also refusing to help a mother to feed her kids.
And no, Peruvians are not being systematically racist to you when they’re not overly friendly at the shops, or aren’t overly keen to help you. If you knew anything about the history of the country, you’d know, trust is a rare commodity. You’d also know that white people have (and continue to) plundered, and robbed most of the nation’s wealth. So yeah, it’s a bit bigger than you, these interactions are laced with eons of unconscious history. Not everyone is nice to you at home, so why expect it every time here?
And if you really don’t like it, you know what? You can leave. And go back to the US/EU/AU [wherever] Unlike the majority of Peruvians, whose visas will be rejected, and will never be able to see the sites of your country. Ever.
Arrogance or ignorance?
I’ve been in situations several times where local people feel unsafe, while the visitors are convinced everything is hunky dory and dismiss local concerns with that everything will be fine attitude.
This in itself is a form of privilege. When you have not grown up getting held up by gunpoint near your house, your outlook on life is fundamentally different. If that has never been your life, you have the luxury of assuming everything is fine. You have the privilege of living free from the fear of such incidents.
Many South Americans simply don’t have the privilege of that outlook. Maybe they’re more likely to feel paranoid about going out at night, more like to be distrustful of strangers, or more protective of their possessions. But it’s probably because their own personal history has been written in part by these fears.
When traveling in the van we’ve also realised other people seem to have this sense that they absolutely have the right to be… just about everywhere. Beaches, cliffs, forests, for free. We have the opposite feeling, constantly questioning if we should be pulling up next to the village or beach, always asking local people if it’s fine to stay. Of course, many travellers do the same. But that it’s similar to the privilege of expecting everything is safe; expecting everything is free and that you have the absolute right to stay there.
One night we go clubbing. It’s pretty much just a massive room of white people, and a handful of locals. Horny backpackers hooking up with other horny (and mostly white) backpackers. Like a tiny alternate universe to the street a few meters away. Suddenly all the backpacker budgets seem to disappear as they sink all their money at the bar. It’s no problem to pay for beer and drugs, but of course no one wants to buy anything from the elderly folk selling candy at 3am in the cold outside. No one wants to pay too much for a taxi home even though that taxi guy definitely isn’t driving at 3am because it’s fun.
That night Mao goes to the bathroom of a club and is asked by an English backpacker if he’s selling cocaine. Seriously. Like the only reason for a Peruvian to enter a club in Peru is to sell you cocaine, of course. Another time, Mao is rejected from a famous backpacker hostel bar because he doesn’t have his ID. The rest of us [we’re all white] are never asked for any ID, ever, at any place. The guard shouts at Mao, the only Peruvian there, to piss off.
I guess that’s the thing that makes me feel uncomfortable. It’s a weird little white bubble all these people are traveling in. A bubble that at times, doesn’t even let local people inside.
Most of these young people have come to South America to experience new places and cultures. Yet they all stay together, mainly meeting other Europeans, Australians, or Americans. To me these hostels seem like little universes of whiteness, where young people brag about how deep they went into their Ayuhasca trip, or how little they managed to pay for something… it seems very much about… them. It seems that very few actually wants to know anything about what life is actually like for local people. Or anything about the complicated histories of the places they tramp around in.
We travel in our van, and come across uncomfortable stuff all the time too. People not wanting to pay for their parking or camping spots, or searching for free wifi that some small family run hotel is having to pay for. People who are normally traveling with more funds than these families would make in a year.
The worst part is, I’m not sure I have any answers either. How would it work in any other way? How could backpackers travel outside the bubble of whiteness? Would that even work? Maybe locals are more than happy for the gringos to stick to themselves. Maybe these worlds exist for a reason. Maybe it’s better young people ‘find themselves’ with a bunch of other white folks doing the same thing?
And perhaps it’s not actually the bubbles of whiteness that make me so uncomfortable, so much as the seeming lack of self awareness? To be able to enter a country, and travel around, seems to me, a great blessing and privilege. Especially when the majority of locals you meet are unlikely to be able to do the same. It seems to me, the perfect opportunity to travel humbly, and learn about the people and the place you’re lucky enough to be in. It seems to me the perfect opportunity to be aware of, and maybe even confront, your gringo privilege.
[Of course this has been written with gross generalisations, and there are plenty of backpackers and travellers who are perfectly lovely and self aware, who we have been fortunate to enough to meet].