Buying up/selling out

December 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

I have almost reached the northernmost point of my trip. This afternoon I’ll head from Tilcara, a town in the Quebrada de Humahuaca, to Iruya, a smaller village 50km off the main road to Bolivia. I have no idea what it will be like, but have heard a constant stream of positive comments about the natural beauty, the people, and the condors.

I was excited about coming to this part of Argentina because I saw it as a sort of return to the South America I knew in 2009, when I lived for three months in Pisac, a Andean town near Cusco in Peru.

It has felt like a return, in many ways. There are the same breathtaking mountainous landscapes (though here with more sand and cacti), the same abundance of maize, the same stalls arts and crafts.

And there is, of course, the same dependence on tourism. Tilcara, where I am now, resembles Pisac not just in its location and architecture but also in its ever-growing concentration of hostels, restaurants and souvenir shops.

It’s common for the independent traveller to lament the vile influence of globalisation, the eruption of Coca Cola signs on every street corner, the drowning of local culture beneath waves of dreadlocked, baggy-trousered travellers. It’s common because there’s a good point behind it, but I can’t help thinking that as a viewpoint it’s a bit simplistic.

The arts and crafts, I think, provide an alternative answer. The thought came to me from an experience in Salta, the biggest city in these parts, which was a repeat of one I had in Arequipa, Peru, two years ago.

In both cities there are museums which showcase the remains of Inca children sacrificed at the peaks of some of the Andes’ highest mountains (In Salta, the MAAM, in Arequipa, the Museo de Santuarios Andinos).

The cold and dryness have kept the human remains in astoundingly good condition. We’re not used to thinking of the world of the past in the same terms as that of the present, so any experience which makes us do so tends to send shivers down the spine. These photos from early 20th century Russia do the same, for me.

As well as the ‘mummies’, what most struck me about these museums (then as now) were the fabrics and jewels left with them. Not just their perfect preservation, but also how astoundingly similar, when not identifical, they were to the stuff you can pick up in any Andean town square.

It’s not totally ingenuous, I hope, to think that horrible ‘Western’ tourism plays some part in maintaining this incredible cultural continuity, even if in an ‘artificial’ way.  If it brings money to keep museums going (as one example of economic benefit), then that’s no bad thing.And though the flow of globalisation may be horribly imbalanced, it is not entirely one-way. Some Andean goods find their way to Europe, the US, etc. as a result – so there is a presence, if not an influence, in that direction.

I won’t subscribe to a rather Panglossian phrase I’ve learnt while in Argentina: ‘no hay mal que por bien no venga’. But I will persist in thinking that the terrifying flux of the world deals in ‘bien’ as well as ‘mal’.


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