Oct 1, 2022
Content Warning: Colonialism, Racism
Young children stretch makeshift ropes across the pothole-scarred dirt road, bringing our SUV to a halt. The driver passes one of the children a piece of candy, which is eagerly grabbed before the rope falls slack. This scene is repeated every few minutes during the long, bumpy ride through the stiflingly hot desert. It’s so sweltering that I can’t imagine standing by the road for hours under the meager shade of a cactus waiting for cars to pass to exact tribute—a piece of candy here, a water bottle there. Yet when we pass through the occasional dusty settlement, all red earth and lean-to houses made of dried strips of cactus, children, and adults alike come running with hands outstretched, or else offering colorful woven bags or baskets of cactus fruit on sale for a pittance. On the long return trip, we are again stopped by repeated roadblocks, only these ones are of cars, and the men emerging from the shade don’t take candy.
This is La Guajira, one of Colombia’s poorest states, a desert peninsula jutting into the Caribbean. It is home to the Indigenous Wayuu people, nomads of the desert interior. Despite being one of the most populous Indigenous groups in Colombia, a long history of government neglect and the violence of the drug trade have taken their toll on the Wayuu. The Wayuu continue to face widespread discrimination at the hands of those they call alijuna, “those who damage,” meaning non-Indigenous outsiders. Unsurprisingly, given such adverse conditions, the Wayuu have had to resort to extorting the cars that pass through their reservations on their way through the desert. Given my own Jewish background, it’s not hard for me to recognize that people must make the most of the conditions they are forced into; they do what they must to survive because society has failed to offer them viable alternatives. When “those who damage” run the show, it should come as no surprise when their victims retaliate in the ways they can.
For all its problems, La Guajira is home to several popular tourist sites. Cabo de la Vela, a Wayuu fishing village on the northwest coast of the peninsula, is famous for its pristine Caribbean beaches, while Punta Gallinas is known as the northernmost tip of South America. Both destinations and other sites in the area are mobbed by hordes of tourists year-round. Like in other touristy regions, the contrast between the wealth of visitors and the poverty of Wayuu locals is jarring. I’ve seen this contrast many times before, but never in such stark relief as in La Guajira.
In the May 2022 issue of The Student Insurgent, I published an account of a spring break trip I took to the town of Huautla de Jiménez in the Sierra Mazateca of Oaxaca, Mexico. Ever since the renowned curandera María Sabina first initiated a Westerner in the sacred psilocybin mushroom ceremonies of the Mazatec, the town has been a mecca for tourists and hippies from around the world seeking the magic mushroom. Huautla is not the only such place; numerous Indigenous communities have witnessed the profanation of customs and beliefs they hold sacred following the explosion of tourism as a global industry since the mid-twentieth century. The emergence of tourism has given those with the requisite money the privilege to insert themselves in cultural contexts deemed “exotic” and alluring, opening places like Huautla to throngs of clueless tourists.
In the piece on Huatla published last spring, I asked what it means to be a tourist to such places as an outsider with no connection to the community. My visit to La Guajira raised the same ethical questions as my trip to Huautla. I was struck by this when I visited a place outside Cabo de la Vela called Kamaica (“lord of the things of the sea”), a mound of gravely stone rising above the coastline a few kilometers north of the village. Kamaica is a sacred site for the Wayuu, a place where the souls of the dead circulate and the living make pilgrimage to pay homage to their ancestors. When I visited, Alijuna tourists were walking all over it, ascending the hill to the shrine at the top to watch the sunset over sacred land to which we lack any connection. Wayuu people sat shaded under rustic structures on the beach below selling water and snacks to passing tourists, but I saw none on the sacred mountain that is ancestrally theirs.
Antiguan novelist Jamaica Kincaid’s 1988 book A Small Place presents a damning portrait of tourism in her home country, often touted by travel agencies as an island paradise—but one from which Antiguans themselves have no escape. This contradiction recalls a Colombian saying: “Colombia is proof that God made heaven and the devil hell.” Like in La Guajira, the tourists who clutter the sunny beaches of Antigua are ignorant of the dire social and environmental problems that plague the island and which they help to exacerbate, effectively recreating the colonial situation from which “small places” like Antigua never truly escaped. By doing so, the rich and the powerful—and most of the time, the White—impose themselves on impoverished, marginalized, and non-White people whose lands and lives they penetrate with their gaze. Tourism is not only colonial, then, but also voyeuristic.
Anarchist anthropologist Pierre Clastres presents a similar portrait of tourism in a 1971 essay called “The Highpoint of the Cruise.” In this parodic fiction, a cruise ship full of American tourists disembarks in an Indigenous village somewhere in the Amazon. The exciting fantasy of “authenticity” grips them; they rush for their cameras to take carefully composed photos of the inhabitants of the village, gesturing for them to remove their pants and shirts and to pose naked or don their ceremonial regalia. One tourist, looking past the elaborate figurines and headdresses displayed for sale to people like him, asks for the bow and arrows that their owner uses for hunting. The hunter scowls, insulted, but then gives it some thought and pitches a high price. The tourist concedes—anything for an authentic souvenir! This type of staging of an artificial “authenticity” that positions a place and its people as pristine and unchanging is characteristic of colonial tourism, especially at the interface between non-Indigenous and Indigenous people. The only aspect of the story that strikes me as unrealistic is that the tourists ask to take photos.
How different are the places I’ve enumerated above from popular tourist sites that many Americans dream of traveling to? Although local circumstances differ, there are clear parallels: tourism has brought many of the same types of harm to these different places. A White tourist in Hawaii sunbathing on the beach or hiking the Kalalau Trail is as complicit in histories of colonial exploitation as any hippie looking for mushrooms in Huautla de Jiménez. Tourism the world over is an industry of complicity.
For as critical as I’m being here, I want to nuance the picture a little. When grappling with the ethics of tourism, there is a comparison to be drawn with the question of cultural appropriation. When is it appropriate to borrow from a culture not your own; when is it appropriate to visit a place not your own? For me, both questions come down to respect. If you can visit a place with respect for the land and those who call it home (and with their permission), it’s not categorically wrong to do so. The problem lies in the fact you can’t count on most people to go to the trouble of putting in the work of respectful understanding, hence the multitudes of non-Indigenous American tourists walking all over Hawaii without any awareness or respect for its Indigenous people and their history. And hence people like me paying bribes to pass Wayuu roadblocks through impoverished and polluted reservations en route to sacred sites along pristine Caribbean shores.
I left La Guajira with an ambiguous feeling. Not knowing what I might find there when I set out—and I found a great deal that I didn’t expect—I returned glad to have seen and learned much during my visit. On the other hand, I was more aware than ever of being one in a long line of White tourists to visit with little understanding of its history and of the people who inhabit it, bringing little else but handouts of candy and water bottles.
Was it wrong for me to visit La Guajira as a tourist at all? Not necessarily. Should I have done more to learn about the land and its people before going? Certainly. Was it, ultimately, disrespectful for me to go? I’m not sure. No one suggested that it was and there was no clear indication that anyone I met would have preferred that I and others like me not be there. But do the Wayuu have any choice but to accept the unsolicited presence of alijuna on their land? Impoverished and marginalized as they are, they may now have no choice but to play their part in a tourism industry designed by and for those who damage. I am presented with the same dilemma that confronted me in Huautla: how consensual is manufactured consent? I don’t have a good answer, but it’s a question we should all take seriously.
Consider these reflections a call to self-awareness should you set your sights on some “exotic” locale. Things aren’t always what they seem; one person’s heaven is another’s hell.
Art by Misandry