Puno is a touristy city as the gateway to the famed floating islands inhabited by people who live in and construct their whole world around them – from the islands beneath their feet, their homes and their boats – out of reeds. They are a culture already ancient when the Incans first emerged. I was shocked to see how many people came to visit those islands and as we walked to the pier, we were almost stampeded by hordes of foreigners in the latest outdoor clothing and armed with huge cameras coming back from their expedition to the ancient culture. Everyone who talks about their tour seems to have a similar story, “It was touristy….but it was interesting….” A French girl said it in a stronger way that “It was a joke” and suspected that the islanders go to their floating homes just for the hordes of tourists and then go back to their modern homes at night.
This is a bit of a dilemma about tourism as a means of development. Tourism is built on the premise that people want to see something different from home, to experience a different way of life, perhaps in nostalgia for a simpler time in the past. People work hard to save up to travel, therefore travel is often an escape from the hustle and bustle of modern day life. For tourism especially in the developing world, there is a romantization of a golden, rosy past where the horrors of colonization and current day social marginalization don’t seem to pierce its bubble. Travelling to experience these other worlds is often a counterpoint on what was lacking on our own modern lives. I overheard people talking at Machu Picchu how their culture was closer to the land, which was something that we had lost. “They worshipped the Earth and everything on it,” they spoke to each other in awed voices forgetting to mention that the Incans themselves were conquerers who created a vast empire. This is the dilemma of tourism as development in a Third World country. Local people hope that the incoming tourist dollars would help develop their communities. However, the tourism industry needs their culture to stay the same as it is selling a window into another world – another way of life in another time. Poverty is often mistaken for primitive and exotic.
These different expectations from the different parties cause contradictions that leaves both sides feeling rather unsatisfied. I think what we have to remember with the case of Puno and the Floating Islands and others is that culture is fluid and always changing. The beauty is seeing how things have developed and changes and grown with legacies of the past mixing with the creativities of the present and dreams of the future. If you go somewhere expecting to travel back in time to a vision of the past, then you will be sorely disappointed. We unfortunately do not have the technology to time travel (…yet? *wink*). However, the present is amazing enough to see the creativity and ingunity of people adapting and working for a better life in an infinite variety of situations.