An ugly face

It was painted just outside our hostel. Intentionally, I am sure.

Walking out the gate, it stared back at me with a measuring eye. There were two more along the wall of the alley, my path to the main square.

To be honest- and I do try to be honest here- I wouldn’t have noticed had Josh not pointed it out.

“You see that?” He inquired when we passed the third inscription.

“See what?” I responded as I looked up to see the message screaming to be heard.

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I have many posts on their way catching you up on my recent travels. These tales often center on the delights of a tourist. For today, though, we’ll just stick with the dangers of one. Tourism is colonization.

It’s been following me since I first saw it.

Trekking the Salkatyan, I wonder what the land would look like were it not for this budding industry. We walk a route developed to satisfy the overflow of tourism’s demand when permit requests for the Inca exceed the government’s quota of 500 people a day. Rumors abound that the trek will soon close to protect it from the environmental impact of such volume, while Peruvians fear for their livelihood at the thought of losing the cash flow. And the catch-22 of dependence on foreigners flares its ugly head.

As I walk, I consider the daunting reality that the village I pass through exists because of my presence there. How many towns are constructed for visitors like me to have a place to rest?

Meandering along the abandoned rail, I observe trash scattered in the wake of those before me. Degradation is at every turn, perhaps because our presence is one of mere extraction.

The market proves no reprieve. I look at all the handicrafts through a new lens: one that sees cultures on showcase for the gringo’s consumption. Nor does the train comfort. Winding through communities and interrupting ecosystems, it seems that it is infrastructure built for me yet again. How can I use colonial systems for resource exploitation as a mode of transportation in this new iteration of the westerner’s imposing role?

One-directional flows of travel, export, power. Labor, laws, and land all in service to me. It sounds hauntingly familiar to the colonial history I judge so harshly. Except now the finger points back at me.

Me, the tourist. Me, the colonizer.

Some of this, I’ve explored before. Questions of travel as a form of consumerism, how we view host communities in light of our history, and what solidarity means in the context of my presence abroad frequent my reflection. They fill the pages of my journal and routinely appear here. I fear though that all too often my reflections tie things up in a favorable bow. Or at least lend themselves to justifying my current path.

The conversation is nuanced, to be sure. Yet today, I choose to sit with the discomfort of this alarming dynamic. I choose to ask the questions my skin, nationality, and passport protect me from having to acknowledge. The questions my ancestors grossly neglected. The questions that demand more than neat bows or conclusions that feel good.

Instead, I’ll listen to the street art- the voice of the people whose homes I’m encroaching upon. I’ll feel the privilege of my role abroad. I’ll face myself.

As colonizer. Oppressor. Foreigner in conquered land.

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