Lesson 20: Do not judge people by your maps

Ciudad Perdida, also known as Lost City, is the archaeological site of an ancient city in the Sierra Nevada, near Santa Marta, Colombia. Tourists can do a three to five-day trek to the Lost City. Archaeological studies have confirmed that the ruins are more than a thousand years old. Here three tribes – the Arhuacao, the Kogis and the Wiwas, are settled in the villages. In the 1970s, treasure hunters discovered the place, hidden from the public for centuries, and since then the authorities have named the site as Lost City. The local tribes always knew of their city’s existence and had hidden their town from the Spanish colonists for centuries and from the general public to protect their heritage. In 2017, I did a four-day trek to the Lost City, and as part of the expedition, we had a Wiwa guide who taught us about his culture and way of living.

The Wiwas are a simple community. Though they have modern tools, their practices are in line with their traditions and culture. Within their communities, men and women have traditional gender roles. Men have their tasks and responsibilities. Women have their roles in their societies. Today, in most of the Western world, these practices are considered archaic.

When the local guide explained these roles, we heard a comment from an Irish girl who wasn’t too impressed by the gender roles. Coming from the West where the society is a lot more progressive (but not without challenges and issues), the young woman explained the importance of gender equality. I was astonished by her lecture. There is no doubt that gender equality is a critical issue in the west and the world but should we, from the west, be preaching again to what’s right and what’s wrong to the locals of any country.

The irony of the entire conversation was that she was from a country which did not, at that time, let a woman access abortion legally. Savita Halappanavar, an Indian woman, living in Ireland, died from a septic miscarriage after doctors refused to abort her child following an incomplete miscarriage because abortion was illegal. Her death set off a spate of discussions in the country, and in 2018, well after the Lost City trek, Ireland voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment which prevented abortion in the country.

However, the larger point is,

Should we preach?

Should we project our values onto another community?

I have seen this happen time and time again, always from tourists, mostly from the West, who feel they have developed the right to preach to the world on what is right and what is wrong – mind you, not engage, not discuss, not debate each other but preach. It is tough to accept.

What gives us the right to project our values onto others?

There needs to be a better balance between getting communities to move forward and for organisations to continue to keep their traditions. Change takes time. Forced change isn’t accepted, and it only results in resentment.

At the hostel, in Dalat, Vietnam, I met a German girl travelling through the region. We discussed travel in general before engaging in a spirited discussion on climate change. She was agitated to see the number of Chinese tourists, in the hundreds and possibly thousands every year, in South East Asia. She felt that mass tourism was damaging the world, and she wanted fewer tourists in the world. She thought that the numbers who travel far exceed the numbers than can be sustained. She wanted the number of Chinese tourists curbed.

I agreed with her. Mass tourism was destroying the world. There needs to be a better approach to sustainable tourism. However, I was not amiable to hold the Chinese solely responsible for the damage. They are as accountable as the thousands of tourists, from the West, who explore the world every day. The backpackers are mostly from the West. The group tours, the cruises, the luxury hotels primarily cater to western tourists. To protect the environment and the planet, should we not ban tourists from the West?  Travellers from the West have been exploring the world for decades. Should they not pay the price? Is this a fair approach?  

Tourists from developing nations are a recent phenomenon. Why only hold the Chinese accountable? Why only hold travellers from developing countries responsible? Why not hold the companies, the tour operators, airlines such as Ryanair and Easy Jet accountable? It feels discriminatory and biased. It is true that something needs to change but should we be judgemental about our approach to conceiving and implementing solutions?

Therefore, I have tried to understand communities by hoping (not always succeeding) to be non-judgemental. My beliefs, values, cognitions and experiences shape up my mental maps. It is, therefore, not always right to project my ideas onto others. Sometimes it is better to understand, to empathize with compassion and non-judgement. It is better to accept people and societies for who they are and not judge them by your maps. It is right to engage them to discuss issues. It is appropriate to hope to move all societies towards common human universal values and solutions, but that has to come from mutual understanding and respect and not from preaching or forced change. Only then, we can hope to live in harmony.

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