Have you ever felt observed? I don’t know if you have ever felt the look of someone on you that becomes heavier and more annoying until it becomes unbearable. Maybe a first reaction is to feel appreciated, deserving of that gaze so insistent because interested, but after a while our insecurities and weaknesses will give us a thousand doubts: about how we got dressed, about the extra pounds we put, on that pimple on the nose that we have not well hidden with the foundation, on that last button of the shirt that is struggling to stay closed on the belly.
Feeling observed and judged and then maybe photographed after a few moments; the sound of that shot would immediately make us feel like in a zoo, but we didn’t pay for the ticket because we are the ones inside the cages.
“Men in the cages” is the title of Viviano Domenici’s book that my partner gave me a few years ago, when together and as passionate travelers we approached the world of responsible tourism.
What does tourism have to do with the zoo?
For almost a millennium from the second half of the 19th century (therefore in full colonization), in the great European cities of the time, especially on the occasion of the Universal Expositions, they began to exhibit in addition to the already known protagonists of the freak shows (dwarves, giants, women bearded and men with all kinds of malformations or oddities worthy of the stage), including blacks, Eskimos, pygmies, more generally cannibals, coming from distant and primitive lands.
Someone probably guessed that from simple slaves known for centuries, those “savages” could also become elements of entertainment for the bourgeoisie of the time, attracted by the charm of the exotic and perhaps by a little bit of healthy fear that the victims could instill from the their cages.
Today we have the means and resources to go and find those “savages”, directly to their home and without the filter of a cage.
So if this is the goal of a trip, we can talk about an ethnic holiday. In my opinion there are two main concerns about this type of holiday.
The first is that it is based on the idea that those ethnic groups we are looking for are “still” primitive, that is to say, stopped at a hypothetical previous stage of development as if time (for them) had stopped or had slowed down and above all not resumed accelerating with our arrival. Globalization makes this very difficult to believe: it comes to mind when I was in Tanzania and the frequent sight of the Maasai dressed in the traditional cloth wrapped around the bust, the stick in one hand and the headphones of the iPod resting in a pocket in his ears do-it-yourself.
The second perplexity is that even if there were such isolated and uncontaminated ethnic groups that survive far from all the rest, how can a tourist phenomenon of the kind that actually undermines this survival exist and be sustainable? It seems like a paradox, but if their existence and survival is guaranteed by being isolated and unknown, we cannot think of being able to “visit” them en masse without breaking this balance.
There is only one answer to these questions: business, which makes everything possible. This however does not mean a great staging of costumed actors who then share the spoils, but a staff of wealthy technicians who pull the threads behind the scenes, and at the end of the show eat oysters while throwing peanuts at the poor stars.
The case of the “Giraffe women”
You may already know the well-known case of “giraffe women”, which illustrates what can happen due to economic interests. These women belong to the Kayan tribe and are Burmese refugees confined to refugee camps in northern Thailand. These have become a destination for thousands of international tourists attracted by their traditional custom of wearing rings around their neck since childhood, which, by pushing down on the collarbone, stretches it up to 25-30 centimeters.
According to Domenici, they are the modern “men in cages”, women and girls forced to live far from their home, in fact prisoners because having no documents they cannot go away or do other jobs.
Their “job” is therefore to welcome tourists who pay a ticket to see them, receive a smile and get a souvenir photo. Furthermore, some tour operators have thought of transferring a small group of women to the south of the country, closer to the seaside destinations so as to avoid tourists to travel many kilometers and “collect” them together with other local ethnic groups to show them in a sort of “ethnic center”. -commercial”.
“Ethnic-commercial center”, a really gruesome expression, don’t you think?
And the most absurd thing is that the victims alone, without protection and trust, failing to imagine an escape route and an alternative and fearing a worse situation, somehow accept the current one (which at least guarantees their survival), signing a strange complicity with their executioners.
The Jarawa of the Andaman Trunk Road
Another case told in the book, perhaps a little less known, but equally shocking, is that of the Andaman Islands and the Andaman Trunk Road. An asphalted road built in the 70s that crosses the forest and for 35 km the Jarawa territorial reserve, established in 1957 to protect the ethnic group and their access to resources.
The result is a profitable car rental business to be able to take pictures from the window to the natives with a skirt and offer them some coins or some food, tobacco and marijuana (which they seem to like). In reality, it is also told of many Jarawa women who get in the car and easily become victims of sexual abuse. This human “outdoor” zoo in this case has been reported by several journalists and organizations (such as Survival International): the case had a certain notoriety in 2012 when an English journalist published a video demonstrating driver business and connivance of the police. Despite the denunciation, the necessary intervention by the local administration and international protests, the road is still open and the Jarawa appear to satisfy tourists and satisfy their expectations.
Ignorance does the rest. Not knowing what lies behind the opportunity for a unique ethnic tourism experience in the world makes everything possible and acceptable. Of course, not knowing is not a justification in this case because a responsible traveler cannot conceive of such tourism risks; even worse are those who are aware of it, but calm down and hide behind the belief that it is contributing to the well-being of a community that if it could not live on this it would do nothing else (better than nothing, in short).
Sometimes, to think that the other, spectacularized and exploited for his being or his condition, has no alternative is a very comfortable alibi to continue to put his needs in front of everything.
Uluru Mountain in Australia
I’ll tell you about my personal experience in Australia.
In 2019 the ban on climbing Uluru Mountain (known as Ayers Rock), the mountain sacred to the Aborigines in the center of Australia, was finally approved, news that filled my heart with joy.
Yes, because I went to Australia a few years ago and, thanks to the friendships found, I feel I have a certain bond with the country. I must admit that during that trip there was a great desire to get in touch with the Aboriginal community, talk to them, maybe listen to stories, especially after reading books and watching films on their thousand-year-old culture and was inevitably fascinated by the ritual of walkabout and the streets of the songs.
The reality that I had to accept soon, however, was that the few Aborigines I met were the well-dressed ones who come out of the offices with their work bags or go shopping, or (alas) those in a clear economic and social distress state begging a few dollars for yet another beer in the morning. And the others, the slightly more “real” ones, let’s say, where are they?
The Aboriginal tradition feels very little: the law on the signs prohibiting entry in some areas or on those that recognize their traditional property, you see it in the drawings on the boomerangs in the souvenir shops, you breathe it inside the museums but as if it were something dead, extinct.
It will be because the colonization does this, subjugates or assimilates, divides and discriminates or uniforms, destroys cultures, languages, traditions, people.
Do you think that only in the 90s was the Aboriginal right to claim the traditional ownership of their lands and only in 2008, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd officially apologized to the Aborigines for the extermination, the pain inflicted, the future stolen.
We know that there are still Aboriginal tribes who live in their lands, far from cities and isolated from the rest of the world, collecting the fruits of nature and hunting animals, dressing in skins and using traditional utensils. Despite a few photos, videos and memories of the museums visited, I can’t really imagine them there in the bush singing their paths, but I know for sure that it will not be me with my exotic desire to break that sacred balance with nature that makes them the oldest people in the world.
Yet it is not necessary to break the boundaries of Aboriginal lands to disrespect the Other. When we went to Central Australia to visit Uluru Mountain, we read a notice that since the mountain is considered sacred by the Aborigines it should not be climbed. Nonetheless, we saw numerous groups of tourists doing it. Many have certainly asked tour operators or local agencies to do it, others perhaps undecided, have seen others do it and said “why not me?”
Reading that it was considered an act of disrespect for a community was not going to be enough. Now, however, this ban is official and must be respected and is one of the many small but important victories of strong and resilient peoples.