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I made my first trip to Peru in 1986. During this trip, must of the Peruanos that I came in contact with who were capable of speaking English had some very unkind things to say about a Gringa visitor a few weeks earlier, Shirley MacLaine. MacLaine went to Peru to make the film “Out on a Limb”, and she went there with the firm conviction that Machu Pichu and other Andean archaeological sites were constructed, not by back-breaking and rock-breaking labour by the ancestors of the present-day Quechua people that I talked to, but by space aliens.

Do you see why this is a problem? If not, here's an anecdote, from my last day in Peru on this trip. I went to the ruins at Pachacamac, south of Lima. It's more than just a well-restored set of ruins; it's suspected of having archaeoastronomical value. I was joined on the tour of the place by a middle-aged woman from the US and her son.

As soon as we started out, the woman started insisting that we make a stop at the Temple of the Sun, because she wanted to “feel the energy there”. The guide had already said that Temple of the Sun was one of the stops on the tour, and he reassured her that we would be stopping there. That wasn't good enough. She started talking to him in pidgin, even though he could speak conversational-quality English. The told him that she was a “medium”, and spelled it out: “M-E-D-I-U-M”.

Even though I had nothing whatsoever to do this this woman, I found myself embarrassed by her behavior, solely because my skin is the same colour. At one of the stops, while she was off “feeling the energy”, I uttered “Dos Gringos locos”, and explained to the guide, “that woman believes that she can talk to dead people.” He laughed and said, “Well, if you want to talk to dead people, this is a good place to do it.”

This anecdote was brought to mind by a gathering of 7,000 New Agers that took place at the Tikal ruins in Guatemala on December 21, 2012. They had ceremonies with elaborate costumes and “shamans” speaking gibberish, with the overall idea of being at the Mayan ground zero when the end of the world takes place. While they were doing this, the genuine Mayans, who have lived in southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras for 5,000 years, were wondering, “What's with these crazy Gringos?”, fully aware that their culture made no such end of the world prediction.

Your response so far to this might be, “OK, so these astrologers, numerologists, and tarot card readers are culturally insensitive. They're harmless, and they dumped some money into Guatemala's economy.” Unfortunately, this isn't true. The most valuable asset the people of northern Guatemala have is the Tikal ruins, and the New Agers did some irreparable damage to them. They ignored a restriction on climbing the stairs of Temple II, one of the site's best known structures. And they're not even sorry they damaged something 1,300 years old. One commenter on an article at RT TV wrote, “why don't they stop whining and repair the damn thing?”

This whole thing is wrong in two ways, which I will now spell out:

 1. An opportunity was missed to learn about Mayan culture: If you want to know what real Mayans think and experience, there's a good chance that, in the neighborhood where you live, there's a gardener, cleaning woman, or house painter that is of Mayan ancestry. Or, a grounds keeper or waiter at your local country club might be Mayan. Just ask one of these people, and they'll tell you about their brightly coloured textiles and their unique version of Roman Catholicism. They will also tell you about desperate poverty, lack of access to education and health care, their land getting wrecked by mining companies, and getting caught between the narco-terrorists and the Guatemalan and Mexican armies.

    We heard very little about this from either the mainstream media or the blogosphere. Instead, we got fluff pieces based on something that somebody who knows nothing about Mayan culture just made up. The only major English-language media that gives this culture a lot of serious coverage is Al Jazeera; click here and here.

2. There are legitimate “end of the world” concerns: The United States and Russia still have nuclear weapons. Iran and North Korea are trying to develop them, and if they succeed, the world will be a much more dangerous place. At the same time that the media was running those “Mayan calendar” fluff pieces, New York City and New Jersey were hit by Hurricane Sandy, just one more piece of evidence that global climate change is here, now, and serious. An Ipsos poll showed that 10% of the world’s population thought the Mayan calendar could signify the world’s end. Couldn't we make an effort to tell this same 10% that the human race would have a better chance of survival if we reduced the amount of carbon dioxide we pump into the atmosphere every day?

This article also appears here

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Comment Preferences

  •  Even NPR couldn't resist pretending (10+ / 0-)

    What this speaks to is a very profound prejudice in our culture that reinforces ignorance about the part of the American Hemisphere that happens to be south of the US border.

    This allows a lot of chicanery to go on with our collusion.

    hope that the idiots who have no constructive and creative solutions but only look to tear down will not win the day.

    by Stuart Heady on Tue Dec 25, 2012 at 03:49:17 PM PST

  •  thank you for this and the aljazeera links! (5+ / 0-)

    i really like that site!  

    i'd missed the articles and look forward to seeing them!

  •  I've done what I consider to be a fair amount (8+ / 0-)

    of travel outside the U.S. and Americans seem to be the most boorish on the planet. Rather then learn about the place they have traveled to, the main interest seems to be to get a picture of themselves in a famous place. Some of this I believe is due to the USA#1 crap.

    Yes I am painting with a broad brush, and of course not all are like that, but far too many are.

    signed,

    A embarrassed American.

    •  My son lives in Germany and is very (3+ / 0-)

      embarrassed by the behavior of many American visitors, by the ones who talk too loud and are boorish, who think everyone should speak English to them, who are pushy and rude, who are not interested in learning about or participating in the local culture.  Not all Americans are this way but, as you said, far too many.

    •  I've spent years living outside the US, (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      jabney

      and Americans are nowhere near the top of the list, in terms of boorish behavior.

      Perhaps one gets the worst of the US in Mexico or South America, and as the relative size of any expat group grows their behavior may become more insular and disrespectful. But in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, etc., most Americans I've met are far more respectful of local cultures and values than are Russians, other East Europeans, Germans, Brits, etc. (There's a similar meme in each culture among self-aware and conscientious observers, e.g. on "Der hässliche Deutsche".)

      I remember reading about the 'ugly American' before I traveled, and I was braced to encounter it often, but rarely did. Perhaps we've had time to learn and adapt, in the 54 years since the 1958 novel/1963 film.

      Join us at RASA: Repeal or Amend the Second Amendment. (Repeal will not ban guns, just help regulate them.)

      by Sharon Wraight on Wed Dec 26, 2012 at 03:04:02 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Most boorish, maybe not, boorish enough (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      vzfk3s

      (facepalm) I've lived abroad for extended periods as well, and yeah, sheesh. I call it aggressive ignorance and an utter lack of self awareness. Here's a joke I enjoy along those lines pointing out that 'most boorish' is a situational judgement;

      In Heaven the Germans run the trains, the French are the cooks, the Italians are the waiters and the English are the police.

      In Hell The Germans are the police, the Italians run the trains, the English are the cooks and the French are the waiters.

      Just getting a handle on the knobs and dials.... Hey, don't touch that!

      by Old Lefty on Wed Dec 26, 2012 at 04:52:22 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  well, maybe (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    frankzappatista, Lujane

    I went to Tikal twice, during the time I was a volunteer in Honduras in the early '80s. I walked all over all the pyramids and temples, inside and out. There were no restrictions.

    The huge stone structures had been abandoned for hundreds of years, the forest had reclaimed the area, and there were huge trees growing on and thru them. When the site was "discovered" it was cleared of forest and soil, and stones were put back in place, or sometimes just cement was used. If you visit ruins, you'll begin to spot parts that are mostly cement, with stone rubble stuck in.

    Tikal was actually in fairly good shape compared to others I've seen, but my point is that all of these ruins are deteriorating faster once they are cleared of forest, and a good part of what you see is already fake due to reconstruction with cement. It seems that complete structures are better for the tourist business, as compared with real, eroded, non-walkable ones, but that's the reality.

    So, my point is, this is what is happening anyways, the stones are eroding. If you don't want ruins to be ruined, don't excavate them and open them to the public in the first place.

    This Rover crossed over.. Willie Nelson, written by Dorothy Fields

    by Karl Rover on Tue Dec 25, 2012 at 05:48:14 PM PST

  •  Idiots (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Lujane, chantedor, CA wildwoman, roberb7

    It never occurs to these Gringo fools that though the Mayan people may live simply, they are far from simple and deserve more respect than the Gringos ever thought of mustering.

    The Maya had a culture when our European ancestors stumbled about Europe stealing resources from each other. I had the privilege of knowing one Mayan fellow fairly well back in the 80's. He had fled the genocide being conducted against the indigenous peoples of Guatemala and Honduras- all with the secret support of the US via St Ronnie's little elf, Ollie North, in the basement dealing arms to Iran. This man's quiet dignity and lack of resentment towards common Americans (you have no control over what Los Ricos do in your country any more than I do in mine) were a testament to this man who knew who he was and where he came from.

    The diarist is quite right, there are many Maya in America doing the scut work. If there's any doubt how to identify them, think of the images from the temple walls and think of what these Kings would look like had they not had their foreheads flattened as infants. That's how the Maya look today. They're unmistakeable.

  •  My take on the ruins (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Lujane, chantedor, rambler american, kurt

    that I have visited in Mexico and that is most of the known ones.

    When it came to construction they knew more about it than we know today.

    There are walls created out of stones so large the biggest piece of modern equipment could not move them. Yet to construct these buildings these same stones were moved up to 100 miles and were cut perfectly that to this day you can not slide a piece of paper between them.

    Think about that for a minute, and ask yourself how they did it. It is a mystery that may never be solved. The ruin of Mitla built by the zapotecs is the opposite. Thousands of small pieces of stone perfectly cut and put together to form 3 demensional designs. Still no paper will fit.

    On my second visit there I experieced hugging the ground in the middle of the ruin during an 8.6 earthquake. Not a pebble hit the ground. Our greatest engineers have nothing on the builders of these monuments.

    As for the rude Norte Americanos, don't believe for a minute they are not expert at handling them in their own way. They also know the difference between those who treat them with disrespect and those who are open to learning and even greatly respect their culture.

    It is the heart that makes a man rich. He is rich according to what he is not what he has -Henry Ward Beecher

    by PSWaterspirit on Tue Dec 25, 2012 at 09:43:37 PM PST

  •  This is the same attitude they bring (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    chantedor, CA wildwoman

    to their Rainbow gatherings. They find some pristine mountain meadow, trash the hell out of it for a whole week, then leave their garbage behind for Forest Service employees to pick up. These idle rich "trustafarians" give hippies a bad name.

    There are two types of republicans, the rich and the stupid. The rich ones strive to keep the stupid ones stupid and the stupid ones strive to keep the rich ones rich.

    by frankzappatista on Tue Dec 25, 2012 at 10:29:57 PM PST

  •  I didn't laugh in his face... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    chantedor, CA wildwoman

    but a coworker of mine was all about the "end of the world" thing -- except he initially thought it was supposed to be 12/12/12.  I told him it was always supposed to be 12/21/12, and that it wasn't going to happen.

    Gullible.  Gullible and ill-informed.

    To make the argument that the media has a left- or right-wing, or a liberal or a conservative bias, is like asking if the problem with Al-Qaeda is do they use too much oil in their hummus. Al Franken

    by Youffraita on Tue Dec 25, 2012 at 11:06:11 PM PST

  •  Very important observations! (0+ / 0-)

    First, the culture: The Mayans and other Meso-Americans genetically engineered maize and squash probably 4000 years before Mendel. They terraformed raised growing beds so they had more food than they could use, and built roads and sewage systems that made Europe and northern Africa  look "stone age." They probably had active trade with Asia, and had magnetic markers through the jungle (to guide or to confuse? No one knows.) We don't need nonsense about space alients to confuscate the fact that they were smart.

    And second, you make such a good point--I know many Mayans (or others of Meso-American heritage) working hard in my community. It would be lovely if we took the time to learn a little bit about their history.

    But to g

  •  Really? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    jabney

    Feet on stairs equals vandalism?  Really?  I think they used the same rationale at the Wisconsin capitol this year.

    I read about the apocalypti-thon a few days ago, and was a little disturbed that Maya people were actually excluded from Maya sites on...  well...  Long Count Day, or whatever it's called.  But the article didn't mention whether the Maya actually wanted to be there.  I don't think those ancient sites are presently used for any ritual purpose, are they?

    So yea, leasing out Tikal to the followers of woo was a bad idea.  The British woo do the same thing at Stonehenge and nobody ever calls them on it.  I guess daffy views of history sometimes get heard, despite the groans of historians and archaeologists.

    I agree climate change is a bigger problem.

    Early to rise and early to bed Makes a man healthy, wealthy, and dead. --Not Benjamin Franklin

    by Boundegar on Wed Dec 26, 2012 at 04:53:16 AM PST

  •  Hard work, stacking up rocks. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    IreGyre

    Occam's Razor, a fundamental principle of rational analysis is

    the law of parsimony, economy, or succinctness. It is a principle stating that among competing hypotheses, the one that makes the fewest assumptions should be selected.
    Unlike Italian traffic Law, this is not simply a suggestion. People being able to stack up rocks requires no assumptions, we know that happens, I've stacked up quite a few myself. Aliens coming here to stack up rocks for us makes at least three assumptions unsupported by any evidence except for the phenomenon itself(large piles of very well stacked rocks); aliens exist, they are capable of coming here, and they like to stack up rocks for non-spacefaring relative savages.

    Thinking clearly takes more effort that throwing conceptual spaghetti at a wall to see what sticks, but it has the advantage of leading to useful outcomes. Thanks for alluding to that point. I think most alien-as-rockstacker adherents have probably not stacked enough rocks themselves, and might profit in the effort.

    Just getting a handle on the knobs and dials.... Hey, don't touch that!

    by Old Lefty on Wed Dec 26, 2012 at 05:15:35 AM PST

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