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Published: February 13th 2006
Several weeks ago on what appeared my last night in San Pedro, I took what seemed my last walk around the place. The hippy pathways leading to all sorts of weird and wonderful bars, the kids cloaked in traditional Mayan dress selling "pan de banan, pan de chocalate....", the semi-permenant gringo residents selling jewellery in the street, old men in full traditional dress armed with machetes etc etc. Seeing the same faces in the street, gives a sense of being in the town, a part of it, not just like looking through unintentially superficial and misleading tourist eyes.
As it turned out it wasn't my last night as a met a girl later than evening and subsquently my plans changed to focusing on some more Spanish and now, teaching English in San Pedro.
Anyway, pushing on with the 'less is more' philosphy, a clarity of vision becomes apparent with time. Furthermore, time seems to lower your distant tourist status to something inbetween this and the local residents. It's natural for most people to take more of an interest in you with familarity. It's that great fantasy of travelling philosphy that if you learn a bit of the lingo and are friendly, endless memorable consersations and situations with locals, treating you like their long lost brother, will follow. Unfornately this is rarely true.
Because travellers are frequently moving, the whole friendship thing amongst travellers gets condensed to the point where trust and familarity seem felt almost instantainsly. Almost a friendship equivalent of speed dating. But it gets forgotten most locals don't have this speed-friendship process, they have friends, family, they understand and trust. Hence preceeding past the pleasantaries to be able to ask the questions you really want to ask (and vice-versa) with no fear of misunderstanding, offense or inappropriateliness being felt. The whole different pacing of things is one of main reasons why backpackers stick together creating a little bit of an 'us and them' feeling between them and locals. Hence the philosphy can easily fall down, to the disappointment of many a traveller, who frequently doesn't really understand why.
The 'us and them' thing seems present in San Pedro and creates the wallet over human-being feeling mentioned previously about Santiago Atitlan.
Furthermore I think the locals in general don't get travellers. They don't understand why they travel, they don't understand how the exchange rate works, signifying that just because people seem rich here it doesn't mean they are, as well as the personalities of them and what their hopes and desires are. The superficiality of prelimanary conversation keeps the mutual ignorance for the masses intact. Time can change this --- less is more, time is the main factor in building true trust and friendship.
How time changes things:
Examples: Bread sellers. San Pedro has a cluster of girls and women selling fresh fruit bread and cakes along the main tourist crossroad. They're fairly persistent, and you soon recognise the same faces, they're there everyday. The kids work before school, go to school for 6-7 hours and then work into the evening and weekends too. I remember a guy telling me "oh I think it's good they work and get a taste of the real world instead of watching TV". He went on to say they also get a bit of cash for themselves. At which point I worked out for him the number of hours they worked, explained to him that most people have some choice when it comes to working and that it was unlikely they saw much of that money. I hardly think it is pocket money, because one girl said to me they normally eat the bread every evening to save money. This seem to open his eyes a bit, as that all-too-frequent superficial analysis was obviously flawed. Then I said to him, "they're just kids". Shouldn't kids be playing friends, doing their homework for school, playing sport, doing hobbies: isn't that growing up? Important informal and formal education making it possible to have options and choice when they're older. That is what development should be about: choice.
Within a few minutes his viewpoint had shifted a bit, to see it as not so rosy in the long-term, despite the seeming happyness of the kids. There's no easy solution, families need money. Only with the benefit of time did I start to see this. It is very easy to take certain things for granted which frequently don't run true, i.e. having days off.
Furthermore, on a slightly brighter note, the kids start to know you and will sit down and chat to you. Hence bringing about the semi-friendship more easily possible with time. I noticed the same effect with teachers at my school, people in restaurants, cleaners and the people in internet cafes. A smile greets you, and hello in the street, more meaningful conversations and thus a breakdown in the misunderstandings and mis-informed view points from both tourist and locals alike. Personally I like it, as I feel I know the place and the people better and it becomes a lot more homily.
Another example is a girl I know who works in a restaurant, she works for her family, working on average 14hours a day, seven days a week. Admittably the place is sometimes quiet, but it's all about freedom, she can't demand fairness because it's family and they are reliant are her to cook the meals, she can't ever go anywhere. Again this becomes clearer with time. Admittably she is quite happy like this, but I don't think it is good for her in many ways.
As a result of this, because her and the other workers are underpaid, uncountable things frequently don't go through the books in a Robin Hood type way. This merely persecutes honesty by keeping official wages low. As is true in many a businness.
A lack of a minimum wage and other workers rights means the laws of supply and demand run rampant, and provides the basis, on a larger scale for lawlessness and corruption by people taking things into their own hands. If the mentality exists at grass roots, it is highly hypocritical to attack it's existence in government and police when it is practiced in all facets of daily life. Furthermore people willingnees to step outside the system, also with regards to taxes, doesn't really help anyone in the big picture as all efficiency and economies are scale are lost with everyone just looking after themselves. (More on this later once I have given it some more thought)
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