Reflections on “Culture on Tour”
In “Culture on Tour” Edward M Bruner uses tourism as a lens to understand a number of fascinating cultural dichotomies. Some of these include authentic and produced, tourist and native, regional and national, observer and observed. In focusing on moments of contact between these supposed binaries he identifies the natural obscuring of cultural lines which occurs in the touristic event.
In “Culture on Tour” Edward M Bruner uses tourism as a lens to understand a number of fascinating cultural dichotomies. Some |
of these include authentic and produced, tourist and native, regional and national, observer and observed. In focusing on moments of
contact between these supposed binaries he identifies the natural obscuring of cultural lines which occurs in the touristic event.
While considering the theoretical foundation which he establishes I found myself arriving at a deeper understanding of a tourist
event that I recently experienced. This last summer I went to Peru with NYU’s Hemispheric Institute. After classes ended in Lima
ended, I ventured off to the Andes to indulge my spare time as a tourist. The last leg of my trip in Peru was spent in Puno, a small
town on Lake Titicaca where I had encountered a local hotel owner, who then connected me with local tour guides and arranged my
visits to the surrounding sites. On my last day I went on a small tour to a pre-Incan burial site,
|Sillustani, let by a man of Aymara decent. After a lovely tour of the
‘sight’ he stopped the bus about 200 yards off, at a small housing
complex of local natives, also of Aymara decent. The setting was
picture perfect. One of the men was even waiting for us with an
Alpaca. Our guide told us that we could take pictures, but that we
should give the family some money out of respect.
Bruner’s description of the Mayer family’s tourist production
as a performance of cultural history brought this experience back
to me with flashing colors. Like the university students he
describes, I felt my self questioning my presence, as a North
American, in the home of an indigenous family I did not know.
My sense of awkwardness was compounded by an impassible
language barrier. Unlike my guide who spoke English, Spanish,
Quechua, and Aymara, this Aymaran family hardly spoke Spanish.
Retrospectively, Bruner’s usage of “the Questioning Gaze” (95) eloquently encapsulates my experience that unfamiliar surrounding
I had suddenly found myself in. I wanted to participate as they cooked bread and served us fresh cheese, but was distinctly aware of the
bounders of the pictorial frame which I found myself in. Throughout “Culture on Tour” Burner returns to the question, who's in control?
I do not presume that my white skin and my ‘supposed’ wealth
unequivocally places me in a place of power. Far from it. Even
though I was the one taking the pictures, I felt I was really the one
in the frame.
I had not intended to make this stop, rather I arrived there
because I was inhabiting the role of the tourist. In performing
their cultural identity, this family was making a financial gain.
| For tourists wanting an ‘authentic Andean experience’ here was an extra mud hut where they could spend then night, for a small price.
The mother sold hand made trinkets and the little girl, like a virtuoso, performed for an attentive audience. She performed both
‘cuteness’ and ‘otherness’ when she sat in the hole in the middle of the yard
|to pose for pictures. And when our guide to explained that the |
‘hole’ was in fact a ‘crib’ the tourists could not help but gasp at
the primitivism. This was all then translated to ‘tips’ for allowing
us into their home.
My “questioning gaze” forced me to ask
the guide about the circumstances of the encounter. He replied,
“They are my friends, I’ve known them for along time.
| When they see tourist pass up and down this road, they are sorry, they feel left out. They want to be apart of and share.” Was that a
line to appease my colonialist guilt? Guilt for a colonialism that my Northern European heritage had nothing to do with, yet in the very
act of viewing, photographing, and by default commodifying this ‘other; culture, I couldn’t help of feel some culpability. In retrospect,
Bruner’s discussion of internal tourism and ethnic theme parks as help clarify these conflicting sentiments. For that I want to refer to a
moment a week earlier in the trip when I visited Machu Picchu.
Machu Picchu has a complex history as both a national heritage site for Peru, but also a commodity that has been manipulated by
the Creole dominated Peruvian government. During my tour to Manchu Picchu, I encountered a Indigenous Peruvian tourist group. I was
struck by this dichotomy: how Spanish colonialism and it’s legacy has estranged the Quetchua people from their own heritage. In the
context of his own research, Bruner explains this phenomenon by saying “To the extent that Han (or Javanese) domestic tourists behave
|as foreign ones, the stark opposition between domestic and foreign
tourism is blurred, suggesting that there is a need to move beyond
a reductionistic dualism to take account not only of the nation’s
social demography and power differentials, but also its historically
constituted and changing patterns of ethnic relations.” (216)
Machu Picchu has a particularly informative history in that it was
‘invented’ as a touristic destination by the Creole government.
The location was known to local Indigenous people, but seeking national revenue the government invited the Yale professor Hiram
Bingham to ‘discover’ it. After being splashed on the cover of National Geographic, Machu Picchu has only multiplied it’s international
|value as a tourist attraction. It’s precarious positioning between
the financial interest of local Andean and Liman Peruvians, as well
as it’s future as both a tourist and heritage site was written about
by the BBC three days ago. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/6292327.stm
Observing the group of Native peoples
behaving as tourists to their own culture, from which colonial
history so radically separated them, I can’t help but wonder on
what side of the ‘frame’ they find themselves, or if that is even a
consideration at all.