It was not until senior year that I finally did what college kids are supposed to do over spring break—spend a week in the Caribbean. The trip was all expenses paid, and this is where things diverged from the spring break of college lore. Along with a dozen students and a handful of professors, graduate students, and post-docs, I headed to Panama to study marine invertebrates on my school’s dime. While we encountered plenty of tourists there, our tans outlined not skimpy bikinis but wetsuits, which meant a dark tan that abruptly cut off at the neck and wrists. Our evenings were spent with microscopes in the lab. Except for one Friday night, when we were let loose to “experience the local culture” in town.

The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) marine field station is located in Bocas del Toro, on an archipelago off the Caribbean coast of Panama. Bocas is also a popular tourist destination—the town boasts more signs in English than Spanish—but my first impression at the airport was already in marked contrast to the TSA bureaucracy we experienced when leaving Boston. The Bocas airport had one runway, no control tower, and dirt roads leading to and from it.

The town itself is small. All the restaurants, hotels, and shops are lined up along one main road. After six days ensconced in the utterly American STRI field station, we were dropped off at the end of that street. Then a two minute crash course in the local culture. An American researcher who had been to Panama several times, began to tell us about the Kunas, the indigenous people. She pointed to the booths along the street where Kunas where selling jewelry, trinkets, and embroidered pieces of cloth known as molas. Legend has it that in a time of crisis, the Kuna’s god came to them and instructed the people to begin making molas, which would somehow save them. There is an ironic truth to that. The sale of molas to tourists is a major source of income for the Kuna’s. “If you buy one from a Kuna, you’re really helping them out,” she concluded with an encouraging smile.

A week before I left for Panama, the New York Times travel section ran an article by Kevin Salwen asking “Is There a Right Way to Spend Money When Traveling?” The answer is unequivocally yes, according to that article. It ended with a list of eight rules for responsible travel in developing countries, such as paying locals to carry luggage and being generous when bargaining. As college students on spring break—and finally on break from studying marine invertebrates all week—we were not self-conscious enough to consider so carefully how to spend our money. But the undertone of that story about molas carried the expectation that we should be experiencing the authentic local culture and pulling out our wallets in support of it.

Though, I should add, Bocas is not the place to visit if you want some semblance of how Panamanians, let alone Kunas, actually live. It is a town with more expats and tourists than natives. The local café is called Starfish Coffee. The scuba shop is manned by Australians, and the ice cream store’s owner chatted with us in a New York accent. And we paid him in American dollars. The official currency of Panama is the Balboa, which is exactly equivalent to the American dollar. Balboa coins are the same size, and shape, as American coins. “You can use them in vending machines back home,” assured our professor, who has been making this trip for years. Except for a brief, seven-day period in 1941 when Panamanian bills were printed and then promptly burned, American bills have been the only paper money in modern Panama.

Every tourist town needs its nod to history and local culture, which is why one end of the main street was lined with Kuna vendors and their wares. We browsed the booths selling everything from made-in-China trinkets to knapsacks embroidered in the instantly recognizable Latin American style. Molas were also available for sale. One girl bought, to wear ironically, a bracelet with a dozen beads, each with a different representation of Jesus. Another guy, who had spent the entire time looking for weed, attempted to strike up a conversation with the Kuna women in mime and pidgin Spanish to ask where he could score some. For dinner, we ate chicken fingers and fries at a restaurant called The Reef. The only thing I bought in Panama was dinner.

It was not until I returned home that I looked back on this trip with a strange sort of guilt. Never had I flown into a country and left having engaged so little with the local culture. In spite of the stamp on my passport, I did not feel like I deserved to say I had been to Panama. That comment about the Kuna people and their molas stuck out in my mind. The struggle of indigenous peoples in South America was something that I, an ignorant American, was only vaguely aware of.

When I began to research the history of molas, I could find no evidence for the legend about the god and saving the people. Did I just misremember? But my classmates corroborated my memory. Molas, as symbols of Kuna culture, have found their way to museums and collectors, so it seems unfeasible that the origin story I heard, if true, would remain undocumented.

The real origin of molas, according to what I did find, comes after the Spanish colonization of Panama. Although they are now seen as the traditional costume of Kuna women—molas are worn as panels on a blouse—they were only made after women had access to store-bought fabrics and threads. While the finely-stitched “traditional” mola can take weeks to make, most for sale to tourists are machine-made, which would explain why the molas I saw in Bocas were so cheap-looking. Their patterns also take inspiration from the environment, which to a vendor in Bocas selling to Western tourists would be a Coca Cola logo or the face of Elvis.

It would be naïve to think that the market forces of tourism don’t severely warp culture local culture. In 2009, tourism accounted for 9.6% of Panama’s GDP. The number reaches as high as 30% in more popular Caribbean destinations such as Barbados and the Bahamas. In local tourist towns like Bocas, that number would probably be close to 100%. Bocas closely resembles an American town, but it still displays a thin veneer of exoticism that, in lieu of anything else, can pass as cultural authenticity. The supposedly traditional molas are as much a product of industrialization and tourism as then are of the Kuna convention. They cater specifically to Western tastes. Tourism that strives for cultural authenticity is subject to its own self-defeating forces, where the very act of tourism changes the culture it is trying observe.

But that strange guilt I felt was not because I was participating in something inauthentic but because I was refusing to participate in it. By not being the free-spending American snapping up souvenirs, I had somehow violated a social contract. The implication of “If you buy one from a Kuna, you’re really helping them out,” was if you don’t, you’re being a tightfisted cheapskate.  This is the same guilt that makes me a terrible bargainer.

Give this attitude a quarter twist though, and even with the best of intentions, it takes on a patronizing tone. That Times article by Salwen on responsible travel in developing countries was billed as a “guide to ethical spending.” An ethical dimension introduces a right and wrong—in other words, it introduces the feeling of moral superiority. Salwen tells you not to give to panhandlers because it gives the wrong message about “dependency and the value of work” but then says “In American airports and hotels I never get help with my luggage; wheeled bags roll, don’t they? But overseas, I’ve learned to relax and let someone else carry my suitcase.” Doesn’t that second scenario create that same kind of dependency? Especially telling is the distinction drawn between American and overseas travel, with the moral salve of helping disadvantaged people being the key difference. This is the white tourist’s burden.

The danger of the cultural tourism and the white tourist’s burden is that of dehumanization. A tourism industry in which locals are seen as servicemen for wealthy American tourists is not conducive toward cultural engagement. At the same time, neither is one where people are reduced to cultural curiosities. Salwen tells his readers to take an interest in the locals as people but his next sentence “It’s O.K. to take photos of individuals who capture your interest – but only if you ask first and pay if requested” gives it an air of circus freak show. Maybe this is a practical way for people to make a living, but that dependency should be uneasy rather than affirming.

A friend of mine also went to the Caribbean for spring break. Her trip to Dominican Republic was the classic college spring break of sipping piña coladas and frolicking on white sand beaches. Their travel package also included an excursion to the local town. Beforehand, they were encouraged to buy candy to throw at the local children who would run out following the tourist buses. “It was awkward to throw candy, but it was also awkward when they came out you didn’t have candy,” said my friend. True of money too.

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SARAH ZHANG writes about science and culture, and she is prone to wanderlusting around the world. She currently lives in New York City. Read more about her at her website or follow her @sarahzhang.

2 responses to “The White Tourists’ Burden?”

  1. This was a really thoughtful essay. It’s also something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about over the past couple of years. I’ve been living in China and Korea, whilst travelling on holidays to nearly every S.E. Asian country. It’s unsurprisingly that only in China and Korea have I actually witnessed the local culture in any true sense. Sure, you see put-on dances and people in supposedly local clothes, but it increasingly difficult to do that so cliched thing of getting “off the beaten track”.

    I really thought that Laos was my best option, but as soon as you turn up to any bus station as a white guy, you are stuck in a queue of white people looking for stuff that white people want to see. Same in Cambodia and, of course, Thailand. The Philippines was a bit different, I suppose. But when I scoffed at watching a cock-fight, it became impossible to actually see anything authentic.

    Well, I’m rambling. I just wanted to point out that I liked this essay and will be sharing it with a few friends. Cheers!

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