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Close Encounters of the “Exotic” Kind

By Sarika Bansal

Aug 23, 2021

From the September/October 2021 issue

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Illustration by Joan Wong

One writer wrestles with the ethics of visiting endangered cultures—and reflects on her own experience as an “other.”

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We were about 30 minutes from our destination—a campsite near Namibia’s renowned Brandberg Mountain—when we noticed a few cars pulled over to the side of the road. “Cars on the road? Multiple?” I said to my husband, incredulous. By that point, we had been road-tripping around Namibia, one of the least densely populated countries in the world, for 10 days. Driving, we had passed one car per hour, on average. We slowed down, curious to see what was causing the commotion.

Tourists were taking photographs of bare-breasted women who wore beaded necklaces and reddish braids. We had finally found the seminomadic Himba tribe, famous for their intricate hairstyles, bodies covered with red ochre mud, and perceived beauty overall. They are ancestors to the Herero people, who arrived in Namibia in the 16th century as subsistence cattle farmers. Prior to tourism, they had little contact with outsiders.

I was less fascinated by the Himba women than by the overall scene. It was December 2017, but it could have been decades earlier. White tourists in khaki shorts scrunched up their faces as they peered through their cameras’ viewfinders, trying to capture the perfect shot of these “exotic” African tribeswomen. As soon as the tourists were satisfied with their work, they forked over some cash. We watched these events unfold from inside our rental car across the street. Before we knew it, a Himba woman approached us and demanded we take her photo in exchange for $20. We declined her request and drove off.

The moment with the Himba recalled an unexpected village tour my husband and I took in 2013 in northern Thailand. We were on a three-day trek through rice paddies outside Chiang Mai when our guide told us our next stop was a Kayan village. I was surprised, since I had specifically asked not to visit the village. The idea of human tourism didn’t sit well with me. But it was too late. Someone was already asking for an entrance fee.

Kayan women are known for wearing so many brass  rings around their necks that their heads appear almost disembodied. They start with a few necklaces when they are young children, and over time, more than 20 pounds of rings will depress their shoulders and give the illusion of an elongated neck. Walking into the village, something felt off. It looked artificial in some way, as if created for tourists. We called our guide over and had him translate as I attempted a basic conversation with a woman and her daughter.

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I remember that the woman looked a little bewildered. She told me that her family came from Myanmar, that her husband was often working in faraway rice paddies, and that her daughter liked math. She was nice enough to answer the questions I asked about the brass rings, like if they hurt (they didn’t) and if she slept with them on (she did). I did eventually take a photo, but I never felt comfortable sharing it on social media. Only later did I learn that my instincts were correct.

The Kayan people fled Myanmar in the 1990s for Thailand, whose government granted them “conflict refugee” status. They now live in guarded tourist villages like the one I unwillingly visited, but have not been granted citizenship. They are not permitted to live outside the tourist villages, cannot return to Myanmar for fear of violence, and have no real rights in Thailand as stateless people. In a blog post, physicist and travel writer Katie Foote described the Kayan village she visited as “a live-in gift shop.”

Both the Kayan and the Himba women existed as flat, ancient objects in the tourist imagination. Our jobs as visitors was to disregard their inner lives and instead gawk at their unusual adornments. But is there an ethical way to visit people from distinctive and sometimes endangered cultures like these? In the most generous evaluation, perhaps even a brief meeting can strengthen both parties’ understanding of the world. After all, who are we—any of us—to adjudicate what a worthwhile interaction looks like? What may look like a shallow exchange to me may have a profound effect on someone else. Further, tourism may help some of these cultures preserve their rich traditions. Without the cash incentive that accompanies tourism, it’s possible that the Himba and Kayan people would find it difficult to continue the unique elements of their cultures. But is there a line to draw? Why does my stomach turn when I see a staged village atmosphere filled with tourists and cameras?

The root of my discomfort, I think, is that the experience is rarely an honest cultural exchange. In neither Namibia nor Thailand did I see signs of natural social interaction. Except for the money, the visitor is not there to give anything of themselves. Rather, the tourist is promised the chance to consume a foreign culture. They pay to feel, if fleetingly, like a colonial explorer “discovering” a primitive people—complete with foreign rituals and markers of beauty. They pay to gawk at people who represent a time before smart watches and drones.

In 2005, Will Jones, the founder of a sustainable safari agency called Journeys by Design, delivered a lecture about the people of Ethiopia’s Lower Omo Valley. He focused part of his talk on tourism to visit the Mursi people, who are known for their large lip plates, piercings, and body paint:

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The Mursi see the act of photography as predatory, rich Westerners taking photographs of the poor African, and not just of the poor but of a particular, altered area of their bodies—not of their cattle, their lifestyle or their homes. As [Mursi anthropologist] David Turton again points out, the Mursi realize that photographs are being taken not because the rich traveler wishes to emulate the practice, but because it represents this power imbalance and a gulf between the rich, technologically advanced world and the poorer, technologically backward world of the Mursi. Another psychological challenge for the Mursi is the sense that they are being visited by a globally mobile audience, whilst they remain trapped at the end of a dead-end road, marginalized and captured on film.

What happens if someone from a tribal community decides they want a taste of modernity? If this person decides they want a cell phone and a university degree and a job in the big city? This is why there are so many image results if you google “Maasai warrior cell phone.” Many people think it apocryphal that someone may simultaneously wear non-Western attire, carry a spear, and text heart-eye emojis to their girlfriend. Modern ambition destroys the mirage of the primitive tribesperson.

In his talk, Jones mentions the Maasai, tribal people of Kenya and Tanzania, as offering a potential solution to the exploitative status quo. The Maasai themselves manage many of their tourist villages. The entrance fee permits the visitor not just to take photos, but also to watch a dance performance and get a proper tour of the village. Some may consider this an ugly commercialization of the Maasai culture, but on the other hand, it’s directed by the community itself, and it encourages the tourists to learn something about the people and places they visit.

I was once on the receiving end of being the cultural oddity, when I was on my honeymoon in Cuba. In keeping with Indian tradition, my wedding had included a mehendi, or henna, ceremony. A few days later, I was exploring the streets of Viñales with my hands and feet temporarily dyed in intricate maroon swirls and paisleys. I first noticed a few people pointing me out to their friends. Soon, people began to stop me. I learned quickly that Bollywood movies are big in Cuba. According to the people I met, films dubbed in Spanish are broadcast on national television every Friday night. I also learned that most Cubans had never met an Indian person, especially one who looked as “exotic” as I did at that moment. I speak Spanish, and love meeting new people, so I used the fascination with my mehendi as a foot in the door to a cultural exchange. I explained that I had just gotten married. On my phone, I showed them a few wedding photos, which apparently looked as colorful as the movies they watched. They told me about Cuban wedding traditions. We talked about how people around the world aren’t so different from each other after all.

In their eyes, I was the “other,” the human symbol of a faraway culture. But unlike the Himba, Kayan, or Mursi women, I could engage with these curious Cubans on my own terms. I wasn’t being forced to parade my heritage, nor was I being held captive in a life that may or may not have felt authentic to me. I had the agency to transform the casual gawking into something I think allowed both sides to benefit: a human connection.

Excerpted from the book Tread BrightlyCopyright © 2021 by Sarika Bansal.

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