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:
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.
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?