Traveller’s Dilemma: San Blas Archipelago

Today we dropped anchor for a few hours at a wonderful little island in the San Blas Archipelago. One of those places the big cruise ships can’t get into. It was raining, but we decided to go ashore anyway.

When we got there, we stepped onto the dock and wandered inland, and it was all completely flat. As in, the whole island is about a metre above sea level. Given that the tides in the Caribbean change less than two feet and it could have been high tide, that means this town has about twenty years to go before it’s permanently awash.

We walked narrow pathways between decrepit buildings, peeking through open doorways into sparse, unlit interiors. The street sides of the buildings were festooned with bright squares of hand-decorated fabric in aboriginal patterns. Amazingly similar patterns to those we had seen all over the southern Caribbean.

Offering the wares were older women in traditional dress, each accompanied by a bevy of small children of extreme cuteness, sporting pet birds, puppies, and kittens. “Picture, one dollar, Señor.” The kid with the cat was so cute I fell prey.

And that made me wonder. What was her future? From the demographic, it seemed that anyone of working age was away working somewhere. Those left behind were selling their culture — children and all — in the tourist industry.

The rapacious hand of progress is reaching ever further into the wild places of the earth, and the temptation of tourist dollars (all $US) is hard for poor people to resist. But should they be living in abject poverty in order to preserve their “culture?”

And looming in the future is the ever-rising tide.

The question is, what can we, as tourists, do about it? I know it’s tempting to go all First World and neo-colonial about it and say, “This isn’t good for the people or their culture,” but then what? In Peru, we were told by our tour company that we shouldn’t pay cute little six-year-olds for their pictures, because they could make more money than their parents, so the parents kept them out of school to support the family.

I have to say, I took the easy way out. I don’t tend to buy souvenirs, but I wanted the picture, so I paid the money. Now I’m assuaging my conscience by putting the picture to good use.

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