About the differences between tripping perspectives – a reply to Hendrik Relve’s comment

In one of the Estonian newspapers Postimees Arter in December 2009 there was a story by an acknowledged nature man and traveller Hendrik Relve. Among other things he mentioned the travels of us, the Avantourists. Relve mainly refers to our journey on The Galápagos Islands and but with  a certain critical note he questions our ethics concerned to environmental behaviour. Since Relve writes that he is still thinking what it is and how to interpret it, we decided to take a chance and explain our motives and principles of the case in Galapagos and at large.

Sections in question are:
Many use the so called beach-bar version, but the youth certainly go on trips. Tripping goes something like that, you hitch hike or take a budget flight to some far away and unfamiliar place, but you have your laptop and phone with you and you’re communicative. In a half  a day you’ve found new friends. How much is it of youthful protest and hedonism and how much of exploring the new world and yourself is in the hands of the young himself. 
But one thing has put me thinking. For example, two young women Berit Renser and Terje Toomistu have written in their blog how they went tripping and found themselves in Galapagos. They didn’t have much money but they made friends easily. Local men took them on their boat and together they went to an island which is under protection and where no one without a permit should go, and where hunting is illegal. But the girls write with proud how their friends shot a few deers and they caught a couple of crabs, and then they lit a bonfire, cooked and had a great party. I still keep thinking what is it and how to interpret it. 

We’d like to start a bit further than The Galápagos Islands and explain the term “to trip”. As a word as such doesn’t exist in Estonian, it was loaned from English and thus it has got a certain field of use, which is affirmed by the existence of one of the biggest travelling portals in Estonia, trip.ee. In Estonian “trip” mainly means a short journey. In slang “tripping” is usually a combination of physical and mental joruney, which doesn’t necessarily have to dddrugs.

We’d also be glad to call our journeys trips, but we don’t recognise ourselves in the description brought by Relve. For us tripping has a little to do with a laptop and a mobile phone since we usually don’t bring neither of those along, but it certainly has to do with cheap flight tickets or hitch hiking. How open to new social and cultural relationships made at a trip anybody is, is of course in the hands of the young himself.

It is mainly connected with the motives of travelling. Hendrik Relve has a background of natural sciences but ours is of cultural studies, this might also be the reason why our interests on our travels are different by nature. A natural scientist is interested in natural environment with its flora and fauna, and he also acknowledges the necessity of conserving it. No doubt an ecosystem as unique as the one of the Galápagos Islands needs conservation and certain measures have been put in practice by both national and international organisations.

But you can’t turn a blind eye to the fact that a human being is also a part of ecosystem and thus has its “culture”. Being the representatives of anthropological viewpoint, our point of interest is rather on understanding culturally constructed fields of meaning than projecting western discourse of thought and values on the culture under observation.

Differences between those two viewpoints and our understandings are explained the best using a term known in anthropology: dichotomy – ethical and emical, first of which is dependent on the beliefs and traditions of interpretation of an external researcher, the other springs from the inner dynamics of the observed culture and its cultural meanings. Thus our aim was not to give ethical values to the inhabitants of the Galápagos Islans  but to understand the backgrounds of their behaviour empathically.

The inhabitants of Galápagos who took us to another island in the morning darkness and with whom we sat there until it became dark again, explained us the reasons of their behaviour. Having born on the island each of them told a melancholic story of how in childhood they went fishing with an uncle or how turtles splashed in a meter-deep water exactly where there’s a great harbour at the moment.  In the middle of the twentieth century measures and laws for conserving nature were started to put in practice, those measures were mainly originated from the western discourse in which nature and humans are contrasted. This was very disturbing for the locals and thus a situation arose in which they tried to protect nature from the nature protectors.

Theoretically the locals of our circle of friends agreed that the Galápagos Islands needed and still need a wide range plan for preservation, but at the same time there were many facts that made them reluctant.

Firstly, they don’t accuse only fish industries and greedy colonists, who deal with expensive gourmet products at international markets, in the disappearance of spieces. The locals are also concerned because of the tourists and the conservers themselves, since because of them the population and immigration through the islands have notably increased.

It should also be kept in mind that turning Galápagos into a natural reserve was an external action, and very rarely, if at all, the locals were included. On the other hand the rise of local inhabitants is also related to the creation of the nature reserve. All this has caused a conflict that is still in the air – many activities which through generations used to be cultural, daily and vital for surviving have been limited or criminalized. This is their new social reality.

Our local friends threw parallels with a case when your house and forest is suddenly surrounded by a fence and you’re asked to find a new make of living for the future. Because of the new laws instead of animals a local sees tourists in the forests, and a bureaucracy machine that collects richness in the village. In a situation like that a person, although still a part of the ecosystem, feels that he has lost control over his dwelling.

There have been many manifestations concerning this problem, in years there have been some so serious that in the mind of protest a national institution have been lit or sea lions beaten to death.  It has to be said that not all locals are environmentally conscious, but our little circle of friends were. Often the reason for the locals’ misbehaviour is povery, often illiteracy and ignorance. But this is the place where anthropological and natural science should meet.

Of course we were puzzled at first and didn’t know how to ration the things the locals do when the eye of the law doesn’t see. The people who took us to the other island were utterly environment conscious, but not lawful. Bonfire was made where there had been a bonfire before, since it most likely was a rather popular corner for the locals. The mentioned deers that were shot belong among the species that were brought in and are thus considered tackling the natural development of Galápagos ecosystem. On many islands deer killing is a conscious and aimed activity organised by the state. Also the crabs, Grapsus grapsus in Latin, we ate that day are among the few species on the Galápagos Islands that are not among the endangered ones and which are common at the west coast of South America.

Our aim wasn’t then, and still isn’t, to evaluate the behaviour of the locals, because with the amount of knowledge you get while travelling it simply isn’t rightous. While travelling we observed the behavour of people from our anthropological interest and we describe the picture as we see it, being consciously subjective from time to time.

As it can be seen, this overlooking explanation is twice as long as our usual blog posts, which also illustrates the limits blog as a form sets. Of course it leaves some knots undone but here we are not driving to be cientifically ambitious.

We hope that this reply helps to understand our tripping style and its mediation through a blog. In the future we certainly try to concentrate on sayings that might be against our beliefs if not accompanied by our explanation. Hereby we’d like to thank Hendrik Relve who helped to draw attention to those nuances.

We wish nice tripping to all of you!


Berit and Terje

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