I like to picture myself as a good guest. One with her eyes open to new experiences, who respects the local customs. A person who, if she doesn’t know the language, will at least not expect everyone else to know hers. As a guest, I don’t expect the food to taste like the food I’m used to – at least I sincerely HOPE it doesn’t! I expect people to do things a little differently than I would – maybe with a little more ease and a little less obsession about doing everything very quickly.
I hope people will treat me the same as they treat people in their own country, but if I stand out like a sore thumb, I understand they might not. I also understand that people working in the tourist industry are trying to make a living. If they see me as something of a cash-cow, I try to remember they have loved ones to support and if they seem a little too eager, they may well have their reasons. I don’t have to like it, but I try to be patient and considerate.
Anyway, that’s the ideal. I might not always live up to it, but that’s what I’m striving to do.
But, there are some countries where I feel another burden as a guest. And that is in countries where I know the relationship between my country and another has not served the other country well. To be honest, sadly, in quite a few countries, that is something of an understatement when you are from the U.S.
In South America, it’s pretty easy to find yourself in one of those countries. Most recently, I found myself in Chile.
As you may or may not know, in 1966, Chile was the first South American country to democratically elect a Marxist, Salvador Allende, as president. He won the election legally, but without a majority, opposed by two other candidates. His term of office, by most accounts, was a contentious one of unrealized dreams and an economy stressed by nationalization of industries, particularly the copper mining industry. Before nationalization, copper mines in Chile were owned primarily by American corporate interests: the Anaconda Copper Company, originating in Butte, Montana, and the Kennecott Copper Corporation of Utah. Allende’s government ended in 1969, with the Chilean air force bombing the capital building in Santiago and Allende dying by his own hand before the military could capture him. Later, under the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, 35,000 people were victims of the government. They were arrested, raped, tortured, and many killed. And, there are still many living there who will still do not know what happened to their uncle, sister, brother, cousin, mother, and or father because their loved ones simply disappeared.
Rumors of U.S. covert involvement were soon heard. And later, with the release of previously classified documents now known as the Pinochet File (http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB110/), citizens of the U.S. can no longer legitimately deny their country’s support of the military coup and subsequent murderous regime of Pinochet.
As estadounidenses, citizens of the United States, we cannot, in honesty, visit a country like Chile as innocents. And this is further complicated by the political situation In Chile today, where the person to whom you are speaking may remember Pinochet as a devil, or a savior.
For me, in preparation of visiting any country, I try to get a sense of the history. In Chile, while I was already familiar with the facts of the Pinochet years and had a copy of the Pinochet File on my bookshelf, this review was painful. But for me, this is an important part of the entire experience of travel. I wanted to know, as I cruised in comfort towards Punta Arenas, that I was passing Isla Dawson, once used to detain political prisoners under Pinochet. I wanted to know, as I gazed at the Palacio de La Moneda in Chile, that it had been attacked by Chile’s own military during a coup accomplished with the knowledge and support of the United States. The facts of history should never be forgotten or denied.
As a guest in Chile, you will find the people overwhelmingly kind. In fact, if you keep your mouth shut, they may not even realize you aren’t Chilean – Chileans and North Americans share many of the same ethnic roots, particularly European. But as a guest, it is important to understand that the average Chilean, who may or may not admire the United States, usually does not revere the United States. And, as a citizen of a different country, they have their reasons and their right to think of our country very differently than we may. And, as a visitor to another person’s country, you have an obligation to respect that right.
So, if you are lucky, when visiting another country, you might get a chance to hear another side of the story, one that does not represent your country as you remember from high school. And, just maybe, the act of listening, with respect and without interrupting, is probably just about the best we can do to bridge the sometimes uncomfortable gaps between countries and cultures.