Culture Shock

el agua

I like culture shock; I always have.  I suppose people who are inveterate travelers tend to be enthused about and interested in other cultures, strange smells, noise of all kinds, scary foods and things we do not understand.  Being in strange places wakes me up, gives me food for thought, gets me reflecting on books I’ve read, movies I’ve seen, artwork, language and myself.

I remember how satisfied I felt in 1979 as I got off the plane in Bangkok, inhaling  for the first time the steampot air redolent of smoking fires, rotten fruits, rotten onions, rotting fish, and exhaust, so thick to walk through.   I liked the bad smells, the sense that I myself was being slowly steamed, the sweat dripping down my back the  gaudy glass bits decorating golden statues, orange robed monks, paper umbrellas in all colors.  That first night I walked up to a festival from where I saw a line of flickering candles winding down the mountain to the sound of Thai music. There, in the narrow crowd of stalls, the whole street of firecrackers caught fire.  As I ran with the crowd and the bursting crackers and the flames  I thought, “Oh yes!  Now I’m in a different world!”

In Ecuador my greatest sense of culture shock came in a police station.  I was moving from Cotacachi to Mindo, with a canvas-covered truck of my possessions.  In Ecuador trucks get stopped and searched on the highways.  I’m told the police are looking for drugs or weapons.  So one takes the truck driver and his licenses and documents, one’s own documents and the list of the contents of the truck to the police station on the day you are moving. If you are leaving at 4 am you go there then. In my case there was a young clerk asleep with her head on the desk.  She stamped all the papers (without looking in the truck), and then we drove across the country without being searched.

But here’s my moment of ultimate culture shock: in the police station was a big poster saying, “The environment is your life.  Protect it.”   It took up the whole wall, had pictures of trees and waterfalls on it and explained that this planet is our home.

In the USA police work for the big companies, and show up to make sure the environment gets wrecked for profit. In the USA “environmentalist” is a derogatory word used by police and politicians to mean idiotish and annoying tree huggers, out of touch with reality.  In the USA the environmental terrorist is a recurring trope in the crime procedural dramas, cycling through along with psychopathic serial killers, south American drug lords, Charles Manson type charismatic religious leaders, angry black men and Muslim jihadists.  I’m not saying any of that is fair; I’m just saying you can tell who a culture fears by looking to see who are the bad guys in their literature and movies.

About six years ago I drove down the coast of Washington state, along the Olympic peninsula.  There, I saw government sponsored billboards that said, “your national forest, working for you.”  In front, beside, and behind were miles of tree stumps.  I’d have preferred it to be breathing its rich oxygenated air for me and inspiring me with its beauty.

 In Ecuador, along the highways there are government signs that say, “the forest is your lungs: protect it”,  or like the sign in the picture, “water is life. take care of it.”  

I’m not saying the government here is perfect on this issue. Here the government owns the petroleum and minerals even when the land is privately owned or belongs to an indigenous tribe.  And it is a poor country. People want education, health care, jobs, etc. So there is tension: how to preserve the gloriously rich environment AND have money.  When the last president, Correa, was first elected, he actually travelled all over the world trying to raise money for preserving the rain forests.  He was not successful.  At least he tried.  That’s all I’m saying;  when I see a government promote care of the environment I think I’m really in a different place now.









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