I was walking down the street in Merida, Mexico thinking about the great day I had. I had seen a shaman who knew me accurately with only my name and date of birth. I mean, he described my relationship history to a T and even described my familial relationships exactly as they were. It was like someone had written a book about my life up until that point and he was summarising it for me. He told me a couple of beautiful things that have never left me because it explained why so many things had “gone wrong.” They hadn’t actually, it’s just my path, which is an important one and turns out I’m not a bad person after all! Then I had a great conversation with a local about what to see in the area and I had plans to go dancing later that night with some people I met at the hostel. In fact, I had just bought an avocado because one of my new friends and I were going to make dinner together and I wanted to test out my newly learned guacamole skills.
As I was walking, well floating really, down the street, a man walked past me and said “Ah, you’re going to make guacamole, right?” I looked up and said “Perdon?” and he smiled and repeated it in Spanish. He walked with me for a few steps and we talked guac. Then he asked where I was from. I stopped and we chatted for a bit. He told me he was a researcher at the university and was doing a project about how foreigners treat Mexicans and Guatemalans. I love this kind of stuff, so we leaned against the wall and I asked him lots of questions. He told me that the Dutch are the most arrogant and treat Mexicans and Guatemalans “the least human.” He said overall, Europeans are the most arrogant and least tolerant. He told me had worked in Spain for a while on various projects and so understood why they felt that way. Not to mention it was the Spanish that came over to the Americas to totally demolish their culture way back when.
He asked me why I travelled and I said it was because I like learning about different cultures and incorporating the positives into my own way of living because I don’t by any means think our culture is the best. Or any one culture in particular, for that matter. He didn’t really seem too pleased by my answer but said it was better than other answers he received. He then told me how 10 or so years ago, Merida was a very affordable pueblo and families could afford to go out to eat at the local restaurants. Due to the influx of tourism and “gringos” buying real estate, many families have been driven out to the poorer areas and can no longer afford a night out in their own town. This saddened me greatly and was something I never thought about. I felt a built guilty after this conversation. Mind you, I wasn’t staying at a 5 or even 2 star hotel, but it’s travellers like me who rave about how great a place is and then the need for these hotels to be built is created. Sure there are already locally owned hotels, but god forbid westerners stay in these conditions, right? People have to travel to make their own little country in the country they visit. Excuse the sarcasm, but that is just not what I believe travelling is about. And yes I know that many of the hostels I have stayed in are owned by foreigners. I try to avoid this when possible and later learned about hospedajes, which are always locally owned and my favourite kind of places! It’s where locals stay so I actually met local people and learned about their way of life.
The man on the street was a very friendly guy and seemed really nice so I asked him about all these proclaimed shamans that walk around the street. He rolled his eyes and said that if you went to a traditional village, it would be hard to find a shaman, so he highly doubted all of the shamans here were legit, but he didn’t know and didn’t want to say bad things about it. Then he started asking me if I was into spirituality. I told him that I was very interested in Mayan culture and that it really struck a chord with me. He recommended a book and then said to me, “I can get you a copy, do you want to follow me? It’s not too far from here or your hostel.” I agreed thinking we were going to a book store.
As I am a lone traveller and no one knew I was with this man, I carefully marked where I was and at all times kept in mind where the hostel was. Just as I was thinking we were hitting dodgy territory, he turned the corner into a street with nicely kept houses and which was on the way back to the hostel. I relaxed a little until we reached a door that was not a bookstore. He unlocked it, saw my hesitation and said, “This is my office and home, my sister lives here too although she isn’t home.” The voice in the back of my head said, “These are the times your Mom tells you to run.” So I promptly followed him into the house making note of everything inside in case I survived to report this to the police. After all, he played a good game and I didn’t want to be “that” tourist. Long story short, he said he learned about energy cleansing as it was passed down from his family and he asked if I wanted a cleansing. He had already showed me the book he had recommended and said it’s the book many Mayans use. I agreed because after all, I love this kind of stuff! He sprayed something on his hands and started to put his hands to my face. I flinched and looked at the bottle asking what it was. He said it was fragrance to relax me and then put his hands to his face and sniffed. I thought at this point, well if he’s going to do something to me, I’d rather be passed out. The body does funny things. As he put his hands to my face, I felt lightheaded and my heart started racing. I started thinking how I hope I don’t remember anything he’s about to do and then I told myself to stop being ridiculous and that it was innocent eucalyptus as he said. Slowly my heart rate lowered and the lightheadedness disappeared. All was kosher and then it got weird when he told me to take my shorts off. I firmly said no. He said there was a towel on the chair I could put over my lap if I was uncomfortable. I said no because my shorts were thin enough and the energy point on my hip he needed to touch could be done over clothing. He tried to convince me it wouldn’t work, that he was gay and that he would call his sister to come over to make me feel more comfortable. When I said no and reached for my bag to leave, he became angry and told me I was like all the other tourists. Wow, did he know my where buttons were! I put my bag back down and I told him that if I was in London and a strange guy on the street asked me into his home, there was no way in hell that I would agree to it. Well, if I was sober and he was ugly, that is. I told him that I must’ve trusted him enough to come this far and that I didn’t appreciate that he wasn’t respecting my personal wishes. He told me I was afraid and that this fear was prohibiting me from any real energy work being done. What he didn’t know was that I conducted group therapy with men who committed sexual offences for seven years and I know the game. He was playing a simple basic game I knew well and he wasn’t going to win. Don’t worry Mom, I left unharmed, untouched and it was an experience I won’t be repeating.
This experience has stayed strong in my soul. Not the energy cleansing part, but what he said about how tourism affects the locals and also how tourists treat locals because I’ve seen it and it isn’t always pretty. Last night I saw the movie Embrace of the Serpent and some of the things that Karamakate said reminded me of this conversation. It’s all about fear. As humans, we fear the unknown. It’s common to be afraid of people who have a different skin colour, different language, different beliefs, different religions and different customs. It’s all unknown. Sometimes I think that the difference between cultures is due more to the level of fear in a society than anything else.
I used to be afraid too. I came from a white middle class small town and didn’t spend time around groups of non-white people until University. I was scared! Then slowly I started meeting people and making friends with people of different backgrounds (after offending a few due to my lack of knowledge). Turns out there’s nothing to be afraid of! We are all people. Whatever colour or background we have, there are always similarities and differences. I found my levels of fear dropped dramatically the more I asked questions of other people. I used to be afraid to ask questions because than they would know I didn’t know, which would make me racist, right? Not so! People love talking about their traditions and their background! I have learned so many beautiful things about other people and cultures. The more I travel, the more I ask questions and the more my fear disappears. The thing is, until you start asking questions, you will most likely think that your way is the best and everyone else does it weird. I see this in all the cultures that I’ve visited and I certainly thought it. It’s what stereotypes are all about and why I don’t like them. Americans are like this, the Spanish are like this, the Mexicans do this, etc. Actually, we’re all just human beings who are trying to survive in the only way they know how. Is this really something to be afraid of?