by Allie Jordan
Imagine swimming to chase a sea turtle while exploring the world’s second-largest coral reef, climbing to the top of Mayan temple for the first time, riding bikes on Campeche’s seaside bike path, being so close to a huge, majestic waterfall in Palenque that it leaves a mist of fresh water on your face, visiting a school where children learn about their Mayan culture and being able to make those children laugh. These are some of the fondest memories I have from my first time to study abroad in the Yucatán in 2012. I can recount details from that trip probably better than what I did a week ago.
The “Sun, Sand, and the Cult of Death” class provided much more than just dreamy, tropical experiences, however. As my class traveled for two weeks that summer, we learned how to critically analyze our experiences as tourists. For example, while touring Chichen Itza, native vendors lined the pathways saying, “almost free!” or “only one dollar!” It didn’t take long to realize that the souvenirs on sale were exactly what a typical American tourist would want: statues of the temple, cheesy T-shirts, Mayan calendars. I could only think about how the hard-working vendors probably hated standing in the hot sun to coax foreigners into buying things that they would probably lose sooner or later. It felt wrong for me to be there, solely because my presence forced natives to commoditize authentic representations of their culture into something I would like and buy. Even though I was falling in love with the Yucatán more every minute I was there, I knew I was helping to perpetuate a cycle of inauthenticity and even modern-day imperialism. As a fair warning, this class is not always easy for the faint of heart or the empathetic, but it is entirely worth it.
I tried to remind myself that there are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the [Yucatecan] ground (Rumi). I learned enough Spanish so that I could at least ask someone before photographing them. I tried to say thank you as much as possible. I was careful not to touch and destroy the coral reef while snorkeling above it. These precautions may have helped, but I found that having the hard conversations about stereotypes and the like with natives was the best way for me to appreciate the Yucatán. Don’t get me wrong, I will always remember the overwhelmingly beautiful sights from my first trip to the Yucatán, but the kindness, generosity and rich culture of the people is what made it unique from any other place I’d traveled. I learned you can’t reverse the damage that generations of tourists have done before you, but you can damn well try.
So if you’re asking yourself if you should study abroad with Dr. Coats and Dr. Griffin, and risk adopting an ethical complex with the tourist industry? Of course you should. Go to the Mayan site of Palenque, and be sure to ask Miguel Mendez, your charismatic tour guide throughout the trip, about his encounter with the paranormal. Eat the totally delicious Yucatecan dishes like poc chuc and drink the horchata. Don’t be too afraid to jump from the cliff into the cool water of Cenote Ik Kil. Hang out with the locals as much as possible and find the authentic Mexico. Write everything down; you won’t want to forget every moment you’re there. And, when you become overwhelmed with how thankful you are to be in Yucatán acquiring the aforementioned ethical complex (oh, and class credit, too), kneel and kiss the ground for me.