There was always a moment, most of the time at least, on this trip to Peru and Bolivia, when we all turned to look at the two Spaniards.
This was a three week tour through two of the most amazing countries in South America, a low budget trip for like minded backpackers all ready to learn and have a good time . Almost every day we visited historical sites and learned about ancient civilizations such as the Moche, Chimu, Nazca and of course the Incas.
And almost all of these tours would include a similar theme. This place looked like this, the guide said, describing something incredible, beautiful, before adding…until the Spanish conquistadors arrived and destroyed it.
At that point, we all turned theatrically to the only two Spanish passengers on our tour, pretty women with whom we had a lot of fun, and stared at them insistently. They were still laughing. “It wasn’t us!”
It was a fun trip, and those moments were light teasing. Everyone was in on the joke. But it also masked a reality of confrontation: most of us on this tour came from colonial cultures. There were only two Spaniards, but there were plenty of Brits and no shortage of Anglo-Australians. Our ancestors had all played their part in the kind of destruction of indigenous cultures and monuments that we saw before us in Bolivia and Peru.
It’s something you need to remember when traveling, something you need to be aware of. It’s so easy to fall into a comfortable cliché, to dismiss the things you see with that most insidious yet common phrase: “colonial charm.”
Because there is charm in so many of these places around the world that were designed and created by colonial forces. Stroll around the Plaza de Armas in Cusco, the main square of this Andean citadel, and tell me that the cathedral and the whitewashed buildings with their red tiled roofs are not as charming as anywhere you have summer .
Tell me about the city of Oaxaca in Mexico. Or Cartagena in Colombia. Or Galle in Sri Lanka. Or Penang in Malaysia. Or Hanoi in Vietnam.
These places are undeniably beautiful and wonderful to spend time in. And the phrase “colonial charm” is so easy to apply to them – so much so that you don’t even have to read travelogues to know it’s been used many times. I’m sure I used it. Google my name and “colonial charm” and there’s no doubt you’ll get hits (I can’t bring myself to).
But there is such incredible ugliness and horror behind that phrase, something we travelers need to start recognizing. Colonialism is not charming. These beautiful buildings you see are the product of a deeply destructive and often highly racist process, the attempted eradication of Indigenous peoples and cultures by an uninvited occupying force.
Of course, as an Australian, you can speak with some authority on this subject, because the whole existence of our modern country is due to the colonial process. It doesn’t take much of the imagination to realize that the “charming” buildings that now occupy places like the Rocks in Sydney represent something very different to the Gadigal people, and to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across the country.
Colonialism is not something to be celebrated, certainly not with the flippant cliché of charm. Every site we visited on this Bolivia and Peru tour was a vivid example of this. Something amazing had existed here, something of deep cultural and spiritual value and incredible physical beauty…until the arrival of the Spaniards.
You’ll find this played out in so many of our favorite destinations. Whenever you are led to comment on the colonial architecture you see, or marvel at the picturesque cultural memories of 17th, 18th and 19th century Europeans, you must ask yourself how it happened and recognize those who have suffered because of it.
There is a simple and useful way to do this, and that is to see the world through the eyes of the invaded. Join a tour led by local natives. Even if only for a few hours, ideally at least a full day. Make a point wherever you go, if your destination has a colonial past, to dig deeper and understand beyond the charm of its architecture.
Hear the stories of destruction and pain. You don’t have to feel personally guilty about this stuff, just as we didn’t really expect the Spanish girls on our tour to apologize. But you can at least understand.
This will allow for a better travel experience, for a more complete travel experience. It will send money to the right places. It will increase your knowledge of the world. It will make you think differently about your own home. And that might keep you from falling back on that old cliché.
See also: Right now Australia hates Qantas. But it won’t last
See also: Do you want to pay in your own currency? Do not fall into the trap