Recently the Oregon group took a trip to Otavalo, the home of a large indigenous open-air market. On the way there we stopped off to learn about Panama Hats (turns out they are actually Ecuadorean), have a mid-morning snack, and meet some alpacas. The alpacas were lounging in the yard behind the building and were utterly unfazed by the amount of attention heaped on them. I grew rather attached to one of them, as the photo shows. After becoming acquainted with the animals we filed inside for the snacks – biscoche cookies with dulce de leche and fresh cheese – which were procured for us by our program directors. Said directors are an incredibly kind pair who are always eager to feed us. It’s very endearing.
Otavalo was another place where I became keenly aware of my tourist status. It is, after all, a market full of Europeans and people from the US buying from indigenous people. After some bargaining (it’s expected), I came away with a backpack, a belt, and, best of all, my own miniature alpaca. Made of real alpaca wool, it’s like having my own personal cloud and I adore it. It will forever remind me of Eustace.
I enjoyed this trip immensely, but it still raises important and troubling thoughts for me. In a place like Otavalo it’s difficult not to notice the way that the concept of indigenous culture is commoditized and sold to Westerners, who swallow up the merchandise in the spirit of owning something “authentic.” How authentic are these items made especially for tourists, anyway? (And just what does “authenticity” mean anyhow and why do we value it?) I can’t help but feel disingenuous buying these mass-produced, made-for-the-gringos products.
But then again, I can’t help but love my new little fluffy alpaca. And perhaps therein lies the reason why Otavalo remains a successful tourist location.
- Chloe Shields