Tuesday, 8 November 2005

The Amazing Race 8 (Family Edition), Episode 7

Quepos (Costa Rica) - Grecia (Costa Rica) - Phoenix, AZ (USA) - Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, AZ (USA) - Mesa, AZ (USA) - Grand Canyon National Park, AZ (USA) - Page, AZ (USA)

Perhaps it would be too much to expect the Family Edition of The Amazing Race reality television show to model appropriate behavior for younger travellers. But one could still wish for better than some of what we saw in tonight’s episode in Costa Rica, when one of the Bransen sisters yells out, “There’s a funeral going on. Make sure we’re respectful”, after which they all run up to the front entrance of the church in their bikinis and sleeveless t-shirts.

Even that gaffe is minor compared to last week’s episode, when the racers were sent into the rain forest to spot the “Mayan relics” and haul them out as quickly as possible.

Like real-life looters, their haste precluded proper documentation or careful handling of what they found. And like many real-life travellers who try to buy ancient artifacts, they ended up with fakes. Erin Van Rheenen, author of last week’s guest column and of the guidebook Living Abroad in Costa Rica , points out that despite some Mayan influences, the territory of present-day Costa Rica was never part of the Maya civilization. The real Mayan relics have been, and some still are, found in other countries to the north.

What sort of example does this set? Here’s what I say in The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World about this kind of “souvenir hunting”:

Art, Artifacts, and Antiquities

One reason people travel is to see monuments and artifacts of the history and culture of the places they visit. Too often, they find that the best examples of local artistic, cultural, and even architectural traditions were long ago looted by imperialist collectors and archaeologists. Even the finest murals from inner rooms of rock-cut tombs and temples were sawed out in sections, hauled away, and re-assembled as the prized exhibits of museums in London, Paris, New York, Boston, and Chicago, leaving gaping holes in the walls of the sanctuaries for those who visit these sites today.

To stem the ongoing theft of what they have left of their cultural heritage, and to preserve the attractions of their country for citizens and future visitors alike, most formerly colonized countries have special restrictions on the export of artworks, antiquities, and archaeological artifacts. Typically, these things are defined as national treasures, and their export is categorically prohibited. Exactly what constitutes an antique or an artifact isn’t always clearly defined, but common sense is usually a sufficient guide.

Here’s a rule of thumb: If you can afford it without having to think about the price, it’s probably a legal fake. Real antiques cost real money. Good modern reproductions of museum pieces, or modern works in classical styles, can be harder to get out of the country than obviously fake “antiques” or works in modern styles or media. This is unfortunate, because it reduces the export market that might support continued work in traditional artistic styles. High-quality modern art in a classical medium or style is really one of the best souvenirs, if you can afford it. But bringing it out of the country is likely to require at least a purchase receipt, the more official looking the better. In some countries, you’ll need certification from a government agency or appointed specialist (art historian or curator) that the work is not an antique or national treasure.

In creating a demand for these antiques, buyers and collectors are also to blame for creating a financial opportunity for impoverished local people who can earn the equivalent of a year’s wages in a day by working in the jungle digging up burial mounds instead of plowing fields. The damage will only stop when those who can afford to buy these treasures choose not to. Don’t buy antiques or archaeological artifacts. Don’t buy anything else from people who sell these things, and tell them why. Encourage other travelers to boycott them. If someone shows you a piece of pre-Columbian pottery, don’t say, “What a find!” Say, “Doesn’t that belong in a museum, where everyone could see it?” If each visitor takes away a tangible piece of the past, nothing of the past will be left for the future.

Buying or smuggling forbidden antiquities or artifacts is considered not merely theft but theft from the collective cultural heritage of a people. You aren’t just stealing: you are stealing from a nation; in many countries all antiquities, in whomever’s possession, are officially deemed the property of the state. Even if the objects you buy or take have no ritual or religious value (which they often do), you aren’t just taking souvenirs: you are stealing icons of the identity of a people. You are stealing the national soul and will be treated accordingly. You can expect little sympathy from your own country’s government if you are caught and fined or imprisoned for trafficking antiquities or archeological artifacts.

This week the race actually did better at teaching an appreciation for contemporary artistic traditions: One of the racers’ final tasks before leaving Costa Rica was painting cartwheels in brightly colored geometric, floral, and bird designs.

The racers’ task was familiar to me from my own family. My great-uncle Pen (N. P. Davis) was the U.S. ambassador to Costa Rica from 1947 to 1949. After his return, my artist grandmother (Uncle Pen’s younger sister) made a family project of painting the cartwheel-sized round wooden table in the family summer house at Silver Bay in a design inspired by Costa Rican cartwheels. That table remains in use today, the original paint job carefully preserved, and asking about the design of the table was the first context in which, as a child, I heard of a place called Costa Rica.

It wasn’t made clear in the TV broadcast, but cartwheel painting is perhaps the best-known Costa Rican folk art. It’s a craft that has stood out in visitors’ impressions of the country for a century, and something travellers can take home, in memory and artistic inspiration, without taking away anything from their hosts. Let’s hope it’s that, and not the looting, that the younger racers remember and, perhaps, pass on to their children.

Link | Posted by Edward on Tuesday, 8 November 2005, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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