Are You an Innocent Bystander?

Many cruisers rush from island to island and country to country, often just doing some shopping and joining an organized tour before hopping on to the next harbor. Traveling so fast, they remain outsiders and get the superficial tourist’s view of a place: snapshots of pretty beaches, overpriced meals at waterfront restaurants and maybe some organized ‘traditional’ dancing and singing. One island paradise blurs into the next and in hindsight the turquoise anchorages and smiling faces of the locals all seem similar. Those who travel slowly have the chance to get a deeper insight, experience cultures and make friends, the downside is that looking behind the scenes often reveals some ugly aspects of the seemingly perfect paradise.

This happy Kuna family had several more kids in their basic hut, most of them with snotty noses and eye infections
This happy Kuna family had several more kids in their basic hut, most of them with snotty noses and eye infections

We are definitely slow travelers. When we arrive at a new location it takes about a week until we feel that we’ve got our bearings and we then start exploring when others already rush off again in search of new adventures. If we like a place we stay for weeks or even months, getting to know the people and their culture and exploring nature and wildlife. We tend to avoid popular anchorages and big towns, instead we anchor mostly in remote bays or next to little villages. Hitch-hiking’s a great way to get to talk to people and to make new friends. Quite often the locals in such areas are still genuinely interested in meeting people from far-away countries and we’ve experienced some fabulous hospitality. Villagers that would be considered poor by western standards have sent us off loaded with bags of fruit from their gardens or even opened their humble homes for us and made us join the family meal. Faced with such generosity we still find it hard not to cringe when we encounter mountain-high cultural barriers chatting with them. How to react when they cook tiny lobsters for dinner? What to say when they proudly present their ten kids in an overpopulated country? What to do about the batteries on the rubbish pile behind the house?

What would you do when confronted with such a horrible sight?
What would you do when confronted with such a horrible sight?

People understandably don’t enjoy being lectured by know-it-all outsiders and proudly refer to their traditions when questioned about such issues. Of course traditional cultures worked well over long periods of time. E.g., archaic sounding taboos on places and animals were in fact a well-considered tool that ensured a sustainable lifestyle by keeping the hunters/gatherers from taking too many or too small specimen. Unfortunately tradition often fails when confronted with modern problems. Biodegradable rubbish was tossed into lagoons since people got there, but as soon as plastic entered the scene everything changed. Many cultures also have lost a great part of their traditional knowledge under the influence of colonial powers, missionaries, etc. and are now lost in a limbo between their old culture and the modern influence. Others retain a mixture of half-remembered traditions and superstitions. They stubbornly refuse newfangled ideas like contraception and recycling while happily embracing convenient gadgets like outboard engines and smartphones.

This friendly Polynesian did not only give us coconut bread but quickly wove a basket for it
This friendly Polynesian did not only give us coconut bread but quickly wove a basket for it

Cruisers react very differently in culturally tricky situations. 

What would you do when you see a protected animal, like a sea turtle tied up in somebody’s back garden? 

Take pictures when the creature is butchered and enjoy watching the action?

Spontaneous invitation for dinner in Kuna Yala. Fortunately we had grown-up lobsters
Spontaneous invitation for dinner in Kuna Yala. Fortunately we had grown-up lobsters

Quickly walk by and try not to interfere with the local customs? 

Confront the person in charge and start a discussion about the need to protect endangered species?

Recycling gone wrong
Recycling gone wrong

If you are slow travelers like us and are starting to get frustrated with environmental or social grievances you could consider taking some action. Ask around or google, maybe there’s already an organization or just a group of similarly thinking people who’s trying to make a little change for the better. Whether it’s about cleaning up plastic rubbish, raising awareness for sustainability at schools, helping mistreated strays or whatever it is that taints the daily life in your favorite piece of paradise. Joining a group or founding one yourself may be a good remedy against that uncomfortable, slightly guilty feeling at the back of your head. Of course it also helps to sail to the next island where it’s possible to enjoy that blissful period of unawareness before a peak behind the scenes shows that things are also not quite perfect there.

Most islands look perfect from afar
Most islands look perfect from afar
Birgit Hackl
Birgit Hackl, Christian Feldbauer and ship’s cat Leeloo have been exploring the world on their yacht Pitufa since 2011. Visit their blog: www.pitufa.at