Jeffrey R. Charles
© Copyright 1996, Jeffrey R. Charles, All Rights Reserved.
This paper addresses how cultural factors in some countries can potentially have an adverse effect on total solar eclipse expeditions. It is one chapter in a series of documents which will eventually comprise an on-line solar eclipse "book", and probably printed and multimedia publications later on. Together, these chapters will cover many fascinating aspects of total solar eclipses, and how to travel to them.
Many eclipse articles tell people to be cautious about possible theft of their equipment by locals in various foreign countries. Such suggestions are unfortunate, since they tend to cast many foreigners in a bad light that they do not deserve. Most equipment thefts I am aware of have occurred here in the U.S., either just before or just after the "victims" had traveled to a foreign country. Accordingly, caution is best advised at all times!
While the risk of theft may be no higher in most foreign countries than in the U.S., some cultures do have other types of social ills that can materially affect your trip, particularly if you interact a lot with the local culture. Attempting to generalize all of these conditions would not be appropriate, so I will address some of these issues by relating a few experiences myself and others have had in Latin America and other areas. By being informed about the potential influence cultural factors can have on the traveler, other eclipse observers may be able avoid similar problems.
Being informed about a foreign country and the way its cultural issues may affect a member of a total solar eclipse expedition can be very important to an eclipse traveler; particularly if one is traveling alone or in a small group. These factors have the potential to materially affect your eclipse work and many other aspects of your expedition. The influence that undesirable cultural issues can have on an expedition member tends to be somewhat proportional to the degree in which that member is exposed to the culture. You are not nearly as likely to encounter cultural problems if you just plan to stay around your hotel or limit the scope of your trip to "organized" group outings; however, many aspects of a culture cannot truly be appreciated unless one interacts with a variety of an area's people.
On occasion, I like to interact with a culture to a greater degree than would normally be possible on an "organized tour". This cultural interaction may range from simply getting acquainted with the staff at a local hotel to more involved activities such as presenting lectures at local schools or universities. Presenting eclipse information near the time of a local eclipse event can be of significant interest in some cultures. While usually enjoyable, this more involved interaction can be very revealing of many aspects of a culture, both good and bad. It is these "bad" cultural factors which can unfavorably influence the eclipse observer. Accordingly, most of this paper will address these relevant, though negative aspects. Fortunately, such aspects are usually associated with a relatively small segment of the local population in most cultures. This often makes it possible to avoid "problems" by simply avoiding "problem" people; however, as will be seen in this paper, it is not always easy to predict who these "problem" people will be.
There are many good things about cultures throughout the world, but if you want to interact with the "real" local culture, it is important to be informed about as much of the culture as possible. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to get good, detailed, information about other cultures. I have yet to see a travel book that covers everything one may need to know, and many of the errors and exclusions seem to relate to cultural divisions and how they can affect a traveler (and potentially those a traveler leaves behind). I presume that this is because many publishers consider it "politically incorrect" to address issues that by nature could be taken as being critical of part of a culture.
In this paper, I choose not to sidestep these cultural issues, particularly since these issues can materially affect a traveler who interacts with certain cultures. Accordingly, some of this paper has the potential to be controversial or "politically incorrect" because it dares to address the effects that cultural issues such as racism, extremes of rich and poor, oppression, and armed conflict can have on the traveler. In addressing these issues, it by necessity calls attention to these "undesirable" cultural factors. I make no apology for this, because avoidance of "problem" people and undesirable cultural factors is the best way to prevent being affected by them. One usually can't effectively avoid something without first knowing that it exists.
Most of the cultural problems referred to in this paper occurred during my trip to Bolivia for the total solar eclipse of November 3, 1994. It is important to note that the difficulties I experienced there were not the result of any type of government sanctioned activity; all of the difficulties were brought about entirely by local people who were acting within their own independent social structure. While the government of Bolivia was not a problem according to my experience, local government can be a source of problems for "interactive" travelers to some other countries.
If one is informed about and respectful of a local culture, cultural issues may not affect one's expedition at all; however, all cultures are not alike. Some local circumstances and cultural issues (particularly those that reflect extremes of racism or that are religiously or economically charged) have the potential to affect an "interactive" expedition member in a very major way, particularly if one travels alone or in a very small group. This paper is not intended to provide every answer to one's travel related questions. Instead, its primary purpose is to show the importance of acquiring good cultural information and taking it into account when planning an expedition. If you plan in an informed and careful way, your expedition can be a truly rewarding experience. Best wishes on your next expedition!
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The Role of Culture in the Perception of Eclipses Throughout History
People usually act on their perception of events, whether their perceptions are correct or not; therefore, it is important for people to perceive things as they really are. In most ancient cultures, total solar eclipses were not fondly regarded. Many of these cultures feared eclipses. Members of some cultures even believed that once the sun was obscured, it may not return unless some of the people engaged in specified (and sometimes desperate) acts! All of this was due to incorrect perceptions about eclipses; incorrect perceptions which may have endured for hundreds or even thousands of years.
Some today may dismiss members of these past cultures as being unintelligent, but we must consider the fact that these people did not enjoy many of the advantages we have today. Until relatively recent times, only the so-called elite were involved in directing societies and the research they engaged in. Whether these elite were tribal chiefs and elders, monarchies, aristocracies, oligarchies, medieval feudal lords, barons, or kings, these hierarchical systems either directly prevented the common man or woman from making significant contributions to the knowledge base of the culture or eliminated incentive for him or her to do so.
In addition, these hierarchical systems often prevented common people from getting whatever correct information that did exist. In some cases that persist even to this day, some among these elite have made a concerted effort to keep useful knowledge from much of the general population. Hoarding was not limited to material wealth alone. By causing there to be information haves and have nots, these cultures ensured that there would continue to be material haves and have nots. Not only did this result in the populace of such a culture being uninformed about eclipses, but it drastically limited the number of people who had the information required to enable them to contribute to the accumulation of technical knowledge in general. More often than not, only people from designated families or classes of leisure were financially able to, or even permitted to, engage in exploration and research. This elitist practice held back the technological advance of the entire planet for centuries.
Frequent wars were also a problem in much of the world. In this writer's opinion, it was not until well after the founding of the United States that technology and knowledge were able to develop to an extent that allowed true industrialization. Geography was kind to the United States, initially isolating it from many of the fickle and counterproductive wars and squabbles in Europe. There were, of course, notable occasions when foreigners felt obliged to export their squabbles to the U.S., but this was not as bad a situation as being in the thick of things overseas year after year. Due to this relative isolation, people in the United States were eventually able to break with some of the shortcomings of class conscious European cultures and achieve technological and literary advances that may not have been possible elsewhere. While the Unites States did not become a "classless" society, it did at least offer enough opportunity that one would not necessarily have to be "stuck" in a given economic class for life.
Eventually, some other countries began to shed most of their tendencies to exclude people from various endeavors because of their economic status, race or gender. In many cases, this allowed more and more people to participate in the advancement of knowledge and in the economy, helping them to become even stronger nations. Once the rest of the world saw how a country could advance when more of its people were allowed to participate in the economy, some other countries followed suit and most prospered as a result. One need only visit a present day third world country (as one may have the opportunity to do when chasing eclipses) to see how bad off the entire world would be if some countries had not broken with the outmoded class and race based societies of the past.
Today, many of the so-called elite in third world countries do not even live as well as the so-called "middle class" people in more industrialized countries. (By the way, I think that the whole idea of categorizing people in "classes" sucks). These third world elite have the financial resources to make a difference in their respective countries, but most seem to lack the vision and attention span to invest adequately in the local infrastructure. Such investment would make life more comfortable for everyone - including the investors! True progress takes time, but some won't invest in an endeavor unless they can see instant results. Sound like present day New York investors? Just asking!
Industrialization and labor movements in many countries eventually made it possible for more and more "ordinary" people to enjoy a new concept; leisure time. Instead of working all day, more and more people became able to have regular and predictable work hours. Leisure time in turn allowed more and more people to engage in another new concept; hobbies. This made it possible for a person to engage in research activities without necessarily being a member of the intellectual inner circles among the financially well-off elite. This situation has gradually become more and more favorable for the common man throughout much of the world, to the benefit of all of society.
Even though these advances have been accomplished, we should be ever vigilant that we do not repeat the errors of past cultures. In some disciplines, "old boy networks" threaten to impose some of the same hindrances to the increase of knowledge as the outmoded hierarchical cultures of the past. In addition, the cost of filing, prosecuting, maintaining, and enforcing patents in some countries (including the U.S.) has reached astronomical proportions, meaning that patent protection is rapidly becoming something only large corporations or the rich can enjoy. For those who cannot afford their own patents, ridiculously biased corporate intellectual property "agreements" and statutory bars on patenting self-disclosed creative material have all but eliminated financial incentive for them (now the vast majority of people in the world) to disclose their intellectual property to anyone (or to even develop new ideas in the first place, for that matter).
How does all of this relate to eclipses? The above social shortcomings previously prevented all but a few people to have the information and equipment which could be used to effectively observe, understand, and more accurately predict even events like total solar eclipses. A few people could indeed predict eclipses, but not all cultures bothered to adequately inform the public before each eclipse occurred. This may not seem like a big deal until you consider the following:
From a given location, the vast majority of solar eclipses are only partial. After experiencing several eclipses, it would be reasonable for people to expect that all eclipses would be partial, particularly if they had not been informed about the actual cause of an eclipse, or that a total eclipse was even possible. When a total solar eclipse finally did occur, it would take such people very much by surprise. Without safe solar filters to observe the progress of an eclipse, most people would not realize that the sun was going to completely disappear until the light level began rapidly falling only moments before totality! It takes little imagination to see why fear was often associated with eclipses in the past. The sun was a necessary part of daily life - people did not want it to disappear!
Those of us who have observed a total solar eclipse know how exciting the experience can be, and that part of this excitement is from some sort of primal sense that tells you that "This isn't supposed to be happening!" when totality is imminent. Just think what a person may feel if they did not know what caused the sun to go out, or whether it would ever come back again! After witnessing an eclipse, those who lacked correct information about the cause of such an impressive event were left with the daunting task of explaining it, giving birth to many myths and legends which drew from cultural concepts that people of the time could relate to. To many ancient cultures, the concepts of space or orbiting spherical bodies would have seemed ridiculous, so many legends related to celestial entities that would be analogous to mythological creatures or terrestrial life forms. A familiar one is the concept of a dragon "eating" the sun.
From this, one can see why many previous cultures did take the matter of eclipses rather seriously. Even though a total solar eclipse is a harmless event, the fear it could create among those who were ignorant of its harmless nature could result in much more than a cultural inconvenience. It could create panic! Even in cases where those in power only saw their subjects as mere commodities, prudence dictated that widespread panic should be avoided. Ancient China took the matter of eclipses so seriously that it has been rumored to have executed astronomers if they failed to properly perform their assigned tasks of predicting them! In cultures where information and material assets are hoarded by many of those in power, myths (and third world conditions) may persist even to this day. In some parts of Mexico, it is still maintained that if a pregnant woman is outside during an eclipse, she may miscarry or her child may have birth defects. It is conceivable that a few aspects of such a taboo could have originated due to coincidence or isolated factual events. An eclipse can be a profound and exciting experience, so some may seek to "connect" it with certain local events.
It has only been during the last 150 years or so that real advances were made in eclipse research and people realized that eclipses could be used as a tool in studying the sun itself. Little more than a century ago, people did not even realize that the corona was part of the sun, but this changed as eclipses were utilized in various areas of astronomical research. After the invention of the coronagraph in the 1930's and the subsequent advent of space flight, newer tools were utilized for solar observation and observing eclipses became less important in many areas of research.
While eclipses are still useful for astronomical and atmospheric research, the vast majority of those who travel to a modern day eclipse do so purely for recreational purposes. In a matter of hours, one can travel to an eclipse virtually anywhere in the world simply to experience and enjoy it. Eclipse times can now be predicted to within a second or two, and the path of an eclipse can be predicted to an accuracy of within a few hundred meters. We can easily find out where and when a total solar eclipse will occur. All we have to do is get there.
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Beware of accepting "favors" in some cultures! (Particularly if you travel alone)
In my paper entitled "Getting Your Film & Equipment Through Airports and to Your Eclipse Site", I referred to the difficulties experienced in getting my tardy checked bags through Bolivian Customs prior to the total solar eclipse of November 3, 1994. One may wonder why I was not similarly hassled by customs when I first arrived in Bolivia with my carry on baggage, since this carry on baggage contained nearly all of my optical equipment. When I arrived with these carry on bags, they were not even inspected.
It turns out that the local person who had arranged to met me at the airport was a person whose family and "friends" were of considerable local influence; though not all of them could necessarily be considered members of the so called "ruling class". At the time, I did not realize how much influence this person and his friends had. After some investigation, I found that one of this person's close relatives was a politician, and that a local street bore the family name of one of his friends. If I had known this in advance, I probably would have avoided the whole lot of these people altogether. As it was, I had prearranged to stay with this person's family while I was in Bolivia. That proved to be a big mistake.
In some cultures, it may not be advisable to accept offers of lodging from local people. I now know from personal experience that in certain cultures, some people (particularly some among the wealthy) may presume to believe that if you accept a "favor" from them, (whether lodging or another type of favor) they then "own" you for the duration of your visit. This can become a nightmare, because in addition to constantly imposing on you themselves, inconsiderate members of such a host family may allow or encourage many of their friends to impose on you as well! Yes, this can really happen! It happened to me in Bolivia!
When I went to Bolivia, funds were not a factor in my decision to accept this local family's invitation to stay with them. I had simply wanted to get acquainted with them; they were relatives of friends in the U.S. Having Bolivian friends, I had also become interested in Bolivian culture and wanted to see more of it. Months advance of my visit, my Bolivian friends in the U.S. discussed my visit with their relatives in Bolivia. In a phone conversation about 10 days before I left for Bolivia, the head of the Bolivian household and I reviewed my planned schedule and agreed on it. All seemed well.
Less than two hours after I arrived in Bolivia, I became painfully aware that the head of the local household (and some of his friends) had no intention of allowing me to go by my planned schedule. To make matters worse, I did not have a credit card, (I never have had one) so there was no way I could access my funds in the U.S. and "escape" from his influence and go to a hotel; I did not have enough extra cash with me for two full weeks in a hotel. While I was not surprised that this kind of difficulty occasionally happens, this particular situation was a surprise to both myself and my Bolivian friends in the U.S., owing to the fact that this person was a close relative of theirs. The rest of the Bolivian person's household did not seem to approve of his actions, but they did not appear to be in a position to influence the situation, presumably because of the apparent autocratic nature of the household and the patriarchal nature of the culture. (Fortunately, the family did at least appear to be at liberty to try and "nurse me back to health" after I became ill from excessive stress and sleep deprivation).
It soon became apparent that the head of this Bolivian household saw me as just a "commodity". He and his "buddies" seldom ceased imposing on me (often making demands rather than requests) the whole time I was in Bolivia. I was "exploited" by them to such an extent that I was not even able to get acquainted with the family or see much of the local culture. (Or at least most parts of the culture I had wanted to see!) To make matters worse, this exploitation also affected my health and interfered with the eclipse work I had planned to perform. Though these people's "agendas" were compatible with a small percentage of my previous plans, it turned out that I would have seen much more of Bolivia (and had better results from my eclipse work) if I had stayed in a hotel!
Of course, the view of favors exhibited above is not unique to these few Bolivians; this type of thing could easily happen in the U.S. as well. Unfortunately, some people may only do "favors" with the sole motive of placing other people in their debt. It is often a good idea to avoid such people; regardless of where they live; whether or not you are traveling.
Accepting lodging in other cultures can sometimes have even more "interesting" consequences. On rare occasions, potential hosts may even seek to get you "involved" with, or even married to, a member of their family; clearly an awkward situation! (This happened to a couple of people who went to Mexico for the 1991 eclipse). Still other families may be good hosts, but if you are not familiar with the local culture, why take the chance? If you're "stuck" at the wrong person's house, you will have no privacy and the people who want to impose on you will have virtually unlimited access to you. For most eclipse expeditions, the cost of lodging in a hotel is a relatively small percentage of the overall cost. If you stay in a hotel, you can have privacy when you want it, manage your own schedule, and still be free to go out and see as much of the culture as you want!
The moral of the story: If you do plan to stay with local people, bring a credit card or a lot of extra bucks. This will allow you to "escape" to a hotel if locally influential people should try to gain leverage over you by manipulating your hosts, or if some of the very people you had arranged to stay with should themselves turn out to be "chameleons". Before you arrive, it may be advisable to encourage your hosts to be discrete in discussing your visit with others. In addition, it would be a good idea to maintain a low profile, particularly before the eclipse. If you are too "visible", it is possible that local people or other tourists may seek to manipulate your situation or otherwise interfere with your plans even if a "favor" is not involved. Just being "crowded" by people during the eclipse can be interference enough!
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Be aware of cultural taboos; books don't mention all of them!
I traveled alone to Bolivia for the 1994 eclipse, and as a result of my experience, I would advise caution when considering solo travel to certain countries, particularly if you intend to expose yourself to interacting with the local culture. For instance, in Bolivia, some among the relatively wealthy and influential were easily offended, and some could express their offense in ways that materially affected my situation. What offended them may surprise you. It turned out that a few of the "disagreeable" wealthy and "upper middle class" Bolivian locals I had the misfortune of meeting quickly became rude and upset if they saw me doing anything that they perceived to be for the benefit of so-called "lower class" people.
The majority the Bolivian population is made up of Aymara, Quechua, and other indigenous peoples. (In most cases, this document will refer to these collective groups as "indigenous people", rather than using the more cursory term of "Indian"). Though they make up a minority of the population, Bolivian people of predominantly European descent were typically the wealthiest, and many (though fortunately not all) I encountered were very racist toward the indigenous people; racist to an extent seldom seen in the U.S. As a result, indigenous people were offered few opportunities for advancement in the local culture. Even benefits like scholarships and the minimum wage were not available to most indigenous people. It is a class system, in which indigenous people are typically considered "lower class". Such unfortunate situations are not uncommon throughout much of Latin America.
Before I left for Bolivia, I had prearranged to speak at a Bolivian school which was directed by another relative of some Bolivian friends here in the U.S. This school was the only place I planned to speak because getting over jet lag and making local preparations for my eclipse work would require some time. It turned out that the Bolivian public school I had prearranged to speak at was attended mostly by indigenous children, and I enjoyed the company of these children and most other indigenous people I met.
When I made my plans, I had no idea that my public school engagement would pose a problem; I had not previously known the type of school it was, nor had I cared; the director of the school had simply had the foresight to facilitate my speaking there. When I arrived in Bolivia, I was pleased to discover that the school was attended mostly by poor children. What I was not pleased to learn of was the animosity that some local rich people apparently harbor toward the poor.
Some relatively wealthy and "disagreeable" Bolivians who were acquainted with the head of my host family took offense at my public school engagements. When I would not cancel the engagements in favor of appearances that these wealthier people wanted me to make, some of them immediately began exercising their influence to try to prevent me from appearing there. Even though I (under prolonged pressure) eventually "agreed" to make additional presentations at places of the "disagreeable" people's choice, some of them were still upset that I was going to spend ANY time at all with indigenous or "un-wealthy" people. A few of these "disagreeable" people even tried to interfere with my speaking plans by saying they had promised more influential local schools that I would speak to their kids at times that conflicted with my previous engagements. All of these promises were obviously made without my previous knowledge or consent, so they tried to pressure me into fulfilling the promises they had made. I presume these people wanted me to appear at other schools so they could enhance their own social or political standing by taking credit for "arranging" my appearance.
In trying to understand these social phenomena, one need only look at the basic manifestations of human nature which can often be seen in children. Many of us have seen what can happen when a bunch of little kids are cooped up in a play room for a while. Before long, you have a bunch of bored kids just sitting around in a room full of toys. None of the children show any interest in any particular toy. They're just bored. Finally, one child picks up a toy and appears interested in it. Then, just like someone threw a switch, many of the other kids swarm the child with the toy. They all want THAT toy! No other toy will do! "The toy the other kid has is better! - and I want it!" In other words: people tend to place a higher value on what someone else has, and people tend to be selfish.
These same characteristics can be seen later in life. Many of us have seen the implications in some of the aggressive marketing of toys. On a more serious note, an adolescent may begin dating a person who has not been "noticed" before, after which others suddenly become interested in that person. Taken to the extreme, people may overtly act out of envy or even jealousy, without even asking themselves if that person or item is what they themselves "really" want. We are all familiar with the concepts of "Keeping up with the Jones'" or "The grass is always greener...". And then, there are those in various countries who do not want anyone outside outside their "class" to hear from a visiting eclipse lecturer...
Thus far, I have focused on the racial and economic prejudice I encountered. These seemed to be the most prevalent factors driving the people and events that influenced my situation; however, the people who influenced my situation were by no means united or organized on all points. It was clear to me that their various agendas conflicted, and that they had put little thought into what they were doing. A couple of days after my arrival in Bolivia, I found that some of these people's agendas were not limited to schools, and that the "list" of people they wanted to prevent me from seeing was not limited to indigenous people alone. On the flight to Bolivia, it had been my pleasure to be seated next to the director of a prominent Bolivian newspaper. We enjoyed a conversation about the eclipse and discussed getting together again for a visit to his office and an interview after the eclipse was over. (By the way, his newspaper printed one of the best pre-eclipse articles I have ever seen). Unfortunately, my Bolivian host directly forbad me to be interviewed by anyone from his paper. Even worse, my host and some of the before mentioned "problem" people demanded that I grant an interview with a "competing" publication. Due to this action, I began to suspect that these "problem" people may have been at least peripherally motivated by some social, political, or religious agenda. (I mention all of these factors because the line between religion and politics, etc., is somewhat blurred in parts of Latin America. Being a religious person myself, I am concerned about the resulting potential for religious persecution).
By that time, I had become aware that the head of my host family was a willing participant in what was going on (i.e. he wasn't being coerced into exploiting me by his "friends") so I felt more at liberty to defy all of these people to some degree. Accordingly, I simply "disappeared" when it was time to do the "competing" interview. I eventually found that occasionally "disappearing" like this was about the ONLY way I could have time to relax or do what "I" wanted to do. This obviously did not make the "problem" people happy, but by then, I didn't care; I realized that they would not be "satisfied" unless I did EVERYTHING they wanted me to do; a feat that would have been humanly impossible. (Sounds pretty divergent from the subject of eclipses doesn't it? At the time, I thought so too!)
Fortunately, not all of the local people were so disagreeable. I met Bolivian people of various material means who were very selfless and personable. I still correspond with some of them. Though of comfortable means, the director of the local public school I had prearranged to speak at appeared to be a person of good character; it was obvious that seeing to the welfare of the children was much more than just a "job" to her. I also enjoyed the company of some local astronomers from Astronomia Sigma Octante, (ASO) an astronomy center in Cochabamba, Bolivia. (ASO recently got on the internet, so we are now able to communicate via E-mail!) And, as mentioned before, I tended to like many of the indigenous people I met.
I am not recommending that you try to please everyone in the countries you visit; rather, this is written so that you will not be surprised if you see similar things happen. Caution is particularly advisable if you decide to interact with the local culture while traveling alone, because worse things than what I experienced can happen. Keeping a low profile is typically the best way to avoid a problem, but doing this can keep you from truly experiencing the local culture, both good and bad.
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Sometimes, it may be difficult to avoid problems.
In some cultures, a few presumptuous local people (most of whom have thus far proven to be relatively well to do) may feel "entitled" to impose on others, whether or not a "favor" is involved. This can be a problem for eclipse observers and other visitors even if they try to minimize their cultural interaction. At the November 3, 1994 eclipse in Peru, various groups of observers set up in relatively remote areas. A few minutes before totality, locals from the nearest cities drove up and parked near some groups, got out of their cars, and swarmed the observers. Some of these locals even tried to push the hapless observers away from their own instruments! Unfortunately, such situations may call for "putting on a snob suit" and being rude toward problematic people before things get out of hand, even if you're not usually given to that type of behavior (so long as doing so will not make things even worse). Eclipse observers can have similar experiences with obnoxiously presumptuous people even in the U.S., but I have not noticed this type of problem being as wide spread here. Traveling and observing with a relatively large group of people who practice "eclipse etiquette" may help you avoid this type of problem.
Fortunately, not all cultural experiences are alike. Many cultures are reputed to offer visitors a very pleasant travel experience. I had an extraordinarily good experience when visiting Thailand for the 1995 eclipse. Thai people in both urban and rural areas were very friendly and respectful; as though acting as ambassadors for their country. No one there interfered in any way with my eclipse work or other plans. There are things one can unwittingly do in Thailand or other eastern cultures that would be offensive, but most of these errors can be avoided by being informed. Thai travel literature is very to the point about activities relating to Buddhist images that would be particularly taboo. In addition, one should avoid disturbing items such as small "spirit houses" which may be particularly prominent in rural areas. Being informed to the extent that was possible about the good people of Thailand allowed us to enjoy the benefits of mutual communication and respect.
The local people I met in various parts of Mexico were also very friendly. Those I became acquainted with while in Mazatlan for the July 11, 1991 total solar eclipse were all people who had to work for a living. Some aspects of the Mexican culture (such as a wide separation between the rich and poor) were reminiscent of other parts of Latin America. One unfortunate event of note on this trip was that the local hotel staff was not allowed to stop working during the few minutes of totality! It was cloudy at our site in Mazatlan, but the boundary of the moon's shadow (umbra) still put on a good show as it moved across the partly cloudy southern sky! Preventing the staff from seeing the eclipse seemed unusual because in the City, Mexican people were informed about the eclipse and most seemed to want to see it (these days, taboos about being outside during an eclipse are limited mostly to rural areas where information would be harder to come by). Even though the Mexican people were very friendly to our group, our hotel management apparently was not particularly nice to its employees on that day. In Mazatlan, it turned out that the only "objectionable" people I actually met were among the other U.S. tourists!
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If you share your time and resources, you can make a difference!
An solar eclipse can cause a great deal of local interest in some cultures, even in areas outside the path of totality. At such times, a visitor can make a difference. Even doing a seemingly small thing for a school in a relatively poor area (such as showing eclipse slides) can be a very significant event for some of the children. In any event, they are appreciative; I was literally swarmed by excited and appreciative kids when I arrived at the Bolivian public school! (Actually, I was "swarmed" the whole time I was at the school!) Eclipse related presentations evoked a more so-so response from children of well to do families at the more "influential" schools (particularly since extreme sleep deprivation imparted a "Joe Friday" quality to my presentation style!). These latter children tended to have a very short attention span; not too unlike students here in the U.S.
One activity that seemed to generate enthusiasm among all ages of rich and poor alike was to show people planets (particularly Saturn) through my telescope. Unfortunately, even in this situation, some relatively well off Bolivian people were even resistant to letting indigenous people look through the telescope. In trying to justify this resistance, one woman even said of her Quechua maid; "She wouldn't understand what she was looking at, and even if she did, she wouldn't appreciate it". I suggested that she tell her maid what she would be seeing and then let her look. Of course, when the maid looked at Saturn, she did understand what she was seeing and she did appreciate it, just like everyone else! I was not surprised.
If you are traveling alone and want to be generous with your time and resources, try to evaluate if people in a local culture will try to monopolize your time or manipulate you if they learn of your plans. If this proves to be the case, it may be best to avoid interacting with the potentially troublesome segments of the population altogether. As mentioned earlier, this usually indicates keeping a low profile.
If my experience in Bolivia is any indication of the norm, you will probably have to choose between presenting to the rich or to the poor in some countries; the attitude of the wealthy toward the poor in similar cultures will probably make it difficult or impossible for you to successfully do both. While it may be possible to deal with "reasonable" people of various means to arrange presentations for both rich and poor, difficulty can arise when "unreasonable" influential people whom you were not working with learn of your plans and try to impose their agendas on you, possibly even pressuring or harassing those you were working with in the process, should you resist. In regard to the "problem" people I encountered in Bolivia; if I gave a centimeter, they would take a kilometer. (Actually, they would presume to take a kilometer whether or not I gave a centimeter!) Total avoidance of people such as these would be a prudent policy. Obviously, maintaining a low profile would help one avoid these types of situations, since doing so may keep the "problem" people from learning about you and your plans. By avoiding the "problem" people, you may very well avoid the "problems".
If you PREarrange to speak at a local school, etc., you probably will NOT have a low profile. If instead, you offer to speak at a school on short notice AFTER you arrive in a country, you may be able to maintain a low profile at least until after your presentation. Accordingly, it may be best not to consider making an offer to speak until AFTER the eclipse!
Before you offer to speak, etc., in a poor area, try to gauge whether the people involved really want to hear from you or if they would merely be accommodating you. In some cultures, many people may not be at liberty to say "no" to "requests" by the so-called "upper class", so it is possible that they may even answer you in the affirmative simply because they feel as though they have no choice in the matter. In other situations, the people may simply want to be "nice" to you. Be sensitive about this. If your presentation falls outside regular school, etc., hours, it could represent a significant hardship for the attending people and their families.
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Consider the long term welfare of local people you may befriend:
I have pointed out potential benefits of visitors sharing their time and resources in other cultures. Note that I have NOT recommended local activism against the injustice one may see in a foreign land. It can be difficult for a person of conscience to be locally silent about this, but it is important to avoid saying things that could directly or indirectly embolden oppressed local people to revolt. Most governments and members of "ruling class" aristocracies would take a very dim view of such activity, and there could be very unpleasant or even dire consequences for both you and the people you sought to "help". If you don't get shot or thrown in jail, you may be free to walk away from the situation. The local people you leave behind will not. If, while in a foreign country, a person does take up a people's cause, that person must be; committed to seeing the matter through; and, prepared to accept the consequences of challenging the status quo. This implies a commitment to stay in the country for a long time. There are other ways for "outsiders" to address these issues. For instance, you can always post a paper on the Internet...
In some cultures, even relatively "subtle" actions may precipitate undesirable consequences. Interacting with all aspects of a culture can have its benefits, but the previous situations show that in certain cultures, some "ruling class" or otherwise well-off locals may become offended just because you befriended or spent time with other people; particularly if these other people are among the disenfranchised or those who have otherwise had few opportunities for advancement in the culture.
If one IS interfered with by troublesome well to do people in some cultures, it is probably NOT always a good idea to confront them or thumb your nose at them; it is possible that after you leave the area, these people, out of spite and anger, may attempt to bring difficulty or harm to the very so-called "lower class" people you had befriended. In some cultures, a local person does not even have to be as wealthy as the "ruling class" in order to be able to cause problems for the poor, and there may be few legal or other safeguards to prevent them from engaging in this kind of activity.
This concern for local people is why I initially cooperated to some extent with the Bolivian people who imposed on me. After some investigation, I eventually found out that such a concern about Bolivia (or at least about that part of Bolivia) was probably unwarranted, and after that, I felt more at liberty to confront, defy, or avoid the "problem" people there. I did not want to risk doing much of that before I knew the local situation; the "problem" people had exuded a lot of confidence, and their verbal response to my initial "resistance" had been quite unpleasant at times, both to me and to members of my host family who had spoken up on my behalf.
Again, keeping a low profile and avoiding the imposing "problem" people altogether would have been the best solution. Preventing "problem" people from finding out about you and your plans is a good way to keep them from causing you problems. If you want to interact with a culture, try to investigate "real" aspects of the culture prior to your arrival. It may not be easy.
Not all cultural divisions fall along racial or economic lines. Some are determined by religious, political, and other differences. In some communist and aristocratically controlled countries, a wide variety of seemingly innocent actions could be considered seditious, so extreme caution would be in order. Communist regimes in particular are also noted for their persecution of religious groups. In yet other countries, even the local exchange of a foreign currency may be considered criminal. The bottom line; be informed if you want to interact with various cultures.
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People aren't all considered "people" in some cultures.
If you find that you are interfered with by the "ruling class", their operatives, or by other relatively well to do locals who may decide to "promote" you in a "third world" or economically polarized country, realize that your plans are probably irrelevant to them. Some of these people never had to "work" in their lives, so they may have no concept of the fact that certain things (such as preparing for an eclipse) require time and planning. In some countries, one only needs to look at how local buildings are constructed to see that careful planning is not very high on the local agenda. (Referring to buildings built by or for those who can afford to implement good building techniques, but who choose not to). Some of these relatively well off people may be used to exploiting others in order to compensate for their own lack of planning. Accordingly, one well off or influential person can potentially make life difficult for thousands of "lower class" people. In some cases, a few local well to do people may even presume that they can "exploit" you!
A few so called "upper class" Bolivians that I encountered saw other human beings as mere "commodities" to be "used" however they saw fit. This attitude made them very unpleasant company. I worked at JPL at the time I visited Bolivia, and this had the unfortunate effect of making me quite a commodity. The people who exploited me had blabbed about me all over town. Some had even exaggerated my lowly engineering work by billing me as a "NASA Scientist". I always corrected this exaggeration, and that tended to upset them.
This "commodity" problem was by no means limited to my own experience. From speaking with local people who acted as interpreters at the presentations which had been arranged without my consent, I found that at least one had been pressed into interpreting against his will by the same people who imposed on me.
I dare say that the above problems are not limited to upper middle class and high society in Bolivia alone. Exercise caution if you want to be generous with your time and resources in certain countries while traveling alone, or you may become a "commodity" too! If you want to do "good" things for some local people, and doing so may ruffle the feathers of other local people, find other travelers who have a similar interest as you before planning your expedition, then travel as a group.
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Areas of armed conflict and eclipse observers; a bad combination.
There are rare occasions when visitors could literally find themselves in a "life or death" situation without even realizing that they had done anything "wrong". Things can be much worse than one would like to think in certain other cultures, particularly if that culture is in the throes of extreme repression or civil strife; for instance: If a person were to have visited certain central American countries in the late 1970's or early 1980's, and had been perceived by influential locals as having similarly "favored" indigenous people when scheduling presentations, etc., that person may have very well come up "missing", not to mention what could happen to the indigenous people that person met! Extreme situations like this are very rare, but they can occur.
Hazards that can directly affect a more "passive" traveler include present day armed conflicts and relics from past conflicts. These can include anything from surprise air attacks, to roving guerilla groups, to land mines. Recent conflicts in Africa and other places such as Bosnia would be particularly dangerous because many of the killings were apparently the result of impulsive acts by "ordinary" citizens. Stay away from areas of such volatile conditions. Areas occupied by guerilla groups should also be avoided. Even if you are not harmed in an encounter with a guerilla group, the group may very well take a liking to your optical equipment and forcefully "appropriate" it. Land mines in particular would have been a hazard for those traveling to certain parts of rural Cambodia for the 1995 eclipse. Fortunately, the better traveled parts of Cambodia tended to be relatively safe. In general, it is safest to avoid potentially volatile or "problematic" areas (though not necessarily whole countries) altogether. If you MUST interact with a foreign culture in conflict, don't be paranoid, but be cautious to the degree required by local circumstances.
In some areas, the greatest threats are posed by the local government or by the "ruling class" and their operatives. In still others, the greatest threat can be from rebel groups. This can be particularly true of groups who pervert local religions, thrive on hatred, or use terror in order to gain compliance or allegiance. Such groups in parts of northwestern South America are alleged to have killed more innocent civilians than have the governments they sought to displace.
In today's world, terrorism is always a present threat. Even though I was not directly affected by a terrorist acts in Bolivia, I certainly could have been. On two occasions, bombs were found in the Bolivian city I was visiting. On the local news, I discovered that one device, about half the size of a shoe box, was found at a local city building only hours after I had been in the area. Apparently, the leader of a coup which failed several years before had recently been arrested in Brazil and Bolivian authorities were trying to extradite him. His operatives responded by planting bombs at various locations throughout Bolivia.
In still other areas, the greatest threat can be from criminal activity. This can range from pick pocketing, to muggings, or even to armed robbery. Some of the most dangerous criminal may be related to drug trafficking. While not always classified as armed conflict, the illegal drug trade in various parts of the world appears to be getting more and more like "war" all the time. In some countries, even children as young as nine years old have admitted to working as "hit men". Strict avoidance of all people and places suspected to be associated with illegal drug trade is a policy that should be adopted by every eclipse observer. In addition, one should be careful when selecting rural eclipse sites. The owner of an illegal coca farm may take a dim view of people showing up with a bunch of cameras, etc. In such cases, local law enforcement may do you little good; it may be intimidated into inaction, or even worse, it may be corrupt!
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Local fauna and other non-cultural hazards
While not a cultural issue, disease, insects, and wild animals in some parts of the world can pose a threat to observers. Dysentery is not uncommon in many parts of the world, and it can become a very serious problem if it is not properly dealt with.
Poisonous insects are probably the next most common threat. Very few types of insect bites or stings are lethal, but there are exceptions. Even if a bite or sting only causes minor irritation, it can still interfere with your eclipse observation! Areas near known bee and hornet nests should obviously be avoided. In some areas, one should exercise caution if placing open baggage items on the ground during the eclipse; poisonous ants, scorpions, or other harmful insects could get under or inside your baggage.
Poisonous snakes are less likely to be a problem than insects, but it only takes one encounter with a highly poisonous snake to ruin your day! It is advisable to exercise common sense and avoid setting up your equipment near possible snake nests; some snakes may be "fooled" into emerging from their nests by the darkness of the eclipse!
In still other parts of the world, big cats and other predators may pose the greatest threat. Even though the threat may be very minimal, some observers may be relatively unaware of their surroundings during the eclipse! Predators will have no appreciation for an eclipse. They'll only know that it's getting dark and it's time to eat! Here, it would be advantageous to be in a large group or stay very close to a populated area. Other hazards can include poisonous vegetation, unstable soil, and pollution.
Ask reputable sources if there are any local organisms which could pose a potential problem. I say "reputable" because some people may enjoy "fooling" tourists. For example; when I was in high school back in Colorado, myself and others would sometimes tell particularly obnoxious or gullible tourists that they should; "Come back here in September; that's when the deer turn into elk". At the time, some of them even believed me! (Mischievous little critter, wasn't I!)
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In spite of potential problems, visiting other cultures is worthwhile:
Note that while I have pointed out difficulties that one could encounter in various countries, I have not gone so far as to suggest that people avoid these countries altogether (though I am personally reluctant to visit or spend money in a communist country or one that is in armed conflict). Even though myself and others have had bad experiences in some countries, I have by no means ruled out visiting these same countries again. Lessons learned from prior experiences in these countries make it possible to avoid similar problems in the future.
When it comes to avoiding or dealing with cultural problems, the advantages of traveling in a small group rather than alone cannot be overstated. Group members can keep each other company, cooperate on baggage transportation, watch each other's baggage, work on group projects, and many other things. Group travel can also be less expensive since members can share hotel rooms, chartered vehicles, and other items. Group travel is particularly advantageous in situations involving cultural problems. Traveling with just one other person to Bolivia probably would have enabled me to avoid all of the problems I experienced there.
Many pitfalls can be avoided if one is vigilant and equipped with the right information. My experience is limited to only a few cultures, but some of this experience goes beyond visiting typical "tourist attractions". Most potential cultural difficulties are encountered only when one's actions or exposure to a culture go beyond the relatively superficial purview of a typical "tourist". There are potential drawbacks to interacting with an area's "real" culture, but the advantages of getting "off the beaten path" can easily outweigh the disadvantages. You can see much more than an eclipse on your eclipse expedition! You can experience a culture!
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From My Soap Box:
Some final comments: Seeing a foreign culture close up can show you things that you never could have learned from a book. The continued propagation of "third world" conditions throughout the world in this day and age was somewhat of a mystery to me until I saw the relevant cultural conditions up close. The propagation of these conditions seems largely due to shortsightedness and greed among some of the wealthy and powerful who are locally influential. Among other things, "trickle down" economics won't work at all in the presence of such short sighted avarice, where hoarding is the norm. The few "undesirable" well to do people I encountered in Bolivia clearly demonstrated that they would rather do what brought them a little social or financial gain one day than to be patient or put forth a relatively small amount of extra effort or investment that would result in a proportionately larger gain as little as a week or so later.
Where people have the foresight to invest at all, the vision, the attention span, and the amount of time that those of power and influence are willing to wait for a return on their investment can have a powerful influence on an entire nation. We have seen the gradual rise of Japan in relation to the U.S. on the world scene, and this may have been largely due to the fact that the Japanese were willing to wait substantially longer for a return on their investments than were people in the U.S. Among other things, this enabled Japan to invest in a fledgling video industry at a time that U.S. companies had all but abandoned it. Developing video technology to the point that allowed the economical production of consumer video equipment took many years, but the Japanese are now reaping the well earned benefits of their patience while the rest of the world looks on, and video in not the only field in which they have shown foresight. This does not bode well for some western nations, where corporate mergers and downsizing have become a way of life, where investors put a limit of less than two years on the duration of their investments, and where flighty corporate managers are allowed to strip a company of its assets through profit sharing arrangements that only take the short term effects of their actions into account.
It takes time to achieve truly great or worthwhile endeavors, and such endeavors cannot be effectively accomplished without management structures and work environments that are stable enough to withstand the test of time so the same work force can be retained throughout an entire development project. A creative and relatively stable condition once existed in the U.S. during the Apollo program, but it has since given way to a lack of vision and attention span among many of today's corporate managers and investors, ultimately resulting in disillusion among many in the work force. Gone is the day when the majority of workers are truly excited about the advances they are collectively making. Many of today's companies lack the creative management required to succeed without resorting to the exploitation of underpaid foreign workers or other groups. Long term vision and its rewards have been lost on America in the name of short term expedience. Vision will only benefit a people to the extent that they are willing to invest in, work for, and wait for, its fulfillment.
The power structure in many countries is repressive toward the majority of their citizens, and this holds the entire country back. International repression of ethnic groups or nations for use as cheap labor pools is similarly counterproductive over the long haul, not to mention the suffering it can cause. (By even buying things made under such conditions, we all contribute to the misery of those exploited). These types of things can be depressing to see first hand in a country; particularly when one observes the good character evident in many of the oppressed people. In the face of such hardship, it is little wonder that many among these oppressed people want to immigrate to other more equitable countries. We who already live in the U.S. and some other countries are very fortunate to be able to leave such conditions behind and return to our relatively comfortable surroundings.
Most places in the world do not allow freedom of speech as we in the U.S. know it. Though some liberal guardians of political correctness would like to usurp our government's authority and make things otherwise, freedom of speech is still alive and well in the United States, at least as far as most of the government is concerned. (Judge for yourself if it is still "allowed" in certain educational institutions, corporate or government controlled work environments, or by some members of the media).
Seeing oppression in a foreign culture can give one relevant perspectives of their own culture; when compared to the noble character of many oppressed people in foreign cultures, the petty whining that goes on in the name of "political correctness" in our present day, lawsuit crazed western society can be seen for what it really is; petty. Not so long ago, children here used to say "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me." Now, it seems that many "adults" are less able to withstand "political incorrectness" than are children. We've become a nation of crybabies. It's time we all grew up.
This paper is bound to generate some controversy since it addresses cultural issues; however, it may also get people to think. It can be difficult to avoid or deal with potential cultural problems without first knowing that they exist. Depending on one's personal background, some cultures may seem "good" and other cultures may seem "bad". The primary purpose of this document is not to "judge" cultures; however, some cultural issues are presented rather bluntly in order to convey the reality that they truly do have the potential to significantly affect members of an eclipse expedition or those traveling for other reasons. Even if you are not materially affected by your cultural surroundings, you may be impressed by them, as I was. Hopefully, this document will be effective in informing you about the importance of considering cultural issues when planning your eclipse expedition or other travel, particularly if you plan to travel alone or in a small group.
Enjoy Your Eclipse!
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Steps to a Successful Eclipse Expedition, by Jeffrey R. Charles
Eclipse Chaser's Journal
Getting Your Film & Equipment Through Airports and to Your Eclipse Site
Predicting the Appearance of the Lunar Umbra at Future Total Solar Eclipses
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Document Originated: 4 October, 1996
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