When hiking or camping, there’s an expression, “Leave nothing behind but footprints, take nothing but pictures and memories.” For global cruising sailors, there’s a similar expression, “Let their culture change you, don’t let your culture change them.” In essence . . . listen more than you talk. The emphasis is to not interject foreign perspectives or values for fear such may fundamentally alter their unique culture, thus eroding what is special and wonderful about another community of people, the experience of which is an essential reason why many of us travel to other, often remote, regions. It falls in line with the Star Trek, Next Generation television series’s stated “prime directive,” which “prohibits Starfleet personnel from interfering with the internal development of alien civilizations [Wikipedia],” to not alter another society’s culture by introducing technologies or philosophies. For example, today we may unintentionally introduce soft drinks to a community that only knows fruit juices, or ice cubes to a culture that only knows room temperature beverages. Or we may describe forms of marketing and commercialism that could alter currently commercial-free awnings and canopies. So the leave-no-trace recommendation would be to listen, understand, but don’t suggest Southern Californian solutions to Polynesian problems, a very reasonable stance, especially for the casual visitor.
There are many examples of the opposite perspective as well, where cruisers bring gifts of school supplies, fresh water, materials and skill sets to help solve problems. Often cruisers participate in community service days, picking up trash, running 5k’s for causes, etc. Sometimes cruisers group together to provide an organized effort to assist a community, especially in areas where they reside for several months.
Take our example: we currently live aboard our Tayana 42, Kandu, in Taiohae Bay on Nuku Hiva Island in the Marquesas archipelago. We have “Certificates of Residence” for Taiohae, which allows our sons to attend the public secondary school here. As with most any society, with kids in school, we are internalized within the community, interacting the many friends and acquaintances time and time again. After I get to know, trust and admire a person, I find I don’t see this person as his or her culture, but as a friend with whom I share the planet. The leave-no-trace position perhaps supposes that people from another culture need protection from ideas that may be unnecessarily complicated, perverse, and/or possibly irreversible corruptive, which may be true. But once I get to know someone, I approach cultural immersion from a different paradigm: treat others as I wish to be treated. If someone from another culture who knew and cared about me were made aware of a particular challenge of mine, and had a solution to offer, I’d want him or her to share it. Let me and the regulations of my community decide its merits. I don’t want to be “protected” from foreign ideas. Under these circumstances, sheltering a community from outside influences, by not sharing with them, could be considered patronizing; that a more technologically and commercially exposed culture needs to guard its solution from simpler cultures. I am attracted to entrepreneurial, community service type people. They are extraordinary, intelligent, kind, multi-talented, creative people who crave options. I am less attracted to the economically or politically ambitious. I do not suggest that a Southern California alternative is preferable. I only suggest that, if applicable, it be placed on the table. It may be a bad idea, but let the receiver decide. Let’s trust their sensibilities, their life experience to decide the fate of a given proposal, indigenous or foreign. I often work with them, helping them calculate the pros and cons of various options to determine what may be the most appropriate response for them. I avoid “selling” them an idea as I have an incomplete understanding of the complexities of their society.
Here’s an example. For decades, an older Marquesan couple Marie Antoinette and her husband, Jean Baptiste, harvested coconuts for copra, a common labor-intensive way to earn a living in French Polynesia. Into their 50’s, Jean Baptiste wanted to find another, less back-breaking way for his wife to earn a living. Being that she’s an excellent cook, they decided to open a restaurant together, something neither had any experience doing. As with any business, there are challenges. Locals frequent her restaurant foreigners do not. Without foreign customers, she’s barely breaking even. Her competitor next door, Henri, has a thriving clientele of foreigners. He speaks English, Spanish, and German as well as the local French and Marquesan. And he offers free Wi-Fi. All the visiting sailors frequent his establishment. When cruise ships pull into port, many of their passengers come to take advantage of his Wi-Fi. When Henri’s “Snack Café” is bursting with people trying to find a place to sit, Marie Antoinette’s has only a table or two of locals, wishing to avoid the hubbub of foreigners. If she is not able to increase business, Marie will have to close the café and return to harvesting coconuts. Marie is a friend of a close friend of ours. She asked Leslie to stand outside her restaurant and help pull cruise ship passengers, mostly English-speaking, into her place. So Leslie did. In the process, we learned how Marie might be able to attract more foreign business, simple things like offering on her printed menu an English translation of her dishes, taking and posting pictures of her plates so foreigners could point to what they wanted, holding and placing flatware and napkins on the table to show that it is a café, and making a deal with her beverage provider to paint her café’s name on a canopy with the beverage logo, so visitors could recognize immediately that her establishment is a restaurant, and not just a bunch of tables outside a communal fishermen’s shack. These simple practices are commonplace in Los Angeles, but not so in the Marquesas. Had she more funds, she could hire an English-speaking server and install a WiFi service as well. Will Marie’s café lose some of its local charm by adopting proven urban practices? Yes, but practices acceptable to locals may prove detrimental for her. Having a successful business, keeping Marie out of the coconut groves, is more important to me than guarding a more “local” experience that bankrupts.
In addition to offering local businesses ideas on attracting more American/Euro business, we find other way to “interfere” with the local culture. We support the community through community acts. Here’s a list to help me remember as well:
- Conduct free English language classes to locals, three times a week.
- Offer choral instruction, direction, and chorography for the secondary school’s bid to perform in the island’s annual music festival
- Assist in weekly dining room instruction and support in the community’s restaurant vocational training center.
- Connected the secondary school’s English class with a class of similar age group in Southern California, a cultural exchange opportunity
- Assisted in demonstrating and teaching young school kids how to make their own yogurt in an electric rice cooker, a common household appliance here
- Assisted in repairing outrigger canoes for use by the secondary school as part of an after-school paddling program.
- Participated in Career Day, presenting options in cinema and television
- Provide free Friday movie nights with popcorn at the secondary school for the boarding students who don’t leave school for the weekend
- Produced 3 radio spots and provided presentation support for the island’s two community breast cancer awareness seminars.
- Produced 12 individual video spots and a consolidate spot of, and for, the adult graduating class of state-supported entrepreneurs
- Supported the local documentary film festival, offering gratis labor and use of our projection equipment.
- Photographed and videotaped communal festivals, offering the images and videos free of charge to the community via the City Hall and city library
- Shared the photos and videos of the community’s largest festival to draw locals to participate in a charitable affair. The proceeds aided a family with an 18 yr.-old son being treated in Paris for a rare form of cancer.
- Recovered a 36’ Marquesan fishing boat, adrift 120 nautical miles in open-ocean, helping four families earn a living.
When it comes to leaving Nuku Hiva untouched, we’ve failed miserably. The mayor even has our cell phone number in his mobile phone’s contact list. But I’m proud of the service we’ve provided “our” community. Although we offered more, not all offers were accepted. Ideas tend to be met with greater enthusiasm than follow-through. We’ve lived in Taiohae, Nuku Hiva for eight months now, with our kids attending school, and plenty of time to get to know people and help them, and to follow through the obstacles. It’s a different set of circumstances when a sailboat and its crew are here for a few days or weeks, especially if no one speaks the local language. Leaving a community to its own devices to solve its problems, especially when one doesn’t have the time or communication capacities to make a difference, is a reasonable approach. That said, cruisers often come together to support a myriad of local causes, especially those sailors enjoying a prolonged stay for whichever seasonal reason. So if one has time, ability, and fortitude, helping a community is often well received and very rewarding.