Friday, February 27, 2009

Conde Nast Traveler/Flights of Fancy on a Snowbound Day

I recently unearthed the December 2008 issue of Conde Nast Traveler from underneath a stack of books that I had begun reading and abandoned tomake the trip to China. I had gotten the subscription in lieu of losing domestic air miles but had not actually looked at the magazine in many years previous to that.
This issue is really a gem. And I must say most of the articles are very well-written and well-intentioned. It was the perfect panacea after yet another snowy afternoon/evening. A brief respite from the last weeks of winter.
This issue features an article on ecotravel called “On Native Ground”, in which ethno-botanist/anthropologist Wade Davis contributes a wonderful essay on the importance of multi-culturalism in the world. He has the soul of a poet, the knowledge of a scientist and is passionate about this subject, having studied with traditional shaman around the world as well as graduating from Harvard. He was also National Geographic’s Explorer in Residence.
In his essay he offers …”in the same way that biologists are concerned with a loss of biodiversity, so too in the realm of culture, we are seeing a collapse of diversity that is truly astonishing”… “a great indicator of this is language loss. A language is not just a grammar and vocabulary. It is a flash of the human spirit, the soul of a culture, the old growth forest of the mind”. He coined the very appropriate word “ethnosphere” to allude to the web of life that human cultures contribute as the world of nature is the biosphere.
I have heard him give this speech at a symposium in Toronto and it still gives me goose bumps in print. So too are the cultural artistic expressions of traditional tribal peoples and all people the “flashes of human spirit” for that matter. He is truly preaching to the choir when it comes to me. We both were at the Peabody Museum at Harvard in the 80s when he was researching zombies in Haiti which later became an international best-seller, “The Serpent and the Rainbow”. How lucky we all are that he embraced cultural anthropology as well as ethnobotany, later on.
Back in the 1990’s my partner and I traveled in Burma attempting to document what was left of traditional costume of tribal groups collectively known to outsiders as the Chin people. Most of these groups had been greatly marginalized by the government and the dominant culture. This unfortunately has transpired in most of the world. But with the growth of ecotourism many of these peoples have been given a more positive profile due to economics. Of course opportunity for exploitation is rife in some countries. But if developed responsibly, the outcome could be beneficial, especially when the money goes back to the people hosting the tourists. There are several articles discussing this in a thoughtful manner in this issue.
For a real treat and armchair adventure visit and select the talk: Wade Davis: Cultures at the Far Edge of the World. This 22 minute video features lots of Wade’s amazing field photographs and will having you happily singing in the “choir of cultural diversity” by the end!
Happy traveling!

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