I am captivated by islands. Though I’m not referring to their landforms. However the ones I’ve had the luck of visiting are certainly worth appreciating simply for their natural beauties. But what pulls me to these places is the effect insularity has on the mindset of the peoples who live there.
Cut off from fast and easy access to other parts of the world, isolated population centers develop distinct identities which are both a boon and an obstacle to us transients just passing through. I’ve had the pleasure of spending some time in 3 very different such cultures.
Hawai’i in the 60’s and 70’s was an island chain in transition. Having become the 50th state of the US a few years earlier, it was also the materiel and military troop concentration point for an escalating war in Viet Nam. The ripple effect of the war created more high-paying jobs than qualified workers to fill them. One could, and often did, quit a job in the morning and have another one that afternoon.
A third element for change was the allure of the islands for the counter-culture youth, usually referred to as hippies. I was part of that culture. With so much money freely floating within the state coupled with the influx of people and new ideas, Hawai’i became one of the most liberal and free-thinking places in the country. But this was not to last.
After the war in Viet Nam ended, followed in parallel with the complete collapse of Hawai’i’s agriculture giants, pineapple and sugarcane, the state was struck low by 2 hurricanes. The first one came in the 80’s and the more destructive one in the 90’s and the devastation is still being felt today.
These successive shocks to the vitality of Hawai’i collectively morphed into a behavioral provincialism that carries on today. I witnessed this firsthand 2 years ago when asked to serve on a State Legislative Task Force for the creation of a medical cannabis dispensary system. Even though 23 other states already have fully functional systems in place the major players in the Task Force demanded a different approach, essentially commanding the reinvention of the wheel. As a result, years later the system has yet to begin treating qualifying patients with respect, let alone functional results.
Rationale for the refusal to incorporate existing, proven methods for a dispensary system focused on the fear of perhaps venturing into new territory, though in fact this was obviously not the case. To be sure, by reinventing that particular wheel the power group behind the scenes on the Task Force guaranteed the creation of a unique system of Byzantine complexity. Much of that complexity relies on the islands’ definition of terms.
The state’s interpretation of the concept of liberal and conservative thought are frequently 180 degrees out of sync with the US mainland. In Hawai’i you find leading Democrats almost maniacally opposed to the idea that cannabis could be a medicine, and you find a Republican who has been tilting against windmills for 20 years trying to introduce industrial hemp as a viable and profitable agricultural industry. So much for progressive action and conservative caution. It’s really fascinating and entertaining stuff if it didn’t adversely affect seriously ill residents.
The Galápagos Islands also model insular behaviors. Though visitors come to see the genetic diversity of the animals and the differences among identical species on the various islands, the diversity of the people on the different islands is just as pronounced and just as fascinating. Who could imagine such cultural/behavioral diversity in such a small island chain? But it exists and the differences are easy to spot. Easy, if one takes the time to sit down and have a conversation with the locals residents.
Iquitos, Peru is the 3rd island culture I am considering. And yes, it’s a city of 1/2 million people in the middle of South America. But it is also the largest landlocked city in the world without a road leading in or out. There is no overland access and it is surrounded by the Amazon jungle. Iquitos is undeniably an island, one with its own unique elements that combine to form its individuality.
Perú is a poor country, though like Mexico it is a rich country. Third largest in South America it is rich in resources and has a reasonably clear understanding of the meaning of that natural wealth. But, like Mexico, the people are achingly poor having to survive in spite of an endemic level of corruption touching all aspects of the country’s culture. Iquitos, at the tail end of nowhere, feels this poverty through an unemployment level of about 65%. So that when 50,000 – 100,000 comparatively wealthy tourists visit the city yearly, the gap between the local population and the visitors is painfully obvious to all.
This gap creates and sustains a vulture-culture, where tourists are declared open-season for opportunists year round. Though the majority of the city is virtually tourist free, the areas along the Malecon and the various historic sites in and around Iquitos are awash with wandering scam artists offering the unwary everything from bogus tours to unrealistic money exchange rates, to prostitutes, to street drugs, to ayahuasca and most likely very much more. Buyer beware and keep track of your personal items; the management is not responsible…
In Lima my first Spanish language teacher there explained to me about cultural feelings of inadequacy as an endemic Peruvian world view. She recounted a number of instances to support her argument that Peruvians regard themselves collectively as backward and thus regard visitors as somewhat intimidating. Here on the streets it is common to witness a deference shown by Peruvians toward gringos and it can be uncomfortable to those of us raised believing in universal equality. I can only image how African-Americans must have felt and behaved toward whites before widespread civil rights movements. I see that deference here in Iquitos far more commonly than either Lima or virtually all of Ecuador.
So, on the one hand you have a deferential population and on the other hand you have the bold “street sweepers” looking for any opportunity to redistribute wealth. This paradox is, in a nutshell, why Iquitos holds such magic. Yesterday, for example, I rode a mototaxi to Embarcadero Bellavista to revisit the confluence of the Rio Nanay and the Amazon. I had been there, on the water, the week earlier and I wanted to spend time on my own without being part of a small tour group.
Before I even got out of the taxi, I had shills and scammers vying for my cash; each one professing to be the real deal at, of course, the best price for you my friend. And even after I had explained (always with a smile, nothing turns uglier quicker than a scowl or a harsh word) that I was only there to take photos, 2 or 3 followed me for a good 10 minutes. Each one assured me that they understood my predicament (?) and had the one, true answer. Gracias, but no…amigo.
Anyway, after the docks drained themselves of photo-opps I decided to walk back to the Malecon, about an hour’s toil in the heat and sun. If you have read Jack London, or personally visited international port facilities then you know that the surrounding areas are not only not pleasant, but often downright dicey as regards personal safety. Yet while I do not doubt that Bellavista shares these attributes at night, I was never once made to feel in any way at risk. Any time I got off Avenida Marina, the Main Street connecting the port with the Malecon, I never experienced resentment let alone hostility. Befuddlement certainly, and even small doses of curiosity, but danger, never. Everyone is just too polite.
Several days after arriving in Iquitos I noticed that the water was rising. From the beginning of February, when I got off the speedboat from Lagunas until the end of the week there were differences in the surrounding topography. This phenomenon was why I came! From the Time/Life books and National Geographic magazines I read as a child, to the PBS and Walt Disney nature programs, I knew that the Amazon swelled and receded yearly, the result of rains in the Andes. Now I was watching it. Slowly and surely, Iquitos is becoming a geographic island as well.