Another Dose of Cultural Imperialism

Posted on July 3, 2010

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I’m still wrestling with questions related to cultural dominance. (For one thing [which is not news but sometimes it’s good to restate the obvious], the United States is supposed to be a melting pot, but it only really works for immigrants if they melt in a certain way and shed most of their (subservient) culture in order to conform and get a foothold in American society. But that is for another post some other time…) I’m still back with digesting the view that Americans (used solely in the sense of citizens of the U.S.) don’t really want to learn about other cultures.

One example: Seakayaker magazine regularly runs a department called “Safety,” wherein the writer chronicles what went wrong and what went right with a kayaking adventure that did not turn out so well. In a recent article, a group of kayakers were exploring a part of the Costa Rican coast in order to set up a touring/expedition operation. The group made regular forays along the coastline to build up their knowledge of possible tour routes. On one trip they got slammed by “El Viente Norte.”

In the article’s rundown of what the group could have done for a better outcome I was surprised that hiring one or two of the local fishermen, who know the local waters and weather intimately, as guides was not on the author’s list. I wrote a letter to the editor noting this deficiency and what seemed to be a high-and-mighty attitude towards the locals in the article. The editors of Seakayaker offered the author the opportunity for rebuttal, which was printed along with my letter in the current (August 2010) issue.

That rebuttal takes me to task for not knowing how extensively the group says they did interact with the locals. It notes that the locals have a much different concept of personal safety — one that I’m not totally unacquainted with having witnessed in one trip to Catania a family riding on a Vespa with a baby balanced on the handlebars. The author notes that each culture has its own body of common knowledge (like knowing what a green light means in ours) that everyone assumes everyone has, even if they are not of that culture. I sort of pause here, wondering why this information was deemed of little importance — so much so that it was either not written into or was edited out of the original article. Interesting.

One way to break down this wall of assumption is first to say doing so is not impossible and then make a greater effort to interact (live) with the “locals,” knowing that there is a significant body of knowledge that can be imparted. One key way to gain more interactions was one that I mentioned in my letter to the editor: that the group should have hired one of the local fishermen, trained him in kayaking skills and actively made him one of their own. Instead, the group remained invading gringos (one other kind of north wind) whose intent was to build a business that would only serve other gringos by exploiting the locals’ natural resources. Benefits would only trickle down to the locals.

A local fisherman, as guide and part of their group, might very well have cautioned them before setting out into a situation where El Viente Norte would blow up and endanger them all (or possibly know how better to deal with it once caught in its grasp). (In the same way, we would instinctively grasp someone’s arm to keep them from entering traffic should that person not know what a green light means.)

However, this point was not addressed in the author’s rebuttal. I’m hoping, in his defense, that the group made every effort to enlist a local fisherman to be part of their enterprise. I seriously doubt whether the author, or the editor, would appreciate it if, say, a band of Russians, or Turks, or whomever, came into Puget Sound and set up a kayak touring enterprise that did not deign to hire locals to gain their expertise and tap into their common assumed knowledge, and gain, more importantly, their trust and respect by being valued as equals.

For me, this issue crystallizes a criticism I have for this particular niche magazine. I believe I’m an ardent seakayaker. I’ve spent most summers on Long Island Sound, a lot of the time in small boats. I bought my first kayak in 1997, when the sight of such watercraft on my neck of the Sound was a very uncommon occurrence. For those first few years I fielded many inquiries about my vessel.

My first boat was a Perception Acadia — a good day touring boat that suited my needs. I’m solely a day tripper. My longest paddles have been cross Sound ones. I have an intimate knowledge of where I paddle, having been on or near these waters every summer for 50+ years. I know pretty much what the sea can do here and I know when (rarely) it is not safe to venture out. I day paddle for the exercise and for the sheer enjoyment of being out on the water (never getting bored no matter how many times I’ve done a route). There’s a world of difference between being on some sort of boat and lying on a blanket on the beach.

In terms of kayaking skills, I know basic strokes and braces. I’m never been at a loss at how to handle my boat. I know how to wet exit and perform basic self- and aided rescues. I know enough to keep myself safe where I paddle. And should something totally unforeseen happen, I know of no better way to kick the bucket than to have a paddle in hand.

I now have a lighter, more expensive and better touring kayak, one of the first Epic GP’s. It suits me. It’s fast, stable and easy to car top. But yes, I do not know how to roll. I don’t use a spray skirt (unless I’m venturing into a tidal rip area) and if I’m paddling within a few miles of home base I keep my life jacket (in summer) on my deck. And, yes, I’m out alone a lot. In 13 years I’ve capsized only once — and that embarrassingly in 2 feet of water.

In the intervening years there’s been an explosion in the number of people out on the water in kayaks. Occasionally, I’ll come across a group of kayakers with their glistening custom or hand-built wood kayaks, wrapped in their PFDs and spray skirts, Greenland paddles in hand. From time to time, one of them will practice a roll. As I pass, I’ll signal hello. Almost in unison the group will look at me in my touring kayak, with a “normal” paddle, in obvious disregard for my personal safety (no spray skirt and PFD on deck) and give me steely-eyed silent stares. (Even the most obnoxious power boaters or jet skiers will always return a greeting — even the middle finger sort — even when they try their best to swamp you.) From these elite kayakers I get the feeling that I shouldn’t be on the water unless I conform to their expectations.

Knowing the waters and weather of where I am at that moment, I feel I’m not putting myself in undue danger. I’m not making an open sea crossing over frigid waters. To these elite kayakers I’m probably giving a bad name to the sport and being as reckless as that father balancing his baby on a Vespa’s handlebars.

It’s that type of elitism (where one culture comes into contact with another) that’s irksome. It’s an attitude that I find runs through Seakayaker magazine. I’ve been subscribing for at least 10 years and I have seen it shift to providing more coverage to high-end elite kayaking (all the coverage on Freya Hoffmeister’s circumnavigation of Australia is an example — an extremely notable feat, but one far beyond most of us humans) and less coverage to the average paddler. I first subscribed to Canoe & Kayak and switched to Seakayaker because the focus of C&K was too much on canoes and too rudimentary on kayaks. But the focus in Seakayaker seems to be that true kayaking culture belongs only to those who have thousands of dollars to spend on kayaks and equipment, and have unlimited free time (and possibly trust funds) to take lessons, practice craft and go off on several week or several month adventures. There’s no middle ground.

I think, at this point, I may have to give up attempting to be or feel like being a part of the kayaking community and let my subscription lapse. After all, what I seek most when I’m in my boat alone is that comforting sense of aloneness — the type of solitude where all the demanding voices cease to be. The same sense achieved when I was a kid rowing the family rowboat for hours. That all one needs to do is to listen to the waves and the wind and see how the reflection of the sky breaks apart on the surface of the water.

Note: One other pet peeve against Seakayaker is their use of a cover image
that has no accompanying cover story. For a newsstand magazine, you really
should use the cover to sell specific content inside of the magazine unless
you are an art or design mag.
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