Virtual Exploration of Our World

The world beckons, but we can't always experience its wonders in person. How lucky, then, that we can explore without setting foot outside our doors...

Monday, May 31, 2010

The Motilone (Bari) Tribe of Colombia

For images of the Motilone/Bari tribespeople, visit

At my request, my father wrote down a story which I heard many times growing up. It involves a tribe called the “Motilone,” officially the “Bari,” who lived in the Colombian jungle. What follows are my father’s words, then my own research and opinions about what happened to the Motilone/Bari.

“In 1958 I was working as a petroleum engineer for Colombian Petroleum Company in northeast Colombia near the border with Venezuela. We were drilling exploratory wells in a rugged, mountainous area. This was a wild place with only scattered groups of native inhabitants called the Motilones who had not yet been introduced to civilization and who were aggressive toward the oil company people who they undoubtedly considered invaders of their territory. They were seldom seen and then only in fleeting glances. These people were truly wild and uncivilized but had a great deal of fear of the ‘invaders.’ Previous attempts to make contact by Catholic priests had only resulted in the disappearance of the priests.

Our base camp consisted of a bunk house, and a kitchen and dining room. A surrounding area had been cleared of the jungle all the way down to a small fast-running river that was called Rio de Oro. The other side of the river was in Venezuela and the jungle extended all the way to the river bank. The vegetation was so thick that you could not see even one foot into the growth.

One morning when things were a little slow (as often was the case), I decided to try my hand at fishing in the river. In a short while I had caught a large stringer of fish of various descriptions. I took the fish back to the kitchen and gave them to the 'boss' cook. He was very excited and decided to go down to the river to try to catch some more. I was sitting in the bunk house game room about 30 minutes later when I heard someone screaming down by the river. When I got to his location, the cook was unable to move as he had a Motilone arrow through one thigh and another through the muscle in his neck.

Although the Motilones are very small people, they have large bows and very long arrows of almost six feet. It was urgent that we get this man to the main camp some sixty miles down a mountain road, but he would not have survived the jostling in a pickup with the long arrows protruding from him. With much discomfort on his part we were able to cut the ends of the arrows off with a hacksaw. We did not attempt to remove the arrow stubs as we were afraid of too much bleeding.

The trip to the main camp was uneventful and the injured party was delivered to the dispensary, where his wounds were treated. After a couple of weeks he was advised that he could return to his job at Rio de Oro camp. His reply was an emphatic ‘no me voy!’”

My father's story is significant because it occurred a few years before the tribe he talks about became officially “civilized.” The company for which my dad worked, Colpet or the Colombian Petroleum Company, played a large part in the destruction of the native Bari culture. Dad says that before his company arrived, there were no roads in that part of Colombia, and this served to preserve the indigenous culture. Once a road was laid by Colpet, poor Colombians from the villages began to squat in the jungle alongside it, and thus the contact between civilization and indigenous people began.

Soon there followed attempts at conversion by Christian missionaries. My father told me a particularly grim story about how some priests went into the jungle with machetes to look for the Motilones, only to have their own weapons used on them by the tribesmen. However, an American Christian missionary named Bruce Olson finally made successful contact with the tribe. Like the cook from my dad’s camp, Olson was shot in the leg with a Motilone arrow upon entering their territory. Olson would eventually be successful in his attempt to convert the tribe to Christianity and to modernize it. According to Delores E. Topliff of the Minnesota Christian Chronicle Online, “Forty-six years later, those tribes are almost entirely Christian and hold positions in Colombia’s government, assist other tribes with representation throughout South America, address the United Nations, and travel the world.” Another website ( claims that 70% of the tribe is now Christian.

Is the assimilation of indigenous cultures into more dominant cultures necessarily ideal? On the subject of religious conversion, I can attest that as a non-traditionally-religious person, I have always been extremely offended when people have approached me with the assumption that their own beliefs are superior to my own. At least I, being aware that there are multitudinous religions (and non-religious people) in the world, can remain confident that my own beliefs are just as valid as anyone else’s. Members of indigenous tribes, on the other hand, haven’t been exposed to the wider world and don’t have an inkling that there are many belief systems. They also don’t have any real hope of maintaining their own belief system once tenacious missionaries have them in their sites. If natives are likely to attribute any healing which results from a Western missionary’s medicine or any effect of Western technology to supernatural powers, they will be more easily convinced to accept the missionary’s religion. Is it ethical for one group of people be allowed to use modern medicine and technology to bring another group around to their way of thinking?

According to a Wikipedia article, a man named Robert Jaulin observed the destruction of the Bari culture by various outsiders, a phenomenon which he called “ethnocide.” He wrote a book titled La paix blanche : introduction à l’ethnocide ("White Peace: Introduction to Ethnocide") after witnessing the “ethnocide-in-motion suffered by the Bari… in the second half of the sixties …multiple vectors of ethnocide in place (the Catholic Church and other Christian confessions, the Venezuelan and the Colombian armies, the American oil company Colpet, and all the ‘little colonists’ as Jaulin calls them) converged to the relentless disavowal and destruction of Bari’s culture and society.” According to the same article, Jaulin’s book concerns “Western Civilization's tendency to disacknowledge, lower and destroy other cultural worlds as it comes in touch with them, while extending its own domain, bringing the focus of the discussion back from the frontiers of Western civilization to its core and its history.” (A side note/disclaimer: I recognize that Wikipedia is not considered a “reliable” source. The primary sources for the information in this paragraph are in French and are not translated into English, but I wanted to include it anyway, because I thought it so aptly described what happened to the Motilone tribe).

Many people hold the belief that their “civilized” way of life is inherently superior to a “primitive” one, and that it is inherently good to spread their culture to indigenous groups. I have often wondered at this human compulsion to convert or change other people to be more like ourselves. This phenomenon is seen throughout history; countless cultures have been overrun by more dominant cultures. Who is to say which culture is preferable – surely it is subjective? If we in the West are truly enlightened, shouldn’t we value all cultures and prioritize the ability of cultures to maintain their own identities?

My father told me that one day he and a friend took a dog and a shotgun and trailed the Motilone, driven by the thought of retribution for all the giant arrows they suffered while working on the rig. At the foot of a bluff, they saw a single big, round house, which the entire tribe inhabited, and the remnants of a fire with a monkey skeleton nearby. There were no people to be seen. Upon nearing the Motilone camp, the dog’s hair bristled and he turned and ran home, yelping all the way. Dad and his friend tripped over each other trying to follow the dog. Unlike my dad, other outsiders eventually decided to stick around. So it was that my father got a rare glimpse of an indigenous culture immediately before its decimation by civilization.


Personal recollection of Douglas Z. Gayle

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Life Across the Pond

I've decided to begin my virtual global journey by reminiscing about my time spent living in England:

The five months I lived in London are the source of some of my most cherished memories. I was thrilled by the experience of living in the midst of an entirely new culture, rather than just passing through on vacation. I had the best of both worlds -- weekdays spent working, shopping, watching television, and doing the same things everyone does, really getting to know what it feels like to live among the British, and weekends spent acting like a tourist and exploring a magnificent city with endless offerings of museums, markets, parks, historical landmarks, restaurants, and shops. I threw myself wholeheartedly into British life. I opened my eyes, my ears, and my heart, and I fell in love with the city and the country.

The excellent London museums are free, and I explored as many as I could. I was gleefully confused by some of the abstract art at the Tate Modern Museum, like the piece which consisted of a two storey overheated (purposely, I gathered) room wherein an enormous image of a fiery globe was projected on one wall, from floor to ceiling. I visited the trendy Notting Hill and Camden markets, sipping mulled wine while strolling in the nippy winter air and marveling at the diversity of people and goods around me. (Stalls upon stalls of books of every genre, vintage jewelry, tie-dyed clothing…a shop consisting entirely of futuristic plastic outfits!) I was entertained by street performers in Covent Garden (see photo of gold man, above). I walked through the Tower of London and Hampton Palace, in awe at the possibility that my feet were treading the same ground as one of my favorite historical figures, Queen Elizabeth I. I rode the gargantuan Ferris Wheel that is the London Eye, looking down at the Thames snaking its way through the majestic old city.

What might be considered commonplace occurrences by native British people held me in thrall as well. Once, an urban fox stood still in the middle of a snowy, deserted London street, boldly meeting my gaze before padding off into the bushes. I drank a pint in a 500-year-old pub that Samuel Johnson once frequented, after walking through an ancient cemetery in the nighttime mist. My visit to Scotland, with its breathtaking pastoral and mountainous scenery, and a weekend jaunt to Paris (so nearby by American standards) were the icing on my expat cake. My senses were constantly engaged.

I approached British cuisine with a bit of apprehension, but my experience taught me that some stereotypes simply aren’t true, at least not entirely. (I would still advise travelers to stay away from that gastronomical misadventure, the black pudding.) British chocolate is as addictive as Coca-Cola must have been when it still included a generous helping of cocaine. Dishes like Toad in the Hole and Bubble and Squeak weren’t nearly as formidable as they sounded, and I found out just how non-scandalous Spotted Dick really was. I enjoyed traditional Sunday English roast dinners and shared in a British Christmas meal, complete with a flaming brandy-soaked Christmas pudding. I experienced imported culinary delights like England’s “official” favorite dish, Chicken Tikka Masala, and the most mouthwatering calamari from a tiny Italian restaurant in Goodge Street.

I am not a big television person, but I feel British programming deserves a mention. Of course, BBC News is a world leader, internationally renowned for its global view and impartiality. Also, British comedies are without equal. One of my favorite comedies would surely have been cancelled if it had been broadcast here. In it, comedienne and my top girl crush Dawn French portrays “The Vicar of Dibley,” a full-figured, self-assured, sexually confident vicar in a small, conservative-yet-quirky village. (Would we Americans ever have a successful show featuring a plus-sized woman as the star, or a show where a religious leader frequently expresses her human desires?) Anyone who ever has the chance, don’t miss viewing the classic “Blackadder” series, which proves that despite the Mr. Bean movies and the straight-laced character Dr. House, Rowan Atkinson and Hugh Laurie are comic geniuses.

Small differences between the American and British cultures were priceless additions to my experience. I didn't own a car and walked or took the Tube (London Underground) or buses everywhere. I loved that aspect. The public transportation was so convenient and quick, and walking really allowed me to take in the whole city. Outrageously expensive groceries were hauled home in a rucksack (that’s a backpack to us “yanks”) and put away in what we know as a mini-refrigerator but the British call a refrigerator. I hand-washed the few dishes that fit in the tiny cupboards and dried clothes on a radiator. On more than one occasion, I boiled water for a bath in a kettle because the landlady couldn’t be reached on weekends. Anytime I ordered a drink of any sort, it was always hot or tepid; ice is a thing British people treat with mild disdain. When I described these aspects of life abroad to my mother, she was shocked, but I found them wonderfully bohemian and exciting.

Of course, living in another country involved a culture shock. My American directness was often misinterpreted as aggression. I, in turn, found the reserved manner of many British people cold and a little snobby until I became used to it. I vividly remember walking down my street on a lovely day and passing an elderly woman. I looked her in the eye and gave her a big Texan smile, and she promptly looked away with a grimace, clearly assuming I was insane. People don't regularly grin at strangers in England. Of course, it turned out that your average British person is just as warm and kind as your average American; they just don't go around announcing it all the time.

There were also language issues. I had to learn new spellings for my job (labour, realise) and new word meanings. I imagine my in-laws were confused when I mentioned that I bought my velvet “pants” at the Gap. “Pants” refers solely to underwear in the UK. There are terms like “zebra crossing” and “roundabout” which are essential to know if you must drive in Britain (and I did on a couple occasions, apologetically running over curb after curb). Before I lived in England, I mocked Madonna's faux-British accent, only to have my own family accuse me of developing one. I really couldn't help it; after having my pronunciation wondered at and gently corrected a certain number of times (“no dear, it’s pronounced ‘GLOSTER’”), I began to subconsciously pronounce all my “t”s and to adapt my apparently distasteful American vowels. To this day I find myself occasionally pronouncing the “h” in “herbs.” (For a humorous take on what the Brits think of our version of English, check out this link to a rant by comedian David Mitchell:

After visiting many others and living in a few, London remains my favorite city. I still dream of it and wake up with a deep longing. While I called it home, I felt like a greedy child with the history and culture around me: I wanted more and more and was frustrated I couldn't have it all in the time I was there. With all its delights and challenges, the opportunity to live in another country has enriched my life beyond measure. Simply learning that there is more than one way to do things, more than one way to function as a culture, opened my mind to all the other new possibilities out in the world. England is never far from my thoughts, and I know that one day I'll make my way back.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

What Dad Taught Me

It began with a story, or rather, stories. When I was small, my father would tell them to me, but they weren't your average bedtime fare. My father had been places and done things, and he had a knack for narrative that meant I was granted vivid peeks into his past. Many were colored with his wicked humor; an old friend recently reminded me how he once entertained us (as teenagers, no less) with his "Ex Lax" story, wherein a precocious boy obtains revenge on a bullying chocoholic girl. Many stories occurred in other countries and were adventurous and even dangerous at times, like the one about his narrow escape from the Colombian jail where he heard the guards discussing who would get his shoes. The effect of these stories on a small girl in a tiny town was a spark of curiosity which grew into an almost obsessive desire to experience as much of the world as possible.

Stories alone wouldn't be enough to sustain lifelong global interest, but my father also taught me to be open minded and to seek knowledge and understanding. There is a cycle: those who experience other cultures and ways of life know that differences should represent opportunities for learning rather than excuses for fear, and they in turn impart this wisdom to their children, who often then seek to explore and learn. The practical applications of a more informed world view are obvious. How many disagreements and arguments, both on an individual level and on a global scale, really come down to misunderstandings based on ignorance of the other party's reality? Certainly many problems could be at least alleviated by the compassion that is an inherent product of experiencing another person's way of living.

Thanks in large part to my father, I am driven by a quest for understanding, a lust for life, and a desire to imbibe all the natural beauty and wonder around me. So far, I have been lucky to live in London, Northern Virginia, Philadelphia, and several places in Texas, and I have visited places like Scotland, Paris, San Francisco, and Mexico. I plan to add many more destinations to the list in my lifetime. However, because I'm neither a rich person nor, as the mother of a toddler and a full time student, a free one, travel isn't really an option right now. What kind of adventurer would I be if I let that stop me?

As a Communication major, I am constantly thinking about the implications of the Internet. One of the biggest advantages of the Internet is that it bridges geographical gaps which might have previously kept us from coming in contact with people from other places and cultures. We can have international Facebook friends, blog audiences, Twitter followers, etc. The Internet has also become a wealth of global information. We might not be able to jump on a plane and visit the Eiffel Tower, but we can pretend we're there with Google Earth, and we can find nearly everything there is to know about the Eiffel Tower online (or at the very least, we can download a book about it).

Here is my idea: I will use this blog as an opportunity for virtual exploration. I will share my own experiences, some of my dad's (he still loves to tell those stories), and any other interesting stories I come across. I will learn about other countries, cultures, religions, and about natural wonders as well, all by using the tool which is quite literally at my fingertips. I invite all curious global citizens to join me on this journey.