What makes us similar despite a spot on the map, era or notion of modern conveniences? Perhaps we are hardwired to always use stories to explain what we can’t understand? Perhaps we have consistent routines, consistent family dreams and the same basic needs.
Claude Lévi-Strauss spent years searching for the similarities and differences between the ‘civilized’ society and the ‘primitive’ society. In reality finding more similarities than differences.
He recently passed away almost reaching 101 years old. Reading the commentaries on his passing, I thought a remarkable person has departed. He risked to discover how human beings function and live. Are people really different? I was sorry I never had the chance to hear him speak and learn from him in person – so his books will now be added to my reading list.
I was struck by his research and findings from the 30s. I found a common curiosity in my own travels that when all is said and done, we are all the same.
When I visited the Maka Indian reservation in Paraguay – so many elements could be translated to another location around the world. Starting with the bus driver who strongly objected to letting me and my friend off the bus in a remote area for fear of the boys who cause trouble. After being on the rattling bus for almost an hour, it was hard to give up at this point – so we continued. Following the bus driver’s directions, we walked along a lonely path filled with chickens, wild pigs and monkeys in the trees. No troublesome boys to be seen. In fact no one to be seen. It was an unusual quiet and silence. Walking into the unknown is act of faith, I discovered. Silence, just our footsteps crunching on the gravel until we found a wooden sign tacked on to a tree saying MAKA. A fence but no gate. We entered and found a family outside their simple home and children on bikes. A whistle sounded and traveled up the hill. Within minutes, a strong man walked with authority down to meet us. He was the Maka Indian medicine man – really the ambassador welcoming us to the reservation.
During the tour, he showed us the school house, the outdoor shelter where the men gather and another area where the women congregate and share whatever food they have been able to obtain. When I asked if he would show me some of his medicine techniques, he politely said, “No, it is only for those who believe.”
When I consider urban modern settings I am reminded that families choose their home for the school district; men and women do naturally congregate separately; and there is certainly an advantage to getting better if you believe in your doctor and the prescribed treatment.
When I photographed the Maka Indian elders’ feet, I was struck by the contrast of bare feet next to feet protected by New Balance sneakers. We are so far away and yet so connected.
After thanking the Maka leader, we headed back down the hill, along the lonely path and back to the bus stop – or at least hoping it was the bus stop. It was as though we had entered another worldly dimension so similar yet so different.
Claude Lévi-Strauss continues on despite his death. Am thankful to learn from this extraordinary curious anthropologist now through his books.
By Keri Douglas, writer/photographer, Washington, D.C.
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