We arrived at Bethel on Monday morning after a long flight and a night spent at the Anchorage Airport. Anytime I arrive at a new place I like to walk around and get a sense of the rhythm and mood of the place.
So Tony and I took a short walk around Bethel while everyone else caught up on some sleep from the long flight. It was a very interesting experience. Before getting here Carol, Tim and John told us a lot of things about the extreme poverty that this city experienced, and that was one more reason to go out on a walk to see if that was true.
Now, a little background on Tony and I. We are both foreign, we have experienced life in developing country. On his end, Tony has visited a lot of towns in Eastern Egypt where people barely have something to eat and most of them are homeless. I grew up in a middle-class Bolivian family, but traveling around Bolivia and South America quite extensively I have seen poverty unlike anywhere else. People that live in places so removed from society that they can’t even find food, shelter and what to speak of jobs.
We were both surprised at what we saw in Bethel. This did not seem like the poverty that we saw in our native countries, it didn’t seem like poverty at all.
We went to the grocery store and were amazed at all the products available for people to get. Things from cereals, snacks, fruits, a well stocked hardware store, clothing, basically anything for basic living. Of course a lot of it was very expensive, but nothing like the towns we’ve been to where there just isn’t anything.
But before we dismissed Bethel as a “well-off” town, we talked about what we consider as poverty and compared it to what people in the US consider to be poverty. We came to the realization that we were looking at Bethel with international eyes, comparing this reality to what we experienced abroad. Poverty is a very relative term. For people in the US, it looks like, it means not having enough commodities to live comfortably. For people in developing countries it is related to survival.
But that was only the beginning on my reflections on poverty and the current conditions on Bethel and the Yu’pik people in he Yukon-Kuskokwim peninsula. Thanks to the great interview hat we had with Pat Tam, which deserves an entire blog for itself, I realized that just like I was trying to understand he conditions here from my point of view, in the same way, the people here have lived years trying to emulate a certain standard of life imposed to them by religion, boarding schools, institutions, culture and many others.
And I think that that will become one of the motifs of our time here. Trying to uncover some of the filters that we have in front of our eyes to try to understand the people here and realize that these people cannot be understood by our “western” standards, just like they can’t really abide by what is expected by our Eurocentric culture. I hope that keep trying to understand there people just as they are, with none of our filters.