Essay submitted by Daniel Anorga Cook

Isolating a single cross-cultural experience is an interesting challenge in itself. I have been raised by my native Peruvian mother, with a family spread across many countries, including Argentina, Brazil, England, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden and Peru. My life has been defined by cross-cultural interaction and travel.

As a high school senior I was selected as a Dwight D. Eisenhower student Ambassador to Denmark, England, Finland and Russia. During college I studied abroad in five Chilean cities through The School for International Training (SIT).

As a two-time Fulbright Fellow, management consultant and executive, I have advised Chilean, Venezuelan, and Mexican governments, multinational corporations and development organizations on entrepreneurship and international development. Over the past 10 years, I have traveled to 30 countries and spent over four years living in Chile and Peru.

But even with this background, I was unprepared to what I was discover – and how much I would learn about myself and society – as I began a month-long homestay with an indigenous Mapuche family on the Isla Huapi, several hundred miles to the north of Antartica. I was here as part of the fall semester of SIT and I was to have no contact with other students or the outside world for four weeks. As the bus dropped me off on Isla Huapi, I began an experience that was at once exhilarating, humbling, challenging and critical to my current understanding of human and cross-cultural interaction.

Isla Huapi is nearly 100 percent indigenous and one of the least developed areas in Latin America’s southern Cone, accessible only by a primitive ferry. Running water, electricity, public infrastructure and basic consumer goods are all non-existent. Nearly everything consumed on the island was gathered, grown or built locally with minimal external contact.

Whether or not the “Westernization” of the Mapuche is inevitable, justified or beneficial, my personal experiences with the Mapuche represented a major shift in my thinking about cultural exploration, understand and communication. In those four weeks, I was challenged to rethink my conceived notions, personal beliefs and prejudices about a so-called “primitive” culture.

Latin America has struggled with an acceptance of its own indigenous roots through self-defeating social jokes, material exploitation, legal manipulation, violence and other forms of disparagement. It is often assumed that the indigenous are comparatively less intelligent or genetically inferior than people living in more advanced societies. There is an underlying belief that wide differences in technological and political organization among developed and developing societies are based on the innate ability of people within these societies. Prior to arriving in Isla Huapi, I shared in some of the subliminal assumptions prevailing about Latin America’s indigenous communities.

I benefited greatly from the time I spent at Isla Huapi. The experience shattered many unfounded notions and catalyzed a rethinking of my basic beliefs on culture and differences between societies. I held firmly to a few fundamental guiding principals that I have formed throughout my life:

Be passionate about learning from and understanding other cultures:
Listen and ask questions first, communicate and share experiences, enjoy learning about people’s histories, how they think, make decisions and view the world. Be tireless, objective, open and fresh in your pursuit of cultural knowledge. Through experiences at Huapi, this principle evolved my thinking about indigenous societies and all cross-cultual interaction.

Stay flexible, the unexpected is around the corner:
Dealing in other cultures continuously presents new challenges. At Huapi, I delivered calf, herded cattle, slept inches from a flea-infested dirt floor, ate marginally, helped with chores beginning at 6 a.m., retired shortly after dark each night and contracted a persistent stomach virus. Without flexibility I would not have lasted one day.

Always maintain your sense of humor:
Humor is a common and shared human characteristic with the potential for forming strong bonds across cultures. It is an ally, tool and bridge between people of unique societies – don’t forget to use it! At Huapi, I spent some of the finest hours laughing with my family at our differences, cultural mishaps and misunderstandings.

Most importantly, have fun:
Learning about other cultures is among the most educational, enriching and rewarding experiences possible. Cross-cultural interaction represents an opportunity to learn more about yourself, the history of nations, societies and humankind, the differences and common values across cultures and the social forces that have created the world today. If you can’t have fun with this, why travel?

These principles helped me learn valuable life lessons through my journey to the south of Chile.

I learned that historical, geographic and physical environments have essentially shaped modern societies and the differences between people and cultures. The Mapuche’s lack of historical focus on advanced agriculture, technology and complex political organization is not attributed to their innate abilities or intelligence but rather to their actual environments and social needs. They are extremely intelligent in their own environments and by their own standards (i.e., displayed a deep knowledge of plants, animals, native land and high levels of inventiveness, efficiency and ingenuity in survival). After spending time with a society labeled as “primitive,” it was very clear to me that genetic superiority has not created the power structures and interrelationships between societies in today’s world.

I also learned that cultural understanding and compromise is never a zero-sum game. All cultures have their benefits and problems. While Western societies may enjoy benefits such as better medical care and longer life spans, we lack in other areas, such as social support from families and communal relationships. Regardless of the level of development, all cultures and societies have lessons to teach – and to learn.

Finally, I learned that people invariably enter any cross-cultural encounter full of preconceived ideas, values and perspectives that have been established through their own personal experiences and isolated social environments. Cross-cultural interactions will become frustrating, one-sided and ineffectual without questioning your own beliefs, battling past assumptions, considering new perspectives and becoming open to that which is foreign.