An Excerpt from Jim Conrad's
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
of April 21, 2007
issued from Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve Headquarters in
Jalpan, Querétaro, MÉXICO

SEEING BUT NOT SEEING,
KNOWING BUT NOT KNOWING

Especially in backwoods areas such as Cocos, an interesting thing happens to me frequently enough for it to leave me wondering about the human condition. That is, I'll be talking to someone in Spanish, expressing myself rather fluently and understanding everything the other person is saying, and that person will appear to be understanding everything I'm saying, but then that person will ask me if I speak Spanish.

A couple of times, trying to gain insight into why this happens, I've said no, I don't speak Spanish, and then we just continue talking, and nothing more is said of the matter. Though the people who ask me this are always the types who haven't seen much of the world beyond their local community, they are often clearly intelligent individuals performing complex tasks.

I'm pretty sure I understand the root cause of this amazing phenomenon. The basic problem is that these people are seeing and hearing what their preconceptions insist they must see and hear from a foreigner -- unintelligible otherworldliness. They know that I'm a foreigner, and most foreigners don't speak Spanish, so there's a question as to whether I speak it, even though I'm standing right there talking to them in Spanish.

The easiest, safest, most time-honored way to handle something as remarkable as a gringo on a backcountry trail is let the local belief system trump what one is seeing and hearing with his own eyes and ears.

But, one doesn't need to be a backcountry person to be blinded and befuddled in this manner. In fact, I'm convinced that the vast majority of people on Earth are similarly blinded nearly all the time, just that their blindness manifests itself in different ways. For example, in my own culture the phenomenon expresses itself most clearly in the way a huge percentage of North Americans live consumption-focused, unsustainable, resource-wasting lives, yet they are so focused on doing and thinking what everyone else is doing and thinking that they simply don't see the need to change their behavior, much less admit the immorality of continuing it.

On a United Nations website on climate change at http://unstats.un.org/unsd/environment/air_co2_emissions.htm it's stated that the average Mexican produces about 3.71 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. The average Swede who, some travelers who have experienced both cultures (such as myself) would say, enjoys a quality of life superior to or at least equal to that of the average US citizen, produces about twice what an average Mexican does, 6.17 tons. Even the average German, who insists on no speed limits on open stretches of the Autobahn, produces only 10.49.

Yet the average US citizen produces 19.87 tons, about twice the European average.

An old man with whom I've been conversing in Spanish the last ten minutes looks at me and asks if I speak Spanish. The North American looks at me and asks what's really wrong with driving a car so much, having an oversize house, and buying all kinds of junk that soon gets thrown away or forgotten. Facebook Icon.