14 April 2009

On Peru

* Peru might be the most beautiful country in the world. Maybe I'm wrong, but you'd certainly have a difficult time proving it. Scientifically speaking, of the roughly 120 categories of topography on earth, about 80 can be found within the borders of Peru. There are snow-capped mountains, rolling valleys, deserts, jungles, glaciers, tropical beaches, volcanoes, rainforests, and everything in between. Some of the tallest of the towering Andes are here, as well as the deepest canyon in the world. The mighty Amazon rises in the eastern part of the country, and to the south is the world's highest navigable lake (Lake Titicaca). Breathtakingly diverse doesn't begin to describe it.

* It was refreshing to visit a place with such a strong indigenous character. In many countries in today's world, native populations have been marginalized or even eliminated, but Peru is shaped by its Indian plurality. 45 percent of Peruvians today are of native origin, descended directly from pre-Columbian societies such as the Inca. Still another 37 percent are mestizo, of mixed indigenous and European lineage. The remaining 18 percent is a blend of European, Asian, and African ethnicities. As a result, Peru can scarcely be called a Latin American country. Rather, it is a multiethnic country dominated by native ancestry, whose primary language just happens to be Spanish.

* Despite the numbers, only recently has there been a rekindling of indigenous pride among Peruvians. From the time of European contact, the customs and culture of the natives wer
e actively quashed by the European elite, the rich culinary traditions of the Andes dismissed as "Indian food." This legacy lasted past colonial times, well into the 20th century. Our parents' generation in particular was taught that it was somehow wrong to embrace native heritage or to speak Quechua (the native tongue of the Inca and the correct name for the ethnicity of the indigenous people), and so they strove to eliminate any traces they could. This extended to what they named their children: we met several people named Washington, and our guide Patricia's brother is named Anderson. Why? "Because they were looking for the furthest thing from Indian they could find," she explained. There has, however, been a resurgence of late. People are beginning to embrace the rich heritage of the great civilizations of the past, helped in part by the attention and tourism from the outside world. They are returning to traditional styles, and Inca cuisine has become haute couture in the cities.

* Quechua is a strong second language in Peru, spoken by almost four million. In the heart of Inca country, centered around the city of Cusco, it is the primary language for many... they only speak Spanish to tourists and for trade. It is, I'm told, an onomatopoeitic language, and a ve
ry sweet-sounding one. However, I came across some stories written in Quechua, and it looked blindingly difficult: every word was an extremely long grab-bag of Qs, Ks, and Us. But perhaps it wouldn't be all that hard: I learned that it is gramatically similar to English. For example, where the Spanish would say "a door blue," Quechua and English give you "a blue door."

* The Christian faith seemed so genuine in Peru, so intrinsic and personal. In the US, it seems, Christianity is political, it's a tussle in the media and a constant war of factions. Some need to Evangelize, some need to create a bubble, some associate only with a small and safe group, some need to put "God Answers Knee Mail" stickers on their cars. In Peru, religion is a different world entirely. People hold silent audience with their Lord, they quietly pray when they need to. There is no need for showmanship; perhaps a cross necklace for that shopkeeper, or a small portrait of The Virgin above that taxi driver's dashboard. These things are to remind themselves, not to prove anything to others. And frankly, there's no need. This being South America, nearly everyone is a self-attesting Roman Catholic. To be anything else is almost unheard of; we felt awkward when we had to explain that we really only observe Easter Sunday and not the whole week, and it seemed an alien concept to those we were telling. In the cities, there are scores of churches around, all Catholic . . . it's necessary to meet the volume. But again, so genuine. I watched as people made the 'cross' gesture just passing a church from the sidewalk, even while holding conversations. Men removed their hats. It was really nice to see.

* Considering the Peruvian ethnic makeup, however, it's Catholicism with a twist. The
pre-Columbian peoples were animists, and extremely devout ones at that. They worshipped pacha mama, or Mother Earth, and revered the sun, the stars, the mountains. Human sacrifices to appease the elements were not unknown. When the Spanish arrived, they had to use native elements to make their monotheism more familiar and appealing to the Inca masses. Furthermore, after conversion, the Quechua people retained many of their old customs and symbols. The legacy of both of these factors is still evident today. For example, the Virgin Mary is almost always depicted with a veil behind her head which fans out to her shoulders, giving her a mountain-like appearance; this keeps with the former Quechua reverence for mountains to represent "the mother." Another example is the post-Renaissance artwork which adorns many of the churches: In the Iglesia de Santo Domingo in Cusco, I saw a painting of the Last Supper in which Jesus and the Apostles were feasting on traditional Andes dishes, such as quinoa, chicha beer and guinea pig. In the same painting--no doubt by a Quechua artist working under Spanish commission--Judas Iscariot is depicted with the face of Francisco Pizarro, the conquistador responsible for the colonization of Peru. On a related note, Paul Theroux notes that in Latin America, Jesus is always depicted in paintings and sculptures as significantly more tortured, more bloodied and bruised, and in more pain, than he is in other countries. He speculates that for the colonial missionaries, it was necessary to show the suffering of Christ as more severe than that of the natives themselves (subjected to countless tortures by the Europeans), in order to convince them of his divinity.

* It was fantastic to be in such a heavily Catholic place during Semana Santa, or the Holy Week leading up to Easter. There were massive nightly processions in which statues of Jesus, Mary and a collection of patron saints were taken from their church cupolas and marched through the streets by candlelight, with bands and flag-bearers and guards and choirs. Sidewalks were lined with vendors selling food, drinks, snacks, and little trinkets. It was a whole event, almost like a fair. I got to walk with one procession through Arequipa, and there were literally hundreds of thousands of people there. Quite a sight to see.

* Arequipa is Peru's second city, behind Lima. Its 1.2 million residents live under a massive volcano called el Misti. It erupts every 500 years, and it erupted 500 years ago. "Shhh!" said Carla, our guide, "he is still sleeping."

* Driving in Peru is predictably insane. The prevailing attitude is that the road was paved to be used, and so all parts of it should be, to maximize utilization. Thus cars and motorcycles push between others and drive in the middle of the road, into oncoming traffic, with five cars abreast on three-lane roads. Instead of waiting behind others to turn left or right, they'll swing around the outside of the leading car and turn ahead of them. Add to that the unrestricted wanderings of children, animals, and pedestrians--llamas, dogs, and cows coming out of doorways and walking across the street--and you have a very unpredictable right of way distribution indeed. All of our drivers were expertly skilled: not hitting these surprising obstructions was a science and a wonder. The car horn had to have been invented for this country. That being said, one day we came across an overturned semi truck, and every single other truck on that road stopped to help put it right, direct traffic around it, and return the road to normal. There is no AAA here, and seeing that kind of comeraderie was amazing.

* Peruvians spend a lot of time drinking coca tea and chewing coca leaves. It is their national custom, and they are very proud--and touchy--about it. Numerous people gave
us mini-speeches about how adding alkalines can yield cocaine and how Peru does not endorse that and that very bad people corrupt the name of this wonderful product, one which they have been enjoying since before the Spanish arrived. It IS quite a remarkable herb: it is rich in nutrients, aids metabolism, helps cure altitude sickness and nausea, and most importantly, gives the consumer a very effective energy boost, much like coffee. The cocaine trade means even the innocent tea leaf can't be exported, especially not to the overly-cautious US, which is a shame, because it would be a wonderful thing to drink in the mornings.

* Inca Kola is delicious.

* Peru is a very poor country, desperately so in places. It is a third-world/developing country, and although the situation is not as dire as in many countries in subsaharan Africa and in Far East, there are very real extremes of poverty and hardship here. It's also an interesting case study in that there are throngs of comparatively wealthy tourists everywhere throughout the country. Much of the economic instability is the result of d
ecades of failing governments, which bounced seemingly endlessly between allowing exploitative foreign interests into the fabric of Peruvian commerce, and regimes based on opposite policies of industry nationalization and protectionism. Pair that with rampant administrative corruption and the still-present echoes of colonial pillaging, and the result is that many millions of Peruvians live a precarious, hand-to-mouth existence. It was indeed sobering to travel there and see for myself, but I'm glad I was able to. We passed shanty towns (Peruvians call them "young neighborhoods") of untold squalor, housing scores of people without electricity, without running water or drainage, even many without roofs. But remarkably, the slums outside of Arequipa, for example, are largely populated by people who moved there by choice from the countryside, to improve their chances of economic opportunity in the city. So the situation is indeed dire. I felt so helpless; I wanted to do something, anything to help, but I couldn't imagine what. Going to Peru has rekindled a deep desire within me to try to make a difference. It's an unsettling guilt that comes from awareness, but I wouldn't have it any other way. More people should be aware of the state of the world.

* Seeing the poverty also inspired rage in me, when I thought about many of the turistas I saw, and the people back home who stay wilfully ignorant of the plight of others. How many millions of priviledged Americans and people from the West never even stop to consider that
places like this are real? How many do, but just don't care? A vast majority, by my estimation. I've spoken to people in the US who say "oh yes, I'm thankful for what I've got, but why should I think about poor people? Why should I have to be affected, as long as I'm grateful that I'm not one of them?" Honestly. That was a real moral justification for somebody that I spoke to. Many of the tourists were not much better. To them, the deflated prices of goods and services was a game they were on the winning side of: "what a bargain I got!" It makes me ill. If I had to be near turistas, I sought ones who were not speaking English, so I at least would not be able to understand their conversations.

* The tourism industry has had a unique effect on the nature of poverty in Peru, of course. Many people in most places in Peru eke out a living by vending traditional wares from stalls on the streets, in the plazas, and at scenic rest stops. Because a direct line can be drawn from the customary garments, accessories, toys and trinkets of the native Quechua to today's society (many people still wear traditional dress, particularly in rural areas), the production of alpaca-wool clothes and hats, rugs and blankets with indigenous patterns and colors, little woven finger puppets, and Andean musical instruments, is what many poor Peruvians know best. It is their culture, a
nd they sell it to tourists. I actually overheard an English lady say, "honestly, what is the use of that stuff? Finger puppets and stuff, really? These local people have really got to analyze what we want. I'm going to put that in a drawer, and never take it out, except to tell people I went to Peru once. It's useless." She actually said that. I tried to keep my patience, but she almost got the lecture of a lifetime from me. It's not about whether or not your comfortable living room will be better off for a cultural keepsake, it's about the fact that the meaningless (to you) $0.30 you spent on it might feed that woman's child tonight. I bought a hat from a young lady, a vendor in a makeshift market in the parking lot of a tourist-bus rest stop. I watched as, when she was sure no one was looking, she quietly made the cross gesture and kissed the 10 Soles ($3) that we had paid her. The look on her face... she needed that money. Needed it for her very livelihood. It was a gift from God to keep her going just that little bit longer. Real poverty. I'll take that image with me forever.

* I'm sure many people from the Global North are uncomfortable with the poverty they see in a place like Peru. But I think it's necessary to keep a perspective on it... that is, to separate the notion of poverty from the notion of worth. These are real people with real problems and aspirations, living real lives. No, it's not as nice as your beachfront in Boca. But that doesn't make it Godforsaken. The moment you stop looking at it with paternalistic "developed" eyes, you'll be able to appreciate it as a legitimate place with its own unique worth. Worth is nothing to do with money.

* I get the impression that street vendors in Peru are much more courteous than in many other places. In many countries, you're approached, and if you don't want to buy they follow you, try to convince you, maybe even insult you. In Peru, the vast majority of the time, when you said "no, gracias" they gave a quiet "gracias" and walked away. Even the hustlers, seasoned and streetwise, didn't pressure you excessively. You're also expected to haggle, but I can't really bring myself to do it. Prices are usually below the real value of goods, and any haggling you do gives you the sneaking suspicion that you're taking directly from the poor lady in the stall's pocket. Sometimes the desperate, saddened look they gave you when you named a price showed what was really going on: they just couldn't afford to sell it for that. And they're very proud people; when they do make a sale, they fold your new product to be as nice as possible, taking time to package it just right for you. Even when you say "that's really not necessary..." So personally, I just can't do it, all the haggling and bargaining. And furthermore, I wanted to buy from all of them. I want to go and buy everything in the entire market, just to help. That helpless feeling...

* With some exceptions, touristic strangers from the New World are friendlier (read as: more reliable for a hearty nod or a jolly tip of the hat while passing on a hike) than those from the Old World.

* I did not see one McDonald's, apart from at Lima airport on the way home. Not one. It's worth a trip for that alone.

* The Gator Nation is everywhere, even Peru. Hello to that Linguistics/English 2008 grad that I met between Arequipa and Lima.

* Travel is still classy in Peru. None of this "you may purchase an ice cube, only credit cards accepted" on the aircraft. Planes and trains are smart and professional. The train back from Machu Picchu had sophisticated earthenware cups and plates, cotton napkins, a wine list (it
also had a fashion show of alpaca garments, courtesy of the train attendants). It felt like that old fashioned romance of going from A to B was not totally lost.

* The Inca were just remarkable. They came to dominance as the result of gradually taking over smaller Andean societies, and painstakingly adopting the best advances in science and technology from each one. As a result, their civilization had complex systems of irrigation, terraced agriculture (many of the Inca terraces are still there and still in use, draped across the rolling countryside), astronomy, and architecture. The architecture is a story in itself. When the Spanish arrived, particularly in places such as the Inca capital of Cusco, they destroyed many of the existing structures and built their own colonial buildings on the original foundations. Well, Peru is a hotbed of seismic activity (the major fault line running through the country created the Andes) and in the last 500 years, scores of major earthquakes have occurred. A lot of the Spanish stuff fell down, revealing the Inca lower levels, still completely intact half a millennium later. This is because the Inca built advanced earthquake-proofing into their structures, demonstrating a deep understanding of interlocking stones, buttressed stress-bearing walls, and symmetrical niches for vibration absorption. The result? In Peru, in 2009, the Inca walls are still there.

* As mentioned previously, native South Americans comprise the largest ethnic division in modern Peru, and there has been a cultural resurgence in recent years. Fascinatingly, ther
e is still resentment against the Spanish conquistadors, over 500 years later. Tales of the Spanish torturing, killing, raping, enslaving and exploiting their ancestors have clearly been preserved and passed down through the generations, and modern Peruvians still feel the sting. But it's a strange dynamic, because Peru is also a nation with a major Iberian legacy: the Spanish brought their language and the Catholic religion Peruvians hold so dear. Also, the large mestizo population all have Spanish ancestry. So there is a conflicted nature to the Peruvian attitude towards their erstwhile oppressors. In any case, we were discussing with Raul, our guide in Machu Picchu, the habit llamas have of spitting to express their displeasure, to which he ribbed, "ahh yes, this is true, but here llamas only spit at the Spanish, no?"

* To brush your teeth using only bottled water is to fight decades of impulse and muscle memory.

* The Andes form a natural wall, trapping precipitation on the east side of the range and preventing almost all of it from getting to the west. The result is that the Pacific coast is almost uniformly arid and dry, and from the eastern foothills on there is lush tropical rainforest and jungle. In fact, Peru has among the greatest area of rainforest in the world. It was astounding, even on the 1.5 hour train ride from Cusco to Aguascalientes, how quickly mountainous terrain gave way to thick jungle, leading to the appearance of exotic flora and fauna: long-tailed tropical birds, unique (and large) insects and lizards, and thick equatorial vegatation. And this was just the furthest boundary of the Amazon. Peruvians should be proud, because in the last few decades, government has enacted sweeping motions to protect many of Peru's natural resources, particularly the oft-exploited rainforest. The department of Madre de Dios is almost entirely jungle, protected by law in the young Manu National Park. Thanks to legislation such as this, the rainforest may continue to live on, and Peru can now count itself as a nation at the vanguard of the protection of environmental treasures.

* Another treasure hidden in the depths of the rainforest is the presence of an estimated fifteen small tribes, as yet uncontacted by anyone from the outside world. Ever. Researchers confirmed the existence of one in the last few years using aerial imagery. I can't even get my head around this. These people have no concept of the societies that surround them. As far as they're concerned, European contact never happened. Scientists suppose that if we were to try now it would be fatal for them, because of course they don't have immunity to our pathogens (many of which we don't even think about anymore). But it's certainly a mind-blowing testament to just how dense the rainforest is, still holding its own secrets, defying a species that has been both to the moon and to leagues below the sea. Think about it. There are places, in Peru, that no modern man has ever visited. Astounding.

* Vicuna fiber is softer than silk, and more precious. The vicuna is an endangered species, and an individual can only be sheared once every three years, making its wool near-priceless. I felt some fabric, and it was indeed luxurious.

* Let the word go forth: the South American camelids (llama, alpaca, guanaco and vicuna) were here first. They originated near present-day Canada and migrated west and south. Modern Middle Eastern camels, such as those found in North Africa and the Arabian peninsula, were descended from the American camelids.

* Possibly the most classic guidebook line ever: "Don't confuse the rainbow flag of Cusco for a gay-friendly place. In Peru, gay men are derisively referred to as "mariposa" (butterfly), and lesbian women are barely heard of at all."

* America has no excuse. I saw recycle bins everywhere in Peru. Also seperate bins for organic and inorganic waste. If a country with so much to overcome can devote resources to being environmentally conscious (and they no doubt also realize that doing so helps them) then I don't want to see Bill and Marge throwing their plastic Mountain Dew bottles in the trash. (Addendum: as we took our train along the Urubamba River to Poroy, we noticed that miles of riverbank were cluttered with heaps of glass, plastic, newspaper... Obviously somebody had paid somebody to take the recycling somewhere, and the Urubamba is where it ended up. An atrocity on the part of the litterers, but still, it's the original thought that counts, I suppose).

* I can say this: the Peruvians are eating well. Firstly, they're very proud of their own native dishes, especially among the Quechua. Analysis of the agricultural zone of Machu Picchu confirms that the Inca experimented with scores of crops from varied topographies. As a result, they've been cooking with diverse grains (such as corn, quinoa, sweet potatoes), fruits and vegetables (such as maca, tomatoes,rocoto peppers) and other foods for centuries. Secondly, they also have a flair for non-native cuisines. I had some of the best Italian food ever while in Peru, and heard similar reports about their Asian, European, even seafood. And anyone who thinks that it's funny that they eat guinea pig is an idiot. It's a delicacy that they enjoy on very rare occasions (maybe a birthday once a year) and it's no more strange than eating lobster. And I can say this as a non-participant on both counts. So there.

* Of course, there is so much more to tell. So many experiences and lessons learned. No country can be summed up by a bundle of loosely organized thoughts on a page. This is not a journal, these are merely snapshots. So I want to tell you that the people of Peru might be the best people there are, and the kindest. Perhaps it's wrong to generalize. But I've had the pleasure of knowing a choice few Peruvians in the US, and the collective impression I always had was that they were just genuinely nice people. Traveling to their country of origin did nothing to dispel that belief. It's not an outgoing, over-the-top kindness as in the US ("how are y'all doing today!"), but a more basic, authentic quality of a caring people, friendly and polite and always willing to go the extra mile for others. Yes, Peru has many problems. Its governments are rife with corruption, its people are poor, with many struggling to make the most basic of ends meet. The dramatic landscape is both a blessing and a curse, as it provides abundant natural resources, but is also a constant risk of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, droughts, and floods. But it is a country of rich heritage and cultural diversity. It's a land of endless fascination for those interested in history. Its people are beautiful and proud, and will continue to endure. To quote the message carved on the mountainside above Cusco, "Viva el Peru glorioso."