Trip Start Oct 25, 2007
36Trip End Apr 17, 2008
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When I started to pull my thoughts together, the only other country on my itinerary had been Ecuador (although I also have some experience with Argentines from a prior trip). I was afraid to single out any national Peruvian traits, lest they happen to be shared among all Latin Americans. But now that I have had the chance to juxtapose a few different cultural and national groups, I feel much more comfortable doing so.
Peru is a land of ultimate contrasts and contradictions - for every positive there are two negatives, and vice versa. I guess when I say Peru I am mostly referring to its people, the proud (or not) descendents of the Incas, Mochicas, Mapuches, Nazcas and scores of other legendary pre-colombian societies. Let me examine a few of the idiosyncrasies that struck me as most peculiar.
Most Peruvian towns have spotlessly clean centers; so much so that large western cities would be put to shame. You see street cleaners working the sidewalks and rain gutters every half hour or so. Parks and community gardens are immaculate - the grass is recently trimmed and watered, flowerbeds are laid out thoughtfully, and tree branches are appropriately pruned. After a while, you start to build a silent respect for this nation that seems to value the aesthetical, the creative, the orderly. And then you get on a bus, and see how people of all walks of life throw their plastic bottles, candy wrappers, and even food waste out of the windows... and you are immediately disillusioned. You reach the suburbs and satellite villages of larger cities, and see how streets and riverbanks are laden with rubbish; to the point where these areas seem like a sprawling dumpster. And your heart sinks. How do these people, who treasure beauty and cleanliness, find it acceptable to litter the beauty they themselves create?
You would say, poverty is to blame. But to some extent I would argue against this. You see, Bolivia (which is without doubt one of the poorest countries on the continent) is incredibly dirty and littered as well - except the Bolivians don't have the same sense of aesthetics that the Peruvians do. Their parks and public spaces are nowhere near as beautiful as the ones I saw in Peru.
Lets look at family values next. Similar to Ecuador, family unity is of extreme importance in people's ideology. They marry early, have many children and usually remain with the same spouse for life. Divorce is uncommon. Every weekend you can see proud fathers holding their babies and parading around with their yet-again-pregnant wives, inevitably around Plaza de Armas, for all to see. Yet at the same time, adultery is omnipresent. Both men and women have extra-marital relationships. More than once I was approached by married men who wanted to bed me. Emotional commitment holds no value in this part of the continent. When I remarked that I have a boyfriend (true or not), the classic response was, "But you don't have a boyfriend in this country/city/neighborhood/nightclub (depending on the circumstance)". Saying you are married is not much better. In fact, I shared my experience with a number of other single women travellers who would burst out laughing when I repeated this line - only because they too were all too familiar with it.
I contend that this is typical mostly for Peru and Ecuador - because so far it has not happened in Chile, nor Argentina. In the latter two, boys want to get to know you simply out of curiosity, to discover a new person, a new culture. No overt moves, no references to sexuality. Don't get me wrong, they still whistle after you as you walk down the street - but you will not be approached with indecent proposals, especially not after telling them you already have a boyfriend or are married.
Women seem awfully withdrawn and preoccupied with their married lives. In all my 6 plus weeks in Peru, I do not recall making the acquaintance of a single female. Those that did talk to me were many years my elders, and even so the conversation usually ended after I had bought whatever it is I was buying from them. In Chile and Argentina, on the other hand, you are just as likely to talk to women as you are to men.
Peruvians are a proud people. Indeed, there is much to be proud of - reminders of great past civilizations can be found in or around almost every city in the country. Macchu Pichu remains on the "7 wonders of the world" list. The Nazca lines still bewilder archeologists. Many legends are told about the incredible Incas who rose out of the waters of Lake Titicaca and quickly conquered a large part of the South American continent. Every Peruvian I met wanted to drink to Peru, "Salud por Peru"; would beat themselves on the chest and proudly say, "Soy Peruano". Yet most of them want to leave the country; most of them look to the West and are eager to adopt western virtues. Take Luis, the travelling artisan I met in Huanchaco - who despised the West and yet was looking for a way to marry a Western girl and get out of Peru.
Along those same lines, an older and more educated man from Lima had shared his disappointment in the Peruvian culture with me. He told me that most people are very covetous and resentful towards their better-off compatriates. Wealth is not paraded with like in the U.S. - on the contrary, people try to hide their affluence. Indeed, you will see few flashy cars even on the streets of the capital. And nicer houses have barbed wires with a live current running through them, on top of their already high fences. This man told me that expensive cars are often scratched, houses de-faced, and property destroyed out of sheer jealousy. This view was subsequently confirmed by a few foreigners who had been living in Peru for over 5 years.
At the same time, most young people were filled with optimism about the future of their country, about its wealth potential. So it turns out, Peruvians are proud of their growing economic might, but mostly when that affects them in a positive way. When not - they turn to resentment and jealousy towards those that have managed to prosper. Interestingly enough, I think I have seen this trait elsewhere; namely, in my own beloved Bulgaria. We even have a classic saying for this back home, "its not important that I am well-off, what's important is that my neighbour is sufferring".
Next let's examine culture and religion. The Spanish Conquest left a strong imprint on almost all Latin American societies, and nowhere more so than in Peru. Peruvians are among the most highly religious peoples I have met in my many travels around the globe. They embrace christianity (catholisism, for the most part) as if Rome were a city in the Andes and as if it were not the Incas, but the Pope himself who rose out of Lake Titicaca. And yet they do not hide their bitterness and deep-seated animosity towards the Spaniards and their imported culture, towards the obliteration of the Inca heritage. And here we go full circle back to their pride in their Inca roots clashing with their desire to embrace Western values. It leaves me scratching my head in bewilderment, once again...
Many travellers believe that in the Cuzco region, christianity and the Inca faith and heritage have found a way to co-exist peacefully and to even complement each other. To a certain extent I found this to be true - for example, many of the saints that are celebrated in the area are closely tied to Inca traditions and personages. At the same time, one day when I was wandering about the streets I saw this massive mural; easily the largest I have ever seen - it was rather complicated, with many intertwining figures, and I stopped to examine it for a good 15 minutes. As it turned out, the mural was a depiction of local history, from pre-Inca times and the Inca conquest, to the Spanish conquest and the many massacres of local tribes. The mural then moved on to show current day Inca descendents working in various areas of the modern economy. There was nothing positive about the Spanish rule in this painting. All the Spaniards were portrayed in dark colors, with blood spilling left and right around them. So I must wonder exactly how comfortably the Inca and the Spanish heritage co-exists in people's hearts and minds.
In many parts of the country you will see immense poverty. Well, not quite like Bolivia or India, but not far from it. The gap between the poor villages and the rich (or richer) urban centers is still significant, and the process of closing it appears all too slow. However, one has to admire the incurable optimism and appetite for life, love and happiness that these people have. Every weekend, and almost every village and town I went to, there are the grandest fiestas you can imagine. People dance, drink and play music from sunlight to sundown - and always you see happy faces, smiles and laughter. When I was on the bus from Puno to the Bolivian border, in every village we passed through - sometimes even in front of a lonely house by the road - there would be a band playing and people dancing in their traditional costumes. And when I attended the Virgen de la Candelaria festivities in Puno it struck me that many dancers were either very old (looked well into their seventies) or very young (5 and under).
An overwhelming number of people I met live from day to day. Remember Carlos, the surfing instructor from Mancora? Some days he would wake up and wonder where he would be able to secure his meals (and inevitably, beer). Juan Carlos, our guide in the Colca canyon, lives in a similar fashion, never being able to afford to take more than a few days off or go travelling further away than Puno or Cuzco, a cheap 6 hour bus ride away from Arequipa. Luis, the travelling artisan, relies on the day's sales in order to finance himself - and usually ends up drinking all his profits away at the beach that same evening. But none of these people seemed to be bothered much by the lack of money, and curiously enough they all spoke of grand plans for the future - how they would go broad, buy a house for their parents, have their own business, and so on. Perhaps another contradiction?
My biggest disappointment with the people of Peru stemms from the fact that wherever I went, whomever I talked to, I always felt used or exploited; there was always a hidden motive to every kind gesture. The exceptions to this were few and far apart. Sometimes it takes a few days after meeting someone for you to realize what they really want from you. Usually it is to give them money, to buy them food or drinks, to rob you or cheat you out of a few extra pesos, or of course to go to bed with you; sometimes all of the above. And they always do it with a smile on their face, and tell you that they want to be your friend. In fact, they DO want to be your friend, that much I found to be true - so outgoing and hospitable that I felt at home everywhere. Its just that they would rather you be a friend with benefits.
So there you go, that's my 5 cents on the Peruvian people, love them and hate them at the same time, but I feel like it would take me years to really understand the workings of their complicated mentality. I do hope to go back. I'm deeply intrigued, and despite the friends with benefits part, I met some fascinating people whom I hope to see again, if nothing more then just to understand them better. And so it is that I close my chapter on Peru, and move on south to Bolivia and Chile.