Thoughts on Peru

Before you visit any foreign country, it is a good idea to check out its history. And I don’t mean the Ancient Incas. More likely the Shining Path. Tourists are often the last to realize the political realities in Third World countries, but sometimes the first to find out when it all boils over. My family was travelling in Europe in 1993. We had planned to visit Egypt, but then a busload of German tourists were machine-gunned. Of course, it was an isolated incident, but you don’t take your kids into that kind of danger.

My wife and I finally visited Egypt the year before the Arab Spring. Everything was peaceful, as far as we could see. The following year, friends of ours (younger and braver) were in Cairo while the riots were happening. They saw nothing. In fact, the more repressive the regime, the safer the average tourist is. These countries know which side their bread is buttered on.

However, it pays to know what’s happening. In Peru, the Shining Path has been on a downward spiral for years, but there was one attack in May, 2017. Of course, I went anyway.

What’s Peru Like?

  1. Terrorism? Never heard a whisper. (See: “tourists are the last to know…” above). Still, a random act of violence is possible. (See: London, April 7, Edmonton, Sept. 30, Las Vegas this week. No point in staying home, is there?)
  2. Epidemics: There has been no malaria in Peru since 1957. Es verdad. There is no yellow fever, even in the depths of the Amazon jungle. No, nada, nunca. Of course, there never is. Before we travel, Linda and I always go to our travel health clinic to check up on required shots and government bulletins. Of all the medical advisories we have been given, and all the shots and pills we have taken, never once has there been an actual medical problem in any of the countries we visited. At least, not according to the locals. Of course, the tour guides make sure we take all the precautions, “just in case.” But they reassure us that there is no problem. All those WHO bulletins are just bureaucratic nonsense. For once, I’m inclined to side with the bureaucrats.
  3. And on the topic of health. We also take anti-cholera medicine and probiotics the whole time we’re in a Third World country. We never brush our teeth with tap water. We steer clear of salads and never eat lettuce, no matter how expensive the restaurant. And we rarely get sick. Other people we travel with often do. Coincidence, I’m sure.
  4. Altitude Sickness: Yes, some people do get it. It’s not all in your mind, as one rather naïve Coastal BC hiker reassured me before I left. Lack of oxygen is the major cause. When we reached our hotel in Cusco, our bus was blocking the street, so we rushed our unloading. I hustled my rather light suitcase up four steps into the hotel. Immediately I was panting and felt light-headed. First lesson learned. The main altitude problem for the average person is that something feels wrong. No matter how easy you take it, your mind knows something isn’t right. Which means that you wake up often in the night, you can’t get back to sleep and you don’t know why. Lack of sleep becomes a major symptom. For the unlucky few, it gets worse. Dizziness, headache, etc. For the luckier unlucky ones in our group, the symptoms went away after a couple of days. For a really unlucky few, the only sure cure is sitting on a beach under a palm tree. Works every time.
  1. The Economy: People are poor. Sure, Lima looks like any modern city: Starbucks, traffic lights, the works. But once you get out into the slums and up into the Highlands, you see millions of people with little electricity, poor water, and subsistence-or-less living standards. Beggars are few, but they are omnipresent.
  2. Responsible Tourism: I should not have taken the picture at the head of this post. I got caught up in the moment and sucked in by the cuteness of it all. I had been told, but I didn’t realize until after the “got-a-great-shot” glow faded that I blew it. These kids can make more in a day than their parents can at adult jobs. This is not a good thing, because it means the kids are not in school, and when they grow up and stop being cute, they will have just as much earning power as their parents don’t have now. DON’T buy stuff from cute kids. It may be tough love, but it’s the right way to behave.
  1. Life on the Inca Trail: The so-called Inca Trail is mostly an archeological construct. The Quechua people have had trails all over these mountains for thousands of years. Our guide wangled us a visit to a two-room school in a tiny village we passed through. Could be a poor rural school anywhere in the world, except for the village dog that wandered in behind us. When we camped that night an hour or so up the trail, the same kid showed up. Or tents were pitched on his Dad’s farm. For us, it was the Inca Trail. For him, it was just his route to school every day. Our guide hazarded a guess that 45 to 55 percent of our trail was from the Incas. The rest was just how the locals transported their sheep, cattle, llamas, alpacas and groceries. 
  2. Cultural Extinction: I was amazed at how many pre-colonial edifices remained, scattered over the whole countryside. In the main cities, the Spaniards leveled off the temples and built their own churches on the foundations. What better way to symbolize the superiority of their culture and religion? But out in the mountains they didn’t bother, and due to lack of erosion in the dry places and forest cover in the jungles, the buildings lasted. Plus the fact that there were few locals in most of these areas to carry the dressed stones away to build their own houses.
  3. And while we’re on the topic of religion…98% of Peruvians are supposedly Roman Catholic. However, I get the impression that the religion has never penetrated very deeply, especially into the rocky soil of the outlying regions. There is a strong cultural heritage of Pachamama, the Earth Goddess, and the lore of the ancients underlies Peruvian art and daily life. Spanish is the lingua franca, but there are huge areas where original native languages hold sway.
  4. Languages: I have been slowly learning Spanish over the last ten or twenty years. Considering my present level, call that “glacially slowly.” However, I have reached the point where I can order a meal politely (“quiero” gets the message across, but is their equivalent to “gimme”). I can hold a simple conversation with a waiter or bus driver, and tell a shopkeeper that “I don’t need any, thank you,” instead of just saying “No,” a hundred times a day. People really appreciate it. You can see their faces light up. The woman at the jewelry shop where I bought my gifts suffered through my Spanish for the whole transaction, although I detected a smile quirking her lips. Then she turned to my friend and sold him his stuff, all in decent English. And sometimes it’s useful. When we checked in at the airport for our flight to Cusco, I asked in Spanish for a window seat and got one. My friend went to the next counter and asked in English. He was told there were none left. I suppose it’s possible I got the last one.

To Sum Up

I’d go back to Peru any day. The people are friendly and polite. Shopkeepers may call out to you, but they will take “no” for an answer, and do not continue to hassle you. Sure, most of the “baby alpaca wool” garments are actually “maybe alpaca,” but there are places you can go where the handicrafts are being made on the premises, and are what they say they are. The prices are reasonable, and why shouldn’t they be? People have to make a living. I didn’t make it to Lake Titicaca or the to Sun Gate at Machu Picchu. There is a wealth of other Inca heritage and modern culture to discover. I didn’t immediately get altitude sickness. And for the last 20 years the Shining Path has concentrated on killing policemen. I could have worse luck if I stay home.



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