The following travel essay is an excerpt from my travel book South America – Pictures, Prose, and Poetry.
I had a good conversation with a Peruvian gentleman on the bus to Puno, Peru. Sharing a common birthday we naturally struck up a quick friendship.
He was a traveling salesman returning to Lima, where he lived with his family. He had a particularly favorable opinion of the Bolivian women in Santa Cruz. He established distribution contacts for the company Nestle throughout Bolivia. He was formerly an engineer recently downsized to make room for cheaper trainees. He said multinational corporations have been conducting this management cost measure of its employees for the last few years. On a macroeconomic level, Peru’s economy and standard of living have improved within the last ten years, now reaching a level near par with Chile.
However, these statistical improvements tend to shine brighter on the accounting ledgers for those in the glass offices. The reality of improvements for those within the middle and lower class ranks tended to be less distinct and measurable.
While our bus waited outside a village marketplace, I pointed out to my gentleman friend the enormous bags of pasta to which he did a surprising facial double take. He explained to me best not to say the word “pasta” when in Peru for the word may get confused with a similar Peruvian word that means “cocaine” and official ears could get nervous.
Within this region of South America all roads north lead to Cusco. Wonderful fellow travelers I’d met as far south as Ushuaia, Argentina and all points in between weeks ago would reappear on the city streets of Cusco. Our origins covered the globe yet we shared a simple lust for life and a yearning for healthier, happier roles for ourselves within life’s intricate web. Some contemplated relocating themselves in South America, utilizing their skills in ecology and biology.
One Brazilian I met was from Porto Alegre, Brazil, where the World Social forum was held, a humane based forum established to counter the gathering of the world’s powerful in Davos, Switzerland. His band had performed for this year’s gathering and he was was currently traveling through other South American countries to learn new styles of music.
Other travelers include the various Motorcycle Diary adventurers who were spotted along this Andean Gringo Trail circuit. Throughout these human encounters the global dialogue exchange was always revealing, extremely informative and vastly entertaining.
The journey from Puno to Cusco is extremely scenic, especially through the lush, verdant mountainous terrain and river valleys that to lead to the ancient Inca capital.
I wish I could have told the bus driver to stop so I could take photos. The rural scenery is always the most picturesque, the passing people, livestock, adobe abodes and beautiful landscape. Along the drive we did stop at some interesting Inca ruin sites and some baroque Spanish churches. Conducting the observations via tour group style is just not the same however as when I have a freer independent approach to my observations. Maybe I should rent a motorbike and conduct my own motorcycle diary journey.
The Spanish colonial churches that were established along the former Inca trail bear a heavy, oppressive, spiritual load within the darkened confines of the church. Dark wooden crucifixes, brutal Biblical scenes and ominous looking saints and bishops, all draped ostentatiously in boastful gold trim, seem to send signals other than love, peace and tranquility to its parishioners.
The Catholic followers who enter the cathedrals and churches are quick to create with their index finger the sign of the cross in a very nervous, stressed manner, fearful of the alleged consequences if they don’t.
Nestled within the Andean highlands is the town of Cusco. The downtown section is quite stunning, especially at night when the plaza, cathedral and neighboring smaller churches are illuminated. It evokes memories of Old World European cities at night. Many of the church structures have kept the older Inca stone walls and foundations both for their durability and cultural appeasement value.
Adjacent to the churches, above street level, are restaurants each with wooden balconies that offer excellent viewing while you’re sipping your coffee. Traditionally dressed men and women still carry their wares on their backs through the plaza on their way to market.
One Friday morning, a group of protesters came marching in solidarity through the plaza. A dose of reality that was refreshing compared to the robotic atmosphere of the street peddlers or the incredibly boring military parade last Sunday. Their chants were in Spanish, but the tempo was strangely familiar, strongly resembling the anti-globalization protest rhythm as in Seattle and Prague. No doubt the subject dealt with either indigenous land rights or better working conditions for local laborers. The political climate in several South American countries, of late Bolivia and Ecuador, is turbulent yet somehow swiftly civilized and bloodless, going through presidents at a rapid pace, almost between coffee refills.
Presidents and revolutions may come and go, but the little boy who sells you finger puppets in the streets still continues as before…
Fortunately, in Cusco anyway, the wave of theft that used to occur has been dealt with and conditions for tourists, as well as for local Peruvians, are quite safe. This has occurred in part due to the past government’s crackdown on the notorious rebel group, The Shining Path, which had wreaked havoc upon the poor villagers of the Andean highlands.
As far as my observations, whether in Bali, Peru, or Costa Rica, the new world economy of tourism within the pristine and culturally stimulating locales of developing countries has led to an overproduction of commercialism, obviously promoted by large corporations.
The usual methods of mass marketing techniques such as television, shopping malls and brass neon signs does not apply in these locations. To adjust, large corporations recruit a legion of locals from these communities to distribute the goods and to personally promote these goods at a more direct level to the public. Often the sales are conducted just as dispassionately as by the multinational’s top executives, and with this emotionless unspoken assumption that all tourists must consume, all items, all the time.
True, there are supply and demand needs being met and overall individual income levels aer being raised, though not as proportionately as the levels of the multinational corporations. However, could there also be detrimental personal impacts upon the developing countries’ population…perhaps some moral value and /or spiritual questions that should also be addressed?
For example, what happens to a community or society that becomes over-dependent on a certain intangible economy, or what becomes of a new generation within these developing countries that is learning a questionable value system i.e. the dollar is everything.
Of courser, environmental issues, such as non-biodegradable products, have become another recent, grave concern since the rise of the new tourism economy, and the proper disposal of these products. Fortunately, there are people trying to address this problem like a couple I met in Copacabana who are introducing a recycling program in their town. And fortunately there are admirable individuals like the inquisitive Peruvian college student who sought knowledge from me, the outside world, in order to better understand his evolving world. I’ll sip to that.
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To see more of my South America photography or to peruse my other travel books, please visit my site www.michaelmcguerty.com