A Series Set in South America
The bus from La Paz, Bolivia to Cusco, Peru takes just over 16 hours, after all the stops for livestock crossings and police inspections. As I wait to board, I stand among local women untying enormous, colorful sacks of vegetables from their shoulders and tourists slinging their backpacks into the compartment under the bus. I sit at the front of the second floor of the bus, next to an Uruguayan businessman named Agustín.
“How long have you been traveling?” I ask.
“Since February of 2013,” he says, and I am learning not to be surprised by this kind of response.
“What do you do?” (While you travel, to fund your travels, to justify them.)
“I am very good at marketing,” he says, “and I have a lot of ideas. In La Paz, I was working with a couple who wanted to provide healthy and organic food to public school children, since everyone here eats only mierda. But they weren’t very good cooks, so it didn’t work out.”
I laugh. “And why Cusco, now?”
“I am going to try and find a village in Peru where I can help out. Just start knocking on doors….” Agustín looks out the window, where the sun is setting over a thousand rows of vegetables and several small fires, plots burning to ready for the coming spring.
“The one thing I’ve realized about traveling,” he tells me, “is the difference a little bit of money can make. Sometimes I have to find work, and sometimes I’m able to do tourist things.
He continues, “Did you know that some of those people in Bolivia selling souvenirs have never even been on Death Road? They can’t afford it.”
I think about this as we tuck in for the long night. We buy souvenirs as a sort of insurance on memory, a way to remind our future selves that we once made it to special places. Is it strange or ironic, then, to buy these memories from people who themselves don’t have them?
I stay in Cusco for only about eight hours, long enough to shower and sleep, before heading to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu. Between Cusco and Aguas, one must either take a luxury train or hitchhike and walk along the tracks.
I step off the train and into a brochure. The mountains appear to have been pinched up from the earth, now held aloft by some magician’s invisible finger; wreaths of fog hang from each impossible peak. A river sprints for the town, dodging under the bridge just beneath my feet.
And then the town stands in wild contrast, a manifestation of itself only for the accommodation of tourists. A souvenir market, full of stalls selling brightly colored fabrics, bucket hats, fanny packs, socks, and wallets, rises strategically next to the station. Do we buy our curios right away, before even having seen the ruins? Or do we buy them on our way out, hastily remembering not to forget the people we left at home? On the walk to the hostel: only restaurants and hotels, their flashing FREE WIFI signs a kind of conversation.
I have a day free before Machu Picchu and I decide, with a group of students, to take a hike outside of town. Today I am a follower, and a girl named Marie knows where we’re going. We walk the train tracks and stop at the base of one of the many mountains that surround the town. A brown sign reads PELIGRO. NO PASAR., but I’ve been assured it was placed here to detour tourists. We walk around the sign and up a set of stairs to the trailhead. We switch back twice before arriving at another set of stairs, of which all that remains is the bottom step and half a handrail. It takes us only a few minutes of hiking to realize that the trail is not a trail after all, but rather, one ladder after another lashed together and fixed to the face of the mountain with long steel bolts. For a minute we stop, our eyes following the rows of wood and steel into the dense foliage above. And then Marie is on the first rung, and we ascend. Step after step, the neon buzz of the pueblo drops away, replaced by the deep and dark hum of the jungle.
After about an hour, I pull myself off the last ladder and begin the final scramble over exposed rock. Even though I am shaking from the climb, I am overcome by a need to reach the summit. The top of my vision begins to blur and my hands tremble. I take each unsteady step faster than the last. I think about altitude sickness. I look at the setting sun and think about having to spend the night on the mountain with Alec and Simon and the others. I decide that it would be worth it if meant sitting on the summit as the sun sets. It’s a compulsion I can’t explain, but I need to see this place from above, for both myself and the town to be made small by distance.
We turn the last corner of the trail, and I am euphoric at having discovered what was calling me. I laugh and shout at Olivia and Louise to hurry: You can see them, the ruins, they’re just there!
We stand on the highest boulder and look down onto Machu Picchu. From here, none of the thousands of tourists wandering through the labyrinth are visible, just the perfect gray lines of the Incan city and her terraces of grass.
As other travelers began carving time out of their adventures to search for souvenirs, I found a certain dissonance between the objects in the market and my experience in Peru. The bright fabrics and lama wool sweaters spoke nothing of the chant of the river, nor the people I met, nor of course the people who must have walked here thousands of years ago. I assume the motifs stamped, printed, and woven into universal objects must come from a place of authenticity, but how am I to know what is real? Indeed, is my search for “authenticity” just another tourist caricature?
In 1990, John Urry published “The Tourist Gaze,” a seminal study on interactions between tourists and locals, which suggests that the presence and economy of the foreigner causes locals to reconstruct themselves according to the preconceived notions of the tourists. In other words, the global consumer recognizes certain symbols as representative of local culture, and therefore, the local is motivated to accept them, regardless of whether or not the cultural connection actually exists.
There are others, however, who hold a different view. Kelley Totten, a folklorist from the University of Oregon, spent weeks working with craftswomen in the Mantaro Valley of Peru learning to weave her own skirt in a small home studio and becoming familiar with the intricate process of gourd carving. Totten claims that Urry’s assertion completely disregards the power of the local, who is able to both communicate identity and support the community economically through the objects they create.
In Peru particularly, the balance between heritage and economy has become extremely sensitive in the last few decades. Although Machu Picchu was rediscovered in 1911, a severely inflated economy and guerrilla violence prevented the region from an influx of foreigners until around the turn of the 21st century. In 2000, the number of visitors to the park was about 420,000; in 2012, it topped 1.17 million. During the same time, the percentage of Peruvians living in poverty was nearly halved.
However, many Peruvians protest the development of tourist incentives, claiming the construction of luxury hotels and internationally owned restaurants does little to improve the quality of life for the average Peruvian. They argue that the money generated by government-owned establishments, such as national parks, would be better spent on improving education and health than investing in projects that line the pockets of a few wealthy developers, some of whom aren’t even residents of Peru.
It is therefore difficult to find a comfortable place in the relationship between local culture, economy, and tourists like me who desire to view and climb and remember as many vistas as possible. For some, the remembrance lies in touching rows and rows of fabric in search of the perfect item, listening to the loud conversations of local salespeople. For others, it means seeking objects truly hecho a mano, the slow yet direct interaction between an artisan and her history. I remember melodies, the deep and quiet voice of place, urging me upward, to the lonely and triumphant flat of the mountaintop. The way we record these interactions, our traditions and adventures, are memories made by the hands of many.
Although I am a young traveler, and I have many more questions than answers, one thing is becoming clear: the interactions between the local and the tourist cannot, at this point, be unwoven. As Amanda Stronza writes in The Anthropology of Tourism, “When tourists and locals come together, both have the opportunity not only to glimpse how others live, but also to reflect on their own lives through the eyes of others.” Which is to say, by traveling, I become a little bit more myself, and a little more concerned about the lives and cultures and lands of those who host me.
All photos courtesy of Olivia Sperka.