By James T. Carney
Unfortunately for tourists, Lima, the most unprepossessing of all third-world capitals, is the gateway to Peru. Founded by Pizarro in 1535, it is the home of a third of Peru’s 22 million people. Like San Francisco, it is located on the Pacific Coast although it is in the Eastern time zone. Like San Francisco, it has a misty, cold, and damp climate. Any other resemblances to San Francisco are non-existent. While the old Spanish section of the city has its charms, and the San Isodoro and Mariflores sections of city are attractive, most of Lima consists of slums inhabited by the very young who have fled the poverty of the rural areas in search of a better life.
|Click to enlarge photographs|
My friend John accompanied me on the trip, arriving in Lima on a day in May last year. We ended our one day of exploring the city by having dinner with two Anglican missionaries who lived there. Peru is in theory Roman Catholic although the internet reports that 81% of the population is Roman Catholic, 14% Protestant (Evangelical), and 5% other. Roman Catholicism seems to be skin-deep in the case of many Peruvians who view it as a religion imported by their Spanish conquerors. This fact makes Peru a fertile field for Protestant missionaries.
John and I found out one day when we were hiking in the environs of Cusco that many Peruvians have not abandoned the old Indian religion. The Incas were a rather small tribe that conquered a great empire—like the Romans—and like the Romans they did not invent their own religion but followed one that was in place. As we climbed around one set of Inca ruins, we found two women making a sacrifice to the Sun God, who was the most important of the old Indian deities. The two women had lit a fire into which they had put some cocoa leaves. When we joined up, we offered cocoa leaves to the sky and let some float away in the air. Then we offered the remaining cocoa leaves to the fire. At that point the women extinguished the fire by pouring several bottles of good scotch over it and then finally pouring a bottle of Coca Cola on it. Even though the fire had been thoroughly extinguished by the volume of liquid poured on it, the women then shoved dirt over the ashes and went on their way.
Speaking of Coca-Cola, there is a story—set forth in the Cocaine Museum in Cusco—that the famous formula for Coca-Cola contains some coke. The museum had a series of exhibits showing both benign and malign effects of cocaine. Certainly, one of the main uses of cocaine leaves in the Andes involve the creation of coke tea, which is useful in helping Indians and tourists deal with the effects of limited oxygen at higher elevations.
Peru and Bolivia are the most Indian of all Latin American countries although there are significant groups of Japanese and Chinese and other Europeans. Peruvians today identify with their Indian ancestors and bitterly resent the Spanish Conquest, which occurred five hundred years ago. When we were in Cusco, we saw a major celebration in honor of Tupac Amaru II—a direct descendant of the Inca rulers who had led a rebellion against the Spanish in 1784. It is significant that Tupac Amaru is remembered even though Peru was liberated by the efforts of the Spanish descendants Bolivar and San Martin.
After our one day in Lima, we flew to Cusco, which is the ancient Inca capital and one of the world’s centers of tourism. A key problem that many visitors to Cusco face is dealing with altitude. While Lima is obviously at sea level, Cucso is at 11,000 feet and the Inca trail to Machu Picchu takes one to an elevation of 14,000 feet. To deal with possible altitude sickness, both John and I had gotten medicine from our family physicians. In addition, we had scheduled an extra two days in Cusco to help us adjust to the altitude before starting off on the Inca Trail. While we were fortunate in not having any problems with altitude, as much as 20% of the tourists have some difficulties in dealing with the Cusco altitude and some who planned to take the Inca Trail have had to abandon the trip.
Cusco was a much more cheerful place than Lima. For one thing, the sun shone all day, which brightened our spirits considerably. Also, Cucso seemed a little more prosperous because there was a fair amount of construction going on—mainly by hand because Peru is long on labor and short on capital and the equipment that capital buys. Despite the rigors of manual labor, the Peruvians whom we saw were extremely industrious and worked long hours. A number of Peruvians were employed in the preservation and exploration of the Inca remains. In the decade of the 1990’s, the activities of the Shining Path guerillas—a murderous group of thugs who terrorized their fellow countrymen and foreigners alike—had deterred further archeological investigations of the Inca ruins around Cusco. The defeat of the Shining Path has resulted in the renewal of archeological explorations that are likely to result in a number of new discoveries about the Inca and pre-Inca cultures.
Governmental expenditure on protection of the ruins is extremely wise since clearly tourism is very important to Peru and will become more important in the future. Currently, 70% of the Peruvian gross national product comes from mining, and 50% of the gross national product comes from copper production. This reliance on commodities is both subject to tremendous ups and downs due to the economic cycle and cannot continue indefinitely.
In Cusco, however, the main industry is tourism. The people who benefit most from it are those who have travel agencies, hotels, or restaurants or shops for selling various goods. Those who do not have capital become the street vendors who almost overwhelm visitors not just in Cusco but throughout the Sacred Valley and the ruins of various Inca fortresses. The cost of labor is so low that a street vendor who makes even a couple of sales a day probably makes enough to live on. The average wage of a Peruvian worker is $2 per day.
Cusco, as the former Inca capital and the starting-off point for the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu, is almost an international city due to the number of foreign visitors. Many are from the US, but equal numbers are from Europe and Latin America. In the group of them which climbed the Inca trail with us, four were Canadians, two were Australians, and two were Argentines who spoke English. (The group had obviously been selected to include only English speaking people.) However, on the course of the trail, I met and talked to one German woman and one English woman. John had much more social contact with our fellow hikers because he was in great shape and enjoyed meeting various interesting people, whereas I was generally too exhausted to talk to anyone.
During our three and half days in Cusco before starting the trail, we had a good deal of time to look around. Cusco is a city of extremely narrow streets and even narrower sidewalks. I saw only two traffic lights while I was there. Traffic is controlled by the ubiquitous speed bumps, which not only preclude speeding but also increase significantly the number of gastric disorders among the population. One thing which struck us in Cusco and its environs was the number of dogs—none on leashes and most without collars—which frequented the streets. The dogs seemed too well-fed and clean to be runaways. Going through some of the streets, John and I noticed that in some houses that had walls and iron gates there were holes in the gates so that dogs could go through. These dogs seemed indifferent to tourists—neither hostile nor friendly. The only exception to that was a puppy I met in the restaurant we had lunch at just before starting on the trail. I saw a few cats in the course of our journey, but since cats are never as visible as dogs, they probably inhabited the city in good numbers.
Because Cusco is such a touristy place, we had no problem finding people in restaurants and shops who spoke some amount of English. (Of course our guide, of whom I will write later, spoke very good English.) In all events, one can always gesture. Of course, the older I get, the more I believe that Churchill was right in saying that a foreigner will understand your English as long as you speak loudly and firmly enough.
On one of our days in CuscoO, we took van trip to the Sacred Valley of the Incas (or the Urubamba Valley) along the Urubamba River. The Sacred Valley is the site of such prominent Inca towns as Pisac and Ollantaytambo as well as Machu Picchu. We concluded from this trip that the majority of the inhabitants of Peru are subsistence farmers. We saw a large number of cattle and a fair number of sheep in the farming communities, but no mechanical equipment. Indeed, we saw two farmers—each with a set of oxen—plowing the fields in the same way that medieval serfs had plowed the fields. Obviously, the land along the river banks was reasonably level and good farm land. However, the Urubamba Valley was only a few hundred yards wide at its widest spots and could have supported only a small population. The Incas, however, had perfected the art of terrace farming—i.e., farming into the mountain tops by creating a series of terraces which could be tilled by hand labor but certainly could not be tilled by machine and probably not by animals. Indeed, the Inca terraces around Pisac are still being farmed. On our way back from the Sacred Valley, we crossed a huge, level plateau between Cusco and the Sacred Valley. One of the questions that struck me was why the Incas did not plant this level area. I suspect that the answer is that there was insufficient water supply although the area did look very green.
Our first day tour of Cusco demonstrated that the Spaniards had built their churches and palaces over the Inca temples and palaces, often incorporating part of the original Inca buildings into the new Spanish ones. In addition to exploring the center of Cusco, the first day tour took us to the Inca fortress of Sacsayhuamán (pronounced sexy woman), which is outside of Cusco and from which the Incas made their desperate attempt to overthrow the Spanish conquistadors. The size of some of the rocks used to create the fortress are two and half times my height. It is amazing how the Incas could have built with such huge stones without the aid of tools of any kind.
We did meet some interesting people in Cusco. One individual was a Muslim man who claimed to be a major official of the United Nations. We suspect that he overstated his rank but he was an interesting person and we did talk about the issue of Islam. He seemed to be somewhat moderate in general but he did say something to the effect that Americans would have a different attitude on some issues if they had sustained blood losses the way Muslims had. With more diplomacy than honesty, I did not respond to him. I did half-think of getting this guy’s name and sending the Company a report.
One question I have is what extent Islam as has been historically practiced is consistent with our concept of liberal democracy. Certainly, Muslims in the Middle East are oppressing both Jews and Christians. The recent Muslim reaction to a stupid video suggests a willingness of use violence to oppress dissent. We may start finding ourselves in the same dilemma that the Elizabethans found themselves in trying to deal with English Catholics. How can one tolerate a religion which to some of its adherents calls for an attack on and an overthrow of the estate? In all events, I cannot accept liberals’ complaints about racial or ethnic profiling with respect to Arabs. How many Swiss were involved in 9/11? Or, looking at the issue of profiling for illegal immigration, how many Dutch are illegal immigrants?
In any event, leaving politics aside, on Sunday morning, John and I were picked up at our hotel by our guides from Magical Cusco Tours (which, I should add, did a tremendous job for us and should be used by anyone traveling in South America) and taken to the bus, which after some three hours deposited our group and our porters and guides, at the entrance to the Inca Trail. There, our porters gathered up our belongings, tents, and food supplies and, having been equipped with two hiking poles, John and I set off on our great adventure.
Next tuesday: On the Inca Trail.
Copyright © 2013 by James T. Carney