As usual, I bought a few books to prepare myself for the journey. The first one was a rather dry, brief traveler’s history of Peru. If I had read this before I planned the trip, I might have changed the destination since it made the country seem rather boring. I then skimmed through two guide books: Footprints, a rather snobbish British one, and the ubiquitous Lonely Planet. If I had bought them before I planned the trip, I might have been scared off, since both were replete with warnings about the difficulties of traveling in so poor and crime-ridden a country as Peru. As the old saying goes, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
This lack of information necessitated numerous calls to the travel agency I booked the trip through, but none of its staff had been on this particular tour. They advised bringing a down jacket and ski hat for the evenings in the Andes (July is their winter) and towels since some hotels charge extra. Fortunately, I spoke to my corporate travel agent, who had been to Peru in June of 2006. She told me that in all her photos she is wearing shorts, and maybe a sweatshirt, and assured me there was no need to bring a winter jacket. She also said that she found the country had an ample supply of linens, so out went the warm clothes and the towels. I was able to breathe a sigh of relief, since I now had room in my suitcase for some extra reading materials.
The Museum taught us how little is actually known about the early Peruvian civilizations. None had a written language so much of the information about the rise and fall of the various tribes, including the Incas, is largely speculative. We did learn that they kept census records by weaving knots into fabric.
The next day we flew to Cuzco, the center of the old Incan empire. By now, I realized that the guide books were misleading. This was not Dickensian London, so I did not have to keep my eyes out for pickpockets around every corner. Museums the guides rated as not to be missed were, in general, rather ho hum, while other sites that were merely mentioned turned out to be much more interesting.
We did encounter some unexpected difficulties, not mentioned in the guide books, because the country was experiencing major strikes and protest demonstrations. The unrest began when the government announced that it would require all teachers in the country to be re-certified with a new certification exam. All of the teachers went on strike and were joined by several other unions. We heard two different arguments. Some people said the education standards are low and in dire need of improvement. Others said the examinations would be political and serve as an excuse to eliminate teachers with views to the left of the present, conservative government. I don’t feel qualified to take sides, but given the level of unrest, I would not be surprised if motivation for the legislation is more political than educational. We were lucky to arrive in Cuzco when we did, because the next day the demonstrators actually succeeded in closing the airport for a few days by starting brush fires nearby.
While the protestors were busy disrupting air traffic, we managed to spend several days touring the Incan ruins in and around Cuzco and the surrounding area which is known as the Sacred Valley. Within the city, the Spanish managed to destroy the Incan temples and build their churches on top of the old foundations, but there are still some large archeological sites out in the countryside, such as Saqsaywaman which overlooks the city. Some guides say it was a fortress, others say there were no fortresses at that time in South America, but they all agree on its nickname, and it call it “the Sexy Woman,” though the word is from the Quechua language and actually means “Satisfied Falcon.”
There are one or two bookstores in Cuzco which I had hoped to visit, but the local tour company was very disorganized which meant we got a late start every morning and did not return to the city until after the bookshops had closed. The gift shops, in contrast, remained open until the last tourist in town was tucked safely into bed.
Fortunately, I brought extra reading material so I was in no danger of running out of books. Several of the hotels we stayed in had small libraries where you could take a book you wanted to read and replace it with one you had finished. Naturally, I carefully examined all of these rather motley collections. The English language selections were rather scanty, and there was never anything worth swapping for. I did learn that most travelers, no matter where they come from, prefer the same light reading (i.e., John Grisham and Danielle Steele) as Americans do. These books are widely translated, and dog-eared paperbacks in many languages were readily available in every hotel.
The most useful book I brought to read turned out to be Che Guevara’s The Motorcycle Diaries. For those unfamiliar with this wonderful work, Mr. Guevara and a friend took some time off from medical school to travel around South America on a motorcycle in the early 1950s. Their travels took them through Peru, Brazil, Bolivia, etc. and his experiences helped radicalize his political thinking. Many of his observations are as true today as fifty years ago when he wrote them. For instance, as a medical doctor he was appalled at the sanitary conditions in Peru, such as the custom of not flushing toilet paper but placing it in a basket next to the commode, a practice that continues in some areas to this day. He also found the Spanish churches in Peru gaudy and cheap looking, compared to the simple symmetrical beauty of the Incan architecture. He wrote: “Gold doesn’t have the dignity of silver which becomes more charming as it ages, and so the cathedral seems to be decorated like an old woman with too much make-up.”
According to the Incas, gold was the sweat of the sun, while silver was the tears of the moon. I highly recommend the book to anyone traveling to South America.
Machu Picchu is one of the most spectacular archeological sites that I have ever seen, and for me it was the highlight of the trip. It ranks up there in my personal pantheon with the Acropolis in Athens. It is built high up in the Andes, and when you stand far away you can gaze at it for hours, as the constantly changing light keeps revealing different patterns and structures.
When you walk around the site there are mountain views and interesting architectural angles in every direction. Because the Incas left no written records, even the name of the city remains a mystery. Machu Picchu is actually the name of the mountain that the city was built on, but the city’s name has been lost to the ages. After a long day exploring the site, we sadly boarded the train for another long zigzag ride back down the mountain to Cuzco.
Puno is a small, bustling city that serves as the major Peruvian port for Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. The main reason to stay in Puno is to take a boat tour around the lake. The tour takes you to visit the Uros, a Native American tribe that was dispossessed by their enemies many years ago so they moved to the lake district and built their own small islands out of reeds. About ten families dwell on each island, which lasts for seventeen years or so and then needs to be rebuilt.
Almost everything is constructed out of reeds, including their houses, their boats, and their furniture. We visited two different islands, watched some of the women making dinner over reed fires, and bought some decorative reed mobiles from the children.
We then took a long boat ride to the middle of the lake to the natural island of Taquile. This island while larger than the reed islands is still small. Its inhabitants still farm and weave the way their ancestors have done for centuries, without electricity and modern technology. Occasionally there is a house with a solar panel which is used to power a television set.
On the way to the airport for a flight back to Lima, our tour guide took us to visit one of the local farmers. His farm was a multi-generational compound which consisted of communal cooking and storage facilities, along with individual mud brick sleeping houses for each family. They raise alpacas, and potatoes and quinoa. We sampled some of the fresh baked potatoes, though I declined the offer to dip them in sauce made from mud containing salt deposits that they use for seasoning. They tasted delicious enough without any condiments. He took us inside to see his sleeping quarters, and to my surprise one whole mud brick wall was filled with his children’s academic honor roll certificates and school medals. He was very proud of them, and it was encouraging in so rural an outpost to see such a profound respect for education.
Miniature books are very popular in Peru, and there is a publisher who puts out a whole collection of tiny books, mostly classics. They have decorative covers, and are about two inches by one and a quarter inch in size. Don Quixote comprises two volumes. To my surprise, the best selling volume is a Spanish translation of the Kama Sutra. Both of my children wanted one, but we were able to find only one copy. It is the one book in the series that you don’t need to speak Spanish to appreciate, since it has a lot of pictures, which as they say, are worth a thousand words.
This is one of the few times that I arrived home from a trip without regretting books that I neglected to buy, since I think I bought all six of the books that I was at all interested in. In fact, what I regretted was some of the books I bought before I left. I quickly put the dry history and useless guide books up for sale on Half.com and rearranged the G section to make a place of honor for The Motorcycle Diaries. Occasionally as I pass by the shelf, I see the book, look up at it, and say, “Yes, Che, you were right. Problems abound, but the people and the sights and the architecture are still spectacularly beautiful.”
Joe Perlman operates Mostly Useful Fictions out of East Northport, NY