The Gringo’s Dilemma

April 6, 2011

by Joelle Renstrom

From the plane, the Andes look like a bolt of crushed velvet; the rolls fold and fall over themselves, like a throw rug after someone has skidded across it. From the ground, this massive tribe of mountains flank the skyline, steady under the rising and setting of sun and moon and stars.

A picture of the Virgin Mary and a rosary hung from the rearview mirror of the cab that I hailed at the airport in Cusco, Peru. Dust floated up from a road full of rusty clunkers and 80s music blared from every radio. My cabby spoke enough English to try and sell me a tour of the Sacred Valley. He had made a point of learning superlative adjectives: “My tour is superb,” he insisted; then, “It’s magnificent!” Twice he stopped to ask directions to the hostel; he left the cab running in the middle of the street and disappeared into a throng of people, leaving me idling in the backseat. Every time the traffic stopped, kids ran into the road and juggled huge knives for money.

This was just the beginning of the busking and begging I would see in Peru.

Approximately half the people in Peru live below the poverty line. Thus, the tourist wields incredible power and influence here; Peruvians are relentlessly conscious of being observed by a potential source of income. They do what they think will net them the most money, which often means dressing up and acting out scenes from the guidebooks, reinforcing stereotypes, and contributing to a cultural caricature.

On my first day in Cusco I saw a couple of men dressed up as Incans—they carried wooden spears and wore gold-plated necklaces and headdresses, jangly anklets and skirts. They each stood on the side of an old stone road that led up a hill to San Blas, looking like they’d come straight out of a fifth grade history textbook. Tourists swarmed, clamoring for pictures, posing so they could say to friends, “look, I met a real Incan!” I wasn’t sure whether I was more embarrassed for the tourists who seemed intent on demonstrating their own cultural ignorance or the men dressed up as Incans who, after they’d collected enough money, ran over to a shop and bought themselves Inca Kolas—bright yellow, bubble-gum flavored soft drinks produced by Coca Cola. 

I saw one of these men, still dressed in his costume, at four o’clock in the morning as I made my way to the Llama Path office for an early start on our six-day hike over the Salkantay mountain pass to Machu Picchu. The man stopped me on the street and chattered in Quechua, boozy breath spilling out of his mouth on the backs of garbled words. Seeing him stumbling down the deserted street still clad in his ridiculous garb presented a clear juxtaposition between the presentation for public consumption by light of day and the truth that comes out at night when the tourists are tucked away.

Even with the best and most mindful intentions, it’s difficult to avoid cultural exploitation, especially when engaged in a tourist must-do such as visiting Machu Picchu. The travelers who opt to hike rather than bus or train straight to Machu Picchu almost always use some kind of guide service, as most of us don’t own or can’t bring all of the necessary gear. The Inca Trail becomes a veritable highway in the busy season, so many travelers choose alternate routes over mountains such as Salkantay.

I chose Llama Path because they practice sustainable eco-tourism, they pay their guides and porters more than any other company, and they’re the only company to provide medical insurance for their workers. They appeared invested in providing a sacred experience to their clients, not simply raking in the tourist cash.

Still, even the best guide service can’t offer a completely authentic experience. I wrestled with my discomfort each day when, after eight or nine hours of hiking, we’d get to our campsite and find much of the camp already set up and water boiling over the fire. It was as though all of these amenities appeared by magic, as though supplies fell from trees for tourists.

Both of our guides were from Cusco, and neither had ever traveled outside of Peru. Despite their genuine friendliness and their constant expression of how fortunate they were for having homes and insurance and getting to hike these sacred lands, I wondered whether they resented us—how could they not? If they did, they never showed it; once we got back to Cusco, they even took us all out for a night on the town. They genuinely enjoyed showing us Peru, demonstrating the coca leaf ritual and describing other sacred beliefs; they raced us up slopes and held contests to see who could correctly identify jungle orchids. Still, each day as we hiked along the Andes I’d look at our motley crew and think, how did we get so lucky? In addition to the gratitude, I also felt shame—for being lucky in the first place, for being unable to transfer that luck to others, and for my complicity in the chasm between where we lived and where we traveled, where we worked and where we played. 

On day five we hiked into Aquas Calientes, the most affluent city in Peru due to its location just outside of Machu Picchu. We woke at four in the morning for the ascent to the lost city. Already buses were idling in the center of town, exhaust spilling out onto the street, mixing with the mist settling down from the mountains. Throngs of tourists were lined up for seats, trying to make it to Machu Picchu in time to see the sun rise over the mountains.

Over 2,000 people a day visit Machu Picchu in the high season. This traffic has created a slow landslide, and it’s estimated that in roughly 100 years, Machu Picchu will start crumbling. In Europe, traffic is restricted in and around sacred places; tourists can view the Acropolis from afar and take pictures, but can’t walk among or touch ancient relics. Peru has not (and likely will not) invoke such prohibitions for fear of lost revenue and legal entanglements resulting from the contracts with towns such as Aquas Calientes and with bus and train companies that shuttle tourists to and from Machu Picchu. They’ll let tourists do almost anything for a price, whether it’s climbing a steep and slippery mountain without gear or instruction to touching the structures at Machu Picchu. Some visitors actually crawl on the old Incan walls while tired workers half-heartedly blow whistles to shoo them off.

Despite the lack of regulation surrounding the tourist experience at Machu Picchu, there is an almost palpable feeling of reverence among visitors, perhaps because the site is simply so astounding that it’s next to impossible to feel otherwise. Unfortunately, that reverence becomes commodified and lost in other sacred places, such as Lake Titicaca.

Legend holds that Inti, the sun god, gave birth to the first Inca king on the Isla del Sol on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca. The king, Manco Capac, came ashore and expanded his kingdom throughout South America. Thus, Lake Titicaca, one of the highest navigable lakes in the world, is regarded as the birthplace of Incas and even of South American civilization.

In order to travel the lake, you need to take a tour or hire a guide. I took a small boat with a few other passagers from Puno, a modest city that dumps an astonishing amount of trash into the lake. The most popular spot on the Peruvian side of Titicaca is the floating island of Uros. Everything on the island—houses, canoes, paddles, baskets, even the island itself—is made out of huge reeds that resemble giant scallions. The residents cut and stack bushels of reeds, which decompose over time and create tight bales that they bind together to create the islands, over which they lay new layers of reeds on a daily basis. The idea of creating land from the water fits with the idea that a god gave birth to a king on this lake, and I love the image of someone simply sawing off a parcel of land, pulling up anchor, and paddling away if there’s a dispute.

Uros has become the Disneyland of Lake Titicaca. As soon as our boat pulled up alongside, we were greeted by Peruvian women in colorful skirts and their hair in two long braids. One of the residents, Alicia, showed us a canoe paddle and a fish basket that she’d made out of the reeds.  Alicia then took us into her hut where she showed us her clothing, hand-made and vibrant. She  insisted that we try things on—I backed toward the door while Alicia approached, holding a skirt toward me as though she were about to capture me in it. Eventually I let her fasten it around my waist; another tourist awkwardly tried on one of Alicia’s sun hats while another tried to fit into one of Alicia’s husband’s coats. 

Alicia then marched us to a little trinket stand behind her hut and showed us her wares. The idea that we were supposed to effectively compensate her for the performance in the hut felt uncomfortable, and when we expressed a lack of interest in her kitsch she pouted at us, as though to say, “I thought we were friends, but now you don’t buy my stuff?”  

Peru’s reliance on tourism means that there’s no way travelers can observe a peoples’ true way of life—the observer effect coupled with the hunger for tourist dollars prompts the natives to offer Lake Titicaca: The Ride. Some people say that Alicia and all the others on islands such as Uros don’t actually live there, that they show up early in the morning for the tourists. Would we be any the wiser? Could we tell the performance, the sometimes nuanced amplification and distortion of culture, from the reality? Desperation for and dependence on tourism has made reality virtually indistinguishable from, as well as consumed by, the performance.

Even more personally troubling is that my boat ride on Lake Titicaca and my presence at Machu Picchu contributed to the extinction of Peruvian culture, to the crumbling of history itself. This is the opposite of my intention, but I’m not sure how much intention matters. I wonder what I can do about this; not traveling is not an option. Does the sharing of thoughts, ideas, and paradigmatic shifts resulting from a tourist experience count, and if so, how much?

A few weeks later I hiked Colca Canyon, the deepest canyon in the world. I stayed overnight at the bottom in a village called San Juan de Cuccho, to which the government had finally brought electricity about two years earlier. The locals boasted about their hospital, which was the size of a small barn. They explained that the hospital was built by tourists who donated money and helped construct the building and carry in equipment. The people of these remote canyon towns love tourists, and not just because we buy Inca Kolas from their shops. Building something like a hospital helps preserve culture, rather than exploit or ruin it. Here, I saw the possibility of travelers repaying what they take, counteracting the tourist footprint.

It also serves me well to remember that not every consequence of the tourist influence is as serious or shameful what I experienced at Lake Titicaca. The night after I went to Machu Picchu, I took the train back to Cusco. The trip was uneventful until, suddenly and inexplicably, the train stopped. After about fifteen minutes, passengers started getting antsy; we all looked around for the train attendants but didn’t see them anywhere. A few minutes later, music came over the loudspeakers and a man dressed in the traditional white masked costume of the celebration of the Virgin Carmen came dancing down the aisle. It took a while for me to realize that this was the train porter. Then, the train attendants, one man and one woman, emerged from the bathrooms dressed in a suit and an evening gown. They put on a fashion show, complete with turns, smiles, and waves, to Abba’s “Dancing Queen.” They each tried on six different outfits—evening wear, day wear, day-to-evening wear—some traditional and some modern. Everyone on the train went crazy, laughing, snapping photos, and cheering the camp of this performance.

The difference was that everyone knew this was a performance; no one took it seriously or tried to pass it off as authentic. The train attendants seemed to understand and embrace the gentle satire of their show. Perhaps another way to combat cultural appropriation and exploitation is to inject it with humor, to get a jump on the more serious implications by acknowledging that they exist, but redirecting to a place where laughter is the most appropriate response. No culture has a monopoly on humor, and by reminding both citizens and tourists of that, any country no matter how developed can claim an authentic experience for itself.

 Joelle Renstrom lives in Boston where she teaches writing and science fiction at Boston University. She received her Masters of Fine Arts in creative writing from the University of British Columbia and her Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Michigan. Her work has appeared in Carousel, The Minnetonka Review, The Sycamore Review, Guernica, Briarpatch and others; a chapbook of her poetry was published by the University of Arkansas Press. She is a recipient of the CBC Television Jim Burt Prize in Creative Writing, the Hopwood Award for Poetry, and the Virginia Voss Writing Award. She recently finished a collection of essays about the intersection of literature and life.

 Samples of her work can be found on her website:

 www.joellerenstrom.com/publications.html

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27 Responses to The Gringo’s Dilemma

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