Dead Dogs and Trash – Daily Life in the Peruvian Highlands (Cusco)

Updated: Dec 28, 2020

This was the first blog I wrote from Peru…. It was written in ‘real’ time. I do not want to change it, but obviously want to point out I no longer live in Peru and Finn has grown! At the time I was working on a project for a Canadian-funded agency. The project was interesting (on paper) and it did give me fairly open access to higher levels of government in the region. In theory I was doing a broad economic study of the region as part of cooperations agreements that went along with the trade deal being signed between the two countries. Cusco is famous for tourism, but agriculture still dominates employment and does mining.

I met wonderful, dedicated people and also witnessed painful underfunding of government agencies as well as classism. Additionally I was whiteness to the often manipulated NGO sector – I remain rather neutral on this subject as some simply do nothing, but support themselves, whereas others replace the lacking services of corrupt and ineffective governments.

We continue to miss Cusco and Peru and I hope peace and stability can help improve the conditions of daily life. I also hope the Quechua language will remain the language of the street!

Here was the blog …

Dead Dogs and Trash  The Glory of the Peruvian Highlands

We are currently living in Cusco, Peru. One of the most famous cities in the world and the flag-bearer for pre-Colombian culture in South America. However, we are not living in central Cusco, rather several kilometres down the valley in an upscale neighbourhood where my 7 year old son goes to an ‘exclusive’ bilingual school – the only option available for our short period here.

Cusco - Peru

The Street View in the Suburbs

Unfortunately today is Tuesday and Tuesday is Fear and Loathing day – otherwise known locally as garbage day. Every Tuesday (and Friday), the 10 minute walk to the school becomes somewhat more adventurous, with piles of garbage strewn about attracting the multitude of stray dogs that roam the streets of this historic region. The dogs seem well enough fed, but certainly garbage day is a bonanza, offering food, diapers and all the excitement necessary for barking wildly and assaulting any slightly enthusiastic bitch.

Automobile horns – used with more confidence than Quechua, the region’s true language – shatter the mountain tranquillity almost continuously as drivers swerve to avoid stray dogs, while offering no such courtesy to pedestrians. Parents dropping their children at school honk aggressively and race by us brave foot-travellers, yet greet us warmly once out of the protective metal casing of their vehicles. This, needless to say, is by no means unique to Peru. Perhaps just a little exaggerated. I am still waiting for the study between automobiles and testosterone to be officially released, yet at least in conversation everyone understands this dualistic existence is deeply inconsistent.

This particular morning, we were forced to cross the street five time in under two city blocks. Tuesday journeys are defined by aggressive dogs, road works (with labourers working extremely hard, for poor wages) and the inevitable dented vehicles speeding past as we tip-toe around fecal matter and used toilet paper. We turn right, uphill – always an effort at 3400 meters (12 000 ft) – where the real bottleneck forms. A broken security gate frames drainage work on either side of the road. Cars and crowed school busses (at least half the children are forced to stand) race toward one another somehow expecting a space to open much as the Red Sea does in the stories perpetuated by the multitude of foreign missionaries, now vying with the Catholic Church to save the poor Inca souls. Of course a space does not magically open and the converging vehicle break quickly, if not silently, scraping against broken barriers and folding in their mirrors to squeak past each other, without eye contact or even a smile.

Cusco - Peru

Poor Dog

This is a common global scene and in its own right even a little funny, but this morning one of the stray dogs was caught in the middle. The poor mutt, shaggy, black hair, harmless yet hungry was trapped between two vehicles with the school bus administering the termination order. It was abrupt enough to hopefully be painless, yet all the same, awful.

I am generally not a person of few words, yet all I could muster for my son was “that was awful.” We walked silently on to school, we kissed, hugged and confirmed the 2:45 pick-up time.

There is nothing unusual about this experience and yes, yes we eat meat and contribute to global pollution and the oppressive global economic structure. And yes there are greater tragedies happening around the world at any given time and yes I don’t even like dogs very much, but we are here – in Cusco – in the heart of the Inca Empire. There is virtually no person on Earth that has not seen the magnificent photos of the Machu Picchu, the lost City of the Incas. Yet only a few city blocks outside of the historic city centre of Cusco, the city is rough, polluted, unfinished and filthy. Parks are defined by rusting playground infrastructure, dog feces, garbage and broken glass. We play soccer on small fenced cement pitches. Evening tranquility is shattered by car alarms and barking dogs.

This is a proverbial bread-basket and the people we interact with on a daily basis are Quechua, not Spanish or European and in my opinion this Andean region is among the most beautiful places on Earth. They maintain a connection to their Pachamama – Mother Earth and enjoy a lively pedestrian culture defined by enticing street food and diesel fumes. Wages are extremely low and while the cost of living is indeed significantly lower than North America or Europe, people still struggle to survive on monthly wages equivalent to $285 – and the work week is 48 hours! Corruption and mismanagement is so profound it is simply accepted.

The last few weeks here have been eventful. In order to lengthen our stay we have to regularly leave Peru – generally to Bolivia. Returning this time was a little more challenging than normal. No less than three distinct general strikes rendered travel virtually impossible. We did make it to Peru, where the border guards extorted money from the group of 12 foreigners we were travelling with. It is hard to imagine just how profoundly the Peruvian population is held to ransom.

The two day general strike in Cusco had several causes, but principally was to protest gas prices – or more specifically the failed promise to make gas more affordable. With the enormous list of potential complaints the population may have here, I suppose the cost of cooking and heating fuel (in a remarkably chilly environment) is probably a fair complaint. Latin Americans have had to tolerate a painful mix of authoritarian dictatorships occasionally replaced by noisy populist movements that have served to further bankrupt the population (currently highlighted in Argentina and Venezuela).

Confidence between people is very low and in conversation it seems all too often many problems are blamed simply upon (and not quite directly translated) a lack of education. For my part, I have more respect for the people here. They are not naive natives caught in the blinding light of modernity. Rather they are a people with shockingly little economic empowerment who have not only lost any trust in public institutions, but probably never had any.

After 7 months living here, I argue a good place to start could be garbage management. We live specifically in the municipality of San Jeronimo, Province of Cusco. It is shocking and unsafe to have human and animal feces spread around the streets. I cannot imagine just how disgusting the garbage collection job must be for workers with thin masks and plastic gloves to try and pick up the piles of trash. Perhaps that is why so much is missed.

A few dog-proof containers (and indeed a sterilization program), fixed collection times and a managed processing facility could go a long way to promoting public health, civic pride and a degree of confidence in public services. There is budget enough for doing this right away. I am not quite at the point of calling for a boycott of Cusco, as that would simply hurt the most vulnerable, but I certainly do not mind shaming the political leaders here into some concrete action to deal with a few specific issues; trash, dogs, traffic circulation and pollution – next, it would be wonderful to see signs written in Quechua in addition to Spanish – it is the first language of the majority of the population!

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