Updated: Dec 28, 2020
The Human Development Index (HDI) places Peru 76th overall in the world. This conclusion is drawn from a matrix of important general indicators such as health, education and wealth. I think this is fair. Out of roughly 200 sovereign states in the world, the Peruvian people have an above average quality of life within a naturally rich country, abundant with opportunity. Sadly, the citizens of Peru remain heavily burdened by a weak and corrupt state, profound inequality and a painful colonial legacy.
Rainy season in Cusco is long and wet! It is in fact a tropical monsoon, at 3000 meters
On Patrick’s Personal Scale (PPS) of countries worth visiting and even living, Peru has snuck into the top ten! The criteria used for this adaptive and fluid scale include such variables as; current interest, topography, cultural diversity (particularly where there is a large non-colonial language group), gender equality (hence where I can interact with both women and men somewhat equally), cost of living / cost of travel – in some relation to poverty, safety and cuisine. According to these measurables, Peru rates highly in several categories and leads the pack in topography – from a dramatic coast, to extremely high mountains and plateau and down into the Amazon basin; sea to sky (to hijack a British Colombia phrase) is perfectly applicable!
Peru doesn’t fair as well in security which does have some affect upon hospitality (although Peruvians are almost universally friendly to visitors) and although Peru is a country where people are healthy and food is abundant, poverty detracts from the development of services an sours relationships. Confidence among people is extremely low which makes living in Peru a challenge.
And for those who are wondering, my current top-ten, based upon the PPS scale (including both countries I know well and have not visited) and establish on a north-south access (not a quantified 1-10) are:
Arequipa – Peru’s beautiful 2nd city
Greenland (excluding Denmark)
Canada (including Quebec)
The United States of America
India (this takes a lot of qualifying)
Mexico (excluding Cancun and Acapulco)
Bolivia (long vying for number 1 position)
Southern Chile in all its glory – Osorno Volcano
The distinct American bias of the above list is noted, but when I compare my years in wonderful Europe to my years in South America, I still feel I’ve only scratched the surface of America. I know enough not to idolize Simon Bolivar and I know enough to really respect plate tectonics, but I also know from my home in the Canadian Rockies, down through the dramatic American West, to the highlands of the Andes and the winds of Patagonia, the western sides of these two continents combine most of the elements I consider important and appealing.
Ergo, when I was offered a year position in Cusco it was such a simple decision. I accepted for 9-months because of Finn’s school year and lead an economic study of the Cusco region. In advancing the work, I strived to separate travelling and ex-pat life from dispassionate economic analysis in my work. Marginal and disempowered populations are of direct concern to my government organization and the lack of effective governance throughout Cusco and Peru emerged as the preeminent challenge, regardless of the economic sector. I have also become increasingly concerned by the unregulated NGO sector – but that is fodder for a different blog!
At least the government talks about corruption
If you have been around tourism or community branding (a process I saw railroaded and mismanaged in a previous professional role…), you will have certainly heard about diversity or something for everyone or even worse that the local or national icon should be avoided – as if Paris were to ignore the Eiffel Tower! In terms of a brand, Peru is both rich and difficult. To deny Machu Picchu is to deny absolute fact. In fact to the outside world, Peru as a brand is far weaker than a few specific features: Machu Picchu, the Amazon (though much more credit due to Brazil) and the Nazca Lines. I’ll also give Lake Titicaca an honorable mention. The genuine desire to visit any one of those famous destinations does not Peru make. And therefore, I like the Peru brand:
The Bad is also tied up in the Peruvian state. Corruption is so profound that the perception of corruption is enough to hinder government and drive a wedge between neighbours. Peruvians often refer to ‘persons of confidence’ in an almost mafia-esk manner. Trust is incredibly low and shockingly, the tolerance of – and for -theft, dishonesty and inept institutions is akin to simply shrugging off a May snowstorm in Canada.
Egypt is not high on the PPS
I remain involved in the extortion issue we were subjected to at the Desaguadero (Peru-Bolivia) border crossing. The issue has been escalated through some redundant internal process and after hours upon hours of testimony, an important sounding legal-type in Lima wants it all again … and with so much detail as to render the process virtually impossible – “please provide us with your travel receipt and time stamp from the informal taxi you took”. Meanwhile, travellers’ forums across the Internet highlight this particular frontier as a user-pay facility where the stability of a formal state is far from present.
At an outdoor coffee stand in Desaguadero, surrounded by contraband merchants, I was told that extorting money at this international crossing is simply a reality, yet to the official in Lima, this is news! In fact I find myself a victim of a confidence-deficit, wondering if the official is simply digging for information to some other end… it is so hard to know as government still uses Hotmail accounts!
Another story to highlight the resigned tolerance to disempowerment that Peruvians suffer happened on my last day. Some friends from Cusco were in the capital and we organized to have a final lunch. I was thrilled to see them and took the opportunity to lament the fact I had been passed several counterfeit notes while changing money. They were very sympathetic. As the conversation progressed, I discovered that just that morning, on LAN Airlines, their camera was stolen and the crew of the aircraft did absolutely nothing! I would have been infuriated – yet their attitude was simple one of resignation.
– I suppose there is a Zen-like quality to this fatalism and the importance of friendship over possessions is an oft-touted quality, but knowing you do not really have to be responsible because there is no accountability results in capitulation, not enlightenment.
Yet I have a grudging respect for the less-formal elements of Peruvian society. Not the lying, cheats who live like petty thieves the world over, but rather those who have circumvented a failed state and have succeeded in bettering their conditions despite the absence of a stable economic, political or institutional environment – and yes, I include the Catholic church in this quagmire of failure.
What I discovered in Puno was an entire economy vibrating at a more efficient level than I witnessed in Cusco or in Lima. I was regaled by ominous stories of human sacrifice, a discreet Aymara brotherhood (and if there were an Altiplano Illuminati hoarding unknown wealth, I most certainly want in!) and an economy based on smuggling, counterfeit factories, cocaine production and intensive illegal mining.
All this is, I suppose, the ugly, but in a world where I sat in government meetings hearing the local people are just not educated enough to be responsible for their actions, I respect the Fuck You Government attitude that actually resulted in a contraband protest in the centre of Cusco. If you are not going to run the country fairly, keep your hands off our economy!
I began writing for a wider audience quite late in the sojourn because I wanted to say something meaningful. Personally I have lived an important experience and I walk away with the same passion for South America I developed 10 years ago – warts and all. I’m not sure I understand Peru, but then I have written books about Canada I don’t get it either. In fact as I mentioned in a previous post, I most certainly do not believe I was living in Latin America, rather I was living in the Inca Capital administered by a post-colonial, semi-stable state.
I can happily go on and on about all I learned about Peru and can help you invest! Specifically I was doing a sector study of the Cusco economy and as so much of the population lives on the line of subsistence agriculture, it was not particularly difficult. I hope to explore Peru’s vast cash economy in a longer book or study, but this was somewhat less obvious in Cusco than in other regions.
But these reflections should be personal. I have been home four days and have woken up every night speaking Spanish to little Finn. This is not all that odd, except he lived with me most of the time in Peru and we communicated in French and English. So this new need to communicate in Spanish reflects the link I have with South America – a cultural umbilical cord my subconscious uses to maintain a connection. Cusco was the navel of the Earth – and all roads lead to her!
The centre of La Rinconada – 5000 meters above sea level
Years ago southern Chile changed me. Now Cusco must have had an effect. Or an affect – or in modern syntax, it must have impacted me – or at least have had an impact. Physically my body changed. Living well above 3000 meters (10 000 + ft) for an extended period was incredible. I switched from dinner to lunch and chewed coca leaves (as much for flavour as any health benefit). I think I acclimatized fully to 5000 meters, but at the magic 6000 (nearly 20 000ft) my head hurt and I was dizzy … I don’t think I will join the 8000 club in the Himalayas.
We certainly learned of the importance of soccer in a society. Playing on cement, within a small, enclosed pitch was hard and foot control was the name of the game. So was accuracy! In a society where elders are respected, I was scolded by a 13 year old for missing his pass. Women and girls rarely played and this is a deep shame – the women of the highlands are incredibly strong and regularly walk up steep hills, at high altitude carrying heavy bags. Even on public transport they demonstrated incredible agility while in high heels – they are born athletes, so I do sincerely hope my friends at the climbing gym do develop a women’s team – they could dominate!
Coming from the prosperous Canadian west, I have always understood the wealth of my home and am proud of our standard of living. Nevertheless, it was refreshing being back in a less empowered economic environment. The first conversation was rarely about money and while I tended to pay when out with locals, they did not ask to be taken out. I was less driven by success than by quality.
I honestly do not want to spend my life commuting on crowded busses, but I did enjoy the morning camaraderie of sitting with neighbours who never expect any other form of transport. This semi-informal transport system was also reflected in the retail sector. From our house in a reasonably nice area, there is a selection of 12 corner shops within 100 meters. The fellow who over-charged me the first weekend never saw my business again, but likely saw me almost everyday! I developed real relationships with the two shops I most often frequented and turned their owners with questions and for advice.
As per Mile’s Law: “Where you stand depends on where you sit,”[ii] and sitting atop the Andes certainly changes one’s position. The South American highlands are a long way from the rest of the world and some conflicts feel, well, far away. The tropical monsoon still occurs, but at 3000 meters the rain is cold and without heating one learns to live the rhythm of the sun – most days I awoke before 6 and was asleep before 9 (ok … not a huge change in my schedule).
These are pedestrian cultures and they reminded me what a gift it is to walk and to share space with other people walking. The disturbing lack of basic infrastructure increases personal responsibility – at least in an immediate sense – and one develops heightened radar for uneven pavement, cars, garbage, dogs and children. Ethno methodologists who study interactions in specific environments, must love South America – almost everything is custom and people are required to adapt to very specific challenges and realities.
So, in conclusion, or I suppose in some transitory moment of reintegration into my society, Cusco, or even Peru – as reflected in me – offers a peculiar sense of freedom. Freedom of knowing I can leave this extremely expensive existence for comfort and happiness at a fraction of the cost. The freedom of the third world far from other conflicts and far from the first world regulation of Europe or the defined consumer environment of North America. Freedom of knowing that not all dreams come true and that one can find grace and happiness in life as it is.
For now, I have written enough about the challenges and the poverty of the region. My respect for the Quechua people is real. I could never be Quechua – but I do know they would welcome me and would be even more appreciative if I respected their identity by honouring their language, their lifestyle and doing something to protect their environment. I thank Cusco for reminding of my freedom and I thank Peru for hosting me this last year.
I first came upon this quote hearing a talk from former UN General Secretary Boutros Boutros Ghali discussing the role of Genghis Khan in Mongolian identity
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