Commodification

Cusco, Manu Park, Montaña de Siete Colores, Lima, Cusco, Lima, Arequipa
July 16 through August 17, 2019

I wrote most of this blog entry two weeks ago and return to it now with a feeling of hopelessness; how can I possibly convey even a hint of how life has been for me since my old friend Jim Nielson came to keep me company in Peru? Jim has flown back to Toronto now – I write these words on Saturday, August 17 – and I feel obliged to make some attempt to catch up, because events are about to overwhelm me, once again.

I will produce a few inadequate paragraphs about the last few weeks and tack them onto the end of this post, upload a few photos, and promise myself to return to the subject in a week or so, when I’m established at Lake Titicaca, in Copacabana, Bolivia. I’m giving myself two hours for this. The clock starts . . . now.

Manu National Park – July 25-28

I have wanted to see a genuine tropical jungle since I was a kid. Monkeys, Tarzan vines, army ants, weird hooting noises from out in the darkness – everybody I knew at William Penn Elementary thought these things, plus molten lava, were among the world’s most fascinating topics. Who among us couldn’t perform a series of monkey calls, right now, that we first perfected in primary school?

The fantasy hasn’t aged very well, however. I care more than I used to about heat, filth, and biting insects. I also have gained some experience with hiking on trails where the vegetation crowds around you; when you can’t see more than ten or fifteen feet to your right or left, the scenery soon becomes a wash of more or less undifferentiated green. And I used to interpret the word “impenetrable” – always used to describe tropical jungles – as meaning, “penetrable, if you have a machete, big, bronze muscles, and manly determination,” but now I interpret it as “not penetrable.”

The real reason I hesitated before booking a trip into the jungle from Cusco, though, was that I had just come back from doing the Salkantay trek. Much as I enjoyed that experience, I was sick of feeling like an exploitable resource. I don’t like having somebody else making all the decisions, preparing all the food, and setting the schedule. Even worse was the suspicion that the friendliness and concern of the guides and porters were entirely purchased commodities; there is no way to know what a person thinks of you when you have paid them to laugh at your jokes.

My daughter, Laura, visited the Ecuadorian jungle ten years ago, so I asked her opinion about whether I should go. She answered in all caps: DEFINITELY. Laura doesn’t often answer questions that way. I booked a four-day trip to Peru’s Manu National Park.

The first day was mostly devoted to driving over the Andes. We stopped at a series of pre-Incan ridgetop tombs, where bodies had been interred in the cold wind to effect a sort of freeze-drying, and at a nice little colonial village, but most of our time was spent in the van. The last of the four days was also spent in transit. We had only two full days in the jungle.

My fellow gringos were three young German guys, an Australian couple, two young German women, and a Dutch family of four. These groups were largely self-sufficient; I didn’t so much as learn their names until the last day of the trip. It wasn’t really a problem for me that trip into the jungle was not a social experience, because encountering so much unfamiliar nature was so incredible that the simple fact of where I was and what I was seeing took up most of my attention. Laura had been absolutely right. I’ll quote here from a piece of email I sent her, shortly after the trip had ended:

As an outdoor adventure (the trip) was totally outside my experience, and as an education in what the word “biodiversity” means it was absolutely peerless. I’d had no idea how much life it’s possible to cram into a few acres of land. The tropical rain forest may not be a friendly place for humanity, but as a place for trees and plants and bugs and birds and frogs and monkeys and anteaters, and a bunch of things we saw only from their tracks, like tapirs and jaguars and armadillos, it’s simply incredible. One of the best things about the tour was that our guide was a genuinely committed and enthusiastic naturalist. This may have been my first experience with a tour guide that didn’t leave me shaking my head at all the misinformation. I was able to contribute occasional dribs and drabs – where Capuchin monkeys get their name, for instance, and something about the weird nervous systems of millipedes – but, for the most part, I shut up and took advantage of the opportunity to learn something new whenever our guide opened his mouth.

I am tempted to list the many new things I saw – the birds, trees, monkeys, ants, flowers, moths, butterflies, and so on – and to break up the monotony of the list by supplying little vignettes about the other people on the trip – but I’m afraid this effort would be interesting only to me, and maybe not even that. Instead, I’ll give you a glimpse of the trip, in a short movie I’ve hacked together.

A jerky seven-minute video of my experience in Manu National Park.

Montaña de Siete Colores (Rainbow Mountain) – July 31, 2019

In 2015, the snow and ice that cloaked a ridgeline southeast of Cusco melted away, exposing striped mineral deposits that soon attracted a few social-media adepts. Now, four years later, Instagram tourism has made Rainbow Mountain Peru’s second-most-visited spot, behind only Machu Picchu. I felt sure that the mountain scenery would justify a visit, despite the crowds.

A van picked me up very early from the street outside my Cusco hotel. The sun didn’t rise until we were far out into the countryside. Sprinklers were running in some of the fields, where they had spread a thick layer of ice over the plants. The speakers in the van played some Latin tunes, then the Beatles, then The Village People. We were given blankets to keep our laps warm as we climbed into the mountains.

The Rainbow Mountain parking lot is at more that 15,000 feet. The pass, and the knob above it from which visitors get a view of the colors, is visible from the parking lot, two miles away. About half of the people in my van immediately got into the line to rent horses; this surprised me, since trying to cope with the altitude was one of the features of the trip that I was most curious about. This was likely to be a very interesting form of suffering, and these horsey people might miss it!

A glaciated mountain hung in the sky on my left as I climbed. I’d forgotten my coca leaves, but I felt fine without them. The sky was clear, the views were stupendous in every direction, and I was part of a happy throng. A line of horses kept pace next to the hiker’s trail, each horse led by a local person in colorful traditional clothes, and each horse bearing a gringo, swaying wildly in the saddle. One of the horses produced a seemingly endless fart that I reacted to with humor, at first, but then, as it went on and on, my reaction changed to incredulity, then alarm, then amazement, and finally to a thoughtful appreciation of what may be an equine art form. The white-haired gringo on its back didn’t react in any visible way. Or maybe he was the one doing the farting, I don’t know.

We had been told that we should be ready to leave the pass and return to the van at 11:00, but I had reached the high point well before 10:00 and taken all of the photos I needed of the colorful stripes in the ground, so I turned my attention to the valley on the other side of the pass, where I could see a herd of alpaca grazing in the sere landscape. They were irresistible. My little expedition down into the alpaca valley felt like a bonus jaunt – an hour away from the humans, roaming happily among the mountains and the adorable camelids. I was back at the pass by 11:00, as scheduled. The crowd up there was simply absurd; it put me in mind of the base of the cables on Half Dome. Many of the people coming up the trail were bent over and gasping, but my weeks in Cusco had thickened my blood; I was feeling great. Watching other people suffer filled me with benevolent smugness.

The striped colors at the pass are not a good reason to visit Rainbow Mountain, but I thought the surrounding scenery, and the opportunity to find out how I felt at more than 17,000 feet, fully justified the trip. The transportation, a buffet breakfast, and a good lunch, only cost 70 soles – about $23. If you find yourself in Cusco, and you’re well acclimated – go.

Here are some pretty pictures from Rainbow Mountain.

My Final Thoughts about Cusco

On the way back from Rainbow Mountain, I struck up a conversation with a German doctor whose happiness and intelligence and accomplishments made me feel bad about myself. Gertrud was visiting Peru to spend time with a woman who she first got to know when this woman was just a girl, and living in her house as an exchange student, 30 years earlier. Gertrud was brave enough to ask the driver for Latin music during the drive back, and bopped happily to the beat whenever conversation waned. Rather than allow her hair to gray as she aged, she has chosen to dye it an unlikely shade of orange. She speaks German, Spanish, and English, to my certain knowledge, and probably a smattering of other European languages as well. She has three biological children and a fourth she adopted, who is from Cameroon. She and some friends have founded a charity that provides prosthetic limbs for injured Ecuadorian children. This was intimidating.

Most of the Ecuadorian child amputees lost their limbs to electrical accidents, according to Gertrud. Sometimes they are playing on rooftops and come into contact with low-hanging wires. Or sometimes a live wire is loose and simply lying on the ground. I must have noticed that the construction standards are very low in this part of the world. “Yes,” I said. “The carelessness is shocking. Surprising, I mean.” I explained that I have done a lot of amateur home repair, and that, even when you factor in my ignorance and ineptitude, I am a master carpenter/electrician/plumber/tile-setter/drywall artist/painter when you compare my work to the horrors of most projects in Latin America. “It isn’t too difficult to paint a bathroom without leaving drips running down the tiles,” I said. “Or to put wires in conduit, or in a wall, instead of draping them across the floor. Or to patch a hole with something that matches the original construction, and repaint afterwards. It isn’t that people here are in a hurry, or that doing a job well is too expensive. It’s a cultural difference. People just don’t care.”

As we rolled through the outskirts of Cusco, every building displayed this lack of concern. There was the exposed rebar that I’m always complaining about, of course. And the chunky mortar squeezing out between the unsymmetrical bricks and concrete blocks. And the wires hanging in loose coils on the outsides of the walls. And the stairs with no railings. And the scarred or half-finished paint jobs. And the decayed advertisements for politicians whose elections passed years ago. And the way windows and stairways and the top couple of floors of many buildings appeared to be afterthoughts, built using materials that are nothing like the rest of the building, and offset in strange ways to the outside walls. Scraps of corrugated iron, dented and rusting, used as roofing, and walls, and fencing. And the layer of dirt over every surface. The buildings got bigger and the traffic became more urgent and tangled as we approached Cusco’s center; and then a mile or so from the Plaza de Armas, slab-sided government buildings and the first colonial architecture began to appear. Within a block or two, the Cusco’s lovely central district had surrounded us.

Gertrud gave me her contact information and told me to stop by to see her whenever I found myself in Karlsbad, and then the van dropped her off in front of her hotel. She was looking eagerly up and down on the sidewalk, enjoying the vendors and the bustle, as the van turned a corner and a flash of her bright hair vanished from sight.

I had given myself one full day in Cusco after my visit to Rainbow Mountain, intending to use it to see some of the attractions that I hadn’t indulged myself in; I had hardly visited any of the churches and museums, which isn’t at all how I usually conduct myself in a new city.

My initial euphoria about Cusco had worn off, just as I knew it would.

Photos from what I’d thought would be my last days in Cusco.

Maybe Not My Final Thoughts about Cusco

I hadn’t finished writing the section that just ended with the words “just as I knew it would.” I had planned to spend some time grousing about being the target of the tourism industry, tying my complaints together under the theme of “commodification,” and saying an ambivalent goodbye to Cusco. It was going to be clever and crabby and generally unhelpful.

But then, on August 2, I flew to Lima and checked into a lovely Airbnb in the Barranco district, where Jim Nielson joined me. We had read that Lima had little to recommend it, but we weren’t prepared for the implacable truth of this observation. Our district – Barranco – was cute and old, but everyplace else, including the old heart of the city, was ordinary high-rise buildings, long stretches of brick walls topped by broken glass and barbed wire, or dangerous squalor – and always dirty and broken and neglected. We agreed that it was as though no one cared at all about how anything looks.

One morning we set off to visit the area around the University of Peru. First we stopped at the office of a travel agency where we intended to buy tickets for a day trip on the following day to visit a nearby preIncan ruin (“more than five million adobe bricks,” said the website), but there was nothing at the street address to which we’d been directed. This happened to us repeatedly, especially in long, futile attempts to find bookstores. After a little fumbling with our phones, we gave up and grabbed a taxi to the university.

The campus looked fine – such of it as we could see through the security fence, anyway – but the neighborhood was more like Federal Way than a university district; a Federal Way devoid of trees or parks or prosperity. We set off on what turned into a long walk along a busy street, heading for a bookstore Jim had found online. Bricks, dirt, trash, traffic, and noise, for miles. The hills around us were so dry and barren that they seemed to be the aftermath of an industrial accident or a bitter and prolonged war. We approached some retail establishments at an intersection, where a young man was standing on a friend’s back and juggling gold streamers. Then, unexpectedly, a series of five or six shacks selling antiques. A BMW dealership. A huge mound of dirt, at the base of which a dead dog turned out to be only napping. A McDonald’s. And, finally, a tony shopping mall, where we had lunch and found Jim’s bookstore. The first paragraph of a Spanish version of Lolita was nicely explicable to us, as was a random paragraph from the middle of the book – salacious and fun. We didn’t buy it, though.

After lunch, Jim bravely raised the possibility of freeing ourselves from the disappointments of Lima. We could fly to Cusco for a couple of nights, he suggested, and return to Lima only to leave it for Arequipa. Despite having just been in Cusco, this seemed like a great idea to me. We took a taxi back to Barranco and spent a few productive hours buying airline tickets and booking an Airbnb.

Cusco was bright and open and cute and nothing at all like Lima. We ate and drank well, visited Inca ruins, explored markets and churches, exulted over our lovely old apartment – it was the best escape from Lima that one could hope for. Incredibly, our original plan had been to spend two solid weeks there, with no Cusco or Arequipa; God only knows what we’d have done with ourselves.

Jim and I returned to our empty Airbnb in Lima for a day and then, on August 12, flew to Arequipa, Peru’s second-largest city. I had seen Arequipa on a list of good places for Americans to retire in Peru, but I knew hardly anything about the place; Jim had read more about it than I had. Our Airbnb had a nice view of Misti, the local volcano, and was a few feet from a park where llamas were tethered every day. It was a short walk to the city center, where all of the buildings are made of a white volcanic stone that glows in the unvarying, perfect sun. Arequipa is superb.

This would be a good place to talk about Peru in general. Having visited Lima, Cusco, the Andes, Manu Park, and Arequipa (and Tumbes, if you’re generous about what the word “visited” means), I have some opinions about the diversity of the country. But I can’t indulge this impulse and post these remarks today.

The subject that I am most embarrassed to have neglected in this post is my affection for Jim Nielson and my gratitude for his visit. I’ll have to let the photos speak for me, for the time being. There wouldn’t be an easy way to talk about Jim – anything honest would be terribly sentimental – but his visit is the only important thing that has happened to me for quite a while.

Photos from Jim’s visit to Peru.

Jim left on the evening of Thursday, August 15. On the following day – yesterday – I moved to a smaller, cheaper, worse Airbnb here in Arequipa, and then went out for lunch. The ordinary restaurant I found had a quotation on the wall: “La sinceridad del carazón humano en este mundo hace que incluso una deidad iracunda llore.” Next to this was posted the English translation: “The sincerity of the human heart in this world makes even a wrathful deity cry.”

Now I have to appreciate this kind of thing by myself again.

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2 Comments

  1. Community is important. An apartment is not enough.

  2. Jim!!! You’ve destroyed my illusions about Lima, Peru! I thought it was some emerald city to which I would one day travel via a yellow brick road!!!

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