On the Cuyuni

To say that I was skeptical of spending a day with a group of people–a tribe?–who lived at over 13,000 feet in the Andes near Cusco, Peru would be an understatement. The whole idea of ethno-tourism rocks my world in a strange way. Harkening back to the anthropologists of the late 19th and early 20th century who struck out for parts unknown hoping to find some isolated group of humans who were still living in a stone-age culture, we set out from our hotel in Urubamba to visit a group of people, isolated in a small Andean village outside of Cusco, to find out what their daily routine was like. No matter how you look at this, it just feels odd. We drove out of Urubamba and up into the mountains, meeting a small welcome committee on a high, isolated plain in the middle of the Andes, above the tree line at 13,870 feet. The air is thin and cool, the stubby pines that have been planted in this rarefied atmosphere are just that, stubby. The welcoming committee was gracious, and we all hiked up to a grassy knoll where the village priest or pacco or misayoq or shaman was preparing a blessing or prayer to the Pachamama or earth-mountain spirit. The ritual was very moving and very colorful. I was struck by the theatricality of the experience, the colorful costumes worn by the local people, their willingness to interact with us, the outsiders. They then proceeded to show us how they cut the local peat moss for fuel and invited some of us to use one of their locally made spades that they use for digging, tilling and planting their crops. For lunch we made our way to their village, and a brief, but expected, rainstorm, soaked everything, including us, as we gathered for lunch in the center of their community at the local one-room school. The Peruvian government has invested a certain amount of time and money into modernizing the village and its cooking, and we were offered a well-prepared and tasty lunch served up to restaurant standards of presentation and hygiene, and it was very good. After lunch we had a weaving demonstration, and we met a llama or two, and our day ended with traditional music and dancing. I am still at odds as to what I think about all of these “demonstrations” of local traditions and practices. I know that our presence brings much needed income into the area, but I am also sure that our presence is a kind of cultural contamination that will change everything for these people. On the other hand, better roads and technology have improved the lives of these isolated people, and some things, such as their health, has gotten better. Crops and harvests have improved as well as education and parallel social issues. Yet, there is a nagging question that remains: is “ethno-tourism” morally wrong or ethically acceptable? I don’t think the answer is black and white or simple in any particular way. I really enjoyed meeting these people, seeing where they lived, eating their food, checking out the livestock–llamas are not common in central Texas. In a way, they were working by interacting with us, which, of course, brings prosperity to an otherwise economically depressed area, and although the mountains are breathtaking where they live, no one can eat the scenery and life at 13,000 feet is very tough. Tourism works for these people. Perhaps change is not always as horrible as it seems, and I’m not going to idealize their authentic lives or existence all out of proportion. The problem I have with all of this is not a simple one, but it does have to do with radically different cultures clashing and what the different participants of that clash take away from the experience. There are questions of poverty, technology, language, religion, and politics which must go both unanswered and unexplored due to time and space. I would go back, though, because seeing a totally different culture practice its traditions, whatever they might be. re-ignites a person’s fires of self-awareness. You see, the contemplated life is a life worth living even if questions and doubts linger.