Peru’s Haves and Have-Nots

On a clear day you can see forever

 The High Plains Drifter would have felt right at home here on the altiplano. Not a con-trail crosses the sky. In the distance, mountains are lost in the clouds and mist. Peru is more than the sum of its parts, and no photograph can do the country justice.

Although I could most certainly blog about the places we have visited (and to omit Lake Titicaca and Machu Picchu would be criminal), today I’m thinking about the dramatic discrepancies between the rich and poor.

Another thought is that I need to issue a disclaimer. Reading a few tour books and traveling about for 28 days does not make me knowledgeable. The thoughts I share are only impressions and are half-baked at best. I certainly haven’t seen the country north of Lima, and our guides, as wonderful as they have been, do not agree on every point either, so my information is fragmented. Any reader who would like to correct or elaborate on my ramble, need only add their comments at the end of the blog. I would appreciate any clarification you have to offer.

Travel is, after all, just a series of impressions. And asking questions does not always lead to answers. For instance, most of the houses are half-finished with re-bar extending up from the first story. Some of the adobe houses have begun to disintegrate and look derelict. Only a dog at the door or chickens in the yard would suggest that the houses are occupied.

So I asked our guide about the re-bar, and he replied that the taxes were higher for finished houses, so by intention they  left their houses unfinished. A couple of days later, I asked another guide. “Shouldn’t the government impose a time-limitation on those who evade taxes by leaving their houses unfinished?” And this guide was quite surprised. According to the second guide, taxes have nothing to do with the unfinished houses; rather, Peruvians cannot get credit, so all purchases are pay-as-you-go. Often, he said, it takes three generations to complete a house.

So there you have it. Two notions – either or neither may be correct. Take you choice. 

All our guides to this point have risen from the lower class, and all of them are intensely proud of their Inca heritage. By true grit they have left the hardscrabble countryside of subsistence farming, gone to college, learned a number of languages and studied tourism.

Peru is a large country so all crops are not farmed in every part, but a family may have some chickens, a pig and maybe a cow or some sheep or alpacas. Quinoa, corn, barley, beans and potatoes are the key crops which they grow on small plots of land which they plow with oxen. If the family raises giant guinea pigs or alpacas for meat, they must buy alfalfa and beast-of-burden-style tote it home on their backs in a hand-woven shawl.  The family consumes 90% of the farm’s output. If  the gods smile on the farmer, perhaps the family will have 10 % to sell or barter for items that they cannot grow. 

A battered truck is a luxury. Some families have bicycles or small dirt bikes. Walking is the most common mode of transportation. Everywhere you see men and women hunch-backed under a load of grain, corn, alfalfa, a baby, or wood.  As for the harvest, families gather together to harvest as a team which is no small thing when everyone I saw was using sickles, not scythes. It is a hard life. The corn harvest is finished. Now they harvest potatoes.

If a farmer is lucky enough to have livestock, he/she/or the children who are not lounging about in front of a television, must walk the livestock to a grazing ground. Some shepherds just watch the herd; others tether the animals and move the pins from time to time. At dusk they walk them home again.

Everything, from the daily moving of the stock to preparing for Market Day by doing the weekly wash (in a nearby stream and spreading it over the grass to dry) is labor intensive. All women, from the youngest girl with her drop spindle to the oldest crone, are involved in the making of textiles. Think about the effort. First they need some sheep or an alpaca which they take to pasture daily. Then they shear the animals, pick out the burrs, card the fleece, wash and spin the wool, and finally weave the textile.

Young girls supplement the family income by making friendship bracelets. Each bracelet costs one sol which is about 33 cents. Tablecloths, sweaters, wall hangings, etc. are more expensive, but given the amount of time it takes to weave each item, each woman makes a slave’s wage.

Although the guides know that there are more affluent countries out there, their passion for all things Peruvian is palpable as is their distrust of the central government. One guide said, “Peru is a rich country, but the money never comes to the countryside. The politicians pocket the money.”

Lima’s central city looks like any other glass and steel metropolis. But that is the central city. Driving in from the airport, we passed the slums: rat warren hillsides packed with one-room, adobe houses. Some had tin or thatch roofs. Some had window glass and doors. Many habitations were just an arrangement of tarps. Some shanty towns had electricity. Others did not. Perhaps some towns had running water and sanitation. But driving past, I saw women carrying water from a central hydrant. Between the highway and the shanty town, men and women squatted India-like in the shitting fields. Of necessity people clustered in two or threes as they squatted in the dirt to do their “business.” Or… perhaps this shitting by the highway was a non-violent protest. I wouldn’t know.

Interspersed amongst the shanty town shelters were houses that were more house-like. These, we were told, were owned by people who chose to live in shanty town because no one living in shanty town is taxed. 

With so many people coming to the city for a better life, you can appreciate the impact that the migration has on the city infrastructure. Even if misappropriation of money were not an issue, the influx of peasants would out-pace any government’s ability to absorb them.

(And at this point, I need to mention that 11 days into my journey, I lost my notebook full of extensive notes. I did, for instance, record the number of migrants per month, but my memory is frail and without my notes, all is lost.)

Peru has many natural resources and the economy is growing and has surpassed that of Equador. The number of children born to each mother has decreased from seven children to four. Schooling is more available and more children are attending high school. The signs are obvious. How strange to see a woman in traditional dress (a full, pleated cotton skirt, wool stockings, a blouse, a sweater, a Mother Hubbard apron, and a hat) talking on her cell phone. How strange to see a reed house on Lake Titicaca with a solar panel. How strange to see a satellite dish on the roof of shack.

Slowly but surely the Peruvians are learning about marketing. The day we spent on Lake Titicaca we went to two towns, and in many respects these very dissimilar towns are reflections of Peru as a whole. The first “town” was the floating, reed beds of the Uros. Driven off the land during a drought some 1,000 years ago, they moved to the marshes in the bay of Puno. Dependent on water fowl and fishing, they found sanctuary in the lake itself by binding reeds together and then building houses on top of the artificial reed islands.

Today they know everything about marketing. As our boat approaches one of the islands, the women run to the dock and begin to sing. Disembarking the boat, each of us is taken by the hand and asked our name. We give our name, and from that point on, our name is in constant use. Our hostess (who has introduced herself and given us her name) leads us by our hand to her house, where we meet other members of her family. We are captive: to remove our hand would be impolite. Once inside the house, we are decked out in a traditional costume. The house to which I am invited had a solar panel which powered one electric lightbulb hanging from the ceiling and a small black and white TV. After we were costumed, they took our picture – alone and with one or two family members.

And then… the kill! We were led to the grandmother and introductions followed. Lots of hand shaking and hugging and naming. And then the big sell. Did we buy? You bet we did. How could we not after so much hospitality? Did we feel used and abused? A bit, but their greasing the wheels before the sales pitch was so flawless, we could only be impressed with their entrepreneurship.

So the Uros communities are using the car sales model: engage the customer in conversation some number of minutes and the probability of a sale is ensured.

This is in contrast to those living on the island of Taquile. No cars or dogs are allowed in this community. In the main square, two cooperatives sell textiles woven by the women. Each item has a price (determined by the townsfolk), and all like-items are the same price. The town governs itself, and all decisions/conflicts are resolved every Sunday morning in the town square. There are no hotels. Should you wish to spend the night, you go to a tourist office and are assigned a home that will welcome visitors.

The Uros have embraced tourism and milk it to their advantage. Those who live on Taquile, accept tourism, but on their terms. It’s tricky balancing economic development with a rich traditional culture. Peru’s have-nots are on the verge of having more. It is both exciting and scary to think about how the up-coming presidential election will play out on June 5. Neither of the two candidates (Ollanta Humala and Keiko Fujimori) have much popular support. Whoever is elected will be walking up-hill.

About timeout2

I have lived 100 lives. I write essays, short stories, poetry, grocery lists and notes to myself. If I am ever lost, look for a paper trail, but be careful not to trip over any books that lie scattered here and there. I am a reader. I am a reader in awe of writers. When I don't live in Westcliffe, Colorado, I live in London where I am a long-time member of Word-for-Word - Crouch End.
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