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So I’m back from Peru (motto: “far fewer violent rebel armies than you think.”) I was there to visit the wife, who was working in a tropical medicine hospital in Lima. (Spanish for: “Lima.”) I spent the first week with her in Lima; then, when her job got done, we traveled up into the mountains, stayed in Cusco for a day, and went to Machu Picchu. (Also Spanish, and meaning “many picchus.”)
I was only in Peru for a total of ten days, so I’m not going to attempt any grand syntheses of Peruvian culture. (Well, one: they like fish. Oh, and are all deceitful, thieving parasites. Who like fish. I guess I DID get a deep understanding of Peruvian culture!) Big syntheses take work. Work interferes with my 'lounge around the den in cabana wear writing letters to the Vice President about how we all need to get back on the gold standard' M.O.
Lima is very very big. (I know: profound. It’s only to going to get more penetrating, my Peruvian insights). I mean: really big. I think it’s something like fifty times the size of Rhode Island. Or five? Or was that Fire Island? Anyway, it’s large. Sprawling. Filled with many neighborhoods.
It actually reminded me a little of Los Angeles. Both have ‘downtowns’, but the local neighborhoods are what matter. Also, like LA, it’s filled with anorexic women driving SUVs and trying to find green-only tanning salons. And opera houses designed by Frank Gehry.
No, that’s not right.
But both do have…uhm…taxis. (Transitions! They’re a part of good writing.)
The taxis in Lima alert passengers of their availability by honking. So, any time you walk out on the street, you find you’re constantly getting honked at. It’s a bit disconcerting. I kept wanting to apologize. You’ll be sitting there, plotting the violent overthrow of the government (for example) when suddenly a car across the street starts to honk at you. You think: “what?? What did I do? Why is this person honking at me when all doing is eating an ice cream cone and plotting the violent overthrow of the government?”
Then you think: “oh, wait; they’re just trying to get me to hire them.”
THEN you think, “well then why don’t they do it in a way that’s A LITTLE LESS AGGRAVATING.”
And then you take your Percoset.
“He’s waiting in the wings….”
While I was in Lima, I played a poker tournament. The tournament was scheduled to start at 9 pm. The tournament actually began…at 10:45.
That tells you all you need to know about Peruvian time. Oh, except this: in my Lonely Planet guide to Plotting Violent Overthrows of the Peruvian Government (its sinister purpose cleverly disguised by its unassuming title: Peru)
“As in the rest of Latin America, the concept of time is extraordinarily elastic; the concept of ‘on time’ is almost non-existent.’"
I LOVE that quote. I don’t know why. I feel there must be some way to it in my future work. At the very minimum, I could use it on my wife. If, for example, I neglect to do the dishes for fifteen straight weeks, say, I could print out a little guide explaining that in TimLand the “concept of doing the dishes is almost non-existent.” Or whatever.
As you probably know, Peru is one of the world’s top coffee producers. (It’s second, I believe. After Turkmenistan.) Interestingly, though, nine times out of ten when you order coffee in Peruvian restaurants, what you receive is not a wonderful, local bean. You get Folger’s instant. Why is this? Because all their good coffee goes abroad. To the gringos. (Spanish for: "penguin.") Because we deserve good coffee. Because we aren’t Catholic.
Cusco is up in the mountains. Very high. 95,000 feet, as I recall. On the recommendation of friends, we took anti-altitude medication as a prophylactic. Even then, on the first day after ten minutes walking around the town I got winded. On the last day, the wife stopped taking her medication (I threw her pills away, because she sassed me.) She said she definitely noticed the difference. For example, she grew gills. Which is strange, because we were in the mountains…
They abound, in Cusco. It is absolutely impossible to walk anywhere without being accosted fifty times by insistent, doe-eyed children trying to sell you tourist junk.
Why are there so many of them? Because everyone who goes to Peru goes to Machu Picchu (it’s in the constitution), and everyone who visits Machu Picchu stays in Cusco. So, there are lots of tourists; so, there are lots of tourist-related trappings. Like street vendors. And wild dogs.
Wait, no. No dogs.
But there were llamas. And alpacas.
Indian women who live in the mountains around Cusco bring them into town. As far as we could tell, they did so in order to make money charging tourists to take photographs of themselves next to a llama. (This is true, by the way. A man on our train to MP told a funny story about how he took a picture of one of the woman’s llamas without her seeing him in order to avoid paying. Stealing llama shots, as it were. Which is pretty sad, really, since the women generally wanted one sol for a picture—about 33 cents.)
However, it’s against the law to have a llama in town. (Imagine if they tried to pass that law in Los Angeles. Pandemonium!) So, the Cusquena traffic wardens (who were always women), upon the sight of a native Indian woman leading a llama through the streets, would blow her whistle and pursue the Indian llama-warden on foot.
I saw this happen two or three times in Cusco, and let me tell you, it was something. You’d think the Indian would have no chance; after all, she does have a llama in tow. But both times I watched, the Indian woman managed to duck into a back alley and evade the whistle-blowing warden. (The whistles, by the way, are phenomenally loud. If a policeman in New York tried to blow a whistle that loud, I’m pretty sure someone would come after him.) I guess the llamas helped. They know all the back allies, after all.
Before going to Machu Picchu tourists are generally advised to spend at least 24 hours in Cusco, being hounded by urchins. This we did. Because 95% of Cusco consists of stalls filled with native women selling clothing woven from alpacas, we ended up buying a few alpaca-related products. (Like a camera-phone. And goggles.)
In one of these stalls, the woman who was trying to sell me the rug I didn’t really want decided, I guess, that she couldn’t understand my Spanish, her Spanish, or my Quecha. To facilitate our haggling (which consisted entirely of us saying numbers) she had me type the price I wanted to pay into her cell phone. She responded by taking the phone, typing in a new price, and handing it back to me. In this way, we agreed that I would pay 80 soles for a rug I didn’t want, instead of 120. I’m not sure who ended up ahead on the deal.
Anyway, something about the experience stuck with me. Here I was, bargaining with a woman who had been weaving rugs the exact same way, using the exact same technology, for something like a thousand years. (Not the same woman, of course.) And yet, in order to sell it, she had taken to using a technology developed in the last twenty years to do something entirely unrelated. A very globalization kind of moment. I was sure Tom Friedman was going to pop out from behind a bush and start going on about Bangalore.