Last week our newest volunteer, Justin, flew into Lima, and (loyal welcome wagon that we are) our little Karikuy family all traveled to the airport to greet him. As I stood outside of customs, intently inspecting every male that walked by like a girl waiting for a blind date, I saw a lot of backpackers come through. At one point, two girls walked out, went up to the first taxi driver they saw, and asked him (in heavily American-accented Spanish) how much to get to Miraflores (Miraflores is the ritzy, US-influenced section of Lima). It got me thinking; tourists that come to Lima and only see Miraflores, or the plazas with their beautiful buildings and fancy hotels and restaurants, don’t really see Lima. They see the glitz and the glam and think, “Isn’t this great and beautiful and wonderful and romantic?” And it is a great city, but there’s just so much more that they’re missing.
So, when I take my little weekend getaways and travel around Peru and visit these tourists’ havens, am I really seeing Peru? Am I really doing what I came here to do? How do I learn what Peru is?
I’ve been struggling with this question a lot recently. For me, personally, I think the best way for me to really learn what Peru is all about is to make sure that this experience is more than just tourism; I need this to be a cultural immersion. And I think that seeing the tourist attractions is part of it; in Huacachina we saw and experienced a part of Peruvian geography. And going to landmarks like the ruins in Caral (the oldest ruins in the Americas and part of my adventures last weekend) is important because it’s a part of this country’s history. Eating local cuisine along the way is also a way of learning. (By the way, I tried guinea pig today. If you can get past the fact that it looks just like your household pet with its little claws and smooshed face, it’s actually pretty tasty.)
All of these things are pretty standard on any tourist’s agenda. But cultural immersion is so much more than that. It’s interacting with the people that live here; it’s going a Peruvian wedding in the city of Casma and making a fool of yourself on the dance floor with all of the other guests until the sun comes up; it’s riding in the combi buses instead of taking taxis; making friends with the lady down the street who sells cakes and desserts from her front door; it’s realizing that while you’re enjoying the scenic views of Lake Titicaca, hundreds of children are freezing to death.
I’m not trying to say that tourism is a bad thing. If I could afford it, you bet I’d stay a few nights at the Marriot Hotel in Miraflores. I’m just saying be aware that the little piece of the city or the country or the world that you see doesn’t paint the entire picture; be aware of the political issues and the social issues that exist in the areas you’re visiting. Maybe set aside one day or even part of a day of your vacation to learn about the lives of local people. Enjoy your vacation—Peru is an incredible land—but learn something, too. I think that’s a balance that I am still trying to reach.
NOTE: In the past couple of years, global warming has made winters in the region of Puno, Peru much longer and harsher than ever before. Many of the Peruvians within this region do not have enough resources to deal with these harsh conditions. Hundreds of men, women, and children are dying of the flu because they cannot properly clothe and protect themselves. The Karikuy organization is trying to raise funds to buy blankets, sweaters, and shoes for the children of Puno. I’m working here and I’m living here, and I can promise you this is 100% legitimate. If you can give even $5.00 it will make a world of difference. Even if you can’t spare any cash (I’m an unemployed college graduate myself, so I know how it works), look into the issue. The more people that know, the better.