Most of the time, traveling leaves me feeling invigorated, renewed and inspired. I thrive on immersing myself in new cultures, sampling the local cuisine and getting to see historic landmarks with my own eyes. But there are times when traveling becomes more than just a series of carefree days spent sightseeing, eating and marveling at beautiful scenery. Sometimes, travel causes me to pause and reflect. I become more introspective, even conflicted by the space and place in which I find myself. I most recently experienced these feelings while visiting Cusco, Peru.
In November, my Russian, another couple and I embarked on a weeklong adventure to Peru. Admittedly, I did little research or planning prior to the trip and instead opted to go in with an open mind, little expectations and leave the itinerary planning to the others. Our trip was divided into two parts, with the first half spent exploring Lima and second venturing to Cusco, culminating with a day trip to Machu Picchu. I enjoyed wandering through the seaside town of Miraflores in Lima, but the highlight for me there was the food tour we took on our last day. Not only because of the exquisite cuisine we sampled, but because of the interesting perspectives our guide Hari shared with us about the political and socioeconomic status of the country.
He was not so subtly critical of the government and its handling of various issues. And while I appreciated his candor, I absorbed his comments with a grain of salt with the exception of one. He explained that Peru was not plagued by racism, but rather classism and noted that a deep seeded divide persists between the indigenous people who reside in rural mountainous regions such as Cusco and citizens living and working in the city. So much so that younger generations have chosen to abandon their native languages and adopt Spanish in an effort to assimilate. Rather than being embraced, protected and appreciated for enriching the cultural fabric of Peru, indigenous populations are shamed by society and made to feel less than.
These thoughts were still swirling in my head as we bid Lima farewell and boarded our flight to Cusco. As we began our descent, I caught my first glimpse of the picturesque mountain town and a wave of excited anticipation came over me. When I stepped off the plane and took my first deep breath of the crisp, thin mountain air and observed the quaint homes and buildings with terra cotta roofs scattered throughout the base of an expansive stretch of the Andes mountain range, I knew we were in for a very unique experience.
After settling in to our hotel, a rustic family owned bed and breakfast, we headed out to explore Cusco. The town was so picturesque and everywhere I turned was a photo opp. I was captivated by the architecture and the sheer natural beauty of the land. But what stood out most were the people. I passed several locals in their native attire going about their day and it felt as if I had stepped back in time.
It wasn’t until the next day, when I went off on a solo morning walk to take photos and find Plaza Tupac Amaru that my giddiness wore off a bit. The streets were overly crowded, traffic was gridlocked and the smell of exhaust was overwhelming. I passed corner after corner where people young and old were selling clothes, trinkets and other miniaturized and mass produced pieces of their culture, all context and meaning removed, to visitors to pack into their suitcases and later adorn bookshelves or pass along as gifts for the holidays. I suddenly became overwhelmed – there seemed to be too many cars, too many people and I wondered if the world’s desire to see and discover this unique place was leading to its ruin.
I felt unsettled and those feelings only grew after my next encounter. I passed by two local women in traditional dress leading an alpaca up the hill. I instinctually reached for my camera and snapped a photo just as one of them shouted “15 soles”, ($5). Embarrassed, I sheepishly lowered my camera as they passed by. I realized that in my eagerness to capture and preserve that moment, knowing nothing about those women or even asking permission to take the photo, I had in effect caricaturized them. And they were so familiar with the scenario that they didn’t hesitate to capitalize on the opportunity.
I have often wondered if our desire as travelers to explore new and exotic destinations simultaneously erodes the culture and very essence of the places we long to visit. Tourism in many ways is mutually beneficial and perhaps even a necessary curse. I’m sure if I had asked 5 different locals their opinion of the status of Cusco, I would have received 5 conflicting answers. For instance, our hotel owner who was well into his 80’s running his business alongside his family likely appreciates the influx of visitors. But I would venture to guess there are others who would complain about the impact the increase in tourism has had on the environment, the community and the culture. There is no question that tourism provides jobs and feeds local economies, but like everything else this comes at a cost.
Should I not have taken that picture, bought souvenirs, or even visited that incredible place? I don’t think that’s the answer. But I do believe it’s important to be aware of the impact I have as a traveler. It is easy to criticize the people our food tour guide described who marginalize indigenous people, but it’s also important to recognize the role I play as a tourist in doing the same.
When I look back on my experience in Cusco now, I am still filled with the same mixed emotions that overwhelmed me on my morning walk that day. I haven’t reached a conclusion or found a solution, but maybe that uncertainty is ok. Perhaps it leaves the door open for dialogue, greater understanding, personal growth and change…
Have you ever felt conflicted while traveling? I would love to hear your thoughts!