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Week Three: Life in Cusco

This week I have been doing a lot of computer work in Cusco. I like to get out of the house when I have computer things to do, which means that I’ve been making the rounds of all the cafes with wifi in town. As I’m writing this I’m sitting in a cafe in San Blas, a neighbourhood of Cusco that’s full of expats, jewellery sellers, vegetarian cafes and yoga studios. I like the feeling of this neighbourhood, maybe because it reminds me of home and here I can order a salad that’s been washed in purified water! My recent exploration of the cafe culture in Cusco has got me thinking about foreign influence in the Sacred Valley region and what it means to be an outsider living here. The cafe’s I’ve been frequenting definitely cater to foreigners, generally North American or European visitors. We’re the ones who want wifi after all! It’s an interesting experience trying to find a balance as a Canadian living in Peru. On the one hand I want to keep up the positive aspects of my lifestyle at home. That might mean ordering fruit juices in San Blas instead of fried meat in the market, for example. I’ve also been going to yoga classes (which I’m very happy about!), and I’ve been put in touch with somebody who has started a running club in Cusco. These things make me happy that I’m living in a big city touched by foreign influence, so I can still enjoy activities I do at home. On the other hand, I also want to explore the culture around me and learn as much about Peruvian life as I can while I’m here. That’s a huge part of the reason I came, after all. So is holing up in a cafe catering to travellers who desperately need to check facebook really getting an “authentic” taste of Cusco?

All of this reminds me of an interesting talk I attended at the university last week. It was a student’s defense of his thesis on ethnotourism in a remote Amazon community. It raised a lot of questions in my mind about the concept of “ethnotourism” and also the impact of tourism in general. As he argued, the idea of visiting a community to see a people’s traditional way of life can be a powerful way to revitalize and validate that people’s culture. It may preserve indigenous knowledge and bring a sense of pride in local traditions and identity. Of course there are also the desirable economic benefits for isolated groups. Successful ethnotourism can improve a community’s way of life while still allowing them to maintain a strong sense of self. It also reminds the world that indigenous peoples are living, changing, adapting individuals and keeps them from being banished to a static past.

However, I couldn`t help but wonder how a community can maintain its identity in the face of a constant influx of tourists. How long before their way of life simply becomes a performance of “exotic” identity? Does a ritual performed for the sake of a western audience still have any real meaning? And how can this tourist venture be on the community’s own terms if the whole concept of tourism is so unfamiliar to them? Tourists who travel into the jungle want an “authentic” Amazon experience, but they already have a preconceived notion of what that is. So how long before the communities they’re visiting clue into that and start giving them what they want, even if it’s not necessarily who they are? And then it hit me that these questions don’t just apply to remote jungle communities. These issues are at the heart of tourism everywhere. I see these processes in action every time I walk down the street in downtown Cusco. I can’t help but pass the ladies dressed in traditional clothing who charge tourists for photos with them and their baby alpacas. Or there’s the guy dressed as an Inca warrior who poses for pictures by the Inca wall.

So thinking about this idea of an “authentic” experience in a different culture brings me back to my own feelings about the gringa lifestyle in Cusco and surrounding areas. Last weekend I had a lovely little holiday in the nearby town of Ollantaytambo. I didn’t have a weaving meeting to attend, but I did go to a meeting for all the NGOs and similar organizations working in the Ollantaytambo area. After the meeting I decided to spend the night there and do some sightseeing. Ollantaytambo is a quaint little town nestled in the valley bottom between two mountains. It is described as a “living Inca town” because the streets are still based on the original plan. There are also impressive ruins perched on the hillside which attract busloads of tourists. Ollantaytambo is a necessary stop on the way to visit Machu Picchu and as a result has a large tourist presence.

During my exploration of the town I met some volunteers from another non-profit and joined them on a hike to the ruins. It was a glorious day and we had spectacular views of the valley. I was then welcomed into their homestay family’s home for lunch! I found most people to be very friendly in Ollantaytambo, and I was struck by the way everybody I met asked me which organization I was working for. That reflects the high concentration of foreign volunteers in that area, which is surely a positive thing. However, I couldn’t help but wonder what all those foreign volunteers coming through had accomplished there and how they had changed the area, for better or for worse. I remember a conversation I had in another expat haven in Mexico. The Mexican owner of my hostel spoke freely with me about foreign influence in his town. He said on the one hand, North Americans and Europeans who settle in Latin America bring positive changes like recycling programs, alternative schools for his children and high quality medical clinics. On the other hand, they drive up the cost of property and food so most locals can’t afford to

take advantage of the positive changes around them. Foreign influence also clearly takes away from traditional tastes and alters the younger generation’s desires and ideas of success.

I don’t mean to put a negative spin on volunteer organizations or foreign involvement in Peru. There are definitely some great projects going on here and a lot of really wonderful work has been done. It’s inspiring to see the positive change that is possible in the hands of a few determined individuals. But I do think it is important to think about the complexities of my impact here. I should be aware of how the choices I make during my time here affect the place around me. Like which cafe I choose to support while I type away for an afternoon. There are no easy answers to these questions, but it’s certainly something to think about while I’m sipping my cappuccinos...

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