We are preparing for a visit to Peru next month. During this trip we will be traveling to the interior and visiting the heartland of the old Inca civilization, including the ancient city of Cusco. We are looking forward to this visit.
I have been doing some reading in anticipation of this trip. The first book that I read was ‘Turn Right at Machu Pichu”, by Mark Adams. This book, first published in 2011, weaves two different story lines. The first is Mark’s experience of traveling the region, following in the paths of earlier explorers, including trekking the famous Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Mark interweaves this narrative with an account of the history of the region, some of it very brutal, mostly centered around the time of the Spanish conquests of the area. He talks about the “discovery” of Machu Picchu by Hiram Bingham III, a somewhat self-serving American explorer in search of fame, in 1911. But Machu Picchu was never really “lost”, especially to the people who are from the region! In any case, the stories are interesting, even if the details of the book are difficult to remember just a few weeks after reading it. My memory is not what it used to be.
The other book I read more recently was “The Old Patagonian Express”, by Paul Theroux. This book was first published in 1979. It is an account of Paul’s travel from Boston, Massachusetts, to Esquel in Patagonia, mostly by train. The travels took the author through Peru, and specifically Cusco and Machu Picchu. I have a copy of the book that I had bought in June of 1985, when I was about to graduate with my doctorate degree. It was time to open the book once again.
The spirit of the somewhat arduous trip taken by Paul Theroux (it took a few months to complete) is something that I can appreciate. It is an undertaking that seems to have been driven mainly by the author’s sense of curiosity and adventure, and his need to leave his zone of comfort in the process. It is about the thrill and the romance of travel. You do it because you want to see, experience, and learn about new things, new places, new people, etc.. You are not looking for the familiar place or face. You do not have a complete plan in place to handle the situations that you will encounter. And it is more significant than that – you willingly open yourself to the unexpected and let yourself become more vulnerable. And in all of this, you manage to learn something more about yourself.
One has to remember that Paul Theroux’s book was written in the 1970s. I now find that his attitude towards the kind of people that he encountered, especially the locals, seems to be somewhat condescending, or maybe it is just a general sense of superiority. I wonder if it is actually a sign of the times that Paul Theroux lived and traveled in, or if it is a somewhat generic attitude taken by folks who are out on voyages of discovery, including most of the explorers of times past – especially those from Europe and North America. They always thought that they were better off than the others, and that they knew what was good for others. Perhaps they were really better off from a materialistic point of view, but did they necessarily know what was good for others?
Paul talks a lot about the poverty he encountered in Peru, especially among the natives. The power structures in place in government in those days did not seem to be geared towards improving the lives of the common man. Perhaps it is all true. My problem, reading Paul’s work at this time in my life, is the feeling I have that he does not seem to have gone beyond the superficial in trying to understand the lives of people. He does not seem to have had the conversations that someone who is undertaking this kind of effort should be having. Maybe he did not have enough time. Maybe he did not think his book was meant to be read by somebody of Inca ancestry. In my mind, he comes off as being quite opinionated in this regard. He might have thought that he was be brutally honest, but I think the problem is that he did not make the attempt to have a more complete perspective. He really did not complete his homework. Perhaps, this is a general problem with the attitudes of too many explorers.
Anyway, here we are, more than 40 years after the time of Paul Theroux’s travels to South America, and we are on our way to South America once again (we went to Ecuador two years ago). I wonder how the country of Peru has changed since the 1970s. We are not adventurers like Paul Theroux. We are going in an organized tour group, and everything is going to be taken care of for us. We will probably be shielded in some way from the locals. Paul Theroux had also traveled through Ecuador, and he talks about the poverty in that country, but our exposure to those circumstances a couple of years ago in the tour group in Ecuador was minimal. It could be that the situation has changed since the 1970s, but it could also be that we were just shown what would be tolerated by “tourists” like us – things that were unlikely to cause us distress, or show the country in a poor light.
It seems like the town of Cusco was geared somewhat towards tourism even in the 1970s. It is in all likelihood even more so today. You only have to see all the information on the Internet in this regard to sense that this is the case. You would also be led to believe that people are generally much better off in Cusco today than 40 years ago, but how can one be sure without having the complete experience?
As I said before, since we will be arriving in Peru as tourists in a tour group, almost everything that we do will be according to a plan and a schedule. But the explorer in me feels that perhaps some of the more remarkable and memorable moments of the trip could happen outside of the script. One just has to be open to the possibilities.
One final note about the trains that Paul Theroux took many years ago. Even in those days, there was no way to do the entire trip from Massachusetts to Patagonia solely by train. Looking at the available train services today, this situation has gotten even worse. Passenger train services are available in much fewer places today. Common folk have to depend more on the buses than they used to do in times past. In a few places, the trains have been saved by running services over short distances just for the tourists. But this is not the real thing! The romance of the railroad is not what it used to be.