Poverty and Diginity
Peru is rich.
Peru is also very poor.
The land is endowed with all sorts of metals and minerals. The jungle and mountains nurture countless faunas and floras. Peruvian soil nourishes hundreds of potato variety and produce while the ocean, rivers, and mountain lakes provide both fresh water and river fish. The Incans had a vast and fabled empire with towers and temples plated in gold and silver.
Yet there are more signs of poverty than affluence in this land.
Our group landed in Lima, the capital city of Peru. We stayed for a day in the affluent district of Miraflores before venturing to the southern parts of the country. The sleek, understated, and elegant restaurant we dined in in Lima rivaled any modern upscale restaurant in New York, Barcelona, and Paris. (Interestingly, the wall hangings there were photos of Brooklyn, hip central of New York.) There were probably slums in the capital just as in other cities, though we had steered clear of them. Once we left the city and began cruising along the southern coast of Peru, however, the signs of poverty soon emerged.
We drove for miles along abandoned mining towns and villages between our designated stops, “FUJIMORI INNOCENTE” emblazoned along the walls of many shabby or abandoned buildings. Despite his conviction and imprisonment over human rights violations and criminal offenses, many Peruvians outside urban areas remained fond of this “El Chino” who reportedly cared for the poor, twice visiting the Uros Island high up on Lake Titicaca and installed solar generators there that remain in use. Alan Garcia had won the most recent presidential election in 2006, though in the towns and villages we passed through his campaign ads were sparse and hardly noticeable - Garcia’s votes not surprisingly did not come from the country people. The urban/rural divide in Peru is pronounced, echoing a global phenomenon.
Yet despite this poverty, we came upon far less beggars than in many other impoverished countries I had visited. Peruvians might be poor, but they have dignity. They had endured hyperinflation and economic collapse during Alan Garcia’s first term in the eighties, shock therapy under Fujimori, and later foreign sanctions after his military coup. These are not to mention rampant corruption, political upheavals and violence from the Shining Path rebels, not to mention arrests, tortures, and killings by the Fujimori government. Peruvians are therefore seasoned survivalists, because they knew they could not count on their government or anybody for their wellbeing. They must rely on themselves.
Little children as young as four would try to sell you souvenirs, indigenous women would entice you with their fine alpaca sweaters, men on the streets might sell you postcards or silver jewelry, but they did not expect money for nothing. This was a refreshing change coming from the modern Babylon of New York, where brushing off people who solicit money is a part of daily life. They penetrate every corner in the metropolis: subway, sidewalks, parks, outside theaters and restaurants... This is in a city oozing with wealth and decadence, where the night never ends, where supposedly millions of charity programs exist to help those who are disadvantaged, yet countless are still living off the generosity of strangers by or not by choice.
My first taste of this strong sense of work ethic among Peruvians took place not long after we left Lima. We visited Isla Ballestas, an island sanctuary for sea lions, penguins, and sea gulls. Afterwards our bus continued southwards and stopped in a little town for lunch. As soon as we alighted little girls and boys surrounded us eagerly but not obnoxiously and competed for our attention with their colorful handicrafts. There were many of them, all looking more adorable than their handicrafts, and some of the older ones who must have already done it for a long time looked painfully desperate, because they knew from experience that their window of opportunity was fleeting. These children were all selling similar items, they were competing against one another but without animosity.
When we started heading inland and arrived the city of Arequipa, the second largest city of Peru, “Mr. Postcard” greeted me outside the hotel and where he stationed all day, wearing the postcard display on his chest. The city of Arequipa is in a fertile valley sandwiched between the desert along the coast and the mountains inland. It is also the modern intellectual capital of Peru, and Mr. Postcard manifested that sophistication. He remembered my face and name from the very beginning and every time I passed by he eagerly but politely implored me to purchase a pack of five postcards from him for just over a dollar. When I declined in the morning he immediately asked me to consider again in the afternoon. When I declined in the afternoon he asked me to promise to buy from him in the evening, or the next morning. He was appealing to my sense of guilt rather than simply promoting his merchandise.
Further inland and higher up on Colca Canyon and other highland stops, women and men emerged from nowhere with their beautiful sweaters and blankets. Much later, during our train ride to Machu Picchu, little boys as young as perhaps four feverishly chased our trains, clutching animal dolls in their hands. The quality of all their dolls and in fact of all the other merchandise we had seen along the way was good – the fuzzy toys were adorable miniatures of vicuñas and llamas, the alpaca sweaters were light and warm, the postcards had quality images. I didn’t feel ripped off, I didn’t feel that I was a gullible tourist when dealing with these poor people. Young or old, they worked for an honest living.
I also remembered that during breakfast one morning at Arequipa, one of my tour mates Chandroo made a remark about a waiter at a restaurant nearby. “I saw him working late last night when I went out for a night cap, and I saw him again just now. He works through the day, he doesn’t stop.” That waiter wasn't alone. Our group traveled around southern Peru extensively by bus and spent anywhere from four to ten hours a day on the rocky, winding roads in the mountains. At the end of a most grueling 8-hour ride, when most of us were on the brink of collapse and I could barely stand up, we found out that the driver would be taking a short break before driving back on the same route alone that evening.
Peruvians might be poor, but they have dignity and my respect.