“You know the heart of the stranger. For you are the stranger in the land of Egypt.”Old Testament
The narrow cobble street of Cusco was dimly lit at night. Sweet melody spread in the air like a fragrance. Live music always has this magic over me, especially this night. The musician was singing in Spanish. Even though I didn’t understand a word, I could tell they were love songs.
I sat down in a corner of the street between wanting to be seen and at the same time not. Another person came by and sat next to me after putting some coins in the musician’s bowl. He had a guitar in his arm. He looked bohemian to me, an artist.
After a while, we started talking.
“Are you a musician?”I asked.
“Yes, I just finished playing. “ He said.
He told me he was from Venezuela. The economy got really bad there that he didn’t have enough to eat. “Things used to be very good in Venezuela,” he said, “I never thought I would leave my country.” I couldn’t tell for sure how old he was, maybe in his 50s. This was the first time he was in a foreign country in his whole life. He wanted to go to a different country eventually, but he didn’t have a passport. Apparently it was difficult to even get a passport from the Venezuelan government.
He said people didn’t pay him as promised when he worked in Peru. He only earned 20 some soles working for a full day. When he played his guitar, he got the same amount in two hours. So now he just played his guitar. He said he felt safe here in Cusco. He didn’t think anyone would rob him of his guitar.
He told me he knew melodies from many countries and then started to play me a song from Cuba. He told me he knew two songs from China. He didn’t know the names of the songs. I didn’t recognize them, either. But they sounded nice.
He continued to play some songs from Spain, the Flamingo style, his favorite. The night was getting darker and I got increasingly tired. I told him I needed to go but would love to get coffee for him as he talked about it a moment earlier.
After getting his coffee, we said goodbye. He said, “I will never see you again.” He quoted a Chinese proverb, “When we meet here once, it is eternity somewhere else.” It gave me chills. In my life, I have many unusual friendships, including a friendship with an older homeless man in the street of San Francisco. Despite their outward appearances, I see their beautiful souls as they are.
Since Cusco was the capital of the Inca empire and Machhu Picchu was built by Incas as well, one naturally learns a lot about the Inca people. But one encounter in Cusco gave me a glimpse of one other tribe called Chankas.
One day I ordered pizza at the restaurant next to my hostel. It was a hole in the wall kind of place. However, it was cozy with fairy lights and generic Paris decorations on the wall. The songs of Bob Marley were playing on TV on repeat.
The restaurant owner is a small framed man whose face tells the story of a hardworking life. He came out of the kitchen to talk to me after I ate my pizza. He asked where I was from. He told me he was from the north. He is a Chanka. His blood is Chanka, but he speaks Quecha, the language of the Inca empire. Because Incas conquered them. “The statue you see in the main square is Pachacuti.” He said, “He was very ambitious and he was the one that conquered us. We were peaceful people.”
His parents still live in the mountains. Not a lot has changed for them. He goes to visit once a year. He said he got bored there because there was not much to do. He moved to Cusco a few decades ago for better opportunities. He worked mostly in restaurants. He saw how they decorated their places. That’s what he used for inspiration for his own restaurant. He went on to show me videos of Chankas dancing in a festival. The people in the video look humble. They didn’t wear elaborate costumes. The setting of the festival was outside in an open field.
Another customer came in. We said goodbye. I left with a warm feeling in my heart. I don’t know why he opened up to me the way he did. Maybe because I’m far from home, too. I’m sure he doesn’t tell his life story to everyone who comes to eat. I’m honored with his story. I would never know there is a group of people called Chankas otherwise.
More Than Just a Walking Tour
The most distinguished feature of our guide for the Cusco walking tour is his sunburned face, which is common in the people of the Andes. The sun on the Andes is not forgiving. Jose, our guide in his 50s, used to take people on trekking trips. That could explain why he was exposed to so much sun.
We started our walking tour at the statue of Inca ruler Pachacuti at the center of Plaza de Armas. Jose told us the rulers of the Inca empire considered themselves to be the direct descendants of the sun God. They used that reason to justify conquering other people and lands. “Today countries use another reason to justify that, can you guys think of what that is?” Jose asked us. We were quiet. After a while, Jose gave the answer, “Democracy.”
The walking tour continued. The next stop is Qorikancha, the most important Inca temple in Cusco. Jose told us this Inca temple was covered in gold once. When the Spaniards arrived, they stripped all the gold and built a church at the same location using the stones from the Inca temple.
He added, “Even today Peru ranks very high in gold(#8) and silver(#3) production in the world.”
“So why isn’t Peru rich?” One guy in the group asked rather obnoxiously.
“Because of corruption.” Jose said, “For example, Telefonica del Peru is a Spanish telecommunications company in Peru. They owed 700 million soles ($212.6 million) in back taxes to the Peruvian government. But it’s not just them. All the big international corporations are doing it. They are all not properly taxed.”
I’m dumbfounded. The colonization in Latin America continues today in different shapes and forms. I can only imagine what it would do if these hundreds of millions of dollars owed to the Peruvian people were put into education and infrastructure.
When we wrapped up the tour, Jose stuck around to chat for a little bit. He said when he was young, he wanted to be an engineer. But he didn’t have money to go to college. Instead he studied tourism. He used to take people trekking. Now he only does walking tours. He thinks education for the children is important and critical for a better future for Peruvians.
What kind of Mother-in-Law?
“During the pandemic, I lost everything, my hotel business, my house, my furniture. My husband and I had to move in with my mother-in-law. The place we moved into is in my mother-in-law’s yard and it doesn’t have anything, no electricity, no water. It’s like a cave. I cried and cried.” Said the owner of a chic boutique shop in San Blas neighborhood of Cusco.
She looked like she was in her 40s. She was well dressed with stylish glasses and wearing a darker lipstick that suited her well.
“I’m from Lima. My husband is a Cusconian. My mother-in-law never liked me because I’m from Lima. My husband is white with blue eyes. Sometimes people speak English to him and he doesn’t understand.
When I lost everything, my mother-in-law said, ‘What are you going to do? Are you going to dance on the corner of the street to make money?’ That time I lost it and I talked back, which I have never done before. I said, ‘Maybe you can tell me which is the best street to stand on, because I’m not from here.’ She is pissed.
At first, we didn’t have a kitchen in our house. So we had to use the kitchen inside of my mother-in-law’s house. My mother-in-law doesn’t eat breakfast; so nobody can have breakfast in the house. She said to me, ‘Only black people eat beans.’ I said, ‘I don’t know about that, your son always asks me to make beans for him.’ I’m very proud of my black heritage by the way(I think her great grandmother is black).
She killed my plants. Now I just go straight inside of my house when I come home. I keep it to myself.”
When I asked her if she had considered moving out of that place so she could be away from her mother-in-law. She said, “I have put so much money in the place I am living. I can’t afford to move to a different place.
Last Night in Lima
The hostel I stayed in Lima is run by a couple in their 50s. It is a house in a very nice neighborhood called Barranco. The wife is an excellent cake maker. During my stay, I satisfied my sweet tooth quite a bit. The couple spoke some English, but not fluently. Most of the time I was there, they were cordial. But we never had in-depth conversations. I think it’s because of the language barrier and they were busy.
On my last night in Lima after paying for my stay, I asked the owner that I heard his son was in Spain. Then we talked quite a bit with the help of Google Translate.
He expressed his concerns about the new Peruvian president. He said, “The new president was accused of many things. Corruption, bribes, money laundering, just to name a few. The congress had tried to impeach him twice already during his first year in office.
Prices of things have gone up. Things may become very unstable in Peru. I think about immigrating to Spain, but I want to see how things go in Peru. I don’t want to sell my house and the business. Maybe I can rent them out.
My wife has an Italian passport because she is of Italian descent. I’m also of European descent, but I don’t have a passport from any of those countries. I can apply to have an Italian passport because we are married. But the process is lengthy. My son also has an Italian passport. That’s why he was able to work and live in Spain.
Chile is having a lot of trouble right now. All the rich people are leaving Chile. And Chileans never leave their country! We have a relative in Panama. Panama is not doing very well, either.
I heard the US government changed their travel advisory to Peru. That may affect the amount of tourists coming to Peru and our business.” I tried to comfort him by saying that Peru is on the top of the list for people who want to visit Latin America.
This conversation was very unexpected for me. Being a tourist, we often see the best part of a country or maybe we only want to see the best part of a country. I would think a hostel owner in a nice neighborhood of Lima will be better off than a lot of Peruvians. Yet his concerns about his country’s future and his own survival is real. I can’t imagine what it is like to have your whole life in one country and yet still have to immigrate. But this is perhaps the hard-to-stomach truth of life in Latin America. The people who can’t immigrate will have to figure things out on their own.
I know being in a country for one month is not enough to really learn about a culture. I hope these five stories give some representation of the people I met in Peru, what’s on their mind, their view of the country and the world. That’s why I decided to write from their points of view. All in all, I can say the people in Peru are really warm people. My heart is full of gratitude for what they have shown and shared with me.
Photos taken and edited by my lovely friend @nath___ph.