Cusco, Peru

Your Super Lefty comes to you now from the Southern Hemisphere. She looks North to see the sun and shivers in her hiking boots at night, since it is winter here. In addition to her hiking boots, she wears at all times a fleece and a backapck, making her indistinguishable from the other gringa backpackers. Until yesterday she was also wearing at all times a black photojournalist’s vest with eighteen pockets, in which she was keeping lip balm, eyedrops, a Zippo lighter, a box of tea-tree oil flavored toothpicks, a little black notebook, a Canon SD100 Digital Elph camera, extra battery for said camera, a selection of hair ties, three paper cocktail umbrellas, her passport and assorted American and Peruvian cash, a pen, a pair of aviator sunglasses, sunblock, a small Altoids tin with edge-rounding tools rattling around in it, and two extra contact lenses of frighteningly strong prescription. (Your Super Lefty is legally blind without opthamalogical correction, but soon hopes to have her vision surgically altered to the strength of Air Force pilots.) Then Super Lefty realized that including her pants, jackets and said vest, she had 38 pockets on her person at any given time and even she could not stay on top of this system. Also, the vest and its contents sound like a maraca when one is riding a horse through the countryside.

Altitude adjustment has gone swimmingly, thanks in part to the calming, stimulating properties of coca tea. Super Lefty no longer pants for air when climbing around on Incan ruins. However, Super Lefty is still a klutz, and has managed to cause small injury to her person each day so far. She has had unfortunate run-ins with a sharp boulder edge, a cactus and the newfound muscles required to stay on a horse intent on veering off the trail.

Lax liability and fire code laws make Peru a marvellous place. For $8 American dollars, a guy who speaks no English will outift you and your friends with horses and lead you to the mountains. You are permitted to exhort these horses to go at top speed (which is not very fast), and the only thing the guy says to you is “izquierda” or “derecha.” I am told this is not the standard for American trail rides. Also, the bars have cool little lofts built into them and open flames everywhere.

Travelling with an archeologist/anthropologist has its perks, one of which is attempting to say, “mi amigo es un archeologisto/anthropologisto,” and another of which is being lead on hikes to deserted Incan ruins, instead of ruins crowded with tourists.

Today Holly and I went whitewater rafting. I promptly fell in. Then the raft got stuck on a rock, and the guide told the all the women to get out and wait on a big rock in the middle of the river, while he and the remaining men circled around and eventually retrieved us with ropes. As soon as these mishaps began occuring, I achieved the sense of total liquid calm that always comes with unstoppable chaos. Rafting is therefore an excellent sport for me. It’s like a ride on the Cyclone in which you have a satisfying, repetitive job–to row.

As for the non-wilderness, Cusco offers much opportunity to study the anthropology of backpacker culture. The other night we enjoyed a heartfelt set at a hookah bar by a guy who sings in Quechua (the language of the Incas) while accompanying himself on the electric guitar. But we were soon driven out the by the antics of some Hare Krishnas wearing, of course, sandals with socks. There are two kinds of backpackers–those who have normal, boring jobs and lives elsewhere and are studiously, if a bit overenthusiastically, outfitted for the Peruvian wilderness, and those who are part of that long-term backpacker culture. I haven’t been among them in a few years. They wear amalgamated outfits of all the cultures they have visited recently, carry around drums, and have hair that Holly points out is always on the brink of being dreaded without actually being dreaded.

Even more interesting, if a bit more problematic, is the political economy of tourism. There are kids everywhere, dressed in traditional clothes, holding baby sheep, asking you to pay one or two soles (about thirty or sixty cents) to take a picture with them. Heartbreakingly little kids walk around alone, selling postcards and crocheted handpuppets of llamas and Spiderman. One kid last night, who looked to be about four or five, reponded quite clearly to our “No gracias,” with a “Fuck you.” It’s sad, but it’s also eerie, because these kids are already hustlers, and their pleading voices are theatrical. Everything is incredibly cheap for Americans, even the really upscale places, and it’s not because you’re so rich in America, though to even come here you must be, but because America is so rich in the world, and you can order everything you want because of this. You go on your wilderness experiences, oohing and ahhing at the scenery, and ride or raft or hike right past people who live in tiny adobe houses and herd sheep or alpacas or cows around all day, who will probably never ride in a New York City taxicab and marvel at how genuine you look in your traditional hipster outfit, how quaint are your rituals of getting coffee and reading the paper and shopping at the Korean deli, or taking drugs on national holidays, or showing up forty minutes early for a movie, or sacrificing your t-shirts with scissors. You wonder if they hate you the way you hate tourists in New York, or the way you hate people who are far richer than you are, or they’ve seen so many people just like you that they don’t think about you at all. You romanticize the simplicity of life here, the way little kids can run around and play outside in beautiful mountains, the way people don’t seem to have as much oppressive stuff, but at the same time, you can’t truly imagine any other life than the one you’ve lived, and you think fondly of your DVD player and reliable plumbing waiting for you at home, which despite all fancies of fleeing to the mountains, you know you will return to and embrace. I take back “problematic.” That’s a word I picked up emulating the TA in some undergraduate seminar. The political economy of tourism is fascinating and disgusting and guilt-inducing and inveitable all at once.

Tomorrow we are heading out of town in a variety of unknown directions. Reports to follow.

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