I was not prepared for the barricaded wall of police officers as we followed our taxi driver down the sidewalk and out of the confines of the fenced Cusco airport. As usual, I had done just enough research to be a step above ignorance upon touchdown in Peru. First, we had written a skeletal 6-day itinerary on pace with Speedy Gonzales, the necessary reservations booked for our transport and lodging. Second, I watched a blurry copy of a National Geographic documentary on YouTube exploring the engineering and mystery behind Machu Picchu. That was it.
So, I knew that the astounding ancient Incan royal palace is only here today because the Spanish conquistadores never discovered, and thus never demolished, it. But as we were assailed with a barrage of "Taxi, lady?!" I had no idea what kind of political climate we were entering.
Let's back up. No, #jcompadventures2017 has not ended, and I am still traveling. No, I do not have too much of a savings account left to speak of. But what does one do when one of your best friends texts you and says she found a Spirit flight half-off, and the deal ends at midnight? You get caught up in day dreams of returning to the southern hemisphere; you all but bail on your original Appalachian Trail summer plan (I'm still sorry Jonathan, and I'm still stoked for the Smokies!); your best friend asks her restaurant co-worker if she'd like to join; you do some intense, adrenaline-inducing internet research; and thirty minutes to midnight, you book three flights to Lima.
And that is how Anderson, Annabelle, and I ended up in Peru, topped off by a jaunt to the Galápagos Islands (reasoning: we're already down here, right?!).
I love this continent, the Spanish language I sometimes decode enough to communicate; the feeling of limiting my possessions to a 60-liter duffle and a day pack; and the satisfaction that, while I have the free time (dwindling though it may be), the world has become my playground, God's grand turf in which I get to delight in the wonders He has made for me to romp in.
As with any travel, there is so much I could share, but I have decided to narrow in on these police guards, because they have shaped our whole trip. I was pretty alarmed by our exit from the airport. It was way sketchier than that first night in the DR. I was expecting a pristine tourist city — safe, charming, brimming with the cultural fusion of native history and Spanish colonization. This was chaos.
When we reached our hostel, compromised on (and got ripped off for) the price of our taxi due to a communication discrepancy (18 versus 80 soles), we dropped our bags and headed to breakfast. Cusco, as it turns out, is actually a lot of what I expected. The streets and steep, narrow alleyways are cobblestoned, 500-year-old Catholic cathedrals abound, and everyone gathers on the steps of the central Plaza de Armas, making for an Italian dejavu moment in which I felt bizarrely transported to my beloved Perugia. Four-foot Incan women dress in traditional Andean garb – wool skirts; high socks; worn, brimmed hats; wrapping themselves in brightly patterned shawls woven in fuschia, magenta, and turquoise. They strategically place themselves through the city center with llamas and alpacas, and they'll let you take a picture with them for a few soles. Their leathery faces will not smile in said picture.
If you want to sit down, there are a plethora of traditional Peruvian, pizza, and ethnic restaurants to choose from, but there are also some experienced grandmothers dishing out delicious portions of cheap homemade street food, while carts sell freshly-squeezed juice. Souvenir shops are on every corner, boasting the rainbow flag of Cusco overhead, where you can bargain for a classic woven wool pullover or poncho sweater. Street salesmen haggle you to take a look at their "original" portfolio of artwork, and the sidewalk offers for excursion tours or twenty-minute massages are inescapable. Cusco's elevation is over 4,000 meters, so your lungs will wonder why it's so taxing to climb a flight of stone city stairs. In July, it is wintertime here, so though Cusco is near the equator and the sun's closer rays are comfortingly pleasant at noontime, it is still in the heart of the Andes, and at dusk, temperatures drop quickly into the 40s.
So, still the question remains — what's the deal with these policemen? Cusco is the capital of the Incan empire and the epicenter of tourism today, but as it turns out, it's also the headquarters of unrest and protest. In the last few days, I've learned that corruption in Peru, especially in the government, is rampant. The last two presidents are in jail, the current one has enough money that he doesn't need to embezzle, and police can be bribed off. Teachers are underpaid, and as far as I know, they're heading the protests, but other unsatisfied citizens have followed suit. Right now, international tourists bound for Machu Picchu (almost everyone) must first fly into Lima and then grab a connecting flight to Cusco. A contract was signed a long time ago to build an international airport near Cusco, but for years now, nothing has happened.
The police were present not because Cusco is unsafe, but because protests are shaking up the status quo. According to an email I got from PeruRail notifying me of transportation limitations, the movement was officially called by the SUTEP (Education Workers United Syndicate). The two days following our arrival in Cusco, people took to the streets, parading with signs and chants, flags and even a bonfire. Others literally derailed portions of the railway and blocked off the roads between Cusco and Ollantaytambo, a major thoroughfare of the Incan Sacred Valley and route to Machu Picchu. Long-distance transportation haulted, impotent to the protestors' destruction.
I studied peace, justice, and nonviolent activism in college, but I have not been an engaged activist since. So a big part of me inside said, "Go you, teachers. That's right, Cusco locals. You know something isn't fair, you're speaking up and out, you're wreaking minor havoc, you're using Gene Sharp's list of 198 ways to cause civil disobedience. #respect, big time."
The tourist inside of me said, emoji style, "WTF 😤, we've got FIVE 5️⃣ days here 📆. I am a planner on a strict time budget ⏱. Do NOT mess with my plans 👊🏼. I did not fly down here to miss visiting one of the wonders of the world 🏞."
That's kind of their point though. The economy of Cusco, and much of Peru, is based on tourism. Lima is benefitting off of flights that people don't even want to take, the money of which should really be flowing into the region if Cusco. If people can't get to Machu Picchu, tourists learn about the issues and complain. Word spreads internationally. The government and respective corporations have to respond.
Very (VERY) fortunately, our Saturday booking to Machu Picchu was not affected by the protests. It took us a long time to get there and back, and we couldn't buy a bus ticket until the morning of, which is a long, frustrating line for a sleep-deprived Jessica at 4:45 AM. The organized, announced protest supposedly lasts two days before police really start cracking down. When we were still stuck in Cusco on Thursday, it actually allowed us to investigate and book some sick back-to-back adventures for Sunday – paragliding in the morning and ATV riding through the Sacred Valley and to an incredible salt mine in the afternoon. It was as awesome, and not quite as scary, as you are probably imagining. I've heard people got screwed over in their plans to visit Machu Picchu both the day before and after us. Praise the Lord, for real, that everything has worked out for us. Scaling Machu Picchu Mountain and taking in the whole view – the site itself, the jagged green jungle cliffs, the alpine peaks in the distance – for me, it was a highlight of the past week, and of the last half year. If the protestors had gotten in the way of that, my selfishness would have made me pretty pissed.
Having slotted in everything we planned, though, I also don't have any resentment for the protestors. I admire them; protesting requires courage, risk, and often sacrifice. If causes I care about – especially issues like education, ending sex trafficking, and equality – are threatened, witnessing the Peruvian protesters has instilled a little more confidence in me to engage. As much as anything I learn traveling, I think that's a worthwhile lesson.