On Peru without Machu Picchu

Canyon de Colca

Hiking to Salineras

People just won’t understand how I spent two entire months in Peru without visiting Machu Picchu. It has been about a month now since I traded mountainous Peru for colourful Mexico, and every time I am telling people where I have been before, their first question is how Machu Picchu was? The look on people’s face when I tell them that I never went is really quite funny (I must admit that it has gotten a bit of a game in the meantime). After this initial surprise, I then go on and tell them that I have spent almost three weeks in Cusco – even more puzzled faces. How could I spend three weeks being so close to such a highlight and then not go see it? Some people even demonstrate a subtle anger. They feel that I ‘waisted’ a great opportunity. That’s where my face looks puzzled.

So, why didn’t I go? And why are the Nazca lines as well as the Huachina oasis also missing from my itinerary? And why did I not include the beautiful lake Titicaca in my travels, like everyone else? Of course I have been asking myself these questions, and I have found part of the answer in exactly the last part of that sentence – in the words ‘like everyone else’. And then I am not talking about some sort of desperate need to be different and original, it is not about that. In the first place, it is because being with too many people in one place at the same time tends to drive me a bit nuts. I mean, I’d say that I’m pretty good with people, but not with loads of them. For the same reason I have never really enjoyed going to concerts and festivals too much. I feel panicky and stressed in masses, like a sardine in a can desperately wanting to get out. Not to mention that I feel a funny vibe in overly touristy places. I find it hard to define the feeling, but perhaps it is best described as paranoia. I feel as if I’m walking around with a huge dollar-sign on my forehead. As if people see me as a possible money-source, a consumer and nothing else. The idea that everyone is after my money and is not interested in sharing non-financial currencies like friendship, compassion, inspiration and wisdom, turns me hostile and I end up finding myself respond to others in a way that I don’t want to. In other words, I find myself being the ‘typical tourist’ – suspicious towards local people out of a fear of being ‘ripped of’, in a calculative relationship to them that lacks mutual respect and understanding.

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To be clear, I find the local’s behaviour in highly touristy places completely comprehensable. On the one hand, one can imagine that it might not be great seeing the crowds flood your tierra (the word people use for ‘birthground’ here) witness it changing the nature of the place. At the same time however, all this bustle also signifies an opportunity to bring in money, which is much needed in countries like Peru. If I would live here, I would sure take the chance too. In the end, most tourists can indeed miss the money. However, when looking at it from a cultural and enviromental point of view, I don’t think mass-tourism is necessarily beneficial for a place. Especially not when the political infrastructure to deal with it correctly is absent or simply inadequate. When proper governmental policy towards matters like the protection of culture, the environment, commerce and gentrification are lacking, local people, especially those from indigenous cultures that are traditionally non-monetary, and their ways of living are in danger. That is exactly why I decided to skip lake Titicaca for the time being – there is a lot of discussion if the boattrips to the famous floating islands are endangering and changing the nature of the local way of life. On top of that, I think that I would not have been able to fight the feeling of being a spectator, watching other people somewhat like monkeys in a cage performing tricks in exchange for a snack. I cannot help but wonder what it does to people when their traditional way of life becomes merely an outer form, a stunt performed to please the audience. Is there a greater form of capitalisation than capitalising one’s own body, one’s own being? I find this to be a tricky aspect of travelling through our globalised world that I haven’t made my mind up on upon yet, but I am convinced that this undesireable side-effect can be hugely reduced by us travellers not all buzzing around the same places.

When it came to Machu Picchu, I must admit that I was also just a bit ‘experience-tired’. I think that this is a quite normal phenonemon amongst long-term travellers. Call it being spoiled if you want, but I had already seen so many ruins and beautiful sites during my first two weeks in Cusco and the Sacred Valley, that it started to feel a bit like the same old thing, over and over again. With every site I visited, I found myself hoping that this time it would meet my expectations, that this time it would satisfy my senses, that this time my yearning for a sublime experience would be met. I kept on hoping to ‘feel the energy’ of the place, to experience its magic deep inside. But everytime I found myself admiring the beauty, at least until a certain extent, but meanwhile being stuck in my head, not feeling really connected to what I was seeing. This reminds me of what Pico Iyer has wisely remarked: “Everyone who travels knows that you’re not really doing so to get around, you’re doing so to be moved.” In other words: every traveller knows that the real journey takes place within. So maybe it was time for me to work on that inner landscape first before I would be able to apreciate the external things fully. On top of that, I didn’t feel great physically. I had always imagined reaching the glorious mountain top of Machu Picchu through a multi-day hiking track, but once in Cusco my body seemed to have different plans. The tummy-issue, that had already been going on for a month, had finally become so disturbing that it was time to go see a doctor. While running tests and following a diet that made me feel weak, I wasn’t very keen on doing a massive hike. The alternative, going by bus followed by only a three-hour hike up, did not seem half as exciting.

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And so I started wondering: what if I wouldn’t go? Would I regret it? Or would I be fine without it? What was I afraid to lose with not going? And was this really this really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? To answer the latter question: I don’t think so. I do realise how incredibly privileged I am being able to say this as there is many people around the world for whom the possibility of travelling is not that obvious (or not a possibility at all) , but I believe that there will be some other time if I really want to (if all in good health, of course). Perhaps this is exactly what bothers people so much when they find out that I skipped Machu Picchu: perhaps they consider it to be a once-in-a-lifetime sort of thing, a unique opportunity that I failed to take. I tend to disagree with such a way of looking at the world. For a huge part, it is in my own hands if I ever get to go see the ruins. If I still want to go next year, the year after, in ten or fifty years, I will still go. But I’m not in a hurry to scrap it of my list. I don’t want to be led by my fear of missing out.

Last but not least, another important reason for skipping some of the main tourist attractions of Peru, is that I wanted to prove that Peru is much more than these known areas. Although Machu Picchu, the Nazca lines and the oasis of Huachina generally are the predominant three reasons for people to go, I was convinced that the country had a lot more to offer. And I wasn’t disappointed. To the contrary, I look back at the things that I did do, the experiences I did have, and the people that I did meet and I feel nothing but gratefulness. Sometimes I think that I might have seen even more of the country (and, not unimportantly, for the same amount of money – or less) than I would have if I would have tackled all touristy things along the path. My itinerary included a boat-ride down the Amazonas, stunning waterfalls in the northern selva, drinking home-brewed liquor in a clandestine café in Cajamarca, more than a fair share of moutain-beauty in Huaraz, an inspiring three weeks in Cusco, the city of the Incas, and hiking in a canyon full of condors, waking up in an oasis tothe most incredible landscape that I have ever seen.

And amidst all of this amazingness, I got to write, which is perhaps even more than seeing all those wonderful things (even though it is not necessarily going anywhere). I got to write because I had the time and the peace of mind to do so. I could continue writing because there was no rush, no thousands of boxes to tick, no packing my bags all the time in order to be off onto the next best thing.

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If I regret anything at all about my time in Peru, it would be that I did not take the time to volunteer. Last year, when I was also travelling South America for five months, my budget was about half the size of this year’s. I simply didn’t have the money back then to go everywhere, especially not to the pricy regions – it was no option. I had to volunteer during my trip in exchange for free stay, which naturally slowed down my pace. I did not have the feeling that I was missing out on anything, because there was no element of choice involved: I could not have done it any different and so my mind was quiet. This time, I did have the choice. Looking back over this trip, I realise that money played a big role in the initial decision-making process. It complicated my choices on what to include in my itinerary and made me slightly over-ambitious (at least at the beginning of my trip, when I still had my mind set on making it to Bolivia eventually). I realise now that more money meant more stress, as having the money to do everything makes you want to do everything. I tried squeezing in a lot of places, until the point that I couldn’t remember where I had been the day before (and my pace was already lower than that of many travellers around me). That was the turning point for me. I realised that I had lost some of my own idealism, I was not being faithful to the philosophy of ‘slow travel’ that I am advocating through the title of this blog.

By the end of the day, I think that experiencing the difference between ‘normal travel’ and ‘slow travel’ have only consolidated my strong beliefs in the latter. It’s just so much more rewarding. Not only is it cheaper to get around (you get to wait for the cheapest ticket prices, take the cheaper but slower option, have the opportunity to volunteer in exchange for a bed and/or food, etc.), it also gets a lot more real. You get to spend more time around locals, maybe even living or working with them. I have learned that the conversations that you have then are entirely different from the ones that you might have on the street or in the supermarket (and they are a lot better for your Spanish, too). Moving slowly, there is time to study culture in depth, which is very different than learning from the brief description on a sign in a museum. Another strong argument for going slow is that it tends to be less bad for the environment, since you’re likely to choose buses over airplanes and you will probably cover a smaller distance altogether. And last but not least, it is a lot more relaxing to go by the day and see how you feel than to stick to a tight timetable. I am no longer afraid to ‘waste’ a day. I have lazy, very lazy days once in a while, after which I feel inspired, well-rested, and I apreciate my time and the people around me just so much better afterwards.

Long story short: wherever you are, go slow. Don’t try to squeeze everything in. Take the time to waste the moment and enjoy whatever comes your way. I hope I’ve sold it, cos I’m hooked.

Pisac

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