Crashing Amaru

There had been some disquiet about our planned visit to the Amaru community, one of twelve that ring Pisac on the slopes of the mountains above the valley floor. It wasn’t clear to some of the students why we were going, and for others, why we were paying to go. 

I tried to explain, and even went so far as to suggest that it could be in some ways the most important day of our time here in Peru: our one chance to visit a more or less self-governing Indigenous community, recognized by the state as such. By some measures, this was perhaps our only opportunity to see and interact with “real,” Indigenous campesino life. And of course we couldn’t simply barge in to such a place, certainly not as twenty foreigners, many of whose Spanish is basic at best. This would have to be a curated, and even to some extent commodified experience. I warned that it could well be disappointing (“rubbish” was the word I used). But it was worth trying.

My worst fear was that it would be undignified: not for us, but for our hosts. But our experience so far of the Kusi Kawsay Association, who helped organize the trip (and whose school we had visited earlier in the week), has been generally positive, so I hoped for the best. In fact, it turned out that we were visiting families involved with the Association up in Amaru.

In the end, if anyone lost any of their dignity, it was me. I had been a bit sick in the morning before breakfast (almost everyone in the group has had minor stomach upsets or possible flu-like symptoms over the past few days), and then once in the field in which we were rather unceremoniously dumped upon arrival, I started to feel a little faint and dizzy. I felt even more uncertain of myself when, after being asked to put on a poncho and cap then take some ceremonial coca, I contributed some frankly risibly token efforts (even more token than everyone else’s) to work the chacra with hand-plough and pickaxe. So when we then moved on, and once we had been greeted by members of the Association for lunch, I promptly crashed out on the ground in the Andean sun. For the next little while I was more or less aware of little boys making fun of me and poking my face with bits of straw, while weaving demonstrations and the like went on around and about. The students were amused, I think, at my wholesale uselessness. I only gathered myself together once it was time to go, and finally on return to the hotel I promptly threw up again. The only saving grace was that I had managed to hold onto myself sufficiently not to despoil the community with gringo vomit.

Yet the fact that I felt able to crash out was a sign that I felt comfortable: comfortable enough to give in to my physical discomfort, at least. And I would say that that was the prevailing tenor of the visit. We visitors were gently challenged, even to do a little physical labour in unfamiliar and sometimes ill-fitting garb. But we were also made to feel welcome, with quite elaborate rituals of greeting and farewell that involved rounds of embraces and kisses. We were put at our ease and yet our hosts, I felt, had the upper hand, helped no doubt by the fact that there was not too much effort put into explaining or justifying the proceedings. We were asked simply to let fate take its course. It was no doubt performative (so much for the “real”), but the Amaru performers were happy and able to take charge, and perhaps smile at how badly their guests, myself above all, performed our own roles.

Still, I was left with many questions, and if I hadn’t been laid low I would probably have tried to ask them. Above all, I wonder about the relationship between the members of the Association and other members of the community. We didn’t really get a sense of the community as a whole, and I wonder whether there are frictions or even rivalries within it, not least because the Association seems to be doing such a good (and perhaps profitable) job hosting such instances of experiential tourism. Moreover, our guide did tell me (while I was still more or less compus mentis) that the Association’s goals of “reinvigorating, promoting, protecting and celebrating the Andean Culture” are driven in part by fears about the encroachment of Protestant sects, such as the Seventh-Day Adventist Church that we passed on the way through the village. I wonder how such differences are negotiated in the everyday life of the broader community.

But perhaps such questions are too much to ask over the span of just a few hours, even if I had been feeling more myself. We were only going to see (and feel) a small facet of things, and we shouldn’t fool ourselves otherwise, but that was plenty for the time being. At least it wasn’t rubbish.

Punk Indigenism

Yesterday, I broke a chair. I’m not particularly proud of the fact, but I’m also sorry / not sorry. If by any chance the owners of Sapos pizza bar are reading this, then I will indeed pay for the damage. But I suspect the chair must have been pretty flimsy in the first place. And it was part of a performance that is perhaps symptomatic of my feelings about this place, and even of a couple of other things, too.

I can’t sing. When I was at primary school, I was asked simply to mouth the words of collective songs and hymns, as the noise I was emitting was deemed to be putting everyone else off. But I do like performing. So when, years ago, in Lima, I was taken by some friends to the karaoke bar at the Centro Cultural Peruano Japonés, I couldn’t resist putting myself forward. And the only song they had available (probably by some kind of mistake) that seemed to fit my style, and which didn’t involve any actual singing–rather, shouting–was the Sid Vicious version of “My Way.” Which duly became my karaoke party piece, although only in Peru. Elsewhere, I tend (with only very occasional exceptions) to avoid karaoke. But in Peru, I sing. And I sing Sid Vicious.

So when the students excitedly wanted to go to a makeshift karaoke bar here in Pisac, I duly trundled along, and after an introductory rendition of “Piano Man” (for which I was helpfully drowned out by their own enthusiastic participation) and a rather less successful attempt at “So Long Marianne” (which I thought they would also turn into a sing-along, but I guess these days young Canadians don’t know their Leonard Cohen), I ended the night as Sid. And when it came to the line “I shot it up or kicked it out,” somewhat carried away by the occasion I kicked at the nearest unoffending article of domestic furniture, which turned out not to be quite as robust as I had imagined.

But a bit of punk in Pisac seems appropriate. Because this is a town riddled with New Age tourists, neo-hippies, and of course the punks hated hippies: “Never trust a hippy,” as they used to say. And to be honest, the posters plastered on Pisac doors featuring white-bearded gringos advertising such things as “Sacred Healing Ceremony and Musical Oracle” or “Psychedelic Counseling” and “Authentic Yoga” were getting me down. So the chair paid the price, in what was no doubt a bit of personal catharsis.

To be honest, though, I do have hippy friends. Yes, the old cliché: “Some of my best friends are hippies.” I’m thinking of one in particular, Steve, who I last saw on a very brief trip to London in March, who is very unwell, and who I fear I will not see again. Indeed, I could no doubt go on at length (also in clichéd fashion) as to why these Pisac neo-hippies are so unlike and different from the “real” hippies that I love back in Penge and Beckenham.

But I think the main thing here is that the New Age business is a distraction. As a group, we’ve almost begun to see and think about it more than about the issues of Indigeneity that we are actually here to consider and reflect on. Not that the two are easily entangled: obviously, the New Age Spiritualism feeds on a construction of Indigeneity that is specific to highland Peru and the Sacred Valley (the very notion of a “sacred” valley). It is not for nothing that they are here, as well as other places (Pisac reminds me for instance of Antigua, Guatemala) where Indigenous culture remains strongly embedded. And of course, for the locals, though there may well be grumbling about some of their ways and their impact on the town, they also contribute to the economy, and the guides for instance willingly play up to the image of spirituality and peace, much in fact as way back in the 1600s Garcilaso de la Vega portrayed Inca imperialism as a process of smothering the subjugated in peace, love, and understanding, “so that however brutish and barbarous they had been they were subdued by affection and attached to [the Inca’s] service by a bond so strong that no province ever dreamed of rebelling” (33). Arguably, the neo-hippies are similarly neo-colonists but preaching wellness, breathwork, and organic veggies. Still, I’m not sure I want much to do with it.

If I were to choose (though I’m not sure I can), I’d rather a punk Indigeneity or Indigenism. This might be along the lines of the graphic artist Cherman Quino, whose work I love. In my office I have a poster of his, which features an image of César Vallejo and the text: “Hay Hermanos muchísimo que hacer. . . y no has hecho ni mierda.” But I think there’s something of the punk spirit in the rebellion of the chicheras in Arguedas’s Los ríos profundos, or even in the multitudinous arrival of the colonos in Abancay at the end of the same book, where they are described as “crawl[ing] around like big lice, bigger than merino sheep; they’d eat up the little animals alive, finishing the people off first” (226). Arguedas is always aware of the dark side, of the threat of Indigeneity. What else is “yawar mayu,” the bloody river that he constantly predicts and fears, but the ultimate in punk? Or, further back, if Garcilaso is hippy, isn’t Guaman Poma the first punk (even before Los Saicos and “Demolición”). Doesn’t his handwritten artwork have something of the aesthetic of Jamie Reid? Or his self-staged interview with the King of Spain something of the sheer chutzpah of the Sex Pistols on TV with Bill Grundy?

Perhaps not. Perhaps this is as much of an imposition or fantasy as that of the neo-hippies. But it’s one I prefer.

Two weeks to Peru…

It has just struck me that it is now less than a fortnight before I will be in Peru, to take a group of twenty UBC undergraduates (accompanied, fortunately, by a very reliable Teaching Assistant) for six weeks of study and exploration in Lima, Cusco, Pisac, Ollantaytambo, and Machu Picchu.

I am asking the students to write a regular travel blog, on which they will reflect on their experiences and observations while they are there (alongside a reading blog, in which they comment on a respond to the texts we will be reading and discussing). And so I thought, pour encourager les autres, that I would do the same.

At present I am still caught up in logistics–just yesterday I heard from our hotel in Cusco, for instance, that there has apparently been a misunderstanding about how many rooms we need; I am very much hoping this gets resolved today! But the sudden realization of how close the trip is may perhaps, paradoxically, help me stand back and think again about what I hope we achieve.

The theme of the course (because it is also a regular, six-credit university course) is “Making and Unmaking Indigeneity in the Andes.” Its basic premise, I suppose, is that we cannot (and should not) take Indigeneity for granted. Indigeneity is a product of history–and of course, specifically colonial and postcolonial history–if only for the fact that, prior to colonization, there was no such category as “Indigeneity.”

There were of course Inkas (and Chankas and Ashánika, and so on; elsewhere, Maya and Mexica etc.), but there were no Indigenous people. Indigeneity is a result or construction of colonialism. Indeed, the term “Indigenous” (in English) is first attested to by the OED in 1632, and it is in 1646 that we have the first occurrence of what we would consider its modern meaning, in a reference (by Thomas Browne) to “indigenous or proper natives of America.”

So we will read and think about how Indigeneity has been made–and at various points, also un-made–in the Andes from the seventeenth century (with Guaman Poma) to a present that we will, partially at least, see around us in Peru itself.

Inevitably, we will be tourists–and I hope that the students have a good time, and do not get sick or break legs and the like–but we will also be studying tourism, thinking about a history of outsiders’ gazes or Occidentalism, reflecting on our own participation, and even complicity, in making and unmaking Indigeneity. There is a lot to learn, and not only for the students. I am very much looking forward to the trip, although I am also a little nervous. . . if mostly in a good way. As I have told the students: we need to expect the unexpected and prepare for our plans to be derailed. That will be part of the learning.