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.