Pervious Peru!

You might be wondering why I would call this post pervious? What has Peru got to do with anything that has water seeping through it? Well I don’t mean this in the literal sense of the word (although the Amazon river starts in the Peruvian jungle, so in a sense it is quite pervious) but figuratively. Peru is one of the most interesting and diverse places we’ve been to on this trip. Its culture seeps through every aspect of daily Peruvian life. From the ‘Guy’ (Guinea pig) to the Peruvian infusions. Their food is one example of how Peru has integrated with colonial times. The history of this country is both fascinating and intriguing. It’s the birthplace and the capital of one of the greatest empires that ever existed. Its warped sense of what makes Peru Peru is balanced between accepting the status quo and fiercely rejecting it. You grasp the idea when you first land in Lima. Its sprawling city with its expensive neighbourhoods (Miraflores and Baracas) lay starkly against the backdrop of poverty. Yet in the middle lies a pre Incan ruin – merely mud brick and straw keep the old ruin from collapsing to total destruction. While its neighbours are the Brazilians, Bolivians and Chileans, Peru exemplifies a nation that rolled with the punches and landed in the middle of an explosion of Colonial identity. Officially, the nation never wanted independence from the Spanish. They were quite happily towing the line, enjoying the ‘western way of living’. However, as the rest of the continent had been through this period of independence, Argentine and Venezualen generals decided it was best for everyone that Peru seperate themselves from the Spanish crown. Reluctantly accepting, Peru was finally separated in 1824. It’s impossible to sum up all the sights, experiences and wonders in one simple post. Quite frankly, it would be an insult.  We’ve tasted authentic Peruvian cuisine, indulged in political debate and hiked the lengths and breadths of the endless Andes mountain range. In order to build some understanding of our experiences in Peru, it’s important to understand the context of the place. Its rich history, geographical location and its political and social identities. 

Peru was ‘discovered’ by the Spanish in 1524 by the Spanish general Francisco Pizarro. He and 168 of his men walked into the Inca town of Cajamarca and demanded that the Inca king (or ‘Sapa’) Atahualpa cede power to the spanish crown. The king, being a friendly fellow, decided that this weird white man with his weird armour, spiky hats and four legged tailed creatures were not a threat for his army of 10 000 men. He gestured for the general to come over and enjoy some local delicacies. The spanish general accepted, however he had a cannon up his sleeve. Upon shaking the Inca kings hand, he grabbed the man and told his men to fire the cannons, and charge with their horses. Blind in panic, the army didn’t know what to do. 7000 Incan men were left dead before the end of the day. The Sapa was held hostage until the he said he would cede power. After all was signed and sealed, he was executed. Crazy story to think that 168 men were able to capture an entire empire of over 15 million people. However, when the Spanish did arrive, the Incan empire was split in a civil war brought on by the divide in who should be the next Sapa. The previous Sapa, Tupac had died of smallpox, a European born disease that had made its way to the Incan empire by way of scout. Weakened, the surrounding Incan tribes were enraged by their new leader (a teenager with not much experience). They conspired to help the Spanish and drew detailed maps of the surrounding areas. Furthermore, the Incan army hadn’t ever seen armour or horse drawn soldiers. Their weapons were useless against the gunpowder, guns and iron clad foot soldiers. Unfortunately, as the luck of the die had landed on the fortune of the European, the Inca’s bore the brunt of colonial technology, germs and ability to harness nature to their own gain. As with any great empire, the conqueror soon become the conquered. The Incan empire was vanquished from the maps of history. Fortunately, there were some brave Incan generals who hide the paths to the once great and mythical mountain of Machu Picchu (more on that in the next post). 

The Inca was a fascinating tribe of 15 million people. Their empire ranged from the northernmost point of South America all the way down south to the tips of Argentina and Chile. It’s said that their empire was shaped in the form of a human body, with its legs tucked to its shoulders. Who knows if this is correct. I haven’t been able to find anything on google – but our guide was adamant. In Inca mythology the Condor Puma and Snake were all important aspects of their everyday life. The Incas considered the condor their most sacred bird. Its large size and ability to travel long distances is why the Incas believed it to be the messenger for the heavens. It was one of the most scared animals in their eyes, because of its connection to the divine. It was considered the connection between the earth and skies and was believed to carry the dead on its wings to the afterlife. If you have a look at aerial footage of the Machu Pichu you can make out the shape of some bird. The jaguar represents strength and character. It’s said that the heart is in Cusco, not far off from the head. And finally the snake represented all that was in the underworld and wisdom. When you die, you join the snake to help guide the world above. If you peer into the sky on a dark night, you can make out these mythical creatures in the constellations. 

Peru, as with other South American countries, has had its fair share of corrupt officials. Unfortunately, the sitting president is hamstrung by his party whom has only a 10% approval rating. One night while drinking one to many pisco sours we got chatting to a few of the locals who took me through the political history of the country, and how divided it is. As the country has three major geographic separators (the mountain, the jungle and the sea) is incredibly difficult to govern. Those citizens who live near the coast enjoy riches that come with trade ports that give Peru access to the rest of the world. Unfortunately those who live either in the high alps or in the deep jungle don’t get as many luxuries and thus are less well off and less educated. A perpetuating cycle really. While we were in Arequipa protests marred the streets with miners, unions and the general public opposing the government’s move to sell land to big fracking companies. Fracking is the practice of drilling deep down and literally cracking open old rock sediment to expose the minerals and oils from within. The process involves chemicals which subsequently pollute the water supplies in the surrounding areas. So quite frankly, we were all for the protests. Just meant our travels were disrupted slightly (the cheek of it!). The Peruvian government has a fairly left leaning approaching, stifling any foreign investment and preferring to control their own means of production. In recent times there has been some easing on policy, however a huge corruption scandal involving a brazilan company Odebrecht rocked the nation and the then president Alan Garcia commited suicide as a result (While Gedleyihlekisa laughs all the way to the bank…). The last five former Peruvian presidents have either served jail time for corruption (Alberto Fujimori) or are under investigation for it. An unprecedented number, with no end in sight. Makes South African corruption scandals seem like child’s play. 

The countries social history has seen Europeans and Asians flock in vast numbers either fleeing local atrocities or famine. The Peruvian government at the time welcomed foreigners. One of our local friends, Matias had a rather interesting family history. He didn’t look at all like a local Peruvian and had a mix of Italian, Romanian and Luthiuan descent. His great grand parents fled the Nazi invasion during WWII, and they subsequently set up there lives in Peru. Buying large swaths of land, they farmed coffee and cocoa plantations. Unfortunately, during a spat of leftist parties came to power they took the land for themselves leaving Matias’ family without anything. They had to rebuild their lives from scratch and moved to Lima. Today they own businesses and matias is studying to become a lawyer. So during the early 40s and 50s a flood of immigrants made their way to peru in search of a more peaceful life. As time went on, Peru wasn’t as peaceful as they had hoped. Since then there has been a flurry of leftist and right leaning parties all promising to stamp out corruption. Strange how the theme seems to persist across the entire continent. There’s a book by a Uruguayan poet called open veins of South America. It sums up why the countries of south america all went through the same sort of history. It’s next on the reading list. 

With such international influences, Peru has become the gastronomic center of the world with delicious dishes spanning the world over all. All to come in the next post with an introduction to Peruvian cuisine. Delicioso!

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