Our visit to Peru coincided with the buildup for the local, regional and national elections that will be taking place in October. In contrast to the increasingly scant levels of voter turnout we have been seeing in recent elections back home, participation in the political processs seems to be at a fever pitch in this part of the world. I can't comment on the issues that are of particular concern to Peruvians, but the campaign managers here capitalize on the word “change” to a degree that Barack Obama's team never would have dreamed of.
At home, when I think of think of elections, I think of televised debates, Ipsos Reid polls and "elect Person X" signs along highways and on people's lawns. In Peru, it is a little more in your face. Instead of plastic signs, people paint (or allow others to paint) the walls of their houses and businesses with colourful advertising for their candidate of choice. I’m a little sad that we won’t be around to witness the reactions of the paintees when the elections are over and the candidates don’t offer to return the buildings to their original colours. Also, instead of television commercials or radio spots, cars drive around in Peru (often surprisingly late in the night) with loud speakers attached to their roofs to let you know who you should be voting for and why. I thought this could also be a creative solution for advertisers to bypass “Do Not Call” registries back home. We’ll see if it catches on.
Outside of the election process, people seem willing to demonstrate in public for any number of reasons. This typically appears to involve the members of various organizations getting together, getting angry and then heading somewhere congested to cripple traffic. An extreme example of this phenomenon occurred just about a week ago in the context of a water dispute between the cities of Cusco and Arequipa, where unhappy citizens erected blockades all around Cusco and effectively hemmed in the city. While this was most certainly designed to send a message to different levels of government, it also had the effect of informing numerous tourists that they would be missing connecting legs of their trips (and for some, reservations for the Inca Trail).
I’ll let Kristin detail her impressions of the people in Peru, but I observed that Peruvians as a people were quick to smile and seemed to enjoy a good joke. Unfortunately, they didn’t always seem to enjoy my jokes. I’m not sure if it was another language barrier issue or the fact that I’m just not funny, but most of my attempts at what I would deem to be semi-sophisticated humour were met with blank looks or questioning stares. Surprisingly, my most well-received Spanish “joke” to date probably remains the “I want my mother” line I dropped when their were tarantulas near my hammock in The Lost City. Unfortunately, I wasn’t trying to be funny. Right then, I just really wanted my mommy.
One holdover from Colombia was the interest and amusement expressed by Peruvians in our height. While sometimes I think it would be nice if we were less tall – it would be nice to blend into the crowd from time to time - people approaching us to comment on our height or, as was the case with the parents of the little guys in the picture below, to request a picture with one of us, has been the starting point for some of the most enjoyable interaction we have had with local people. Obviously our height is not a cultural element of Peru, but the interaction with locals can be enlightening. I hope that in the future we are able to come up with more conversation starters that don't begin with pointing or staring.
Of all the places we visited in Peru, I think that Cusco, as the former capital of the Inca Empire, and the surrounding Sacred Valley were the places that I would most quickly associate with cultural heritage in Peru. You can see some of our pictures from those places here.
I thought I'd add an amusing story and new personal low which occurred today and has nothing to do with culture or Peru. We are in the process of securing our Brazilian visa and needed to get our passport-like photos taken at a local shop. When the lady in the shop handed the photos back to me, I swore that I heard her say, "I shaved you," but just assumed that I had heard incorrectly. However, when I looked at the photos, it was clear that she had photoshopped my face to remove what she must have considered to be my very embarrassing facial hair. I had hoped that South America would be a ridicule-free environment for my first-ever facial hair growth experiments; sadly, that does not appear to be the case. It is also quite possible that the woman made it look like I was wearing lipstick in the photo, but, this, I am still attempting to verify.