PERU: THE YOUNG ONES
I can’t remember why we stopped by the side of the road now. Perhaps it was for the view, or maybe my jeep was acting up again. But on the lay-by, a boy of not more than ten approached us and stuck his head through the window.
“Would you like to know about the town’s history?” he enquired.
“Yes, sure,” we replied.
What followed was a twenty minute monologue by this young would-be Hamlet. He began at a cracking pace, and didn’t let up. He related the tragic events of May 31, 1970, when an earthquake measuring 7.7 on the Richter Scale tore through his home-town – even though he probably wasn’t a twinkle in his parents’ eye at the time. He knew his script off by heart, rarely pausing to catch his breath as he hung from the passenger door.
“It’s thought that 26,830 inhabitants died. In the village down the road, another 4,500 perished from the quake. Throughout the region, 70,000 people died. Over there,” he said, pointing to a building in the distance, “you can see a red building. It’s a replica of the old church’s façade. You can also see four palm trees which stood on the main square. In all, there were 34 trees. Only four survived. Further down, you can see three buried cars. They were swallowed up at 3.30 in the afternoon – one is a Volkswagen and the other a big truck. Over to the left you can see a few pine trees, the site of the local police headquarters. There were 12 policemen and only one survived – he was on duty at the local cemetery….”
And so he went on, until, finally, we were forced to ask him to stop, such was the verbal cavalcade that came charging from his mouth.
In the capital, Lima, I was given a guided tour by another boy – knee-high to a grasshopper – who delivered his speech with aplomb and even panache, sweeping his arm across the Plaza de Armas in great arcs as he described each building in turn. Since my last visit, Lima’s mayor had removed the famous equestrian statue of the wily and ageing Spanish conquistador, Francisco Pizarro, who brought down the Inca Empire with little more than 160 men. Until recently it had dominated one corner of the Plaza. The boy knew all about the controversy. “It was a cheap political bribe by our ambitious mayor,” he intoned.
In Cusco, tourists are plagued day and night by battalions of shoe-shine boys and postcard-hawkers. After you’ve bought a few postcards and had your boots shined on your first day, you’re forced to turn them away. But the young boys are sharp and quick-witted. “Which country?” they ask. When you reply “England” they immediately chime “England. Capital: London. President: Tony Blair, Princess Diana.” Perhaps England is an easy one. But I’ve overheard them come back at a tourist with “Germany. Capital before unification: Bonn. Now: Berlin.”
Peru is an incredibly young country. There are kids everywhere you look. Over a third of the country is under 15, nearly twice the figure for the United Kingdom; the average age is nearly half that of the United States. Befriending the country’s children fills one with a disconcerting sense of both optimism and despair. Optimism that these bright young things will change their country for the better – there are more internet users here than in Turkey, for instance, a country with a population nearly three times as great. Despair that they won’t be given the opportunity.
Peru is a beguiling and contradictory country. Its name conjures lush Andean mountains, yet desert sands muffle large swathes of the country. One expects the majesty of the Inca Empire, only to find poverty and an Indian population seemingly sunk in melancholy. One chases the traditional, but wonders how to determine the authenticity of traditions in this, our globalized world. One is torn between admiration for the gall and bravery of the Conquistadors, while lamenting the destruction and horrors wrought on the country's people since their arrival. Confusing as it may seem, Peru is also a traveller’s paradise. It offers the curious adventurer a bottomless wealth of possibilities, making it one South America’s most exciting and varied nations.
The Andes chain of mountains courses its entire length, bulging to some 400 kilometres in places, and soaring over 7,000 metres in others. The mountains divide the country into three parts, with the coastal deserts to the west and the headwaters of the Amazon to the east. Its cultural heritage is as diverse as its physical geography. It’s this natural bounty and this cultural legacy which imbues its youth with such pride.
The site of our would-be Hamlet’s earthquake was Yungas, a small town nestled in the 200 kilometre-long Callejón de Huaylas, the Huaylas Alleyway, in northern Peru. On its eastern side rise the seemingly never-ending snow-capped peaks of the Cordillera Blanca; on the other, the stark, barren chain of the Cordillera Negra. One of the continent’s greatest regions for nature and adventure, here you’ll find 30 peaks over 5,000 metres, dozens of fantastic hikes among glacial lakes and high moorland, as well as some of the country’s most intriguing ruins at Chavín de Huantar.
Dozens of cultures thrived in Peru before the expansion of the Incas in the fourteenth century. One of the most developed was the Chimu Empire on the northern coast. The ruins of their capital city, Chan Chan, remain the largest mud-brick construction in the Americas, covering a vast area, decorated with intricate swirling designs and haunted by the vestiges of the past.
The residue of bygone civilisations is everywhere in Peru. Among the most renowned is that of the Nazca in the south, famed for the lines which they etched into the desert sands, and for the theories their legacy has nourished ever since. These expansive animal figures and geometrical shapes stretch across some 500 square kilometres of austere steppe, most probably employed as some sort of agricultural calendar for planting and harvesting, but also possibly as sacred paths connecting powerful, religious sites.
The country’s most well-known civilisation is of course that of the Incas. Their empire stretched from southern Colombia all the way down to northern Chile, all the more remarkable for the dizzying speed of its rise and fall. The capital of their empire of Tawantinsuyo (the four quarters) was Cusco. Today, the city is the undisputed gringo capital of the Americas, replete with gaggles of language schools, gallons of bars, droves of tour operators, and every facility the traveller could require.
The city one sees today is a unique hybrid of the Incan and Spanish, the American and European. Although the Spanish razed many of the constructions they found, they also put them to good use. They left many of the earthquake-resistant Incan foundations, and simply plonked their houses, palaces and churches on top. The result looks something like an architectural ice-cream cone.
Beyond the city, the Sacred Valley of the River Urubamba was the Inca’s breadbasket, and its elite’s playground. To the Incas, the Urubamba echoed the shape of the Milky Way up in the heavens. Several towns are dotted along its course and in the hills which separate it from Cusco. Many of these continue their traditional ways, despite the advent of what nears mass tourism in the high season.
The two most impressive towns are Pisac and Ollantaytambo. Pisac is strategically placed on the banks of the Urubamba, famous for its Sunday market which smothers the entire square and surrounding streets. Perched on the hills above the town, its ruins dominate a whole section of the valley. At dawn, the morning sun slowly edges above the opposite mountains to light its ancient stones.
Further downstream, the town of Ollantaytambo also boasts impressive ruins on a dominating hilltop. The streets below preserve much of the Incas' original design, huge trapezoidal stone doors giving onto small squares occupied by family units, where the temptation to take a peek at the locals' quotidian life is hard to resist.
Further down the valley still, the forested, precipitous hills of the Urubamba held the secret of the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu up until the coming of the twentieth century. The secret is no-more, with up to 50,000 visitors making the journey to the ruins in August, but South America’s most recognizable icon is still as magical and mystical as ever – just get there early.
While waiting for the bus to carry us back down from Machu Picchu to the train station, I got chatting to a teenager selling postcards. He asked me the usual questions, in English, before I told him I was a journalist.
“Do you know what Pablo Neruda wrote about Machu Picchu?” he then asked.
I shook my head, ignorant of Chile’s Nobel Prize-winning poet’s words.
“High reef of the human dawn. / Spade buried in primordial sand,” he recited, “This was the habitation, this is the site: here the fat grains of maize grew high / to fall again as red hail.”
I sat dumbstruck for a while. Then smiled and congratulated him.
Peru’s children may be young and struggling, but their pride for their nation’s riches, along with their fervour for learning, gives one great hope – that the country’s fat grains will grow strong and valiant, never to fall as red hail on the earth of wasted opportunity.