The Necessity of Humility
Even though I have been to Peru four times now, I had successfully avoided visiting Cusco and Machu Picchu until very recently. I probably wouldn’t have gone, either, except for the fact that one of the required trips included in the program is visiting Peru’s most famous tourist attraction. And that’s exactly why I never had any inclination to visit, because Cusco and Machu Picchu are both crawling with tourists.
I have encountered my fair share of tourists here in Lima, and my interactions with them have been less than pleasant, making me avoid the tourist hot-spots at all costs. They’re the ones that come to Peru shrouded in naiveté—the ones that think the whole country is dangerous because it’s in Latin America, the ones that don’t speak a lick of Spanish (and don’t care to learn any), the ones that wear shorts during the winter and get offended when everyone stares at them. These are the ones that are unbelievably rude and disrespectful—the ones that care more if Apple computers are cheaper here than interacting with locals, and the ones that throw away three-fourths of their Inca Kola because they think it tastes like bubblegum. These are the ones that order a bacon cheeseburger at a traditional Peruvian restaurant because waiting one week is just too much to bear.
And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these things, I’ve been around these tourists long enough to know that their actions are the manifestation of a prideful heart. And when many travelers pass over Lima completely and spend their entire time in Cusco, why would I want to be around that?
But alas, the beckon of the Sacred Valley was inevitable. And even though I was still wary of the trip, I was genuinely excited to visit.
However, my elation quickly turned to malaise. At first I suspected that my poor state was due solely to the altitude and the exhaustion of rushing from place to place, but I quickly realized that my troubles ran deeper than mere physical ailments.
It all began when we were visiting a place that calls itself a “living museum.” It houses llamas and alpacas and showcases the traditional life of the Quechua people by displaying those dressed in native costume working the loom and the lathe. While it was a very educational and enlightening experience, something about the place felt very wrong. As I observed the other visitors to the site, I noticed what was awry—they were snapping pictures of these people as if they were animals in a zoo.
I remember observing one older American woman. She was carrying a large camera, snapping pictures of everything. She eventually noticed a small Quechua girl, dressed in the garb that her family was wearing. The girl was only one or two years old, and like any person of that age, she was running around, enjoying life. The woman, noting her lovely appearance and charming attitude, proceeded to talk to her in English, asking her to come over so that she could snap a picture of her. When she blissfully ignored the invitation, the woman playfully chased her, all for the sake of getting the perfect shot. I found this event to be quite bothersome, especially since the woman did not bother to treat the girl with any dignity. She did not ask her mother, to whom the girl kept running, if it would be acceptable to take a photo of her daughter. Instead of simply admiring the girl’s cute behavior, the woman decided to take multiple pictures of her simply because she could. No one bothered to correct her, either, because she was the kind of woman who would purchase a sweater from the gift shop. Exploitation is fine as long as someone receives the U.S. Dollar, right?
This sort of selfish behavior only increased once we finally reached Machu Picchu. Our group had finally reached the platform where one can view the famous panorama of the Ruins and the mountain behind them. I snapped a few pictures, but I decided to lay my phone aside so that I could admire the beauty of it all. Pictures really cannot do Machu Picchu justice. Watching the mist rise over the mountains and form small clouds as the sun reached over the peaks was an indescribable experience, so I decided to be still and ponder the wonder of the Ruins. I looked behind me to make sure that I wasn’t blocking anyone’s view (the tickets here are quite expensive!), and stood observing everything around me using all of my senses. I stood there for a few minutes, admiring the mystery and majesty of Machu Picchu, only to be sharply interrupted by another student from the program.
“Julia! Move out of the way! I want to take a picture there!” I watched with a pained expression while someone filled my space and continued to take selfies and “adventurous jumping pictures” for the purpose of garnering some extra likes on Instagram. By the time the student finished, it was time to move on, so my admiration was extremely truncated. I listened with upset ears as they consulted the other students to decide upon the cleverest caption for their photo. We continued on.
A few girls and I broke off from the rest of the group while we explored the Ruins—the main group wanted to hike at a rapid pace, and we wanted to enjoy the hike, so we split apart. We had a wonderful time admiring the different plants, the texture of the rocks, and the smell of the mist. Eventually we made our way over to the back of the Ruins so that we could hike up the infamous mountain that lies behind the Ruins, which is called Huayna Picchu. The hike was strenuous, but we remained positive. Finally, after frequent breaks and encouraging words, we made our way to the very top of the mountain.
After being feeling ill the entire week, knowing that I had climbed up to the top of that famous mountain gave me the most exhilarating feeling. I was able to admire the Ruins from a completely different perspective. However, the part that I found to be most emotional was when I called my husband from the summit.
Yes, for some odd reason, Movistar has five-bar service from the top of Huayna Picchu. Because of this, I was able to FaceTime my husband, who was in Haiti doing mission work, and tell him that I had climbed the mountain and prayed for him and his team on the way up. It was a truly spiritual experience, and in that moment I fully understood why the Incas had considered the site to be sacred.
All of that came to an abrupt end when I ended my call. I continued to hike around the summit with the other girls. I noticed a man snap a selfie with his girlfriend using his GoPro camera. The Andes were in the background, and it was a lovely act. However, I overheard him say, “Well, that picture was $#*!. Those mountains look terrible.” Despite the fact that we had all just climbed a mountain for one grueling hour, this man was more concerned about his Instagram shots than admiring the beauty of the area. To him, the surrounding Andes didn’t look cool enough.
I admired the ruins from a different perspective for some more time. As I made my way down, the negativity that I had experienced during the prior week came flooding over me. Once more, I heard their voices in my head, saying, “What the hell are we here for? This is so stupid,” when we visited a Quechua man’s home and small organic farm; “This is SO EFFING WEIRD,” when we climbed the mountain behind his home; “That is a bunch of bull. The Incas were not that smart at all,” when our tour guide told us that some archaeologists think that the Incas built a face into some of their structures; and “We need to have a rager and get drunk on Cusqueña while in Cusco! It’s the cultural thing to do!”
My heart hurt after remembering all of these comments, but the most painful actually occurred after we returned to Lima. Someone who had done some volunteer work at an orphanage in Cusco had been complaining to the rest of the group how useless the time there was. The nuns in charge did nothing, and the girls at the home were dirty and uneducated, refusing to listen and behaving badly. The student told us how terrible those few days were. However, once we all returned, the student shared a photo of the girls at the orphanage online, remarking how the experience was completely and utterly life-changing. And of course, the photo garnered dozens of likes.
I’m not going to lie—I absolutely loved my trip to Cusco, and I learned so much about Peruvian history and culture. However, I can’t help but feel as though I learned something much more profound than why the Incas built their walls on an incline. I learned that throughout the centuries, the heart of man has not changed, even though we live in a much more technologically-advanced age. We are still fascinated by that which is exotic, oftentimes to the point where we feel the need to belittle another culture by our own actions and remarks. But we need to remember that other people are exactly that—people. They have their own hopes and dreams; they have their own way of life. When visiting a new location, we must always remember that.
Yet I must admit that I do not have any answers regarding responsible tourism. I cannot detail the ethics of monetizing something with deep cultural significance. I cannot tell if whitewashing an area in order to booster the economy via foreign money is ultimately beneficial or harmful. I can list the pros and cons of living in a globalized world, but I cannot definitively say if it is good or bad.
Nevertheless, the one thing that I do know is this—that no matter where we go, where we travel, where we live, we as humans must always show love and respect to our fellow people, and this is something that can only occur once humility resides in our lives. There is room for change. And change—true, lasting change—can only come with the overflowing presence of humility. It will not be easy, but it is something worthwhile.