Monday, September 12, 2005

Peru Travel Observations

I returned Saturday from a two week tour in southern Peru. We visited most of the major Chechua ruins accessible to tourists, including Machu Picchu, and also visited Lima, Cusco, Puno, and the Uros and Taquile islands on Lake Titicaca. For anyone considering a tour of Peru, I highly recommend it. This was perhaps the best foreign vacation I've ever taken.

What I would like to talk about tonight, though, is the extreme poverty throughout that beautiful country, and the challenges that face anyone wishing to help. The poverty is apparent everywhere you look. There's no attempt to hide it, nor do I think it would be practical to do so. Driving out of Lima, for instance, you're confronted with numerous shanty towns - small villages comprised of shed-sized grass or patchwork houses - in sections that offer some hope of employment. The wage is only about $3.00 per day at best, and that barely covers the cost of potable water for the family.

Where the poverty really hit home was in the village of Ollantaytambo. We were there to visit the Temple of the Sun. To get to the entrance to the ruins, you must walk through the village itself. Typical of most tourist areas, there were several local women and children selling hand-made crafts. Of particular note was one 11-year old girl named Ernestina selling small hand-crafted bottle holders. (I bought one for 2 soles - about 65 cents.) Ernestina walked with me through the village, talking about her family and school. She showed me her house as we passed through a small courtyard. Her house measures a total of 8 feet long by 6 feet wide and is made of stone. The roof is thatched straw. The floor is made of stone. Her bed is an alpaca blanket spread over the stone in one corner. About 30 guinea pigs live in the other corner of the house and serve as the primary diet for her family. She shares this house with two siblings, her parents, her grandmother, and an uncle with Cerebral Palsy. Her living conditions were typical in Ollantaytambo.

There's more to Ernestina's story, though. While we walked towards the temple, she offered to sell me 6 post cards for 4 soles (about $1.25.) Of course, I couldn't decline, but the smallest bill I had on me was a 20 soles note. She took the 20 soles and ran off to get change. While she was gone, our tour moved into the temple - restricted grounds for local vendors. We were in that temple for almost 2 1/2 hours. When we came out, Ernestina was still standing there waiting for me, clutching my 16 soles in change - a small fortune to a young girl in such a poor village. I wonder where we would find such integrity here. Saying goodbye to her as we boarded our tour bus was painful.

The Uros Islands on Lake Titicaca make Ollantaytambo look like uptown Manhattan. We visited Isla Tupiri, one of the small floating reed islands that make up the Uros. This particular island was somewhat special in that it had a small one-room schoolhouse that services about 25 children. Several of them were already gathered and they sang a few songs for us in six different languages. The houses on Tupiri are made of reeds and are no more than 6 feet in diameter. The only source of income for the inhabitants of Tupiri is the sale of handcrafted items to tourists. There are too many islanders and too few tourists for there to be much in the way of cash flow. These islanders have virtually nothing. The only saving grace is that the children on this island are getting an education, although there's little work even in the major cities to support the growing population.

The final stop was Isla Taquile, also on Lake Titicaca. Like most other areas, we were met by women and young girls selling local crafts, or posing for photographs. Marisol is the young girl with hauntingly sad eyes that posed in traditional dress for me. She will turn 13 on November 12. Her house was sadly reminiscent of Ernestina's - about 8 feet by 8 feet and made of stone. This house has a tin roof, but it also is home to more relatives. Marisol is the middle of 6 children. Unique to the islands on Titicaca, though, the schools there do not teach English. This greatly hinders their ability to find work in the cities since tourism is the major growth industry in Peru and English is a prerequisite. I spoke to Marisol at length through a translator. The warmth of her smile contrasted powerfully with the sadness in her eyes; the sadness only found in regions that endure extreme poverty and little hope for the future. As our tour headed away from her home, Marisol gripped my hand and, through the translator pleaded, "Please come back to visit me." Another painful goodbye.

When I returned home, I purchased several gifts for the children in these villages. A blouse and a couple of light jackets for Ernestina, Marisol, and Visitacion (a young girl in Machu Picchu Pueblo,) and a blouse, jacket, and doll for 9-year old Jasmin on Isla Tupiri. These gifts still sit in my den, boxed and ready to go. Sadly, they may never leave my den. It turns out there are many challenges to sending items to Peru. First, clothing and toys are on the prohibited list! That's right, according to the USPS, Peru does not permit sending clothing and toys (along with a host of other items) by mail. So the USPS will not accept these packages for shipment.

DHL and Federal Express will accept them for shipment, however. They even have the ability to charge all import tariffs - which can be as much as 50% of the cost of the item - back to the sender. That's ideal since there's no way any of these girls could afford to pay the tariff, nor would I want them to. There's a catch, though. Both of these companies require a street address for delivery. None of the girls have such a thing. Addresses in the poor villages are painfully simple. It's simply their full name and the name of the village. That's not acceptable to either DHL or Federal Express.

There's one final catch. When the packages arrive in Peru, they must clear customs. That, according to the USPS, will get them confiscated or returned since they contain clothing, but that's not the only problem. Peruvian customs must contact the recipient to obtain their approval for clearing customs before they'll even inspect the item. The recipient must have a telephone - something unheard of in Ollantaytambo, Tupiri, and Taquile. There's a chance - a slim one - that Visitacion in Machu Picchu has access to one, but for the vast majority of the people living in the poor villages it's an unheard of luxury.

So my packages remain unsent. Import rules in Peru are geared towards one goal only: increase the amount of money collected in the form of fines and tariffs. The people that actually suffer are children like Ernestina, who cannot benefit even from the warmth of a new jacket because that jacket can never reach her. I have said in several posts that the biggest problem preventing economic aid in the Third World is the government of the country in need of aid. In the past, that statement was made as an outsider just viewing the political landscape. Now I can make that statement with first hand knowledge.



Alan Fraser said...

Remarkable sensitivity. I've got stories that I never tell about the poverty in parts of Mexico and my brother has stories that he tells hardly anyone of the poverty in the Philippines. It stalled me even to think back on it but to go back to your piece: It's well-written and quite touching.

I hear you on the incompetence / greed / malice of various foreign governments but I simply cannot believe that a society that can spot a star explosion thirteen billion light years away cannot see a way to solve these problems. It is my hope and dream that someday something will serve as the leveling mechanism to reduce or remove the inequities as I solidly believe that is the only thing that will ever bring real peace to the world.

I wrote more than I intended but that's alright. You did quite a good job of reporting and I appreciate it.

doobrie said...

THe way to get gifts through to Peru may be to contact an independant travel agency that operates locally to you and often organises trips to Peru.

They generally have staff coming and going who may be kind enough to take gifts through with them.