Reflections on a summer in rural Peru

By Daniel Gilbert

I used to laugh ironically when people called me a “tourist” last summer. At some 13,000 feet of elevation, Huancayo, Peru is far from the country’s largest tourist attraction, and Cochas Grande, a small village of some 300 people, is even less so. As the only zone in the central Sierra not conquered by the Incas, the citizens of Huancayo take pride in calling themselves incontrastable, or unconquerable. The inhospitable climate is no small part of their unconquerable identity.

While the high altitude might have been a draw for long-distance running, my business in Cochas was mainly volunteer work. For three months, I taught English to children ages 8 to 18 who were mostly bilingual in Spanish and Quechua, the indigenous language. Rather than dividing my time attempting to gain a smattering of knowledge about Peru’s diverse regions, I wanted to learn a lot about a little place, and so honed in on Cochas and Huancayo.

It may have been the trajectory of my studies that brought me to Peru, but it was my curiosity that made me choose to stay in Cochas; a curiosity about a people I had never met—a people about which much had been written, though inevitably in a foreign hand.

In fact, I was there as a tourist, but not, perhaps, for the usual reasons that one goes to Peru. Rather than snapping photographs of the country’s most famous vistas, I was after the folk legends, soaking up tales and customs far different from anything I had experienced growing up in suburban Virginia. For three months, I was determined to learn a new way of life. I learned to cut cow feed, start a fire without matches, and carve gourds, which are the signature form of art indigenous to Cochas. This, to me, was an authentic culture. Feeling deprived from my years of a cushy existence driving cars, flipping light switches, and flushing toilets, I was all ready to adopt the Serrano culture as my own. And this was where I ran into some difficulty.

One of the things I learned during my stay was that try as I might, I would never be one of them. The Serranos, for their part, were determined not to let me. In their eyes, I was someone from an advanced, wealthy country who had chosen to spend an extended period of time in the Sierra. The presence of an American was in some way a validation of the campesino way of life: Although outmoded, it must still have merit if someone from a modernized country came to share in it. Thus I became conscious that some intangible part of me, an accident of birth, was more important to the people of the village than were my hands and toil.

Having traveled beyond my national borders, I became suddenly and acutely aware of this intangible, invisible part of me. The fact is, I stood out in stark relief in Cochas, whereas in the United States, I had felt indistinguishable from the sheer diversity of the people. When so many in the U.S. come from distinct backgrounds, diversity functions as a virtual camouflage. Only against a foreign, ethnically homogenous background did I feel my American roots, and my national identity slipped out from behind me like a shadow I had never noticed.

A common question I encountered during my stay was: “What do they think of us in the United States?” Puzzled as to how to reply, I responded as honestly as I knew: “Don’t be offended, but the average American probably doesn’t think a lot about Peru.” Peru is a poor Latin American country with little international influence. It doesn’t much figure into the economic state of affairs in the United States. Why then write about such a place and such a people? Precisely because it is not something that reaches our attention. Because these are the voices that we do not hear and because while they know about us, we know little about them. No matter the international significance of the people, their perceptions of us reflect certain truths about our own culture to which we are blind.

For three months, I struggled to define for myself what it meant to be an American in Peru, and to gauge the dimensions of the new shadow I was suddenly casting.