November 22, 2004

The endangered list of small places

This is the next installment in a series of articles about a summer spent in the Peruvian village of Cochas Grande.

I would like to begin this column with an amendment to my last one, "Traveling and Telephones." As I found out last week, via an e-mail from a friend in Huancayo, the telephone has arrived in Cochas.

There had been rumors of the telephone spreading to Cochas while I was there, but I had imagined it would be a long time coming. The isolation of Cochas was one of its defining characteristics; it is a place disconnected from the invisible network of telecommunications. The only way to reach it was to be there physically. But this is no longer the case, and now I would be able to speak to my host family long-distance. At first I was tempted to call, to hear the voices I had not heard since my departure months before. Then my thoughts turned back on me, reeling, as I realized the implications of making that phone call.

During my final days in Cochas, I often imagined what it would be like to return some day. I knew exactly how I wanted it to be: Arriving in Huancayo, I would take an afternoon bus to Cochas, experiencing the vicious and familiar jolts as the bus negotiated the mountain road. I would hop off the bus at the same corner I always used to, and start off up the hillside. It would be recently dusk, and the stars would be out. I would cross the fields climbing the path that I had grown to know by feel, hearing the dogs bark in the distance, and the melodic evangelical chants carry through the valley. Finally I would reach the house, where I'd pause for a minute to regain my breath, before making my entrance. Then I would tap softly on the back door. The dogs would be the first to greet me, barking ferociously at the visitor cloaked in darkness. The door would open, and I would be mobbed by my family. Ya llegó Dan

Someday I will return, but I am afraid that I will never be able to do so as I had imagined. Instead, arriving in Peru, I will call the family, as they will want to know exactly when to expect me. The telephone now makes this possible, replacing suspense and surprise with dull certainty. With my phone call, the family will learn of my proximity before my tap at the door. The telephone has stolen my thunder, reduced my theatrics to something routine. As I sat in my living room in Chicago, mulling this over, I realized that my family was a simple dial away. The ring of the phone in Cochas would shatter the tranquility of the house, and suddenly I would be speaking to my family. But I would not be privy to the smiles that lit up their faces, the lines of concern that chiseled into their brows. I would not smell the eucalyptus wood burning in the fireplace, or shiver in the chill of the air. The way I would experience Cochas would be limited to one sense—hearing—and that is not how I wish to return.

It may sound like nostalgia, but I am writing about a fundamental change in the way the world communicates with Cochas. Ten years ago, electricity became available in the village, and now the telephone arrives. While the latter brings a new level of convenience and flexibility to the campesino lifestyle, it also means more monthly bills. For a family that earns a slight income through selling its art, these expenses amount to an increasing financial burden.

Slowly but surely, the central government is establishing a presence in Cochas, which, 20 years before, was essentially an autonomous community. The increased linking of Cochas to the state is bringing about a not-so-subtle change in the campesino way of life. Artisans are not state employees, and receive no social security or retirement benefits. Florencio, my host father, is a master artisan who has been carving gourds for 40 years. He admits that his eyesight is beginning to fail him, and some day he will no longer be able to carve the intricate designs which have made him nationally famous. When he cannot work any longer, he will have no source of income. All artisans face a similar plight. The state may provide them with public services, but it does not look after their financial well being. As the campesino lifestyle changes, their means of income must adapt to support it. In order to enjoy advancements like the telephone, my family—and other cochasinos—looks beyond national borders for its economic salvation.

All artisans know that tourists pay the highest rates for indigenous art. Something that might sell for a few dollars in Peru would likely fetch a substantially higher price in the United States. The room additions I helped my family build during the summer were to lodge more tourists, an increasingly viable source of income for them. Suddenly—a family that has never traveled outside of Peru, and that rarely ventures into the city—is in contact with people from all over the world. Foreigners, who like myself come to share in the serrano culture, ineluctably leave their footprints in the campesino psyche and society. And now, there is a telephone to facilitate this international contact.

As international travelers make increasing visits to Cochas, and as technological advances link it to the international community, I am afraid that Cochas is slowly being brought out of its cultural isolation. Small places like Cochas are an endangered species, and I was lucky to experience the campesino society in its vintage state. Yet as I reflect on my time in Peru, I see how I played a part in this transformation. Littered throughout Cochas are remnants of conversations, my stories of life in America, which will be passed around and integrated into the myth of life outside of the village. And pegged to a wall in that little house on the hillside is a poster of the University of Chicago. I now realize how I have left my footprints all over what was once a perfect spot of unspoiled snow.

I'm sure I'll get around to making that phone call.