As an expatriate in Peru (partly thanks to CoVid-19) I recently joined the Expat Support Group, a private group on Facebook with 8.5k members, disproportionately located in Miraflores, a district of Lima popular with tourists. The group’s URL still resolves to www.facebook.com/groups/LivinginLimaExpatSupport.
Amongst updates from the US Embassy and recommendations for Miraflores pizza joints there is the odd whinge about Lima, Peru, Peruvians. This is only to be expected.
A man from Aberdeen demanded to know:
WHY ARE PERUVIANS CONTENT TO LIVE IN A COMPLETE SH**HOLE! [sic]
We’ll call this the Aberdonian Post or [AB] for short.
I got to comment 120 or so out of 237 and, failing to spot the word ‘colonialism’ was inspired to comment, recommending some reading about Latin American history and white privilege. Questioning the administrators’ published stance, not to simply remove [AB] but instead to immediately ban anyone who questioned them about the post, I was instantly banned.
Which is quite ironic. A little background.
Not long ago I was so incensed by personal experiences of Peruvians saying one thing and doing another, letting me down, twisting words, manipulating, cheating and generally displaying such hypocrisy, chauvinism, homophobia, craftiness, racism and ignorance that I found myself typing I fucking hate Peru into a search engine. Up came:
If you are a white woman considering travel in Peru, it’s worth reading [A].
Paragraph two of [B] should suffice for our purposes here:
Which is of course unabashedly racist, colonial and utterly unacceptable. One scrabbles for a thick enough history book to hurl at the screen.
1532, then. I assume those who have traveled or lived in Peru know the story. Pizarro, Atahualpa and the rest. Perhaps they have read a bit of history. Perhaps the Penguin History of Latin America, or the more revisionist 1491 by Charles Mann, or the classic Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano, with its introduction by Isabelle Allende, author and daughter of the late and last socialist president of Chile, Salvador Allende.
I assume the average visitor to Peru has not, and that it is therefore safe to assume that much of the dirt dug up by my web search can be summed up as the woes of young gringos humping knapsacks about a developing country, unaware of the invisible knapsack they also haul about.
But this is not the case with Krautmann in [A] or our anonymous white supremacist in [B], nor in the Aberdonian Post [AB]. These complainants have lived in Peru for years. In the case of [A] and [AB], many of the commenters are Peruvians – privileged ones, who have managed to escape either to Miraflores or the US – while [B]’s commenters might well be sock-puppet responses by the author to his own original post.
Anyone who knows Peru––and that includes Peruvians––knows there is some truth here. Much of Peru is a shithole.
Forget Pizarro and Atahualpa, then. Let’s entertain [AB]’s lament: why aren’t people painting their walls, planting flowers and generally raising themselves out of the half-built concrete shitholes they languish in? Can we lay the blame on the Spanish, Americans, British and others, who have systematically plundered the entire continent for the last 500 years?
The gist of the story? Conquest > Genocide > Slavery > Extraction.
I got to about page 100 of Galeano’s Open Veins and found myself drained by its relentless account of those 500 years. I grew tired of this long account of victimhood. I found myself wondering if maybe [B] had a point. Maybe there was something inferior about these people, if they were so easily wiped out.
But one would have to be inhuman not to baulk at the treachery of the Conquistadors, of the Spanish Crown, of the Church. Never mind Peruvian craftiness! The Europeans are the original masters.
As Galeano reminds us, the medieval Europe that gave us the Conquest was born of the game of thrones of warring city states, feudal castles in whose shadow peasants hid in the hope of gaining protection from other, from the forces of nature. Charles Eisenstein documents these developments in the Story of Separation in his wonderful The Ascent of Man.
Medieval Europe also gave us the Inquisition.They must have been a fearful lot. Or was it that the few had learned to pull the wool over the eyes of the many?
It can only have been political or psychopathic (the two seem to go hand in hand) when the Spaniards managed to pronounce loftily from the Bible over the genocide of an entire continent. It can only have been political–– an agenda of power, a justification implemented through the post-hoc review of history––when the Spaniards called upon The Lord over and over again in successive waves of invasion and dirty tricks.
We shouldn’t get so upset about medieval times. Who can forget Tony Blair, one hand on the Bible, the other on his beating heart, decrying the righteousness of the invasion of Iraq? US Vice President Mike Pence nailed it at the recent Republican National Convention:
Where Joe Biden sees American darkness, we see American greatness.
Shooting himself in the foot? Or is he just telling it like it is, the forces of darkness are running the show? Or does he genuinely believe that the tried and tested MO of dirty tricks and Bible stuff is the way to go? 1532 was spun by the historians of the Conquest into a crusade, a divine mission into the heart of darkness. Reality was, one suspects, something rather grimmer and more cynical.
Did Pizarro believe God was on his side when he put the Inca royal family to the sword? Did Blair believe that ordering the invasion of Iraq on the basis of suspect intelligence was the right thing to do? Did he really believe what he was saying when he told us, hand on heart, that he thought he was doing the right thing at the time? Or was he, by his own infernal logic, compelled to believe in what he believed in by what he believed in?
What happened to Bolivia and Venezuela? The lies and their American sources are well documented.
What happened to Brazil, where white men in blazers and striped ties pronounce the future of places and peoples they neither know nor care about?
Galeano, a Uruguayan, doesn’t even hold the Spanish guilty in the end. His research reveals that they too were victims, poor things. Who was behind the Conquest? Here we have to talk about the Church, the City of London, investors from France, Germany, America, in other words, pretty much all and any so-called developed country that attained its development on the backs of slavery and genocide, prior to which, they were fucking shitholes. Their gain, Latin America’s loss. Galeano has it all documented.
That is the doctrine is it not? As Ice T put it in Original Gangster:
I gotta get more money than you got. So what if some motherfucker get shot?
But back to the micro. Back to the expat culture shock. Back to First World Problems like the proliferation of street cats and dogs and shrill Peruvian nationalism — i.e. the football team, and the attendant national insecurity (the football team is pretty mediocre). There’s the chauvinism and homophobia, the receipt-fiddling. The dreadful television. The appalling education system…
When I’m not in the jungle, I live in Puerto Maldonado. I don’t like it. I probably never will. There is not much to like in this large expanse of concrete grids. Neither the Inca nor the Conquest seem to have built anything here.
The other day someone told me about another market, Mercado Padre Aldamiz is further away than the usual Mercado Modelo but perhaps worth the effort. The taxi ride passed streets I had never seen before. I looked out avidly. There were other chicken shops, other boticas (anything from a convenience store to a pharmacy of varying convenience or pharmaceutical content), other evil-looking dogs in the street. At Padre Aldamiz the fear was confirmed: it was all the same. The same shops with the same cheap goods, the same white and yellow foods and battered veg bussed in from Cusco. The same phone shops, clothes, plastic bric-a-brac — the same sad mediocrity.
Is that it? Moving beyond mediocrity?
The vast majority of human-occupied spaces in the world are mediocre. Whether the long streets of shitty conversions in North, South, East or West London, the grim, pebble-dashed, post war estates of Aberdeen, or the concrete wastelands of Lima, Jakarta, Delhi, Cairo, or a million, a billion other smaller places. Let’s face it, it’s pretty much all of it, isn’t it?
Is mediocrity the default? The baseline? How do we get beyond it?
According to history the only route is Game of Thrones. You play in the hope of reaching the top, and risk of losing it all. If you are to win, someone else must lose. Like the World Cup except for real.
Returning from the exotic Padre Aldamiz to the more familiar Leon Velarde, Ernesto Rivero and Plaza de Armas, I found myself hankering for a well-made pavement, a bit of architecture, a decent latte, a bar with a nice view, somewhere or something with taste — New York, London, Paris, or even Miraflores, Lima… Tourist stuff, basically. Colonialist stuff.
Of course, in the CoVid era, tourism is basically finished. The world is no longer our oyster. The open veins have been tapped to death, their riches lined up and snorted. What next for Machu Picchu? What next for the cafes, pizzerias, bars and shops of Aguas Calientes, the tourist town below the site? Macho Picchu, one imagines, will outlast them.
Is it colonial to feel pleased about that? To feel relieved that one of the wonders of the world gets some respite from the colonial hordes — us, in other words — the customers in a world of consumption we have shaped for our own enjoyment, from 1532 onwards?
But wait. The Inca were no strangers to conquest . They undertook long and massive campaigns to bring together the various distinct tribes of the Andes and coasts— massacring if they had to. There are some answers there, argues Charles Mann in 1492, as to why the Tawantin Suyu, the “Four Quarters” of the Inca Empire, crumbled under the lightly-manned Conquest.
Like all Empires sooner or later, the Inca’s had become unwieldy, and the Spanish, masters of the skullduggery that drove Castillo y Leon to win the Game of Thrones in medieval Europe were easily able to exploit dissenting minorities — no doubt with vast, vague, forked tongue promises, like the Trump Campaign draining the swamp, or the Brexit Campaign taking the country back.
And of course, the Spaniards had a bioweapon, the Sars-CoV of the time. Whole villages were wiped out before they even arrived. One can imagine that the writer of [B] might take that as evidence of natural order. Evolution even. I dare say, what goes around comes around.
Peru as a nation state was and is an invention of the Spanish crown — under pressure from mercenaries and adventurers we would today identify with the likes of Henry Kissinger or Steve Bannon. We should add Alan Garcia for the Peruvian side except he’s dead.
According to Galeano, even the traditional outfits of the Andes — the rotund skirts and bowler hats — were inventions of the Spanish, versions of medieval peasant outfits from back home. Pizarro is buried in the Basilica Cathedral in Lima, where people enter through the Gate of Pardon and hail La Patria — the fatherland of the conqueror.
And the bloke in the Inca outfit still shows up at the Puma Stone in the famous wall in Cusco for tourist shots.
All culture is bollocks when condensed to a costume, but lets leave that for another post.
How might it feel to be the descendant of a culture—with all its faults and glories — that was smashed?
How might it feel to be a dark skinned Indian — a black man — with very few opportunities, very little support, personal problems, an alcoholic father? Or a an Indian woman with zero education, four kids and an abusive husband? I have yet to spot an advert in Peru that features a brown person.
How would you feel if you came across a group on Facebook where some privileged white people in Lima were calling you out for living in a shithole?
I imagine you would feel pretty much like the locals in shitholes anywhere in the world would feel.
To be fair to the group, the administrators of the 8.5k-strong Expat Support Group must have received a lot of complaints, to require this draconian attempt at moderation:
When I expressed my concern that this was not the right response, given the tone and content of the Aberdonian Post. I was ex-communicated, which was disappointing. I could probably use some expat support, having found out I’m being screwed by a former Peruvian associate.
At a kind of astro level we could say, all this is what spiritualists might call karmic clear-up, or simply, living through the consequences of prior actions. There is no need to bring any judgement to it, it’s simply consequence, albeit on a vast and mysterious level.
As consciousness moves through this planet it seems to need the full picture, and that it does by trying both sides of the coin, coloniser and colonised, oppressor and victim and maybe rescuer too. We all have these resonances, karmic traces, akashic dust, epigenetic propensities, cellular memories of trauma.
In the end, we must come to see that winning at someone else’s expense is not winning at all but spinning the grindstone of karma.
And it is only through seeing this, that we can begin to understand why Peruvians, or anyone else for that matter, might choose to live in an utter shithole.