Peru On My Mind

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A Quechua woman weaves near Cusco, Peru. Photo: Aubrey Ryan
In the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking about Peru a lot. In a partnership with the Peruvian Embassy, National Geographic is hosting an exhibition to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the Hiram Bingham expedition that rediscovered Macchu Pichu. The exhibition features original photographs that popularized the Inca among American readers. The free photo exhibition, housed at the National Geographic headquarters in D.C., started In June and runs until September 11th. You can see the photographs on the Nat Geo website, and also learn more about the expedition here
But I have a personal connection to Peru as well. In the early 1990s, my family took a vacation to Peru for 6 weeks. Two small wars simmered at the time–a border dispute with Ecuador, and a civil war between Alberto Fujimori’s regime and the Shining Path guerrillas based in Ayacucho. These conflicts were largely hidden from our eyes, and if my 6-year-old senses picked up any tension, it was only for a few fleeting moments. 
What I really remember are packed busses,  bottle caps of Peruvian sodas, and haggling with taxicab drivers. Even today a sip of Inca Kola–the yellow, bubble-gum flavored soda–brings me back the busy streets of Lima: White-gloved policemen direct traffic across hills of grey cobblestone. Three-wheeled taxis bump along in a mosaic of blue, white, and rust. Little boys sit on black wooden boxes, waiting to shine shoes. Similarly, any photograph of a piranha reminds me of the Quistococha zoo, near Iquitos in the Amazon, where I first watched the creature’s beady red eyes through the glass of a fish tank. 

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Part of Machu Picchu, as seen by Hiram Bingham. Published in National Geographic April, 1913.

During my childhood visit, we didn’t see Machu Picchu or Cusco (the nearby capital of the Incan empire). All the more reason why I’d like to go back some day. In the meantime, I guess looking at the 3D model of the site built for Google Earth will have to suffice. I also read recently that the Peruvians celebrated the 100-year anniversary of discovery with much gusto. On July 25th, traditional dancers blessed the site during the day, and technicians lit it up at night with a laser light show (see pictures here). In Cusco, they fired off tons of fireworks. In my mind, the dueling festivities highlight a symbolic and real tension in Peru over the role of new and old. I’ve learned that in Peru, Machu Picchu is more than just a tourist site, but a symbol of national identity. 
Then, two weeks ago, National Geographic Live! hosted a festival in Washington, D.C. which explored these complexities through performance art. I got to see both Soy Andina, which follows a New Yorker’s deepening of her Peruvian identity through dance, as well as Danzak, a short film about the traditional “dance of the scissors.” Both films captured ever-adapting traditions of dance, rooted in pre-Hispanic culture, but sculpted by contact with the outside world.  
And just this week, Peru swore in its new President, Ollanta Humala. I’d been following the elections because Humala’s rival, Keiko Fujimori, is the daughter of Alberto Fujimori. He is currently in prison for human rights abuses committed a few years before my visit, and has been criticized for his authoritarianism during the entire decade. While following the stories of these candidates, I remembered scenes of 1990s Peru that alluded to military struggle. In one scene, my family crossed the border from Ecuador to Peru (we originally landed in Quito), and tense young soldiers rode in green Humvees. In another, while sitting on a boat on the way to Iquitos, I watched a Peruvian soldier load his M-16. Looking at the golden cartridges slip into the clip one by one, I had my first lesson on deductive reasoning and war. Why does he need more bullets? Where did the old ones go? 
So, there you have it, a selection of thoughts about Peru from my own memories of a childhood trip, my visit to the exhibition and festival here at National Geographic, and news about the nation’s current political circumstances that I have been following.  If there’s anything that I hope you take from this post it is this: desire for knowledge as global citizens, as researchers, as tourists, as art appreciators, and as educators is all interconnected–in our own quests, and in humanity’s collective search for deeper meaning. None of what we learn exists in isolation, and as we integrate it across our interests, our experiences and factual knowledge become more than the sum of their parts.  
-Cedar Attanasio, for My Wonderful World

One response to “Peru On My Mind

  1. Dear SonSun, What a fine article. I visited Machu Picchu a number of years ago after reading Shirley McClane’s book on the country. I LOVED it and had great colorful dreams then and years later. I also heard such music and singing in my dreams. I created The Harlem Spiritual Ensemble which traveled ALL over the world singing American Negro Spirituals. No limitations of what can happen when one dreams. I love your article and hope you will continue to share. I’m looking forward to reading more. I’m proud of you!!!!! MuchLove,DivaDaddy,Clemmons,Etc.!!!!!!

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