After checking out Machu Picchu, I went from Cusco to Arequipa, where I grabbed a bus to Puno, Peru, which is situated on Lake Titikaka. There is a lot going on here - more than many travelers give it credit for, and one amazing opportunity that came my way was to spend a week in Llachón, Peru.
I had been in Puno for a few days when I decided that it was time to leave. I was having a good conversation with the proprietor of the cafe where I was drinking a coffee, so I asked her for advice. She was thrilled, and she immediately began calling around to friends and taxi services, all while I felt a bit embarrassed that my question had sparked so much work. Within a few minutes, she proudly proclaimed, "You must go to the house of Valentín Quispe!" So, of course, I immediately and enthusiastically agreed.
Valentín and his wife Lucila live in Llachón, Peru, a small ranching pueblo that slides from high hills into the shore of Lake Titkaka. It's about two hours from Puno, and the drive takes you through some of the stark and dry altiplano. No tourist busses go here, so I took a chain of the locals' minibuses, and I got many impressed and surprised looks from my fellow passengers. Because it's the dry season, people weren't farming, but the high yellow grass in Llachón is great for the many sheep and cattle there, which are set out in terrace pastures built by the Inka.
In the morning, Lucila cooked donuts, which I happily ate baskets of. Her dining room has big windows with a great view of lake. After breakfast, I would usually go for a walk through the community, and many times I had to pull aside for sheep and cows. In the afternoon, I would usually relax, and at night, Lucila always cooked us an excellent dinner.
During dinner, Valentín would often tell us about what was going on that day and what was happening in the local politics. As it turns out, he is actually the alcalde (like a mayor) of Llachón, and he is running for relection this October. His name is the one painted on the houses to the left, and his name is painted on house everywhere around Llachón. So of course, during this week, I spent a lot of time trying to learn about local Llachón politcs.
At least in Llachón, it seems that the major problem, like everywhere, is resource allocation. For example, the community has set up tight restrictions on tourism to try to destribute income more evenly accoss the town. For example, I cannot buy land in Llachón - only people who are directly related to someone from there are able to buy land. People who own hostels are not allowed to also own tourist services. That means other people in the community are able to make some money renting sailboats to the occassional travelers who go there.
People intitially resisted a road to Llachón, but now one is being built. Eight months ago, there was only a foot path to the community, mainly for the feet of cows and sheep, but now a new dirt road runs between there and the nearest city hub. I hitchhiked with a construction truck once, and he told me that one day the road will be paved, and that it is being paid for by the federal government in large part because of the work of Valentín. When I asked Valentín about this, he was proud to say that he was part of the solution to the road situation, but it took years for them to convince the government to build the road. For his part, Valentín has been invited by the White House to attend a pan-american mayoral conference in Washington, D.C. Valentín said that he wanted to get involved when he was living in Lima and going to college, because a child in his hometown of Valentín died on the way to the nearest hospital, in part because there was no road. He went from Lima to the nearby University of Puno to study tourism and agriculture, and then moved back home.
Recently, there was an offer put forth to build a large hotel at the point of Llachón. The hotel would be for-profit, but 60 percent of the profit would go straight to the people of Llachón. The picture to the right depicts the approximate proposed location. Valentín helped lead a resistance to the project, and it was ultimately turned down in a nearly unanimous public vote.
Life in Llachón startled me. There probelms were surprisingly easy for me to put in context of the problems my cities have at home. And, intellectually, I knew that there are people in this world without roads, or running water, or sewage sytems, or electricty, but to see that life and live with them made it emotionlly much, much more real for me. Simple things also amazed me, like how in the same world where my friends make their livings in tall glass-and-steel buildings there are women sitting in the sun with blankets full of potatoes so that the potatoes will dehydrated and be easier to store.
But life wasn´t hard for these people. In fact they seemed to like it quite a lot - it´s just that their lives are so different from mine. People in Llachón are proud of their political opinions, their community, and their heritage. It´s not arrogant or unwelcoming - it´s anything but, really - but it is exclusive. It´s the type of pride that turns down pure profit and good jobs from a hotel to preserve their ways of life, or the type of pride that only lets real Llachóñeros buy land here. It´s the type of pride that gets men and women to dress in full suits and dresses to do farm or animal work. I know this is massively cliche, but I can´t say anything different because I didn´t see anything different, and I think it is important to mention because of how surprised I was by these things that I thought I knew. Intellectual understanding is truly different from emotional understanding. And, at least for me, it´s an important reminder that all people deserve dignity like they deserve water. Sure, I can go to these places and be emotionally amazed with the way of life, but the next step is not pity. It´s something I haven´t fiured out yet. Perhaps its just emotional understanding, and that´s my last stop. I´m not sure.
I think I learned a lot from going to Llachón, and it has definitely encouraged me to seek out more places like it. I don´t know, I guess that I had just gotten pretty tired of the tourist circuit in Peru, and I feel like I learned more in my week here than I did in the rest of my month in Peru. I'll certainly be looking for places like this in the future, but it takes a lot of luck to find them as well. Just another reason to trust people and take their advice.
I'm writing from Bolivia, and I just got here. I'm excited for a new country! Hope all is going well back home, and I'll have something up about my time in Bolivia soon.