On life perspective: Arequipa’s reality check

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“Stopping the cocaine trade in Peru is equivalent to economic suicide,” calmly explains our guide, Miguel.

We all listen intently, while sitting in a white Mercedez van which has stopped at an overlook of one of Peru’s many shanty towns.

“12% of the Peruvian economy, in one way or another, depends on cocaine.”

Marina and I exchange glances, eyes wide open in amazement.

“I’m sorry to say but cocaine is good for Peru. Every time some young person in your country starts to use cocaine, some starving Peruvian gets a job.”

That is a harsh reality.

If you’ve ever vacationed in Cuba, Mexico, Dominican Republic, or any other developing country, you may have been surprised on your initial visit by the dramatic divide between all the amenities at your waterfront resort and the complete lack thereof for most of the inland inhabitants.

Often times, the tourism industry, much as the country’s government, hides the unfortunate reality facing the majority of its population while it shuttles the tourists from one isolated spot to another.

Today, we took a tour which exposed this reality in Peru.

After being a typical tour guide in Arequipa (the Rome of America) and often being asked questions by tourists regarding the welfare of the local inhabitants, Miguel decided to offer an alternative to the usual scenic and historic tours in the area.

Thus was born the “Peru Reality Tour.”

While it was not on our itinerary, it may have been the most personally impactful afternoon of our trip.

At one of the first stops, we visited a nearby quarry, which is worked by some of the poorest of Arequipia’s inhabitants.

“They make one sole for an unfinished stone brick, but if they clean it up and polish it, they can earn 1.5 soles,” informs Miguel.

Behind him, a father and son team chip away at the silica rich stone using a blunt mallet and other improvised tools such as a steel pick which originally functioned as car wheel axle. The father, wearing sandals which he made using pieces of old tires, performs the blunt work with the mallet while the son perfects each brick with the steel pick.

They work like this for 12hrs each day, 7 days per week, 365 days of the year.

At 10 soles a day, assuming no days off, these men will make approximately 300 soles ($100) each per month.

Unfortunately, the bare minimum cost of living in Peru is about 750 soles per month.

They can take no vacations, they have no ability to save their earnings towards making some future purchase; there’s simply no light at the end of their tunnel.

They carve the brick today, so they can afford to eat tomorrow.

That’s it.

In addition to a devastatingly poor wage, the work of the quarrymen is extremely dangerous.

As they work away at the brittle stone, neither the father nor the son is wearing a face mask.

The result: high probability of developing silicosis, a lung disease developed by the chronic inhalation of silica dust from the stone.

While the son is wearing sunglasses, his father works with his eyes exposed to the blinding reflection of the sun off the white stone.

The result: an increased risk of cataracts.

Each year, approximately 3-5 people die while working the stone at the quarry. They have no employment insurance.

As I stood there, listening to Miguel, watching these men work the stone from a few meters away, an intense sense of guilt had struck me; tears welling up in my eyes hidden behind my sunglasses.

How embarrassingly spoiled was I to live in Canada, have access to abundant and varied food, potable water, heating, medical care, clothing, safe shelter, television, internet, etc.

And yet, I’ve been complaining.

I’ve previously spoken about my disillusionment with academia and my need to explore alternatives for potential career paths – this complaint was the major instigator of this summer’s hiatus.

What a fucking joke!

At least I HAVE options.

My parents, who grew up in communist Poland, had far fewer options. Their situation was much closer to that of the quarry workers I was now observing, that to my own, back in Canada. They took a phenomenal risk and escaped from their home country with me in tow (I was 6 years old).

Their main goal?

To give me the opportunities they were robbed of.

To give me options they never had.

And here I am with plentiful options, and what do I do?

Complain about how tough I have it.

I could not have been more naïve.

Tonight I sleep ashamed.

Peter

(If you are ever in Arequipa and want a different tourism experience, contact Miguel and ask about the Peru Reality Tour)

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Stranded in the desert with Jesus

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“We’re out of gas!” yells Louise, as the head of the petite Aussie just peaks past the crest of the sand dune some 300 m above us.

With the exception of Louise and Cindy, who decided to sit this hill out, the rest of us are at the bottom of a valley waiting with our sandboards, covered in a mixture of sunscreen, sweat and sand. We had just sandboarded down what was supposed to be our last run.

“We’re out of gas?!” I yell back.

“Yes, the buggy won’t start!”

I look back at Marina and Killlian and smile.

“I think the girls are trying to play a joke on us,” I suggest.

On the past 3 runs, after we had sandboarded down the dune, our buggy driver, Jesus, would drive down the dune and pick us up, pack up our boards and drive us over to the next run. After this last, and most vertical run, we were supposed to be taken back to the Huacachina Oasis for some much needed lunch and relief from the scorching sun (all of us had a bit too much Pisco liquor earlier that morning while on a ‘winery’ tour).

Us in Huacachina

 

“I don’t think they’re joking” says our guide, Luciano, in his unique Spanish/Italian/French accent.

After a number of minutes pass, I realize we are not going to hear a punchline to the joke I had suspected; we are stranded in the middle of the Peruvian desert with Jesus.

And despite Jesus’ biblical success in the desert, this lesser Jesus is having no luck with the simple act of starting a buggy.

He also has little success locating a cell phone signal to ask for assistance from his co-workers back at the Huacachina lagoon.

Splendid.

There are a total of 10 of us including our guide and Jesus.

We have very little water, no shade apart from the shade we create for each other and we are surrounded by kilometers of fine sand desert.

And it’s hot as balls.

In a moment of mini-panic, Killian, Marina and I decide to climb back up the almost vertical slope of sinking sand, while Barry and the 2 British girls, Jessica and Tambee decide to wait it out in the valley.


After a few breaks we finally finish our labored assent and head straight for the non-functioning buggy for some shelter from the sun and to get a sip of what water we still have remaining.

Jesus is still struggling with his cell phone reception.

Finally, he gets through, and we are assured help is on the way.

About 20 minutes later, our help arrives in the form of 5 of Jesus’ laughing coworkers (or disciples) in another buggy.

Given we had now all been out in the middle of the desert under the midday sun for over an hour longer than predicted, we had assumed this other buggy was here to pick us up.

Or at the very least, we hoped Jesus’ disciples had some mechanical skills between the 5 of them or an extra tank of gas to remedy the suspected lack thereof.

We were wrong on both counts.

Rather than packing us up into the functioning buggy, they decided to drain gas from it into a plastic bottle – all the while spilling much of the gas onto the sand – and then transferring said gas into the non-functional buggy.


Realizing this may take longer still, Killian and I grabbed a couple boards out of the back of the buggy and decided to do an extra run down the dune.

After we joined Barry, Jessica and Tambee down in the valley, Louise’s head yet again popped up from behind the crest of the dune.

“It’s still not working!”

“Forget 40 days, this Jesus couldn’t last a day in the desert”, joked Killian.

After a few false starts, the struggling engine of our buggy finally coughed to life.

Before long, we were all back to safety, enjoying some Peruvian cuisine for our much delayed, but now discounted lunch.

Even more enjoyable was the shade, drink of water, and a swim in a refreshing pool within the desert oasis.

From what I can gather, Jesus will need nothing short of a miracle to keep his job.

Peter

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