The Artist and the Shoeshiner: Reflections on Peruvian Inequality

Written and Photographed by Pradip Dutta Gupta and Sharmistha Banerjee, Rollins College Global Links Scholar



In spring of 2012, we decided to make a trip to the beautifully diverse land of Peru. As Indians, we were not shocked at the inequality in the country that our travel books had prepared us for. The GINI coefficient (one of the most commonly used measurements of national income inequality) for India is 33, while Peru’s is 45. However, the striking juxtaposition of the remains of the marvelous Incan civilization we visited with the current socio-economic situation of many people in Peru pained us, reminding us of the inequality we had witnessed while living in India.

Our plan was to divide our time between Peru’s two extremes of physical geographythe misty Andes, home to Machu Pichu; and the Amazonia, a region of tropical climate, lush vegetation, and abundant fauna that is home to of one of the planet’s largest nature reserves. Although the geography in the two regions were quite different, the social and economic inequality that pervades Peru was evident in both places.

Our first stop was Cusco, the sacred city of the Incas and the gateway to Machu Pichu. Upon arriving, the city immediately welcomed us with its architecturally famous Incan walls, churches built on top of palaces, and citadels lost in the Andean heights. The streets were dotted with local Peruvians in colorful costumes. But a closer look revealed the real picture: those dressed in traditional costumes looked poor and had weary eyes, but nevertheless, they flashed bright smiles at travelers, offering to pose with them for just one dollar! The rest of the people around town wore ordinary Western clothing, stuck in the grind of daily living. Peru is among the top 10 of the 15 countries in the world with the highest levels of inequality of resources. This was evident in our encounters with little children on the streets of Cusco. Franseco, who was 11 years old, lived in the city with his two middle-class parents and a brother. When we met him, he was walking with his mother in the Plaza de Armes of Cusco, eating icecream. We met another boy, 12-year-old Ronaldo, polishing the shoes of a caucasian tourist, while the man’s partner happily photographed the ‘child labour’ in action. Ronaldo had a single mother and five brothers. They all lived in an extremely poor village in the countryside. I tried to start conversations with both of the boys and asked them what they wanted to be when they grow up. Fransesco wanted to go to art college, while Ronaldo said that most of the boys in his class would not finish primary education.

He did not even understand what I meant by what he ‘wanted to be’; in his world, his future was chosen for him by his parents’ trade and socioeconomic status. Freedom of choice was an utterly foreign concept.

Machu Picchuwhich translates to the “Old Mountain” in Quechua, the ancient language of the Incasis nestled on top of a mountain high above the Urubamba River. It was a center of worship, an astronomic observatory, and the private retreat of the family of the Incan ruler, Pachacutec. The Incas split the citadel into two major areas: the agriculture zone, made up of terracing and food storehouses; and the urban zone, featuring the sacred sector, with temples, squares, and royal tombs which were carved to an extraordinary degree of perfection. The technological capacities they were able to develop centuries ago were incredible. For example, we were astonished to learn that the Incas conducted censuses of people and their cattle, researched on hybrid grains, and preserved the bodies of the dead.

After talking with the young shoe polisher and the artist selling his drawings, travelling to Machu Picchu from Cusco reinforced the stark inequality we witnessed in the country. Peru Rail offers glass-topped trains and economy class, airline-like snack trays. The Vistadome train service is ideal for the tourist seeking a scenic journey. The train stations are equipped with air-conditioned waiting rooms and rest rooms on par with the U.S. Amtrak or European Eurail stations. But the common Peruvian could not afford this. The vendors of everything that a tourist may need were traveling on a different train, a much slower train, with crowds pushing their way through to put their bodies and baggage inside. Some even climbed in from the windows, reminding us of the pictures that we had seen of trains carrying refugees at the time of India’s independence following the partition of the India-Pakistan borderonly this was an every-day train journey for the locals.

As we got off the train at Ollantaytambo, we were greeted with a sight akin to any Indian tourist spot: small outlets selling local handicrafts, with smiling young girls and women working to attract tourists with their colorful wares. Heated bargaining debates were taking place between many a tourist and the sellers. My inquisitive business professor’s mind searched for fair trade marks on the wares, but they were nonexistent!

A day later, we dropped significantly in altitude from the Andes and braved the journey to the Amazon River Basin. To get there, we followed the Amazon River, which begins in the Andes Mountains of Peru and flows eastward across through Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia until it enters the Atlantic Ocean in Belem, Brazil. The crisp air of a sunny morning at Machu Picchu was abruptly transformed into a blast of hot, muggy, tropical air as we arrived at Puerto Maldonado in the Peruvian Amazon Basin. This is the gateway to the Amazonia, for few roads and rivers connect this vast tract of jungle territory with the rest of Peru.

Besides the socio-economic inequality, another aspect that attracted our attention was that in Puerto Maldonado, most businesses were run by women. The local market stalls, for example, all had women shopkeepers. We later found out that most of the shops were owned by men, of course.

The travel agent attending to us was Nancy. She received us from the airport in a three-wheeled, transparent, plastic-covered vehicle, which she drove herself. We went to Nancy’s travel agency, which doubled as her home (she could not afford a separate office, being a single mother) to find our guide and the other companions on the journey. Along with our guide and a Norwegian couple, we boarded a motor boat on an hour-long journey on Madre de Dios River, where we crossed the currents of the Tambopata River.

Judicious protection of the Peruvian jungle has meant that the biosphere of the eastern flank of the Andes contains some of the most diverse fauna and flora reserves in the whole world. Unlike neighboring Brazil, where ecotourism is almost a dirty word, Peru has managed to look after its natural heritage for future generations. It is referred to as the “Lungs of the Planet” because it produces more than 20 percent of the world’s oxygen. Divided into three primary areas, the Peruvian Amazonia offers a mixture of river life, jungle trekking, birding, and animal-spotting.

We had booked a stay at one of the jungle lodges but were surprised not to find the name of the lodge anywhere. As it turned out, most lodges on the banks of the Madre de Dios River rarely have signposts. Fortunately, we eventually reached our lodge (even though the lodge name we had found on the website where we booked it was no- where to be seen!). The locals later told us that there were not any signboard painters who could write the names of the lodgesthis was the extent of illiteracy in the region.

The logs on the stairway leading up to the lodge were broken and frightening, but friendly and helpful guides and hotel staff made the climb a pleasant adventure. Though it was the beginning of the dry season, we needed knee-high rubber boots to walk to the lodge. Upon arriving, we tried the local sweet, unfermented welcome drink, chicha morada, which was prepared from purple corn (maiz morado). Then, we went on a tour of the monkey island on Sandoval Lake, admiring the assortment of the squirrel monkeys, cappuccino monkeys, and black spider monkeys, each unique in color and walking style. The guide knew the biological, English, and local names of all the trees, shrubs plants, insects, and birds that we saw; his depth of knowledge of the Amazonias would put any naturalist to shame. Yet this young guide had no formal schooling, and he had learned to write his name in English from a British traveler. His father had taught him the world of the forest from which he earned his daily bread.

As I reflected upon the differences in economic standing between the owners of the jungle lodge and our local guide, I went to bed thinking that with the diversity of our travel companions (which consisted of a German father and daughter, a Jordanian father and son, a British Canadian couple, an Australian couple, and our team of Indians and Bangaldeshis), we could have started an international conference on the subject of inequality in Peru.

I also realized that the guide and the other young boys who kept the lodge functioning were all from local indigenous tribes, which are among the poorest groups in many Latin American countries. This realization raised a question in my mind that remains unanswered: How was it possible that these people, whose ancestors once produced marvelous civilizations, creating inspiring cultural landmarks such as Machu Picchu, were now at the bottom of society, underprivileged and marginalized?

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