Tourists, How do you do it in 7 Days?

September 8, 2013

Tourists heading for the touters...

Maybe I’m spoiled, but I just don’t get it. I’ve only spent a week in Peru, 2-3 days of which I was violently ill. The others were used to acclimate, search for restaurants, markets, cafes, etc. At the 7-day mark, I’m far from comfortable. And that’s ok. That’s expected. Because though I’ve had my share of backpacking and legs of continuous vagabonding, I’m not that kind of traveler; I like living abroad, but not hitting the road for the long haul. The main exception to this rule is if I were to sleep in a few different cities every week, I would want to do so comfortably: enough cash to buy a decent room and food, little luggage, and no pressure to do anything. And I mean anything.

Every day in Arequipa I see tourists. European and American. Asian and Oceanic. Young and old. All content to use this city as a friendly layover as they buy packages from one of dozens of shops offering the same experiences: hiking through Colca Canyon, booking a flight over the Nazca lines, and of course, anything to do with Macchu Picchu. How many of them know why Arequipa is called the white city? Or that the museum holds the reamins of a 500-year-old Incan girl sacrificed to the volcano Ampato? Or where the best chicha and chocolate caliente can be found in town? Or how often there are protests, weddings, funeral processions…? These insignificant details are the reason I travel: not to see sights that anyone willing to throw down the dough can cover in an afternoon, but to gain insight that can only be achieved with an open mind, and patience (because, let’s face it, anyone can act like a tourist in a fixed place if one is so inclined).

As of yet, I haven’t had enough time to see anything more than these tourists have seen. I know this city is white with volcanic sillar, and I’m aware one should call ahead for a taxi in lieu of hailing one off the street in the middle of the night, but one week isn’t enough. Nor is two. Only with months and years of the day-in, day-out experience felt by most Peruvians can one hope to gain any insight into a culture. I know many tourists get mugged and pickpocketed, but I have never seen the desperation in a man’s eyes as he holds a knife, ordering you to surrender your wallet. I know what it’s like to train at 2400 meters above sea level, but my lungs haven’t adapted to what runners in Peru take for granted: less oxygen, zero percent humidity, and the ever present threat of being torn to shreds by a bus or taxi.

How do you do it, tourists? How do you accept a 7-day international trip, knowing you haven’t even scratched the surface?

Have you ever purchased a one-way ticket?

Have you ever just abandoned your well laid plans and screamed: “NO! No more door-to-door buses! No more guided tours! I’m going to stay for however long I want!”

I think one of the reasons Korea and Japan suited me so well is the very lack of organized tours. Oh sure, there are some, but you’d be hard pressed to walk down any street in Busan or Hiroshima and find anything on the scale of the number of tourist outlets in Bangkok, Auckland, or here in Arequipa. I like searching for my own bus, booking my own accommodation, and using my time to do a walkabout in an unfamiliar land. Independent travelers and JAL tours-type tourists. Two halves of the same coin. We might even get along at certain stages of our journey over drinks, but you’d be more likely to stay in the hotel bar instead of finding us in a hidden gem of a dive bar.

As I start this next semi-nomadic journey, I already have a list of goals:

1. See the Nazca lines
2. Tour the Colca Canyon over a weekend
3. Soak in an agua caliente near Arequipa
4. Soak in an agua caliente near the Inca Trail
5. Hike Macchu Picchu
6. Climb El Misti
7. Get a massage w/ coca leaves
8. Eat guinea pig
9. Eat alpaca, buy something with its fur
10. Visit Mollendo, a beach town

However, I must remember to distinguish myself from those who are merely passing through, by seeing and recording details in my day to day life. By remembering these people and every situation have something to teach me about how others live their lives, and how I can incorporate what I learn to continue to grow, as an American, a man, and a fellow human being.

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