Monday, May 15, 2017

Observations of Cuzco: Small Spaces lined with surprises

As the first week of this year’s Maymester is wrapping up, it seemed appropriate to reflect on the first week living in the ancient Incan capital, Cuzco. Upon arrival, aside from the altitude’s immediate effect on the body, one begins to notice how much of a different world this city is from a typical American city.

Walking out of the baggage claim into the winter weather (remember the seasons are opposite in the southern hemisphere), you are suddenly swarmed by taxi drivers looking for their first pay of the day. These drivers hit the airport’s terminals as early as 5am, and don’t take a “No gracias” lightly; they do everything from offer to take your bags for you, to beginning to negotiate a price with them before they even know where you are going. This is a common bartering trait that the taxi drivers share with the other tourist-beneficiaries of the city, notably the vendors in the “mercados”, or markets. Cuzco’s residents are experts at spotting the tourists, regardless of Spanish fluency, and are perfectly content pestering them for a quick buck.  

Taxi drivers in many countries have developed a reputation of being fearless drivers, and Cuzco’s drivers are no exception. In fact, this trait is only amplified by the city’s narrow streets which often only include one lane for both ways with limited traffic signals. Aside from the major streets, the city’s inner streets are where the neighborhoods are located. The streets are often made of stone, and include water lanes on the edges of the thin sidewalks to allow for rainwater to drain in designated parts of the city. These lanes are crucial to draining the massive amounts of water that the city receives during the rainy season.

Another effect of the narrow streets and sidewalks is the inherent sense of closeness that it creates. Americans tend to be very individualistic and tend not to interact with strangers in public. For example, in New York city, tourists and residents walk past each other in a rush to get to their destination. Here in Cuzco, interaction is expected at every turn. Art vendors call out to tourists while they walk by, usually attempting to walk with them to their destination. There is certainly a technique that is needed to deal with these types of persistent vendors. This includes everything from avoiding eye contact, to vehemently denying interest in their products. There is a positive to this however, especially if you are interested in the vendors’ products. Acting like you are not interested in a product makes the vendor cater to you, rather than you to them. A student on this year’s trip brought the price of a pan flute down from 80 to 35 soles, without even being remotely interested in the product.

The last thing that was very evident about Cuzco was the impact of religion on society. Unlike American churches, where services are only held once or twice a week, Cuzco’s churches have services every single day. The grandness of the city’s churches also adds to the strong religious devotion. Worshipping in areas of such grandness helps portray god’s greatness to the city’s residents and ensures their loyalty for generations to come.

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