A young boy ran by, throwing rocks at his small herd of piglets. He shyly smiled at our group, quickly returning to his siblings. At this moment, Becca decided to give them each one of her soles in order to repay the children for letting us take their picture. The children appeared to cower as she approached them with her charming smile, but warmed up to her as Alejandra explained what the situation was. However, they smiled through their confusion, rolling their shiny coins across their tiny, dirt-encrusted palms.
We all snapped pictures of the children with our fancy, high-tech cameras, their eyes widening at the clicking and beeping coming from the devices. After their first photo shoot, I turned the camera around to show the children what we captured. They were shocked, and I realized this may have been the first time they had seen themselves in something other than a reflection in a window, or a glassy lake. As for our little Alejanda, this two year old girl may have seen herself for the very first time. I realized we may have made a dangerous mistake by talking to these children.
Parque de la Papa is where we interacted with these children. An incredibly traditional area; a strong belief system placed in the natural environment, generations of knowledge passed down to individuals. This region focuses on trading, not monetary gain. The little income they have can really only be used in Cusco, although we did pass a few small shops driving through the mountain range. The sad realization is, that this was such an insignificant exchange for us in the grand scheme of things. Passing a single sole onto each of these children was such a simple task for the Americans to do – it hardly amounted to anything in our minds. But to these children, it was a life changing interaction. Their mothers may never be able to do what we did. While she can supply them with endless love, patience, food, and a home – money is a twisted material that can make all of those important aspects of life appear irrelevant, unnecessary.
Had we not been present at this moment in time, these children may have continued playing with their piglets, happily enjoying the bliss that is childhood. A dastardly chain of events may have come from this simple gesture though. This single sole may intrigue the children enough to pose for more pictures from the gringos that visit. Which will perpetuate this exchange, and increase the likelihood of them jumping onto the money train. It will carry them down into the city of Cusco, with varying jobs of modeling as natives of the highlands for pictures, or perhaps establishing themselves in shops. Regardless of the specific job, ultimately they may remove themselves from their native culture. All resulting from a single sole.
A similar shocking realization occurred at Machu Picchu. While enjoying our tour of this wonder of the world, I lost track of Sonya’s voice as my eardrums were flooded with pleading voices. I looked around, and a gaggle of young boys approached me asking for a photo. So of course I obliged, crouching down for their mother to take our picture. I was incredibly overwhelmed, laughing with the children as they put their arm over my shoulders. They thanked me graciously, and scampered off to see the rest of the ruins. This interaction left me perplexed for the continuation of the tour. Why were they so impressed by a gringa?
I began observing all of the natives milling about the ruins. While I believed they stood out, I realized it was truly us who clashed. We were adorned in t-shirts, hiking boots, khaki cargo pants, all of the outdoorsy materials that come to mind when you think ‘hiking’. But everyone else was dressed to the nines. Sporting their boxy Beats headphones, “fresh kicks”, and even high heels. This last asset completely blew my mind – wearing heels, to HIKE? And not even just hills, but MACHU PICCHU?! After a short conversation with Mike, however, everything came together and made sense.
These children are coming from poor areas within Peru. School trips come to Machu Picchu, for while we see it as a Wonder of the World, Peruvians may view it as we see a national monument. Fun to come and look at, a neat tribute to their ancestors. For others, this is a sacred area, as many Apus are reflected in many areas of the site. This presents itself as an occasion to put on your best clothing, your best smile, and show off what you have. And this certainly put everything into perspective for me.
We are an unrealistically lucky set of students. We were easily the youngest travelers visiting this beautiful mystery site, equipped with the best accommodations offered. Although I was excited to take pictures with the children we met at Parque de la Papa, and the boys at Machu Picchu, I truly believe we left a grander impact on their life than theirs on ours. Although they appear in different forms, the Peruvian children and the American young adults really shared a similar experience. For this is easily a sliver of my life – an incredible, life changing experience – but still just a blink of an eye in the grand scheme of where I may end up, what I can accomplish. But it has planted the traveling bug in me, and I now desire to travel around the world. For some of these kids, it could have been the highlight of their childhood. Visiting Machu Picchu, seeing truly a work of art; receiving their first sole, seeing a picture of themselves for the first time. And this may have also redirected the course of their life. That’s the power of cultural divides. This just goes to show: no matter how many miles, languages, and skin colors divide us, we are all innately human. Our experiences, though they may seem heavily divided, are truly similar while looking through the right lens.