Breathe In, Breathe Out: Feel “La Paz”

My arrival to La Paz was marked, literally, by a handful of ink. As I formed the line to pass
La Paz's airport is in the altiplano above the city

La Paz's airport is in the altiplano above the city

through customs, the official asked for a form on foreign currency which I had not been given on the plane. He handed me the form and directed me to a small table. I took a deep breathe at the unexpected inconvenience—not as easy as it sounds at 13,300 feet, the altitude of La Paz’s airport—and reached into my front breast pocket to find that my Pilot pen had exploded. This, I later learned, was a common occurrence when pens, whose innards are filled with ink and air from a lower altitude, are taken to high altitudes.

La Paz is a city in three dimensions. As we drive from the airport to my hotel in the city center at 1 am, the city lights spread out in nearly all directions: above you, below you to the right, and far away and below. All of these lights sit on separate swiveling planes, none of which are horizontal. As day broke the next day under the crystal Andean sky, the far slopes marking the edge of the city becomes visible. Below the ridges, I observe repetitive rectilinear buildings, tiny in the distance, all built of the same dark red brick, housing the city’s lowest income residents at the highest altitudes. The cityscape is in deep chiaroscuro as the light carves sharp shadows along the building edges.

The streets in the center are pleasantly sloped and crooked, bordered by small businesses in undistinguished colonial buildings. Along the sidewalks, indigenous women walked about their daily business, oddly unaware of the tiny bowler hat cocked to one side of their head. My first

A snow capped peak is visible from La Paz

A snow capped peak is visible from La Paz

honest reaction to this sight was to giggle internally at what first appears to be a bizarre take-off on Laurel and Hardy, then to wonder about the practicality: how does this tiny hat not get blown off by the wind? These people, I later learned, are Bolivia’s Aymara-speaking indigenous. They speak a language that not only sounds nothing like Spanish, but nothing like Quechua either, the language of Bolivia’s other major indigenous group, sounding most like, to an American’s ear, some difficult Asian language. In a few instants, Evo Morales’ take on the world becomes a little clearer. Bolivia, or at least La Paz, is a unique Andean place and its colonial history, which sits conveniently in history books in much of Latin America, is fresh and unresolved.

In my first business meetings the next day, I am faced with minor rebuffs and frustrations. At sea level, this would make me excited and seek some sort of whip-cracking response to get things back on track. Here you must take it a bit slower: I breathe in and out, my mind turning the situation over, but too winded to react. I maintain my calm, out of necessity, and the situation passes of its own absurdness. As my trip proceeds, I am continually aware of my breathing, I take it slower, I speak less, or more strategically at least. I let more things go. The business trip rights itself and I find myself wondering if I need to put myself in a La Paz state of mind when I return to sea level.

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Filed under Bolivia, Latin America, Quechua

Staunch Individualism on the Cloud Forest Frontier

To the west of Quito, Ecuador, as the Andes slope down to the Pacific coast, there is an interesting
A waterfall we discover along the way

A waterfall we discover along the way

ecosystem between coast and highlands, called “cloudforest.”  I visited a place, an hour and a half from Quito, called Mindo, that exemplifies this habitat. Intensely tropical and humid, the plants are much larger than normal, with massive leaves: if ever a race of giants had a hankering for human tamales, this is where they would harvest the leaves. Spectacular butterflies wander

This leaf measures approximately 3 feet from base to tip

This leaf measures approximately 3 feet from base to tip

languidly through the forest landing nonchalantly on plants and people alike. The birds there are famous, so much so, that Mindo is known for what is called avitourism, or bird watching tourism . I spy a toucan in the wild by its six inch long yellow beak and outrageous call on the way to accidentally discovering a waterfall that is on no map and which we have not been told about.

We are on a “guy’s trip” and this is the perfect place to test ourselves. We raft down a raging river on inner tubes lashed together, we cross the river in what is known as a “tarabita” or pulley-guided system, that the passengers themselves propel.  We climb a mountain, using tree branches and climbing rope to reach the top. We hike to a waterfall and slide down a polished concrete slide to be

The pulley system used to cross the river

The pulley system used to cross the river

ejected 15 feet above the raging river below. The force of the impact is so great, my watch strips off my wrist, never to be seen again, as I hit the water.

And we visit the butterfly museum. One of the best known tourist sites in this town is the “Mariposario” (Butterfly-ery?), where visitors are guided through the a series of cages showing many species of butterfly at different stages of life. Inert eggs, gorging pupae, hanging chrysalis, and butterflies emerging as wet and unimpressive spooge, but then unfurling their wings to dry before flying away. The tour ends by releasing visitors into a garden covered in netting, where hundreds of hatched butterflies feed on flowers and drink in bird baths. A quiet awe comes over my adolescent charges here, as they allow the butterflies to alight on their fingers and clothes.

Butterflies #1

Butterflies #1

Butterflies #2

Butterflies #2

Butterflies #3

Butterflies #3

The tourism model here is one of small entrepreneurs each selling their product or service to the tourists passing through. If I had any complaint of my trip it was the experience of feeling nickled and dimed at every turn, even though the actual costs were an absolute bargain. To cross the river on the “tarabita” is a dollar a trip, to hike to the waterfall, three dollars a head, to enter the butterfly museum, another three dollars. While impressed by the idea that regular inhabitants of the town were making a living off of ecotourism here, it was evident that with so much potential, major opportunities were being missed to allow orderly ecotourism development to proceed, providing greater economic opportunities to inhabitants.

As we hike through the forest to the waterfall in the rain, we reach a dirt road now covered with six inches of creamy red mud. Two workers apologize and lay boards down to allow us to cross the road. They explain that the grader didn’t finish work yesterday as the parking area for the waterfall is being expanded; the equipment will soon continue up the road to improve it to allow for better access to sites further in. They tell us that the road work is being paid for by the small business owner who charges admission to the waterfall.

At the butterfly museum, as someone working in the development field, I ask what kind of grant funding they receive. I am shocked as the young woman explains that they receive no outside funding; revenues come from the onsite restaurant, lodging, and small shop attached to the butterfly hatchery. I am more impressed as I learn further along that the organization releases half of the butterflies it hatches into the wild, keeping the other half to lay eggs for further hatching.

Both roads and butterflies flying exemplify what economists and public administrators call public goods. According to The Economist, public goods are, “things that can be consumed by everybody in a society, or nobody at all. They have three characteristics. They are:

• non-rival – one person consuming them does not stop another person consuming them;

• non-excludable – if one person can consume them, it is impossible to stop another person consuming them;

• non-rejectable – people cannot choose not to consume them even if they want to.”

In the road and butterfly examples above, all can travel along the road and enjoy the sight of butterflies wandering through nature without either being used up or subject to being excluded (I am assuming this a non-toll road, of course). Public goods are an important concept in public administration in that they are the basis for considering appropriate ends for public policy and support.

What was so evident in Mindo was the absence of a state that promoted public goods to make the town a more competitive and attractive ecotourism destination. There is a good reason why we most often see roads as public goods to be paid for by the state with our common taxes. When good roads are developed we all benefit as the food we eat comes to us via the road, the products we produce are transported to markets, and if we are in a service industry, such as ecotourism, it allows our clients to drive to our place of business. Good roads are a classic win-win as they allow the general economy to grow, improve quality of life, and are the pre-condition to other classic public goods, such as public safety (e.g., allowing firefighting vehicles access) and education (e.g., access by school busses).

A small businessman operates a rappel across a ravine

A small businessman operates a rappel across a ravine

In contrast, in Mindo, the absence of these public goods was so great that only through the small business owners’ savvy were these public goods (roads and greater butterfly fauna) being provided. In effect, these businesspeople recognized that the individual benefit they perceived through increased access and improved fauna was significant enough, despite their inability to exclude others from the benefits, to make a private investment.

In graduate school, I had a good friend from Ecuador with whom I would often debate politics and the best policies for the developing world. She would often claim, as do many Latin Americans, that the United States epitomizes individualistic capitalism, while a place like Ecuador, exemplifies a softer community-focused approach to life and economics. At the time, I believed she was probably overestimating the individualistic nature of the United States, but that this was basically a correct

Rappeling across the ravine

Rappeling across the ravine

characterization. It would seem that a place like Ecuador, having a high percentage of indigenous peoples, with little tradition of private property, must represent the softer model. And isn’t the American dream about personal, not community, opportunity and success? Our international reputation for relying on markets and personal freedom to structure our policies appeared to support my friend’s perception.

Yet cases like Mindo (and I believe this is the rule, not the exception, in many places in Latin America), turn this notion, of individualism versus community orientation, on its head. A good example comes from what would probably be the extreme case of American individualism, Texas, where we attended graduate school. The state’s development has been closely linked to the development of agriculture: this is best illustrated by the dense network of FM roads, or Farm-to-Market roads, that criss-cross the state. There was an early recognition of the value of such public goods and therefore significant public investment in transportation infrastructure. This meant some risk for individuals as they put money into a common kitty, i.e., local government, and the development of accountable and competent public administration.

Although I am not familiar enough with Mindo to know the obstacles it faces in terms of public administration, it is clear that much could be done to promote simple public goods from which all could benefit. The town’s world class biodiversity, fauna, and sights, as well as proximity to Quito and an international airport imply that there is significant potential for ecotourism growth and economic benefits to the town’s residents.

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Filed under Ecotourism, Ecuador, International development, Latin America, public sector, Tourism

Bifurcating Paths: Discovering Buenos Aires

My trip to Buenos Aires was marked by a pleasantly unsettling prickly feeling throughout the

Argentina's Congress building

Argentina's Congress building

visit. Exactly the sensation of a Borges short story you cannot put down. Only recently could I put it into words: how is it possible that such a sophisticated city, a New York or a Paris, has been here all my life and I never knew about it? My compass always pointed to sophistication along an East-West axis across the Atlantic or to big American cities. But due South? The sensation was one of having a dream about the house you grew up in and suddenly finding a whole wing you never knew was there.

The city is full of the sorts of parks, monuments, and architecture that reminds me most of New York. The monumental public spaces, Beaux Arts stone public and office buildings are the physical manifestations of massive wealth and a highly structured, civilized society. In this place are concentrated the very tops of private and public organizational pyramids that spread across the continent. In New York, corporate headquarters, finance, and fashion; in Buenos Aires, what? Massive stone skyscrapers brood with views of the port; parks

Public sculpture in a park

Public sculpture in a park

with century old trees, never seen in New York, that spread umbrella-like more than a hundred feet across; and quantities of public sculpture that I have never seen in any city I have been in.

I am taken aback by how wrong my impressions of Argentineans were without having visited. They are pleasantly, but subtly, bemused by an American who speaks Spanish. They seem to take this in stride perhaps better than the people of any other Latin American country I have visited; after all, I, as an American of European heritage, have an appearance no different than most of the people of Argentina. There is not the racial gap between indigenous and white person that amplifies the relatively minor linguistic gap. We get into friendly chatter with waiters, taxi drivers, and shop keepers in an unforced way throughout the visit.

Restaurant dining is an art. Service is excellent and attentive as a rule. The food feels European but is abundant and cheap. This is one of those places where residents see dining out as the rule, rather than the exception. The choices are far ranging and there is plenty in a wide middle of affordable but elegant places.

A colleague comments when I return that I should not be so impressed. He says that all of the great architecture and urbanism in Buenos Aires was built in the 30’s; what remains is just a shell, as they live off the greatness of the past. He is influenced, I think, by the consistent reporting of Argentina’s unorthodox and quixotic economic management as is reported in serious magazines and newspapers. There is a grain of truth in what he says, but upon reflection, I reject this assessment as being overly negative. It is true that major works, such as the subway system, were

Buenos Aires' modern subway system

Buenos Aires' modern subway system

built in the 30’s, but that does not explain how these systems are kept up to date and function today, not as broken down relics, but as modern systems. Parks and 1930’s era monumental architecture are kept up to date and are not in disrepair. All of this implies a continuous investment and care, not necessarily a symptom of economic decay.

There is also some new investment visible. We pass by restored inner docks that have been converted into a large restaurant district, with refurbished warehouse space above serving as lofts and New Economy offices. A few new skyscrapers dot the skyline. Admittedly, the pace of change and visibility of new investment is not the same as in a New York or Chicago. We walk along a street with row upon row of small shops selling watches and other expensive electronics, a common sight in big cities where vendors of a similar good group together in tight districts . Here the level of technology in store windows and the flashiness of the equipment are visibly several notches below a similar district in a Hong Kong or New York, consistent with my overall impression.

I come away impressed by Buenos Aires’ particular sense of place. I think for a moment in the classic New Yorker cartoon that parodies certain places for thinking they are at the center of the universe. If such a cartoon existed for Buenos Aires, it would hard to blame them.

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Filed under Argentina, Jorge Luis Borges, Latin America, Tourism

Missing the Machu Picchu Train

Negotiations between Yale University and the Peruvian Government over the return of Yale’s collection of Machu Picchu artifacts took a turn for the worse this past June.  The normally staid leading newspaper, El Comercio, began its article reporting the latest news on the negotiations in this way: “The blonde Barbara Shailor, one of five Associate Deans of Yale and in charge of the University’s diverse museums, doesn’t walk a square meter without her favorite bag.  It’s not any bag.  It’s a cloth bag that has embroidered on it a picture of the most beautiful Inca city in the world.  The anecdote could well hide a malicious metaphor: Yale doesn’t want to let go of Machu Picchu.”  Whenever a Yale Associate Dean is caricatured as a blonde clutching onto her shopping bag, you know things are about to get nasty.

Previous to this, the two sides had reached an amicable agreement, formalized in a Memorandum of Understanding.  That MOU, according to the Yale Alumni Magazine, provided that, “about 350 museum-quality objects would be returned quickly to Peru, while the vast majority of the material could remain at Yale for study purposes for up to 99 years.”  But the Peruvian government has since backed away from the terms of the MOU, in part because of what they understand to be inaccuracies in Yale’s inventory of the artifacts, and in part because they have changed their position on the need to return the entire collection to Peru.  This change in position comes after a public outcry when the terms of the agreement were published earlier this year, where a variety of Peruvians, from a former First Lady, to academics, to local officials in Cuzco, urged the government to demand that all of the pieces be returned to Peru.

The Machu Picchu artifacts touch a long-standing nationalist nerve within Peru, if not all of Latin America, yet such heady emotions may lead to an outcome far from ideal for Peru and those Peruvians who benefit from the burgeoning tourist trade associated with the site.


The relics themselves made their way to Yale by way of the ancient site’s modern scientific discoverer, Hiram Bingham, a Yale graduate, who would later become a Yale professor.  The simple characterization of Bingham as the site’s “discoverer” can arouse passion in some Peruvians, as it is clear that a variety of Peruvians had visited the site before him.  This includes, of course, the young Indian boy who led Bingham to the site, the landowner, Melchor Arteaga, who told Bingham about the site and led him to the vicinity, but also somewhat more academically-minded Peruvians such as Don Enrique Palma who left an inscription on the site in 1902.

Although it is widely accepted that there were many visitors to Machu Picchu prior to Hiram Bingham, it is also true that some of these fell into the long tradition of Peruvian grave robbers or huaqueros and antiquities dealers in Peru.  In my own visit to Machu Picchu, my Peruvian guide gave what could be an admirably balanced account of the site’s discovery:  “it was indeed discovered by non-Indian Peruvians…,” he told us, “…who then proceeded to sack artifacts from the site.”  A fair assessment of Bingham’s role is to call him, as the plaque at the site does, “the scientific discoverer” of Machu Picchu.

Bingham was not himself an archeologist, but rather an explorer, yet he had the education and institutional resources to recognize important discoveries and connect them to those who could properly study them.  Hugh Thompson, a British explorer of Inca ruins in the present day, devotes several pages in his book, “The White Rock” to Bingham’s contribution.  He makes the point that Bingham disingenuously downplays the contributions of others before him to highlight his own role, yet Thompson recognizes that, “his achievement-and it was a considerable one-was in publicizing that discovery and his many later finds.” (page 80)

More specifically, Bingham’s success was not only in connecting the scientific and academic communities to the site, but in connecting to the average reader through articles in National Geographic and books.  He is a master adventure story teller and his enthusiasm in discovering the site is infectious, as told in his account in his book,”The Lost City of the Incas”: 

To my astonishment, I saw that this wall and the adjoining semicircular temple over the cave were as fine as the finest stonework in the far-famed Temple of the Sun in Cuzco.  Surprise followed surprise in bewildering succession.  I climbed a marvelous great stairway of large granite blocks, walked along a pampa where the Indians had a small vegetable garden, and came into a little clearing.  Here were the ruins of two of the finest structures I have ever seen in Peru.  Not only were they made of selected blocks of beautifully grained white granite; their walls contained ashlar of Cyclopean size, ten feet in length, and higher than a man.  The site held me spellbound.  (The Peru Reader, p88)


It should come as no surprise that the same fervor the site inspired in Hiram Bingham, would be repeated in the many visitors to follow.  The site became something of a Latin American nationalist touchstone.  In the 40’s, the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda visited the site and wrote the poem, “The Heights of Machu Picchu.”  He described the visit as a soulful reawakening in the midst of creative doldrums, “a profession of faith in order to continue with my song.”  (The White Rock, p 77)

In 1955, Che Guevara visited the ruins during his motorcycle tour of the continent (recently portrayed in the movie “Motorcycle Diaries”), writing famously that Machu Picchu, “drives any dreamer to ecstasy.”  For him, Machu Picchu represented the purity of pre-Colombian genius, before being sullied by the Conquest: “The undeniable thing, the most important thing, is that we have before us a pure expression of the most powerful indigenous race in the Americas, untouched by contact with the conquering civilization” he later wrote.  (The White Rock, p 96)

Guevara foreshadows the current controversy by asking 50 years ago: “Where can one admire or study the treasures of the indigenous city [Machu Picchu]?  The answer is obvious: in the museums of the United States.”  In short, the removal of the site’s artifacts to Yale touches a raw nerve for Peruvians and Latin Americans in general: if Machu Picchu represents the maximum expression of the country’s and continent’s native genius, then it must belong fundamentally to, and be kept within, Peru.  When seen through this lens, the only solution to the current dilemma is that the artifacts must be returned.  As Peru’s former First Lady, Eliana Karp Toledo argues in a February 23 editorial in The New York Times, “I fail to understand the rationale for Yale to have any historical claim to the artifacts. Bingham had no authority to transfer ownership to begin with.  The agreement reflects a colonial way of thinking not expected from a modern academic institution.  In fact, Yale has gone a step further than it did in its negotiations with President Toledo; the university is now brazenly asking to keep a significant part of the collection for research for an additional 99 years.”  


The role that Hiram Bingham played nearly one hundred years ago holds important clues to the respective roles Yale and the Peruvian state might play in an ideal outcome to the controversy.  But, to understand what that outcome might be, it is important to establish an accurate context regarding Peru, Machu Picchu, and the artifacts themselves in 2008.

First, it is not clear that the goals of artifact preservation or exhibition of the artifacts for the Peruvian general public would be best served with the artifacts managed directly by the Peruvian government.  Most would agree that the best pre-Colombian collections and museums in Peru are in private hands.  The Museo Larco and Museo de Oro, both in Lima, are excellent examples of such museums.  Both, incidentally, charge market rates to see their collections-over $10 per person for either Peruvian or foreign visitors-and as a result, buses filled with foreign tourists, not school buses with local schoolchildren, are what one sees in the parking lot.  This implies that the Peruvian government has not historically been very successful in protecting artifacts from market forces (e.g., grave robbing), nor in obtaining artifacts for their own collections.  It also implies that the importance placed by the Peruvians on repatriating the artifacts is more symbolic than practical.  If accessibility to the Peruvian general public and researchers were the issue, then there are hundreds of thousands of artifacts sitting right in Lima equally as inaccessible as those in the United States.

Government run museums do charge affordable entry fees, however, most do not own as impressive collections, nor are they displayed in environments that are as attractive and well managed as the private museums.  The Regional Museum in Ica exemplifies this issue.  While, in fact, the museum contains valuable and impressive pre-Colombian textiles from the Paracas and Nazca cultures, it has recently been the victim of robberies.  Thieves simply broke the glass protecting textiles, worth over $40,000, and ran out of the museum.  As a result, visitors today see only poor color photocopies of the most valuable pieces.

Second, tourism to Machu Picchu and Peru, in general, is booming today.  Peruvian government statistics show that the number of foreign tourists arriving in Peru nearly doubled in the six year period between 2002 and 2007, from 997 thousand to 1.8 million.  Many of these visitors went to Machu Picchu itself; statistics on entries into Machu Picchu National Park show that between 1997 and 2007, the number of visitors to Machu Picchu increased between two and three times, from 297 thousand to 737 thousand.  Those visitors spend hundreds and often thousands of dollars in both Cuzco and Lima-to date, no international flights arrive in Cuzco and so visitors must stay a night in Lima-generating tens of thousands of jobs.

Third, foreign visitors trips to Machu Picchu are not inexpensive.  While decades ago, in the days of Shining Path attacks and heavy coca cultivation, Cuzco and Machu Picchu might have attracted only adventurous backpackers, today that situation could not be more different.  An anecdotal survey of tour buses in downtown Cuzco shows a wealthy, often retired crowd, with a high degree of interest in history and culture as explained by guides with a good grasp of the subject matter.  Such visitors would probably put much value on Yale’s association with a museum or any aspect of a Machu Picchu visit. 

Finally, the actual artifacts are rather underwhelming.  As the El Comercio article describes them: “[a] material that, frankly, would dishearten any compatriot that, after all of the media pyrotechnics, might have believed that Yale hides the most precious treasure of the Inca kingdom.  Nothing could be further from the truth.”  A Peruvian archeologist associated with Yale downplayed, in the same article, the artifacts’ research value as well, saying that most researchers would prefer to perform research on pieces they themselves had excavated, not those excavated 100 years ago.

In summary, the real golden idol in this story is not so much the artifacts per se, but the growing trade and economic opportunities created by the thousands of wealthy tourists descending on Peru to visit Machu Picchu.  With the site recently becoming the “it” destination for the well-to-do, it is clear that Peru has much to gain from as extensive an involvement as it can negotiate with Yale regarding Machu Picchu.  For instance, some simple ideas come to mind:

  • Can Yale sponsor traveling exhibitions of the artifacts to “push” more visitors to the site from the United States and Europe? 
  • Can Yale provide technical assistance to create a first class archeological museum in Cuzco or the Sacred Valley (such a museum does not currently exist) that would become one more “required stop” on the average tourist’s Cuzco trip? 
  • Can Yale’s association with any part of a Machu Picchu trip be used as a lever to publicize more trips to Machu Picchu among Yale or Ivy League alumni?
  • Can Peru bring more Yale researchers to Peru to help carry out and fund current archeological research?

In the context of the gamut of possibilities for collaboration, the sole focus on ownership and physical possession of the artifacts seems short-sighted.  The artifacts should be considered the happy accident that caused the paths of two highly complementary parties to cross and from which emerges a productive partnership.

Hiram Bingham’s first visit to Machu Picchu nearly 100 years ago was the watershed event to announce the existence of the Inca citadel to the rest of the world.  Today, Yale’s involvement can serve a similar role in adding intellectual and academic gravitas to Machu Picchu as a tourist destination.  The importance of Bingham was not about discovery per se, but rather publicizing the site worldwide to scientific and international audiences.  Similarly today, the importance of the Yale-Peru link via the artifacts is not about ownership and possession per se, but again about dissemination of the site to the world’s tourists and other visitors, who have the potential to help Peru create jobs and reduce poverty.

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Filed under International development, Latin America, Machu Picchu, Peru, Tourism, Uncategorized, Yale University

The Five Minute Airport Test

The Economist magazine has a semi-tongue in cheek indicator of exchange rates it calls “The Big Mac Index“.  The indicator compares the price of a Big Mac, converted to dollars at the going exchange rate, across several countries, to gauge currency over- and under-valuation and the extent to which there is purchasing power parity. It is a quick and not completely dismissible test of serious issues.

I have my own version of the Big Mac Index as I travel to countries I have not been to before-it is the “first five minutes in the airport” test. Obviously, it shares the same weakness as the fast food test, in that it’s based on a tiny sample, yet, also similar, it is based on a sound principle, in this case the acuity of first impressions.

My first trial of the test came when I went to Guatemala. As I headed for the airport exit, I was struck by the quiet, order, and even solemnity that pervaded the Guatemalans waiting behind the crowd barrier. Dark, sunburnt farmer faces with black cowboy hats and big belt buckles. Few people talking and the small crowd of people standing there continued the straight line, even after the barrier ended. How sharply this scene contrasted with Lima, where I had come from-there everyone pushes to get to the front of the barrier, while others pretend that the barrier doesn’t apply to them, strolling into the space beyond (and often get away with it). Disorder, noise, and characteristic pushiness.

A friend with years living in Guatemala recently referred to a famous Guatemalan dance, el son, as “typically Guatemalan”: head down, hands clasped behind the waist, and quick foot movement-reserved, even shy, and not showy. My first minutes in the airport appeared to register these characteristics immediately.

Sunset over Asuncion

Sunset over Asuncion

My second test of the gauge occurred a week ago, as I landed in Asunción, where I am writing from. As we wait for the luggage, a man with a sunburn, dirty blonde hair, and a face as European looking as mine leans on a dolly, wearing a vest that reads “Maletero” (luggage handler). He turns to his fellow luggage handler and breaks out in Guaraní, the native language, which accompanies daily life here in Paraguay. Coming from Peru and Andean sensibilities, such a scene turns the world on its head, so much so that I don’t know if your average Peruvian would even be able to comprehend it.

To be clear, there are both white European faces and native languages in Peru-in fact, lots of both. But I can assure you that there is not one white European face in all of the 9 million people in greater Lima who makes his living through physical labor-and very few are fluent in any native language in Peru, such as Quechua or Aymara. The luggage handler was not a rich person, slumming, but rather your typical Paraguayan, a mix of Guaraní Indian with European immigrant stock-and like most Paraguayans, fluent in Guaraní as well as Spanish.

As I leave the terminal, balmy air gusts this way and that laced with a pleasant aroma of wood smoke, almost like eucalyptus leaves burning. Later that night, as I wander out to the street outside my hotel, I see an additional reason for the pleasant smell: small hibachis set up on the street cooking fat little German sausages.

An American acquaintance summed up Paraguay like this, “there are no hard edges here.” Questions asked of strangers are answered with straightforward, attentive replies. In the week I have been here, I have been asked detailed questions about the bus routes, which-shocked that I wasn’t spotted as a foreigner, something Peruvians recognize from an easy quarter mile away-I tried to carry off, nonchalantly saying as much as I could, until I had to admit that I wasn’t familiar with any bus routes, because I was a foreigner.

What would a society that was blind to race and considered kindness to strangers a basic tenet of life look like? What if such a human society were in a bountiful, generous and benign natural setting, as if nature were complicit, and wanted to show its approval? And what if the rest of the twenty-first century seemed only tenuously connected to you, something about as real as Hollywood movies? Such a place might look like Paraguay.

Behind altar of main church at Trinidad reduction

Behind altar of main church at Trinidad reduction

I am not the first to be inspired to flights of Utopian fantasy by this place. The deep sense of isolation and paradisiacal beauty of the landscape and Paraguayans leads the mind to thoughts of starting afresh, re-creating life based on first principles and true values. Immigrants from places like Germany, Russia, Ukraine, even Japan, have re-made their lives here over more than the past century. Early in the twentieth century, Mennonites came from Canada, the U.S., and Russia and move out deep into the Chaco to start afresh. The Paraguayan map is a testament to this history. While dominated by names in Guaraní (Caacupé, Río Jejuí Guazú) and in Spanish, with an often religious bent (Asunción, Encarnación, Villa Rica), it has places like Juan E. O’Leary, Filadelfia (center of the Mennonites), and Hohenau (founded by Japanese immigrants).

Starting over, as immigrants do, is part of the attraction here. Famously, one of Paraguay’s great leaders, Mariscal Francisco Lopez, on a major state tour of Europe, fell in love with an Irish woman, who it is often said was a high-end prostitute at the time, who then accompanied him back to Paraguay. “Madame Lynch” as she universally became known in Paraguay, returned to become the focal point of Asunción’s high society. Or consider the plot of Graham Greene’s Travels With My Aunt, where the protagonist escapes his troubles by moving permanently to Paraguay, marrying a Paraguayan, and running a small contraband operation.

Main plaza of Jesuit reduction, Trinidad, Paraguay

Main plaza of Jesuit reduction, Trinidad, Paraguay

The history of seeking to start anew and create the perfect society in splendid isolation goes back to the Jesuits, who between 1587 and 1768 created small self-contained villages (“reductions”), where they converted the Guaraní to Christianity, but also taught them to read, write, and to become skilled craftsmen. Generally known as one of the few benevolent and positive interactions between the Europeans and Indians in colonial Latin America, eastern Paraguay and northern Argentina contain the ruins of 30 such settlements.

The communities were based on free association, and contained areas for vegetable gardens, workshops, a school, and even a house to care for widows and orphans. I visited what is said to be the best preserved of the Jesuit ruins, those of the town of Trinidad. I was impressed by the completeness of the complex and its picturesque layout, with bell towers and cloistered walkways leading from one courtyard to the next-a little Oxford University in the fertile plains of Eastern Paraguay, next to the massive Paraná.

Frieze showing cherubs in main cathedral

Frieze showing cherubs in main cathedral

Round faced cherubs line the frieze of the impressive main church at Trinidad, and I can make out one blowing a trumpet and another serving a chalice, others appear to be busy at a desk with books and another in carpentry. I am alone at the site on a cloudy mid-40 degree (Fahrenheit) day of stern weather. The cherubs, who appear just slightly non-European, give the place a dreamy feel and a sense of the Jesuits’ vision of culture and industriousness and all being right on earth and in heaven. That optimism contrasts with the gloomy day and the fact that, after all, this is a ruin. The Jesuits were expelled from the Americas in 1768 by King Carlos III of Spain and the residents of the reductions became fewer and fewer until the settlements were eventually abandoned.

Cherub, Jesuit reduction, Trinidad, Paraguay

Cherub, Jesuit reduction, Trinidad, Paraguay

I return from the ruins to the small border city of Encarnación. The Paraná river forms the border between Paraguay and Argentina at this point and the Argentine medium-sized city of Posadas lies on the other side. It is the day of the World Cup 2010 eliminatory match between Argentina and Paraguay. I decide to spend game time on both sides of the border to get a feel for the two cultures. I cross the bridge over the Paraná-over a mile wide at this point-and immediately begin to pick up differences at Argentine immigration. But, ah, that is a story for another edition of the five minute airport test.

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The Nazca Lines: Ancient History Seeks Modern State for a Fruitful, Long-Term Relationship

In a recent trip to Ica Department, south of Lima, I became fascinated by the Nazca Lines, a series of enormous animal and human figures etched into the Peruvian desert by a pre-Colombian culture that far pre-dated the Incans.  The Lines hold stunning potential to bring international tourists to Peru and their reputation is poised to explode as an international tourist industry begins to gain momentum in Peru, led by the steady growth of tourists here to see Machu Picchu.  Recent government statistics showed a 16% increase in visitors to that site in 2007 over the prior year.  A recent Spanish language episode of the cable TV program, “1000 Places to See Before You Die”, looked at the Lines as one of their featured sites, exporting this destination to tens of thousands of potential visitors across Latin America.


Other than a small observation tower along the highway, the Lines can really only be appreciated by getting into a small airplane and doing a short overflight.  Despite my intense curiosity about these ruins and the carpe diem attitude that accompanies me on my trips, I did not do the overflight.  A recent rash of airplane near misses and tragic accidents has afflicted these flights, enough to prevent me from even debating with myself the idea of taking one.


The most tragic of these involved the death of five French tourists in April when the light airplane they had chartered for this less-than-an-hour overflight encountered mechanical problems and tangled its landing gear in high tension wires as it tried to make an emergency landing—all of the airplane’s passengers died leaving only the pilot alive.  Before that accident, aircraft making overflights frequently had been making emergency landings on the Panamerican highway, that bisects the Lines.   A recent article on the Lines, in the tourism supplement of a leading Peruvian newspaper, summarized the situation as follows:


Due to their closeness to Lima, the Nazca Lines have become one of the favorite destinations of foreign tourists, above all Japanese, Europeans, and Brazilians.  However, distressing events related to the aircraft that overfly the plains—from emergency landings to serious accidents that have left a terrible balance of several tourists dead—has put Peru in the eye of the storm.  Moreover, the Foreign Ministry of France and some travel agencies in Japan have recommended to their countrymen to not go to Peru if their objective is to do an overflight of the Lines.  (¡Vamos! El Comercio supplement, June 10, 2008, page 6, my translation)


Thus, while the Lines inherent beauty and mystery are inspiring a growing number of international tourists to visit Peru, this momentum is threatened by the lack of safety in the small industry providing overflights.  The same article explains the cause for the lack of safety in this way, “Many overflights have became unsafe due to informality and disorder [in the overflight industry].” 


The concept of “informality” has a long history in Peru.  Some of the most important work on the subject–putting it center stage in development theory–was done by Peruvian economist Hernando De Soto.  Based on research conducted in Peru in the 1980s, De Soto’s work addressed informality in areas such as street vending, housing, and bus transportation.  Today, Peru continues to have high rates of informality—nearly 60% of Peru’s workforce today is employed in the informal sector, that is, businesses which, to a larger or smaller degree, comply only partially, or not at all, with labor, zoning, licensing, tax and other laws.  In describing the situation of the Nazca overflight industry, the term informality is helpful in that it describes the same situation as that described by De Soto: government authority, which may have extensive ordinances and laws on the books to regulate activity, remains distant from reality by providing no practical way for citizens to comply with regulations and by frequently turning a blind eye to infractions of the law. 


Yet, the term, when applied to a situation such as the accident in which the five French tourists died, appears to be a misleading, and somewhat pitiful, euphemism.  Informality, is what would be called in a developed country simply, illegality.  The difference is that in a developed country the definition of legality is much clearer and the consequences of illegal behavior much surer.  In places where there are high degrees of informality, complex laws, which are difficult for businesspeople to comply with, are not enforced.  The term “informality” in general properly lifts the stigma off of those who cannot comply with utterly impractical regulation.  However, when a lack of effective regulation and enforcement combines with a complex and dangerous activity such as flying aircraft, the result is deadly.


It appears that there are at least three roles, normally fulfilled by the state, which may contribute to the number of safety incidents in Nazca.  First, the state has the job of regulating: this would include the licensing of pilots and the performing safety inspections of aircraft.  Second, the state, through the justice system sanctions incompliance.  These sanctions, when properly designed and consistently applied, provide their own incentives to maintain one’s aircraft and abilities at the proper level.  If a sure 20 years of prison face the culprits of negligent homicide, the need to micro-manage compliance with many regulations is much less.  Finally, the state has a role in building, financing, and approving infrastructure, a key element to flight safety. 


I am not in a position to know in which of these roles there might be insufficiencies in Nazca.  However, what appears clear is that the level of informality, that is, the result of a lack of active state involvement, is very high.  To be clear, we are talking about a place where it is not tricky to fly: the terrain is mostly flat desert without vegetation; the sky is cloudless and there are not thunderstorms or rain; and the flights, of course, are all done during the daytime in order to see the Lines.  The sorts of infractions, in contrast, are rather fundamental: in some of the cases where there have been emergency landings on the highway, the cause was that the aircraft had run out of gas.  The reported cause of the accident involving the French tourists was pilot error.  The situation in Nazca is an outcome one might anticipate if there was absolutely no presence of the state or countervailing consequence for negligent behavior.


There are hopeful signs that the Peruvian state recognizes its fundamental role in the safety of the Nazca overflights and, in turn, the effect safety has on promoting the Nazca Lines as a key Peruvian destination for international tourists.  In the days following the incident with the French tourists, AeroCondor, the company operating the flight, was temporarily suspended from operating flights by the Peruvian government.  The newspaper article quoted above reports that: 


[T]he Peruvian Ministry of Transport and Communications has put itself into the mix, and in a sort of homage to Maria Reiche, has implemented this week a plan to re-order the services of the 12 operators located in the airport of Nazca.  In addition, the decision that it should be the system of aircraft control the one that directs the movements of aircraft is an attempt to standardize operations and leave behind informality.

The article closes with a fascinating quote from Maria Reiche.  Ms Reiche was a German archeologist who first came to Peru in the 1940’s to assist one of the early researchers of the lines.  She fell in love with site and stayed on in Peru until she died at the age of 95 in 1998.  She dedicated her life to the preservation and study of this site, and was the primary force behind the site being named a UNESCO World Heritage site.  What is fascinating about the quote from Ms Reiche is less her expression of love for the site; this is something one expects given that the Lines were her life’s work.  What is fascinating is the way someone who dedicated her life to an artifact of ancient history, sees their meaning in terms of their relevance for Peru and Peruvians today.   


My life is defined until the last minute of my existence.  There is not enough time to study the marvels contained in the plains of Nazca and that is where I will die.  Everything was for Nazca!  If I had 100 lives, I would give them for Nazca.  And if 1000 sacrifices I had to make, I would do it, if it were for Nazca.


I want, with my life’s work, to be an instrument to eliminate injustices so that Peruvians, which are a people of special cultural, physical, and moral qualities recuperate their self-esteem.  I tell you: I am a chola* because at times I feel most at one with the cholos and more so now that I am a Peruvian citizen.

 In effect she is saying that by recognizing the Lines as important, it shifts the internal dynamic of Peru, which tends to see the indigenous past as inferior, uneducated, and poor.  Seeing the Lines fulfill their potential as a destination which international tourists flock to and thereby contribute to the economic development of Peru is a goal in the same spirit described by Ms Reiche.  That dream is well within reach if the Peruvian state and businesspeople can collaborate to reduce informality and make the Nazca overflights a safe and modern operation.


* the word “chola” is normally an ethnic slur in Peru, to signify someone of Indian heritage

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Nazca Family Values

Large quipu on displayAt the end of a long driveway on a dusty lot several blocks from the center of downtown Ica, sits the Ica Regional Museum.  We pay about three dollars as an entrance fee and as we step into the museum a guard asks me if I plan to take pictures.  Expecting him to tell me that taking pictures is prohibited, I say, “no.”  He tells me, if I decide to change my mind, there is a $1.45 fee. 


At the first exhibit, I immediately decide that taking pictures is worth $1.45.  Despite, the shabby appearance of the museum, the museum holds extremely well preserved archeological artifacts from the pre-Colombian Nazca and Paracas cultures.  These were coastal cultures that predated the Incas by centuries and were the creators of the mysterious Nazca Lines.  The pottery and textiles are amazingly well preserved considering that they are at least half a millennia old, if not much older.  The museum shows paper replicas of several pieces of textiles, as over the past few years, thieves have simply broken the glass, removed valuable textiles, and run out of the museum, taking pieces that fetch $40,000 in Europe.


I lazily skim the inscription of the first piece I get close to.  It reads something like, “Two headed pot shows father teaching son the custom of decapitating enemies captured in battle.”  I do a double-take at the jar.  There is a goofiness and yet straightforward sincerity about the inscription and the faces on of the jar that makes me suppress a laugh.  My own son is accompanying me to the museum and we begin to imagine what the dialogue between the two would be:

“OK, son, now just grab by the hair and give it a good whack…”

“I can’t Dad.  I can’t cut through the spinal cord.”

“You just need… to put… your shoulder into it.. and… see, comes right off.”

  Child side of two-headed jarFather side of two-headed jar

Recently there has been an important exhibition organized in Paris of Paracas textiles, which causes me to examine them more closely.  The textiles are finely woven and amazingly well preserved.  Local hotels have picked up on the decorative motifs of the Paracas textiles for their hotel lobbies and I look closely for this as well.  It takes me a good five minutes before I really begin to make out this motif as more than just a fabric pattern.   


As I look at it, my mind is trying to match it with acceptable associations: I think about the space man theories of the Nazca Lines, about ceremonial dress, and about the decorative animal motifs repeated through the design.  Then I look closely at this figure, or shall I say hmm… male figure, and again have to hold back a laugh.  The frankness and sincerity of the artwork is fresh and appealing. 


This next pot epitomizes this aspect of the culture.  I mean, hey, when you’re happy, you’re happy.  Don’t hide it, right?  I move on believing I have discovered the true predecessor of the 1970’s-era yellow circle happy face.


We arrive at a section of the museum on quipus.  Quipus were an Inca technology used to keep track of numbers.  Because quipus are so close, yet so far, from the revolutionary technology of writing, I have seen this technology referred to as “mnemonic devices.”  Yet, as early Incan chronicler Guaman Poma de Ayala writes, the quipu was a sophisticated and effective technology for public administration,


Both the Inca and his Council of the realm were served by secretaries…such people were highly esteemed because of their ability to use the quipu.  The secretaries calculated dates, recorded instructions, received information from messengers and kept in touch with their colleagues who used the quipu in all parts of the country.  They accompanied the rulers and judges on important visits, recording decisions and contracts with such skill that the knots in their cords had the clarity of written letters.  (The Peru Reader, p78 )


My son quickly tires as he sees me trying to find the right angle to photograph the quipus and squinting at the cords and knots.  “Dad,” he says impatiently, “you can see quipus whenever you want in Lima,” referring to a museum near our house.  Quipus fascinate me.  They represent how differently cultures can develop while still being quite recognizably human and ultimately interested in similar things, such as a way to remember important things or to transmit messages to others.  I mean, how could you come up with a system of writing using knots instead of, well, writing?  These artifacts represent that real, factual divide between our Western heritage and a pre-Colombian heritage. 

 Close-up of simple quipu

I think, as I contemplate the knots, that as a technology, quipus are like the microcomputer circa 1975, before the Apple II.  The microcomputer then was a hobby technology, and could play chess pretty well.  I remember reading somewhere that an early microcomputer designer thought that the technology might be good to provide to shut-ins to give them something to do, but that, other than that, there didn’t really seem to be a serious application for the technology.  The microcomputer was on the cusp of something huge, which, when combined with telecommunications and joined in networks, in thirty years would transform the way we work, track knowledge, and communicate.  But back in 1975 you wouldn’t know it.


Quipus functionally covered some of the same needs as writing.  The Incas perhaps, may have made that leap, to the much more powerful, flexible, and transforming technology of true writing, had they realized the need to change media.  That technological development was cut-off, of course, with the arrival of Pizarro in the early 16th century.  And so, what we are left with is this wonderful gap between this intriguing pre-Colombian world, and our familiar Western one.


Filed under Latin America, Nazca Lines, Peru, Tourism