Digital nomads are all the rage these days, and many find their way to Cusco, Peru.
It’s a beautiful, complicated city, and I love it. I don’t love how so many of us expats take advantage of the privilege we have as foreigners here and how little we integrate into the local community.
Many of us move to Cusco speaking little, if any, Spanish. We certainly don’t speak Quechua, the first language of most people who live in Cusco. We make friends with other foreigners and patronize restaurants with English menus. We look down on tourists because we live here, even though we know as little about the local culture as the tourists who only visit for a few days.
Language is not the only thing that separates us from integrating into local communities. We congregate in the bohemian and upscale, modern neighborhoods of Lima, Cusco and other cities. We live in some of the nicest apartments and homes but complain about how poorly they are built. Usually, our neighbors are other expats, and the only Peruvians we interact with in our homes are landlords, house cleaners and delivery people.
I moved to Cusco three years ago but visited Peru several times as a tourist over 10 years before moving. I’ve romanticized the place as much as most foreigners—I’ve been swept up in the Andes' beauty and the Inca's mysteries. But after everything I’ve subsequently learned about Peru’s colonial history, I’m much more cynical about these “mysteries.” They are really just gaps in history where the Spanish conquistadors destroyed as much evidence of Inca civilization and culture as they could. Now I wonder how much my presence in Peru perpetuates the destruction of indigenous cultures and what responsibility I bear.
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There Is a Lot of Hypocrisy About Authentic Indigenous Culture
If you have a job, Peru has a relatively easy path to becoming a permanent resident. The process can take as little as two months. Few of us work for Peruvian companies, though; we prefer to start our own companies and employ each other. Some of us even make up fake companies so we can sponsor ourselves. This usually takes longer than two months, sometimes up to a year. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard an expat complain bitterly about how long the paperwork takes. It always makes me wonder how long it would take for a Peruvian to do the same in North America or Europe.
Whether we have a real or a fake job, most expats come to Peru to escape the rat race. There are people from all walks of life in our home countries who move to Peru for inspiration and to be creative. We make art and teach yoga. We write books to publish back home and design clothing few Peruvians could afford to buy. We sell to tourists at outrageous prices while competing with Peruvians who can’t market their products at half the price because they don’t have the cachet of a degree in design from Europe or the language skills to do a smooth sales pitch in English.
What irks me the most are our contradictory and hypocritical views on indigenous culture. Sure, a minority of us take the time to understand and appreciate Peru’s many indigenous cultures. Still, for the majority, connecting with indigenous culture happens in highly contrived ayahuasca ceremonies. Ayahuasca is a hallucinogenic potion made of plants from the Amazon, though, oddly, Cusco, high in the mountains, has been marketed most as the place to try ayahuasca.
Ayahuasca ceremonies are led by Peruvian shamans for foreign clients, though I have also seen foreigners market themselves to lead the ceremonies. Regardless of the actual training or knowledge of the shaman, thousands of tourists every year naively pay hundreds of dollars for an “authentic” ayahuasca experience with a shaman. Those of us who are critical of ayahuasca shamans and ceremonies have our own kind of elitism to contend with. Who are we to say that a Peruvian who leads an ayahuasca ceremony isn’t authentic? Who are we to judge a Peruvian who is using the knowledge they have to sell an experience to tourists? Whether that’s an experience hiking in the Andes or taking ayahuasca in the Sacred Valley, who are we to judge what is and isn’t authentic for Peruvians in their country?
The debate I hear from expats always frames indigenous practices around authenticity, which is problematic in so many ways. The word “authentic” itself is troublesome, according to Curiosity magazine. “The meaning of authentic is ‘of undisputed origin; genuine.’ But, like ‘real,’ anything can be authentic in a way. ‘Authentic’ can also come across as condescending.” Unfortunately, that condescending tone is what comes across the most when I hear expats decry ayahuasca ceremonies as inauthentic.
Many Expats Exploit Their Race and Status in Peru
So many of us move to Peru because we are inspired by the country, the history and the culture. We say we are in Peru to learn Andean spiritualism and connect with the Pachamama, a Quechua word that can be translated as “Mother Earth.” We claim to value Peruvian culture, but only if that culture fits our idealized image of indigeneity. As soon as people profess to be Catholic, we turn away and say that they aren’t authentic.
I’m not trying to paint myself as innocent in all this. I scammed the immigration system with a fake business. I do ayahuasca ceremonies in the Sacred Valley, near Cusco, because I don’t like the heat and the bugs in the jungle. I visit Andean communities and feel disappointed when I see signs of the church. Of the other four apartments in my building, only one has a Peruvian living in it, and she’s married to a guy from Europe.
I pat myself on the back because at least I speak Spanish. I have a few Peruvian friends, but my expat friends far outnumber the locals. I like to think that I’m less hypocritical than the average expat in Peru, but I know that the way I live still perpetuates a classist, racist society. Peru’s political and societal structures are still based on the colonial system set up to exploit the poor and extract wealth from the country to benefit foreign investors.
Nothing I do in my daily life combats any of that. I rationalize that it’s not my country. Who am I to tell Peruvians how to change their government? At the same time, I’m benefiting from a system that was built for people like me to take advantage of indigenous people.
I’m Learning to Speak Out and Challenge Peru’s Racist Structures
If I were to return to North America, I would label myself progressive. I would say I was an anti-racist and look for ways to actually practice that. I would want to make a difference. In Peru, which also has a system built on racism, I shrug my shoulders and say that it’s not my place to change their society.
I see police and security guards hassling indigenous women who come to Cusco to sell their textiles in the streets. I see light-skinned Peruvians barking orders at darker-skinned workers in restaurants and hotels. I know that there is much more abuse and racism that I don’t witness, simply because of how cut off I am from the local community.
Is my privilege that different in Peru? Do I not bear some responsibility for using my privilege to be anti-racist and work towards equity, regardless of which country I happen to live in? Does being an expat give me any kind of pass, or am I just being a hypocrite like everybody else? I don’t have all the answers, but I know I’m not blameless in the face of inequality and racism. It’s time I step up and say something.