Every culture, every country, every group of people has its quirks. Viewed from the outside, these common, every-day figures of speech, actions, or things considered normal seem strange, quaint, even bizarre.
I thought you might enjoy some of the amusing things that we saw or experienced when we were in Peru: things we felt were just south of normal. Keep in mind, these are only amusing to us, because of the cultural lens through which we see them. In no way do I mean to make fun of Peruvians, I just want to share some of their idiosyncrasies.
According to Carlos, a guide we used a few times while in Cusco, when you get a car in Peru, it is a BIG deal. This is because the middle class is very new to Peru’s society. It has only just recently become possible for people to work, and use the money they make from their work, to purchase cars.
Whether a new or new-to-you car, cars in Peru receive wildly elaborate blessings and celebrations. Carlos, explained this strange phenomenon to us as we passed car after car decorated like they were participating in a parade on our way out of the Sacred Valley one Sunday. There’s a very Hindu feeling to the way they are decorated.
In the ceremony, new cars & trucks are sprinkled with holy water (and sometimes beer) by a priest as a way to guarantee safe travel. To see what happens in this ceremony, visit this excellent blog post where the lucky photographer was there at the right time, and in the right place to capture it all, beautifully, through his lens.
Carlos said that while he was not Catholic, he, like all Peruvians, felt that it was important to mark the occasion in some way. It just so happened that he picked us up that particular day in his new car, and when we stopped at a roadside cevicheria to eat lunch, he surprised us by disappearing, dashing down the street, and buying two huge bottles of cusqueña beer! He then popped open the hood of his truck, shook a bottle of beer, and sprayed it all over the engine block. Then he took the second bottle and sprayed it all over his truck’s exterior: the windows & windshield, the doors and truck bed, the tires and side mirrors. All the while, we were videotaping with his phone so his mom could see that he was blessing it properly.
It seemed as though every morning in Cusco we woke far too early to the sounds of marching band music and firecrackers, like the sound of gunfire, coming up from the streets below. They filtered up from the walled-in school grounds. They drifted into our sleep from the large, paved church grounds (of which there are so many in Cusco), from the city’s central square, and from the streets themselves, beginning almost daily, at sunrise.
Perhaps it had something to do with the ancient Incas: when a new Inca was crowned King, the people had a month-long celebration with unlimited food and drink, all supplied by the Inca and his family and nobles. The cacophony often began at sunrise, or sunset: both important times for the Incas. And even though, according to the staff at our hotel, each early morning celebration marked the existence of a Catholic Saint, many of these saints had celebrations that lasted for three days or more. Apparently, there was a Patron Saint for every neighbourhood in Cusco.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, it seemed that many of the old Inca ways were incorporated into the special Peruvian version of Catholicism to make it more easily and more widely accepted by the people as their new religion. And many of these traditions continue to this day. Regardless, the celebrations seemed to be happening pretty much daily.
It was not uncommon to come across parades, large and small, snarling up traffic around the city square. These parades always involved brightly coloured costumes, the participation of a huge number of young people, and live marching band music (never music that was pre-recorded). It was also virtually impossible to sleep in on any given morning whether it be the due to the sounds of a sunrise salute to a saint, the sounds of a marching band practicing the same song again and again before classes began in a near-by schoolyard, or an early morning tribute to the national flag in a school ground.
Much as people raise backyard chickens or bees in North America, Peruvians raise guinea pigs. They are a food source, and not a pet, and they find it quite hilarious that we keep guinea pigs as pets.
Guinea pigs are raised in the country and in the city. All the homes we saw in Cusco had no backyards. As a result, people commonly buy food for their guinea pigs at the local street corner or in the markets. It’s not uncommon to see roadside piles like this for sale…
For the longest time and wondered why we kept seeing women selling giant bundles of grass. As it turned out, even in small mountain towns surrounded by grazing lands, women like the one in this next photo bought high quality grass feed for her guinea pigs.
Guinea pigs are served baked, boiled in a soup, and deep-fried. Though the parting comment of a friend of ours before leaving for Peru was, “eat something weird,” guinea pig was something that we never tried.
Speaking of the lack of backyards, it appears as though the dogs of Cusco’s homes are simply let out into the streets for the day. While there are stray dogs out there as well, the odd thing seems to be that these dogs, much like cats in North America, can roam the streets freely. Locals we talked to insisted that many of the dogs we saw out there (and heard, barking in the night) were pets. In Peru, they can lie in the way of traffic, and even wander into shops. They are never shooed away or scolded. They are simply there. They don’t seem to be hostile toward people or each other, and tend to wander & lie about in packs.
Everywhere we went, be it in the large and more western city of Cusco, a small Andean mountain village, a rainforest settlement or on our Salkantay Trek, everyone that spoke English, called tourists passengers.
Whether called by guides or tour operators, locals or hotel staff, it was always the same: riding in a van or train car, on a bike or on foot, in a building or a town square, walking a trail on foot or sitting in a restaurant, we were always passengers. It didn’t matter whether we actually were being passenged somewhere or not.
I asked a few times why we were called this, and no one I spoke with seemed to know. It seemed so strange when their mastery of the English language was otherwise so excellent, to misuse a word this way. These pictures all show locals and their passengers.
You don’t always get to know the country or its people when you travel through quickly, whisked from site to site. You certainly see and experience some remarkable things, but you don’t get a true sense of its people or see patterns emerging in its culture the way you do when you take your time and immerse yourself in its day-to-day rhythms. Spending the majority of our time in and around Cusco gave us this opportunity… and gave me the chance to share them with you here. I hope you enjoyed it, fellow passengers!