Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Peru, Part 1: Aguantando Los Andes

I've been waiting to revisit my trip to Peru mostly because of pressure to get back into school work and to face the mountain of grading I had piling up on the days I spent not working, but I guess I have a moment tonight to spend some time deliberating on the things I've gleaned from Peru.

The more I look back on the trip the more it seems to culminate a lot of the ongoing processes of life for me in generative and positive ways.

I decided to educate myself more about Peru, it's history, and the struggles between left-guerillas in the countryside and an increasingly authoritarian state all verge on issues I want to explore for the dissertation, although mostly tangentially. Peru had a rather unique group emerge out of the late-70s/early-80s insurrectionary struggles going on throughout Latin America. They were dubbed Sendero Luminoso (The Shining Path), a break off group from other Maoist currents in Peru at the time. It's leader, a former political philosopher, Abimael Guzmán, insisted on the necessity of crossing "the river of blood" into a glorious post-capitalist world for which Peru was its threshold. This meant a strategy of attempting to choke the remnants of colonial social relations, capitalist exploitation, and neo-colonial arrangements from the society and the people through guerilla operations, reeducation, and terrorism. I don't know enough about them to say much beyond that their rhetoric seems born of a kind of mode of prophecy as much as politics, as killing in the name of the future seems to be highly valued for Sendero Luminoso (see Vice Magazine's article on contemporary musical dispatches from the group). Mario Vargas Llosa, the most recent winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, and perhaps one of the more right-wing members (he ran for president of Peru once on a neo-liberal platform, ugh!) of, what America's literary public likes to define as Latin America's New Narrative form, has written a novel on the issue called Lituma en Los Andes or Death in the Andes which I am still reading despite having visited Peru over a month ago. Llosa apparently once got into fisticuffs with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, perhaps over Marquez's wife (this part could be a rumor), in the Museo de Bellas Artes in downtown Mexico City.

The Inca too, offer a unique counterpoint to some of my thinking about the indigenous histories of Latin America (I have read mostly about Meso-American peoples and their traditions) insofar as the history of human sacrifice seems highly contested (between my tour guides of various destinations, but also a short piece I read from a feminist anthropologist). Apparently although their societies enforced strict gender segregation and roles, they tended to be roles with a great deal of gender parity, insofar as women served similar ritual roles as men with gender specific power and knowledge-sharing kinship structures. Women in these powerful roles were then targeted by the Spanish Inquisition post-conquest as witches.

However, despite the militaristic missionary work of much of the Spanish empire the emissaries from Spain encouraged and pursued aesthetic cultural syncretisms with Andean/Inca culture to facilitate conversion. I saw a great deal of this fascinating cultural blending in the facades of churches and cathedrals throughout the country (in one case I was informed that St. James, who was in some cases interpreted as the Moor killer, was repurposed as a ritual figure for the practice of Andean black magic).

The Spanish also had a difficult time destroying what were the foundations on Incan temples, buildings, and city walls so instead they often built on top of them. We saw a number of churches and walls in the Sacred Valley and in Cusco built on the former Incan foundations.

Cusco (or the "navel"), formerly a major city for the Inca, was our first significant stop of the trip before the hitting the Inca trail. It is a beautiful city involving a great deal of Spanish colonial architecture, lush plazas, and an altitude that might inspire illness (I had a headache for the duration of our stay). It is replete with tourists and those catering to tourism (too many pizza shops to count) which is after all one of Peru's largest industries. In addition to tourists and those in the tourism industry (including young women who would not stop offering massages) we encountered those who kept to some element on Andean native traditions: women with braids, wearing fedoras, and traditionally patterned sarapes in which they carried goods for sale or their children, kids carrying baby goats and lambs insisting that you hold them for a photo for a few soles (Peru's currency).

The soundtrack I would have stuck with was this volume of Peruvian cumbias (Afro-Latin rock) from the 1960s titled The Roots of Chicha, which I heard throughout the trip. My iPod broke on the plane ride, which was fine as I was on a hiatus from technology for the whole trip. This was one of the better decisions I made.

Regardless, I did prepare for the trip by imbibing this album in the weeks leading up to the trip. A decent track I would recommend from this album is as follows:

Another noteworthy and fascinating artist from Peru is Yma Sumac who had a five octave voice and I unfortunately discovered her only after the trip had ended. A few examples of her extraordinary and eerie talents below:

One of the drawbacks of the trip that was simultaneously a benefit for me was that we were traveling a group of people, the reason behind the trip affordability, few of which understood Spanish and even fewer who spoke any semblance of the language. Although the trip itinerary had been prepared ahead of time there are of course a numberless set of interactions one has to have in order to figure out where one is headed, confirmations, questions, and difficulties that arise as one travels. I was responsible for translating on almost all of these occasions. This pushed me to practice my Spanish a great deal. Although at times I resented it I think this experience made me feel like a more adequate traveller, someone who can handle and take care of themselves in Latin America with a little research and some occasionally tortured grammatical constructions. The only times I wanted to strangle the other travelers in my group was when they insisted I help them haggle for fractions of the dollar off of stupid shit they were buying, and forgetting that I wasn't being paid to help them in the first place, i.e. making stupid demands for my skills.

After a day in Cusco we awoke early to hit the trailhead of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. When we arrived after several stops and starts it was revealed that some of us had the wrong tickets for the type of traveller we were and thus 3 of us could not proceed onto the trail (for those of you thinking you are a graduate student and deserve to pay student prices for admission in Peru you should note that if you are 25 or older you are too old to be considered a student, unlike in the United States and Europe). This fact was devastating for the 3 left behind as the trip was centered around this element of Peru to begin with and for whatever opaquely bureaucratic reason they were not allowed to pay the remainder owed for a different ticket. Nor could they purchase tickets for any of the following days because the government limits the number of hikers on the trail, requiring that travelers prebook tickets.

Despite this setback I have to say the hike was challenging, beautiful, and fascinating. My boyfriend, his friend Becca, and I seemed to take to the altitude pretty well despite my constant headache and so we stayed ahead of the other hikers in our group most of the time, giving us space to talk as we liked and enjoy the sights together. It was the end of the rainy season so clouds were pouring over the mountains like rivers of the air making the hike between and around them all the more dramatic. The Inca believed (or so I was told) that the mountains were holy so the hike was more of a pilgrimage through the mountains and their passes, moving through multiple ecosystems and temperatures along the way on the way to Machu Picchu.

The second day was by far the most physically challenging. The altitude and steepness of the climb (which incidentally the trail is made out of uneven stone stairs carved by the Inca) made the highest points difficult to maintain a steady pace for very long. The lack of oxygen at times made my limbs feel as if they were heavier and more difficult to move. Towards the end of the highest pass we were stopping every 20 feet or so to catch our breaths, but with every break we felt completely rejuvenated and ready to tackle more. At the highest point that day the bf, Becca, and I looked at each other, bundled up against the cold and laughed at the joy of the accomplishment.

A note about the labor that made this trip possible: So even as we were looking at each other happy and satisfied by the hard work it took us and our backpacks up the hill, we had to notice the porters who were resting around us as well. The Peruvian government mandates that everyone who enters the Inca trail has to have a porter that goes along with them. I am not clear on the reasoning for this, perhaps, it just frees up a bunch of seasonally available jobs. If you are part of a tour group which most everyone was, they arranged this for you. The porters for our group carried food, cooking supplies, and tents which they set up before we arrived at the campsites. They usually kicked our asses on the trail, usually with nothing more than a sweater, shorts, and a pair of canvas golas scampering across slippery stairs. This reality made me relatively uncomfortable, several of us got together to put together some decent tips for the porters (because it turns out they don't make a great deal of money for 4 days of labor) and I was enjoined to make a speech to honor their labors (again as the only Spanish speaker) where I got to acknowledge this even as there seemed little I could do beyond this.

The rest of the hike which probably could have been consolidated into fewer days was peppered with smaller Incan ruins along the trail either food depots or guard towers (the tour guides seemed to be at odds about which at certain points), and amazing Incan mountainside terracing that we could see as the clouds slid across the faces of mountains and cliffs. The Inca also carved smooth rectangular tunnels into rock faces to ease the trail through which we easily passed, amidst rainforest limbs dripping with vegetation, moss, and moisture. On the last day we waited at the Sun Gate to see if the clouds would part so we could behold Machu Picchu from a good distance. Seeing the pockets of air open up the clouds and the former Incan city was really pretty amazing at the moment, mostly because we had been immersed in its environment for so long, and that we had worked to get there. I unconsciously approach tourism scenarios, I think most consumers of Western media do this, like I would instances in which I am a spectator--with a half-bored interest. Marching up the trail made seeing the city that much more spectacular.

machu picchu Pictures, Images and Photos

One interesting element of the city is not only the resilience of it's foundations to the elements (it was discovered at the turn of the 19th-20th century), but also the ways in which debates about restoration seemed very much alive in the tour. Our guide was of the opinion that ruins should remain ruins, there is something unique in how ruins enable more open interpretations that restoration tends to foreclose upon, ignoring the history of the site since its abandonment.

We rounded off the trip with mineral baths in the public hotspring pools in Aguas Calientes (a nearby town) and a really expensive burrito I bought (burritos are not Peruvian food, but I was feeling rushed to catch a train) made out of a crepe and lima beans.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Internships, Immaterial Labor Anyone?

Internships are becoming common requirements for graduation in many colleges and they are moreover are becoming standard (which is to say calculated into saved costs) budgetting at many US corporations

intern Pictures, Images and Photos

From Ross Borlin's Op-Ed in the NYT:

The uncritical internship fever on college campuses — not to mention the exploitation of graduate student instructors, adjunct faculty members and support staff — is symptomatic of a broader malaise. Far from being the liberal, pro-labor bastions of popular image, universities are often blind to the realities of work in contemporary America.


Far from resisting the exploitation of their students, colleges have made academic credit a commodity. Just look at Menlo College, a business-focused college in northern California, which sold credits to a business called Dream Careers. Menlo grossed $50,000 from the arrangement in 2008, while Dream Careers sold Menlo-accredited internships for as much as $9,500.

To meet the credit requirement of their employers, some interns have essentially had to pay to work for free: shelling out $2,700 to the University of Pennsylvania in the case of an intern at NBC Universal and $1,600 to New York University by an intern at “The Daily Show,” to cite two examples from news reports.

Charging students tuition to work in unpaid positions might be justifiable in some cases — if the college plays a central role in securing the internship and making it a substantive academic experience. But more often, internships are a cheap way for universities to provide credit — cheaper than paying for faculty members, classrooms and equipment.

Jeremy Scahill vs. Liberal Imperialist Rhetoric

Jeremy Scahill, acclaimed for his history of Blackwater, argues against liberal defense of Libyan interventions:

Bandido is pretty phenomenal

As the child of someone who emerged out of this subculture, I'm surprised I never heard this band growing up.