Cusco, Ten Years Later

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I knew Cusco would have changed in the nine years since I completed my year as a Project Manager. A few months ago, I returned to Perú for the first time since 2006. As part of my current role as Co-Director of GirlSportWorks, I was fortunate enough to spend a week in Cusco with our rock-star Project Managers, Ali and Carly. We accomplished a lot through visits to our schools, chats over potato-based dishes, and shared drafts in Google Documents. 

During our week together, I came across some of the comforts and quirks that made Cusco feel like home to me during my first year after university. The swinging doors and crowds still line the way into Jack’s restaurant, an ex-pat’s lifeline to strong espresso coffee, thick slices of toast, and familiar Western-style food. A few steps away, the same man – with a slightly larger belly – dressed as an Inkan God charges money to have his photograph taken with the Piedra de Doce Ángulos. If you can make it up the impossibly steep steps of Cuesta San Blas, you’ll find the same woman selling arroz con leche (with or without mazamorra) in the evenings from her picnic bench. The round-faced, rosy-cheeked woman bundled up in the cold under her rainbow beach umbrella sells huge bowls of sweet rice dessert for about US$1 dollar. I tried it to make sure: it is still the best I have ever tasted. 

But in other ways, it was clear Cusco has changed. As my plane circled the city and approached the airport runway, I could see from my window seat that the city has grown significantly. Where before the airport marked the end of dense neighborhoods, now the city has developed far beyond the airport toward San Sebastián and beyond. The mountains surrounding the valley in which Cusco sits are now spotted with houses. Government-built stairs with railings replace the steep, muddy ruts I remember leading up to higher neighborhoods. Where bumpy dirt roads were, paved streets and stone courtyards now exist. Many informal shacks have been replaced with nicer materials like tinted windows and secure roofs. The running track in Parque Zonal, one of my favorite places to relax and exercise 10 years ago, was almost unrecognizable. The track used to be a dirt circle next to a defunct petting zoo and rickety circus rides. Now it is a full track with a standard red rubber surface, painted lanes and relay marks, and a perfectly manicured green infield. The manager on duty beamed with pride when he told me the track was renovated a few years ago.

Around the tourist center, I noticed changes, too. Although some rusted, clunky cars with busted mufflers still sputter around town, I saw quite a few newer (bigger) taxi cars. In fact, it seemed more people owned cars, in general, because I sat in rush-hour traffic jams that mark any bustling city. Even beggars in the street seemed to have access to a shower and clean clothes. Many campesinos in the market and in the outskirts where we teach have traded their black tire rubber sandals for Keens, Crocs, and hiking boots. Most hostels, as well as Ali and Carly’s apartment, had Wi-Fi Internet. Gone (for the most part) are the days of paying by the hour for access in an Internet cafe. In my hostel, I could see how much this transformed the dynamics between backpackers, as guests chatted less with each other in favor of browsing their iPhones or video chatting with people back home. 

I also felt a level of personal security I do not remember from years ago. Of course, watching your belongings and making good decisions are still important, but people seem calmer in the streets now. Backpacks actually were worn on backs, and tourists and Cusqueños alike had and used smart phones openly. Exchange houses offered a standard exchange rate, a relief from the days of shopping around and bargaining hard for a reasonable rate. I also realized that the issue of counterfeit money did not arise once during my time in Peru. This was a stark contrast to the constant threat of being stuck with fake money—I once took out over US$200 dollars from an official bank’s ATM in Lima, only to learn (and lament) that it was counterfeit.

Of course, not all the changes were positive, and work is still needed. Despite the Big Mac Index and the Tall Latte Index, some would begrudge the (very busy) McDonald’s and Starbucks now prominently located on the Plaza de Armas. Basic government services also have room for improvement. Carly, Ali, and I waited nearly one hour to pay their monthly electricity bill, which residents can pay only in person at a handful of storefronts. The water at my hostel was strong and hot, but it inexplicably cut out for more than a day. Similarly, the Internet was so weak in my room that I could only catch a signal in the hostel’s common room. One evening, as I watched the sunset from a lookout in San Blas, I saw the lights blink off for an entire section of the city. The lights had not returned by the time I left an hour later and long after dark.

Yet, to me, improvements needed in infrastructure and services are less worrisome than the socio-cultural issues that are still evident in Cusco. By far, the most alarming example occurred while I was getting my pollo a la brasa fix. As I sat down to order my roasted chicken and French fries, I noticed a French-speaking, African mother with her teenage daughter. They looked elegant in their beautiful clothes and designer handbags, especially in contrast to my exercise clothes, unwashed hair, and worn backpack. In the time that I sat down, received a menu, ordered, and received my food, the mother and daughter repeatedly tried to call the waiter’s attention. I realized they were being ignored because their skin color was black. I have studied and read about racism and discrimination many times, and awareness of civil rights struggles is an underlying part of every day life in Atlanta, the city I now call home. But none of that informed me on how to stand up and act in a real-life situation. I did not know what to do. Should I walk out of the restaurant in protest? Share my plate of food? Loudly lecture the restaurant staff on their disgraceful behavior? Although I know it was not enough, I called over my waiter and said loudly, “These ladies are waiting to be served.” He shrugged his shoulders and walked away. From what I understood, soon after, the mother loudly condemned the waiters in French, and she and her daughter left the restaurant. Although I know things like this happen every day in the U.S., the blatant racism shocked and upset me. I keep replaying the experience over and over in my mind. I wish I had known what to do. Most of all, I wish discrimination based on skin color no longer existed in Cusco, the U.S., or anywhere.

Clearly, there is room for development, just as every country around the world has much to improve. But I was happy to see that many aspects of life in Cusco are changing in positive ways. It has been such a treat to work closely with GirlSportWorks again, and I believe our work is part of the evident progress in Cusco. I’m confident Ali and Carly’s hard work this year has contributed to – and will continue to better – the quality of every day life for our students.

— Carrie Golden