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Jane Ahlin, Published March 29 2014

Ahlin: From Peru: a snapshot in form of our tour guide

The name of our Peruvian guide is Ciro (pronounced, “see-roh” with a good roll of the “r”). He is in his early 30s, married to a dentist, and the father of two children. He grew up in a family of 10 children in Cusco, Peru’s major city fairly close to the ancient Inca site, Machu Picchu. His father is retired, a professional football (soccer) player turned government official, as is his mother, a former elementary school teacher.

Ciro is a proud Peruvian, particularly proud of his native heritage. Over and over again, he stresses how advanced the Incan society and its precursors were before the Spanish destroyed them. Interestingly, he admits that in the past, pride in native heritage took a back seat to cultural identification with the upper crust Spanish, but he insists that’s changing.

We like Ciro. He is both a knowledgeable guide and an earnest ambassador for his country. And yet, it’s hard not to notice that the messages he emphasizes rub against one another – not entirely in conflict but not exactly harmonious, either.

“Look at the people,” he says, “They have very little, but they are happy.”

We smile at the people alongside our bus the way they are smiling at us. They do look happy, even if they are holding up jewelry or T-shirts or souvenirs to sell. One woman in our tour group of 14 Americans has the audacity to ask, “Ciro, what makes you different from the people hawking souvenirs? What sets Ciro apart?”

“Education,” he replies with certainty. His parents made sure their children were educated. He rattles off a list of professions his siblings chose, all far removed from selling souvenirs to tourists. With great pride, he says his father took him aside when he was young and told him, “We do not have money to leave our children; your education is your inheritance. That is my legacy to you.”

With great pride, Ciro also tells us what his father taught him about happiness, mainly that money does not bring happiness. Although careful not to offend, he hints at the dissatisfaction of Americans who chase the almighty dollar. (He hasn’t been to America, but he’s confident he is right.) Peruvians, on the other hand, are happy because they value family and aren’t hung up on material things. If they have enough to eat, they have enough. He wants to be sure we understand that Peru may be designated a developing country, but few people go hungry.

Here is what Ciro does not talk about. He does not talk about the way education changes expectations and attitudes of people around the globe, including ordinary Peruvians (including him). He doesn’t talk about the connection between education and birth control, the small family he and his wife have chosen to have, or why they keep moving up to nicer apartments when they can afford it.

At one point when we are enjoying a traditional Peruvian meal in the home of a host family, Ciro tells us the mother invites people of other cultures into her home because she wants her daughters to be aware of the wider world, to desire education, and to have lives better than her own. Truly, Ciro admires that mother. We don’t point out that his insistence about the happiness of Peruvians no matter their economic status contradicts the mother’s desire for her daughters to have better lives than she does.

We don’t tell Ciro he is the face of contemporary Peru, a face that is increasingly modern.


Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.