Guide books usually kick off an introduction by saying something nice about the population of the country to be visited. In the case of Peru this appears to have been a bit of a challenge for the writers and the best that my edition of Lonely Planet could muster is to describe the people as “stoic”. They obviously heavily edited the first three drafts which no doubt used far less flattering terms, ‘a tad irritating’ figuring prominently. This would certainly have been a more accurate description for a good contingent of the inhabits the stretch of country surrounding Cajamarca in the north, or ‘Big Hat Country’. These hats have rims big enough to pick up satellite TV; not quite in the Mexican sombrero class but getting out there.
Under the huge brims of the ludicrously over sized head-ware, the people are (as I found to my chagrin) capable of colossal feats of collective stupidity. In the face of the multiple Klepto-crats Peru insists on electing (Keiko Fujimori almost won a recent election) and the general lack of trust (justified evidently) in public institutions and more general social breakdown, people do tend to close ranks around family and clan and behave in less civil ways to others outside these groups. Regardless, I consider that the way the visitor is treated is a measure of a people and sadly the Big Hats are lacking in some of the more simple social graces. However, the choice of local tourist slogan: ‘We’re all a bit dim but the scenery is nice’ does appear to be a bit OTT even here.
People with an inflated sense of the importance of political correctness will no doubt email and spout inanities along the lines of, ‘There is good and bad in all of us, People are the same wherever you go’, but they just need to ride a bicycle in Peru for a little while to discover just how very wrong they are. Perhaps the percentage of the population here allocated the responsibility of being dickheads (e.g. mini-van conductors/touts) merely take to their work with more enthusiasm than in other parts. Not sure. I would add (merely as a token and belated attempt to appear fair-minded) that riding south of big hat country the atmosphere is more relaxed and the people more welcoming.
12km beyond The Valley of Instant Death is the lively little city of Celendin with its population of Big Hats sporting the required unfeasibly large head-wear (refer photo). There is a friendly atmosphere and the streets are replete with cartoon motif painted cyclo-taxis. There is, however, a bit of unrest in town and beneath the festive veneer of the local band playing in the central square there is an angry undercurrent of discontent over government plans to develop a US funded gold mine at Conga that supposedly threatens the local water supply. ‘ Conga No Va’ is the repeated call and the large rimmed Big Hat contingent is out in some force to protest. There are speeches etc and even a group of youths doing a display of street rampage but with little conviction and no damage.
It was in this context that your hapless correspondent wonders out mid afternoon to see what’s going on. On seeing others using cameras, it was then that I made the error of taking a photo thinking that as I’m a long way away, that it would not be an issue. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Once identified as obviously being a representative of exploitative imperialist pig-dog yankie gringo miners, a few Big-Hats start moving towards me in an increasingly menacing manner and this soon turns into a determined stampede of about fifty morons, their huge brims wobbling as they descend upon your correspondent. I do not exaggerate when I say that I was a might perturbed when, once surrounded, a couple of big-hated twits start grabbing for my camera. It’s all getting a bit ugly.
A few tense moments ensue but my fluent Spanglish prevails and without much more violence than my shoving an overly zealous little Big-Hat away from my camera, I’m able to show them the ‘tourist’ photos (that were fortuitously still on the sim). They relax a bit and it is then that the situation suddenly takes a turn for the Pythonesque. I am then ushered to the stage and handed a microphone so that I might address the crowd in what can only be described as some pretty stressed Spanglish. Bugger me! What to say?
“I am a tourist from Australia” (some clapping)
“You have a lovely city” (more applause – thank the Great Lord Harry)
“Agua es Viva” (Water is life!) (more clapping); [I’m struggling now]
“Conga No Va!” (more applause).
Survived! I can understand people not wanting their pictures taken individually and perhaps I do represent everything ugly in terms of Americano Gringo imperialist first world exploitation of South America, but having a bunch of hyped-up Big Hats turn on the nearest tourist is pointlessly aggressive and more than a little bit silly.
Vive Vive Vive Vive!
Vive Vive Vive Vive!
Vive Vive Vive Vive!