Monday, August 08, 2005

soy una mujer sincera

In a tourist restaurant in Chivay, a band loudly played while long tables filled with variations on one theme- not from around here. A pair of Quechua locals were overdressed in ropa tipica, dancing a little too cheerfully. It was my third night in Peru.

I am not usually one for tours- I find it much more interesting to explore a place on my own, left to my own devices with a guidebook and a shoddy grasp of the language. Good adventures begin that way. Still, if you want to get to the Colca Canyon from Arequipa, you have little choice but to spring for a tour.

Arequipa rests at about ~2000 meters. By my old standards, that would have seemed like a challenge to the lungs in and of itself. But that night, in the restaurant, I experienced a waking dream of returning to the comfort of Arequipa's altitude. And Arequipa's authenticity. Arequipa seemed the gritty Lower East Side to this Chivay restaurant's Disney-fied Times Square.

Was the pounding headache a result of the additional 1900 meter elevation gain in Chivay, or of the raucous noise of the pseudo-mariachis? Hard to tell. My third day in Peru was the only one of the entire trip that I could characterize as negative. A four hour ride on unpaved roads in the back of a bus translated to bad motion sickness; a 1-mile hike at 4000 meters translated to altitude sickness. And just when I thought it could not get worse, I was shoved into what is likely the only gaudy restaurant in the tiny hamlet of Chivay.

To the left of me, an 18-year old pair of girls from the UK, from our tour, complained about the cold night air, but then remarked that they simply had to have a smoke. SP shot me a look across the table that could roughly be summed up as "oh please god, don't start in with the cancer-stick lecture." I held my tongue.

To the right of me, a pair of Danish girls complained about the food. We asked one if she didn't like this restaurant. She replied: "I hate all Peruvian food." She said this in an I'm so over everything-way that did not befit someone of such youth. She might have been the only person in the restaurant that hated the dancing, singing spectacle more than me. This did not stop her, however, from jumping up and joining the off-tempo gringos that were quickly crowding the dance floor.

Our tour guide walked around the dinner table chatting with everyone. She was desperately trying to embrace the surroundings. It reminded me of a lame field trip in elementary school, the kind where the teacher says a little too brightly with a feigned, frozen smile, "Isn't this fun, kids?" She kept complimenting the musicians. It's not that they didn't deserve these accolades; it's just that this was by no means Peruvian music. The final straw came when the guide approached us all, and told us to remember the chorus of the upcoming song, because we were all going to be asked to sing along. What was the chorus? "Guantanamera, guajira guantanamera." At this point, I actually whipped my head around to face her. Was she serious? She was.

SP was looking at me blankly. Why had I shot the death rays at our well-meaning guide? I tried to explain to her that this song in no way originated from Peru. Additionally, it's one of those songs that Spanish teachers seem to thrive on playing in class. MissionUK were back when I made this remark, and they noted that they had never heard the song. Neither had SP, although it should be pointed out that she has never taken a Spanish class. Meanwhile, I started asking people, "Really, you've never heard this song before?" I was starting to wonder who had the altitude sickness on the brain- me or my travel companions. I said, "Okay, there's also the other one- you know that 'Ay, ay, ay, ay, canta y no llore' song?" Again, blank faces.

I decided that perhaps I was making a generalization, that these were not overplayed, old-hat songs, that it was just some strange coincidence that I, personally, had heard them over and over again. And then I spent the next ten days hearing El Cielito Lindo & Guantanamera at every cheesy tourist trap place I passed during my trip.

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