The “real world”

Machu Pichu, Peru

Looking out the window of the car, on the opposite side of the two lane road we were traveling, the land dropped steeply down, and then climbed up the far side of the opposite wall of the valley. Despite being at a precipitous angle, the soil was hoed into neat rows, and the bright traditional hats and dress of the women working in the fields made them stand out against the wet earth despite their distance from the road. As we sped along in the dingy Toyota wagon, a classic and idyllic Andean landscape was passing by outside the window. A huge valley of coarse golden grass stretched out ahead of us, cloaked in fog. Isolated cottages of mountain families dotted the high sloping plain. To the side the valley rose upwards, until vegetation ceased and bare rock towered above, until it disappeared into the omnipresent clouds of the early rainy season.

On the shoulder of the road woman sat in small groups, uniformly dressed and capped in the hats unique to the Quechua of Ollyanta. My friends, Evan and Charlie, along with a Greek couple, and myself were crammed into a taxicab that we had caught in Ollantaytambo, Peru. We were bound for Machu Pichu, but we were not traveling there in the typical manner. Usually, tourists book a costly train ticket either from Cusco or Ollanta (as locals prefer to call Ollantaytambo) to the town of Aguas Callientes that serves as the access point to the famous Inca Ruins situated high above. The train trip is short. Aguas Calientes is geographically close to Ollanta, and for many travelers it appears to be the only way to reach Machu Pichu (as this area is not connected by road).

We had opted to travel via a much longer and more circuitous, but cheaper route that is the preferred path of many Peruvians and South American’s traveling to Machu Pichu. We had chosen to avoid the train not only in hopes of saving money, but also because we had learned that the service is owned by a British corporation that rakes in profits by monopolizing transportation to Peru’s national treasure. We’d also heard from the locals about Peruvian passengers being treated poorly on board the train. The taxi ride took us climbing toward the high alpine pass, from where we would descend down into a steamy cloud forest town and then catch another taxi to a location known as Hydroelectrico. This mega-dam construction site serves as the starting point to a short length of railroad track that offers a “back door” into the valley that Aguas Calientes is situated in. Ted Conover’s description of his journey over a similar Peruvian pass eloquently illustrates the panorama. “The sudden vista, one of those spectacular places through which you come to understand the shape of the planet: the wrinkled green mountainsides spread out before us, dissolving suddenly in the vast, smooth green sameness.” (Conover, 2010)

After six hours of rides in several taxis we climbed out, and opened the hatchback from where we extracted our backpacks as well as a very uncomfortable Charlie who had been piled into the trunk with our bags. Hiking down the tracks we marveled at the steep slopes of vegetation that wall the surrounding valleys in and make Machu Pichu so inaccessible, a feature that led the Inca to choose this site but also has made it impossible to construct a highway to the ruins. Several hours of walking later we lay exhausted on the grass of a small municipal campground. Bizarre neon-green track lights hung among the epiphytes from the trees illuminating our tents in the twilight.

In the morning, my alarm clock began to beep. As I opened my eyes it was still dark out. We threw on clothes and began to groggily walk toward a gated bridge that offered access to the ruins. A line of eager visitors had already begun to form in the early dawn. Considered one of the “Seven Wonders of the World”, the ruins that sit at nearly 8,000 feet in altitude on a narrow ridge, was commonly known among locals who alerted the historian Hiram Bingham to the site’s existence when he visited the region in 1911. At the time, when archeologists first began to investigate the site, it was occupied by three families who then lived and farmed among the ruins. (Ker Than, 2011) Quite a lot has changed on top of the ridge over the last hundred years, since that earlier, more simple time. Trees that had grown up around the ruins had been cleared, excavations were undertaken, fences erected, and visitors began to flock in such great numbers that today a limit exists of 2500 per day. One hundred years of hype and publicity surrounding Machu Pichu had made it both a nearly mandatory stop in Peru and also something I was somewhat reluctant to participate in. When traveling, such highly publicized locations rarely live up to their reputation. I had met travelers who were either blown away by or, oddly, disappointed by their experiences there.

At 6 a.m., we climbed the last step of the very steep hour ascent up the mountain upon which the Machu Pichu ruins sit. We filed into the ruins in a long line that extended from the last gate before the grounds. After a half hour, we shuffled through a turnstyle where our tickets were scanned and then climbed single file line up the final steps. I was beginning to feel that maybe all the money and time it had taken to get to Machu Pichu might have been a mistake, but as the “lost city” came into view through the clouds I understood why the site was held in such high esteem. Looking down the spine of mountain that Machu Pichu sits on, cliffs surrounded us, and the steep peak Huayna Picchu rose above at the far end of the ridge. This was a perfect fortress, surrounded by rainforest as far as one could see. We sat together in silence soaking in the tranquility of the early hours.

Later in the morning, tourists began to bustle in greater numbers through the narrow pathways that led through the ancient town. Large groups strolled by led by tour guides holding brightly colored group flags above their heads. We walked through the site, mesmerized by the almost palpable sensation of the lost civilization, now and then catching bits of the history and lore that the guides spun out to their groups. We listened to the numerous theories seeking to explain why Machu Pichu exists, an issue that is still debated. In quiet moments, it felt clear that no matter why it was built Machu Pichu was and still is a place of great importance.

When traveling it is never easy to know what will be worth seeing and what will not, especially when one feels the pressure of the many “must see” tourist sites. Here, to see a settlement constructed with such craftsmanship and intention, so gracefully woven into such an awe-inspiring environment, gave me a great appreciation for this lost culture. Quality was clearly central in the Incan approach to life and creation. Their aesthetic, and ethic left behind much to be admired from the perspective of our modern efficiency-focused society.

Evan Karge sitting on an Incan wall

Evan Karge sitting on an Incan wall

The next morning we began the journey back to Ollyanta. Opting to return on foot, we set off on an all day walk along the railroad tracks. We soon approached the cramped town of Aguas Calientes, where an ever growing number of businesses have managed to cram into the limited space in the floor of the narrow valley. The town exists as kind of odd juxtaposition: a compact city of only a few blocks surrounded by expansive and remote cloud forest, simple Peruvian life existing in the spaces between upscale tourist accommodations, restaurants and souvenir stores. The fact that the economy is solely based on tourism lends the town an “unauthentic” feel that turns off many travelers.

An hour down the tracks, all signs of the frantic tourist hub had faded, save the occasional passing train loaded with passengers. The occasional individual when staring out the window would catch sight of us, and astounded, would endeavor to snap off a few pictures of Evan, Charlie and I with their high-end cameras. By this point Charlie again had been hit by another wave of the “plague” that so often grips travelers in Peru. Feeling an ensuing decline in physical wellbeing Charlie turned around and headed back to town in order to catch a train. As it turned out, this was an excellent decision on his part, for a few hours later, unbeknownst at the time to Charlie, he sped by us in on the train, with his head buried in a plastic bag.

The tracks passed though a valley whose slopes changed from rainforest to high snowcapped peaks over the course of the day. Spread out along the length of the tracks were the occasional isolated homestead and the seldom visited Inca Ruin. Exhausted, I made it back to Ollyanta around nightfall where we met up with the recuperating Charlie at a hostel. In the morning, Evan recounted a tale of feeling an insect of considerable size crawl across his chest during the night-- upon inspection we found a family of scorpions living under the nightstand.

From Ollyanta, we caught a bus back to Cusco, from where (eager for a change) we purchased bus tickets and headed off for Puno, Peru. The land grew steadily more desolate as we pulled away from Cusco, until it became a sort of endless, barren plain divided by a wide shallow river bed. Eventually we reached a city of the most dismal appearance.

In my travels I typically attempt not to cast judgment on my surroundings, and try to free my view of foreign cultures from my own aesthetics and values. In this case I failed, however. The dirt streets ran in a massive grid away from the two-lane highway we traveled on. As far as the eye could see, ramshackle concrete buildings spanned this grid. Few structures had been built higher than one story, and even fewer had been painted. Nearly all the buildings projected rods of rebar, that had been positioned in expectation of constructing an additional level at a later date, evoking an unsettled and melancholy feeling. Nowhere could a plant or tree be seen. The city, while massive, had a desolate feeling due to the absence of pedestrians. The existence of this dusty metropolis within a few hundred miles of the Inca Capital stood as a jarring contrast to the graceful, purposeful design and construction of Cusco and Machu Picchu, which I had been surrounded by only a few days before.

Our bus soon pulled into the terminal in Puno and within 5 minutes of a arriving, we managed to hop onto another bus headed for the Bolivian border. At the border the bus stopped, and we were ushered into a Casa de Cambio (money changer) where were expected to exchange our Peruvian currency for 135 crisp U.S. dollars. The only way an U.S. citizen can enter Bolivia is to pay this fee in newly minted U.S. bills. Unfortunately lacking a solid knowledge of the exchange rate, and with the bus driver impatiently standing over my shoulder I handed over my Nuevo Soles hoping optimistically that this man’s good nature would prevent him from ripping off the naïve gringo across the counter. Unfortunately I was wrong and realized later that I lost in the exchange about  $30 of the $100 dollars I had handed him. Nonetheless I was thoroughly pleased to be in Bolivia, a country that I had long anticipated visiting.

The bus dropped us off in Copacabana, a town on the shore of Lake Titicaca. The next morning we took a two-hour ferry across the brilliant blue lake to reach Isla Del Sol. In Inca mythology this island was considered to be the birthplace of the sun and of the first Incas. In spite of its popularity among travelers, the Island of 5,000 inhabitants proved to have an incredible air of community, tradition and tranquility. We wandered around the tiny town where the boat dropped us off for an hour looking for a location to camp or a room to rent. We decided to stay for $2 a night in a room that a family had outfitted with three beds for guests. For a few days we occupied ourselves with hiking the ancient Incan paths that led around the coast and down the spine of the mountainous island, linking its three communities. With no roads, or motor vehicles, the Island seems to exist in a time and place apart from the rest of Peru. For such a beautiful location, we were puzzled as to how it had escaped the yachts, mansions and resorts one would expect on such an island. While no one on the island had much, none of the people appeared destitute, as did many on the “mainland”.

From my point of view, Isla Del Sol seemed to be a great success in community based tourism. Inca descendents who inhabited the island maintained control over their resources, while expressing a rich and traditional culture and way of life. On our hikes we had witnessed the complex system of terracing, relying on ancient, sustainable agricultural practices that are still being practiced here as they were hundreds of years ago. Our last night on Isla Del Sol the sounds of a Peruvian band of wind instruments accompanied by the percussion of a base drum cut through the concrete walls of our room. I wandered through the cold night toward the music to find on the beach a group of teenagers illuminated by the moonlight, dancing while they played.

The following morning was Thanksgiving, and we took off for La Paz in hopes of hunting down a turkey. We checked into the Hotel Continental, an establishment that rented penthouse suites for $5 a person. The wood paneling and décor could have been straight out of Al Pacino’s Scarface, and it was hard not to imagine the coke-addled benders that had taken place in those rooms over the years. After three hours of searching the city, we resigned ourselves to celebrating the holiday with a chicken. The next night was to be Karge’s last with Charlie and me. The three of us went out to get some drinks and experienced an entirely different side of La Paz. We wondered down into the University district, an area where gringos typically don’t venture. After standing outside a bar that had seemingly locked its door and while listening for some time to a very drunk patron explain how I did not understand his country, his friend pulled us away and told us he would take us to a more lively spot. Walking down the sidewalk my attention was grabbed by the commotion of a wobbly drunk man being thrown down to the pavement by several police officers. We walked toward the commotion. For about five minutes the man cried, curled in a ball on the cement while a group of police men and women stood over him shouting. Eventually they began to drag him to a SUV and then stuffed him in the back.

In a daze we strolled away from the shocking scene. The Bolivian who we were with turned and cursed at the police as we walked away. He began to explain the process through which the police single out drunks in order to extract bribes. He described how if a drunk cannot pay they are beaten in a dark place and then brought to jail where they spend the night. He told us bluntly that had we not been with him he would have been beaten for swearing at them, and the drunk would have received the abuse right on the street. As witnesses we had shaped the outcome of the situation, and illustrated that the phenomena of physics--"it is impossible to observe without altering that which you are observing"--applied also in the realm of human culture. In this case I was happy to, in any small way, at least temporarily alter and pacify this sad situation. 

Such behavior among the police exists in many other situations in La Paz. When the police identify an individual who has committed even a minor offence or is simply vulnerable, the police will seek a bribe, and if the victim cannot pay he will be beaten. Our Bolivian friend had even witnessed street children disappear for days and later return bruised to the shelter that he volunteered in, stating that they had not been able to pay the police. I had come to Bolivia with the impression that the country was growing in a positive, progressive direction and this news about the police was disheartening to hear. I had also expected many that many I would meet would support the President, Evo Morales, but most with whom I discussed politics were disheartened with his leadership.

Political turmoil and tension between citizens and the police in Bolivia are clearly still alive. The entire night on the town we seemed to skirt a thin line between experiencing the real La Paz and possibly ending up in dangerous situations. After a very pleasant communal coca leaf chew with some extremely drunk Bolivians who were enjoying the night on a street corner in our neighborhood, we beat a hasty retreat back to our hotel after they warned us that we were being “watched” and should be very careful as gringos on the deserted streets.

In the morning, after Evan had gone, Charlie and I reflected on the night before over a late breakfast. It was certainly not the typical tourist experience in La Paz. Left behind at our table in the restaurant was an insightful local publication called the Bolivian Express. I thumbed through the issue, which was devoted to the nightlife of La Paz, and what I read revealed much about the beliefs and expectations of tourists who visit the city and the realities of alcoholism and drug use among the city’s inhabitants.

The magazine highlighted the renowned party atmosphere of La Paz which caused the capital to be selected as one of the top ten “ultimate party cities in the world”. Dirt cheap liquor available from vendors on the sidewalk fuels a culture of destructive alcoholism. While an extreme example of the city’s drinking culture, “Elephant Cemeteries” exist as locations where La Paz’s most destitute, desperate drunks can go to literally drink themselves to death. This is most likely not what comes to mind when a tourists hears “ultimate party city”, but reflects a very real part of both rural and urban Latin America that travelers ultimately begin to understand when they become interested in what goes on at night beyond the token “Irish Bar” and “Gringo Club” that tourists usually restrict themselves too.

Many bars that cater toward foreign clientele often ban Bolivians from entering. Rue 36 is the name of an infamous “cocaine bar” in La Paz that frequently changes locations. The bar caters solely to tourists, many of whom believe ingesting cocaine to be an authentic Bolivian experience. In reality cocaine consumption is extremely low in Bolivia, and “gringos” end up indulging in a venue that “allows tourists to feel they’re getting the real deal in what is ultimately an illusory setting”. Another type of cocaine tourism was spurred by the book entitled “Marching Powder”, that described a British drug smuggler’s experience living within La Paz’s San Pedro prison. Illegal tourism focused on purchasing cocaine from inmates at San Pedro has become so common that the Lonely Planet‘s Bolivia guide now includes a warning urging tourists not to visit the prison.

Instead, Charlie and I chose to stroll around the humid town of Coroico, a tropical weekend escape a few hours from the capital, which is popular among both the wealthy of La Paz and travelers. The central plaza was lined by vendors selling jewelry and crafts who seemed entirely at home but yet not part of the local community. Dreadlocked and funky these individuals were the veteran backpackers of South America-- South Americans on a long term “no budget” tour of their continent.

In Whispering in the Giant’s Ear, a book about a development and work experience in Bolivia, the author discusses the plaza of his city Santa Cruz. “Dozens of itinerants, who refer to themselves as locos are selling woven and beaded jewelry, performing magic or juggling fire for loose change. This is a small part of a tribe of Argentineans and Columbians, Belgians and Israelis, who wander South America slowly, perhaps a year or two per country, living off their homemade items, and gathering together in the evenings around fires to dance and play [music].” We had already met many of these Locos, including the Columbian I had met in Arequipa and another Columbian that Evan and I met hiking back from Machu Pichu on the tracks. We had run into her again, with her jewelry display, on the boat to Isla Del Sol. 

Reading Whispering in the Giant’s Ear had lent an inside perspective into Bolivia and colored my impression of the country. I had come to Bolivia with a naïve understanding of it being a budding, progressive utopia, where indigenous leadership was moving Bolivians toward a harmonious relationship with nature.  My initial preconceptions of the country began to fade as I came to understand a richer, and more complex reality. A country where various indigenous political factions have vied for power, and where lands that communities had fought to conserve for eco-tourism had been burned and converted to pasture by indigenous settlers from other regions. Just as I began to in fall love and understand this country it was time to leave.

As Charlie and I boarded our plane bound for Buenos Aires, Argentina, my mind slipped back to a conversation we had the night before Evan left. Having been introspectively focused on my own travels, I was eager to hear what Evan and Charlie had thought of our experiences and why they too had come south. Charlie stated “My world had gotten small in Burlington [Vermont]. I wasn’t growing, and felt constrained. When I was younger I had good travel experiences that helped me learn a lot about myself. On this trip I wanted to see how other people live, so I can understand my own life better.”

Evan said that his academic trajectory in college had shaped his interests. “Coming from an anthropology background I wanted to understand the world from other perspectives. I felt I was coming from a sheltered and biased world-view. I also feel that it’s my calling to learn Spanish. Growing up in a microcosm it’s our duty to expose ourselves to diverse environments; to understand ourselves. All we know is similarity. We can only understand ourselves if we risk being in a different setting and get feedback from others.”

Charlie added in “Our world had grown narrow in college. We needed to leave to see how things actually are.” Writer and traveler Ted Conover’s reflections on his own development offer perspective on the yearnings we had felt and the personal evolution we where undergoing. “While I have benefited enormously from formal education, it has never seemed sufficient; it has repeatedly sparked in me a visceral longing for lessons of life outside…College to me, particularly at the beginning before I figured out how to use it, was about imposed learning. Travel, on the other hand, was an expression of personal curiosity; of a broader education less mediated by received thought. It was also a test of personal resources beyond essay-writing cleverness and the capacity to handle course-induced stress.’

For many middle-class U.S. college graduates travel serves as a tool for expanding one’s comfort zone. During our time in college we begin to become aware of our privilege, and to crave understanding of the rougher “real world” that most people inhabit. Most of this process of experiencing the “real world” for the college traveler is simply becoming used to living in a simpler way, in circumstances where far fewer services and material goods exist. But digging deeper than these material differences into the less superficial “reality” of the places I was visiting was proving to be more difficult to grasp the more time I spent abroad.   

 Endeavoring to understand how “things actually are” in the places we were visiting was proving to be an exceedingly difficult task. The more I sought to understand the places I had visited, the less sure I had felt of anything that I had assumed or concluded. As the plane shivered and finally pulled above the tarmac, a simple conclusion quelled my thoughts. Perhaps the greatest realization of travel is that we understand very little of what we see, even when we seek the truth.

PowerPoints, 60 minute long lectures, persuasive essays and multiple-choice exams had taught us to analyze the world in black and white. I was beginning to see beyond the duality that divides the world into right and wrong - fact and fiction. Seeing and understanding were acts that were proving always incomplete, and the reality of the places we were visiting was beginning to appear more as a spectrum dependent on the perspective of the observer.

What had driven us to travel after college, what had benefited us so greatly when the three of us had traveled in the past, was a process of  “cognitive humbling”. We began to understand that most of our ideas of ourselves and notions of what lay outside our college bubble were a kind of fiction, and we began to throw these things away. We realized that when one learns that he can no longer assume with complete certainty anything about the world, the traveler is forced to look with greater clarity and with wide-open eyes. As Henry Miller wrote ‘One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things’. The changes that our time and travel in Peru and Bolivia had wrought within us were more the result of our seeking to understand how “things actually are”, as impossible as this was to figure out. Rather than any singular, specific understanding of the reality of daily life in these countries, travel was raising as many questions as it answered.

A man rows across Lake Titicaca as seen from Isla Del Sol

A man rows across Lake Titicaca as seen from Isla Del Sol


  • Conover, Ted. The Routes of Man: Travels in the Paved World. New York: Vintage, 2011. Print.
  • Powers, William. Whispering in the Giant's Ear: A Frontline Chronicle from Bolivia's War on Globalization. New York: Bloomsbury Pub., 2006. Print.
  • Than, Ker. "Before: Machu Picchu "Rediscovered"" National Geographic22 July 2012: n. pag. Web.