It would be an exaggeration to summarize a country of five hundred thousand square miles in those three words. Yet, not as flagrant as one might think, for in terms of human activity it comes close to describing the landscape, in full. Indeed, there are the fortified villas for the privileged, the cardboard and straw dwellings for the poorest, and some kind of housing for the poor, much closer to the cardboard than to the white concrete. The middle class and the simply rich (in Peruvian terms) do not really figure in the movie of daily life.

When we docked in Puerto General San Martin (the founder of the Chile Republic), I thought that Peru would have carried the spirit of its past. The foghorn had troubled my sleep for the better part of the night, which made me ill prepared for the Sunday journey to Tambo Colorado, the earliest Inca site that is still standing erect today (although without roofs). The port was a hole in the desert. I learned that it is used only for importing corn from the US and Canada, while simultaneously exporting raw salt for Northern winter roads. The salt is simply being scraped off the surrounding, barren mountains, as it is being deposited in sufficient amounts from ocean spray, carried by the very strong and daily afternoon winds.

If the port was a sober introduction to Peru, it was absolutely no match for the bus ride to Tambo Colorado, about 50 miles inland. From a geographical viewpoint this area (Pisco province) is situated at the Northern fringe of the famous Atacama desert, and it receives 1/10th of an inch (2 mm) of rain, annually. The other fact to mention is that this area suffered a 7.8 earthquake three years ago. With that in mind one knows that living conditions in this region are far from the usual.

And they absolutely were. Apart from the Nile Valley south of Cairo, I have never seen such squalid environment: shacks, streets (?), stores, you name it: in the villages as well as along country roads, dirt dominated the view. Perhaps because, and even from behind the shaded windows of our luxury bus, it was obvious that black eyes, with a stark darkness emanating from them, were, in fact, the most prominent and touching feature. In the absence of world TV cameras, and with no helpful and brave earthquake volunteers left, even the cleanup and the repairs had been abandoned, presumably for lack of funds.

Meandering though the last patches of road, still strewn with an unimaginable variety of garbage, we arrived at Tambo Colorado. With the desert to the West and South, and the Andes to the East, it benefits from the grandiose setting. It was touted, in the tour guides, as resembling Pompeii. Even injecting a lot of imagination, it is not: especially under the white light of the midday sun, you have to have good eyesight and be wide awake to discern the red, and especially the yellow wall paint (let alone paintings, or frescos!).

Still, our guide, one of the very few dynamic and engaged Peruvians that I have encountered in those three days (he hailed from Iquitos, in Amazonas though), made it a lively and interesting visit. He even personally demonstrated how the Inca’s were buried in fetal position such that they could easily be born again. Not only that, he vivified the offering of virgins on the altar of the grand square, in a way and with an enthusiasm, that we would not quickly forget.

The ride back to the new civilization was emotionally not more comforting: extreme poverty looks the same from all angles. We were on our way to what was listed as “the hacienda”, for a visit of the lands, the textiles and … for lunch. It was a one thousand acre (500ha) affair and we found it hermitically closed off from the surrounding world, not just for security but also for sanitary reasons. They had big tracts of asparagus, citrus (including the native “tangello”, from which a sweet white wine is made) and grapes. All of it, except the wine, was for export.

The lunch was a lavish affair, in a lovely villa with a pool, an abundance of flowers and trees, kicked off with some refreshing and finely-balanced Pisco Sour. Oh, I forget to mention the orchestra. We were served the cocktails and snacks by a few polite, but stern looking waiters. Even addressing them in Spanish did not bring some light to their eyes. Before we sat down for lunch, six young girls appeared in brightly colored long dresses to surprise us with African dances. It was obvious, and somewhat surprising to me, that all (but one perhaps) of the girls were black.

The host confirmed that there are still many black people in the area because of the slave populations in colonial times. I thought, wrongly, that the black slaves never made it past the Amazonas and Andes. When the lunch was finished the dancers invited guys from the visiting crowd and, being undoubtedly, at first sight, one of the more attractive dancers of the onlookers, I was invited by a boisterous and tall young lady. While the beat was unmistakably African, I just did the Chubby Checker moves, going through the knees and all, thus eliciting the general applause of the septuagenarians around us. It was fun.

Meanwhile I had been told that the host and owner was actually the Minister of Finance of Peru. He and his wife had started this hacienda twenty years ago and made it a green pearl in the surrounding desert (using water from the more or less seasonal Pisco River nearby). After next month’s elections he will be able to spend more time here again, I heard. The textile shop was actually an initiative of his wife. She had started a campaign, a long time ago, against domestic violence that culminated in gathering a number of women to make handicrafts, using traditional techniques. Today they number thirty-five, and produce beautiful artifacts (tapestry, handbags) in this otherwise desolate region.

If Pisco province was a decrepit place, Lima would not do much to change my impression of the country and its workings. If anything, Lima would paint a clearer picture of the barren social landscape that this democracy of sorts has spawned.

Prinsendam, Day 57 – Wednesday March 2nd, 2011

At what price proverbial “freedom” ?