Big eyes, opened widely, look at you intently from off their mother’s back. Children have permission to look and keep looking where older people would avert their gaze. Being in Cuzco is not only about seeing well tailored stone walls, traveling to Machu Picchu, and eating in Cuzco’s many, diverse restaurants, it is also about these silent yet intense interactions as children’s eyes draw us in and move us from our normal place to one of intrigue and enchantment.
While children in more northern climes spend most time in homes, or carefully attended in parks and schools, away from public sight, in Cuzco children often play by the side of their mother selling plates of steaming food or handfulls of toasted corn in the street. And, when she walks to take up her post, carefully wrapped, large, hot pots in her hands, a baby often stares out from her back and other children may walk by her side.
If she works in a store or market selling sweaters or gourds, or food in a cafe, her children may stretch out over the mounds of goods while playing quiet games to themselves, or sit in a corner with toys around.
Children also work in this place where in traditional culture they are graced with far more independence than in the north. Though laws against child labor abound as well as requirements when of age they be in school, still children shine shoes, sell gum and postcards, as well as walk up to you, hand knitted figures on every finger to tempt you with their eyes and soulful voice to buy.
Unlike in the north, here people feel children are safer in public and others look out for them, as they climb on busses all alone a drum or charango in hand to sing for change.
When puberty hits, all seems to change as the rush of hormones reworks bodies and identities. Eyes seem to shrink and shame takes some hold.
Until them children, no matter how young, with their eyes build a bridge between their world and that of visitors. No one has not been drawn to that arching bridge, even if they have not crossed.
Considered almost outsiders themselves, since they are new to the world and not yet thoroughly dressed in its demands and social clothes, it makes sense children could be a bridge. Just as they slowly grow and become part of their parents worlds–taking on obligations of sharing and mutual help, people hope tourists will also come in.
Maybe they will come up to the bridge and buy a llama from off a child’s hand. Or maybe they will exchange names, perhaps even emails. Always a miracle can happen and they start giving and receiving gifts with the child’s parents and friends.
In any case the eyes, wide open and bright, are always there on Cuzco’s streets and stands. You may have come just to see Incas while keeping eyes for your own, but the kids look out and see you. They are there watching and you too will start looking at and into them.
You may never exchange more than a few words with grownups and those mostly about money, but the children’s eyes will be with you throughout your stay in their land.
If you wish to read more about children in Cuzco and elsewhere in Peru, here are two recent books you might wish to look at.
Inge Bolin, Growing Up in a Culture of Respect: Childrearing in Highland Peru (University of Texas Press, 2006).
Jessaca B, Leinaweaver, The Circulation of Children: Kinship, Adoption and Morality in Andean Peru (Duke University Press, 2008).