A Race for Worth in Cusco

Eyes like knots, tied and re-tied, over and over, in a tense rough-cut board of a face, the taxi driver looked at me as I announced my destination through his open window.  He nodded, inviting me to get in. I did, all the while wondering if I was making a bad choice.

Taking a taxi requires balancing uncertainty and fear with need to get somewhere, especially a “pirate” like this, an independent driver or part timer who is not affiliated with a taxi company or an association. You hear stories of drivers working with thieves and murderers. Drivers themselves are even more exposed and must constantly make judgments whether it is safe to pick up a given passenger or not. They could easily be giving death a ride if not very careful. Fate, and luck converge on this curb.

I trusted and watched the driver’s woody demeanor soften as we talked and he drove.

He asked the common questions in his strongly Quechua inflected Spanish. “Oh, you speak Spanish?” “Where are you from?” “How long have you lived in Peru?” Then, he bared his dagger:  “What do you think is the cause of poverty?”

Soldering in Cusco
Welding in Cusco

I am a social scientist and this was the subject of many graduate classes. I could lecture for at least one class period on this alone. I began my professorial wind-up and sensed the driver’s dis-ease.

I braked, mid sentence, and said: “What do you think?”

“Oh, I think that poverty is caused by a person’s actions. Sometimes they just do not do anything to get out of it. They do not work hard enough.

“I am from a farming community in Canchis province. My family was poor. I left and came to the city when I was a teenager. Here I worked and studied.  Now I have my own car and I am saving to buy a piece of land. I know which one I am buying because I almost have enough money. Soon we will finalize the purchase. When I have it, then I will save more money and build myself a house and open my own business. I want to open my own welding shop.”

Succinct and sweet, this story of success. It almost belied the struggles and anxieties knotted together in his eyes. It focused on voluntarism, on choice and will. It did not talk about how for rural families there is generally not enough land for all children to farm.

Many, if not most, kids are kicked out, or sense the reality and leave. They come to the city, undereducated and not knowing how to survive, looking for a niche—a job and friends. They rely on relatives from their community who already live in the city for help finding a place to sleep and work to do.

Their accent and clothes give them away and they face teasing and prejudice as well as exploitation. Their task is far from easy. Yes, will matters, but so do contacts and, simply, luck. You can tell from all the charms and ritual in Cusco around getting good fortune so that your desires may be fulfilled.

The driver’s story raced, screeching turns and all, to dismiss rural life as “poor”. It covered in dust and exhaust rural customs of ayni, mink’a, shared burdens, and devotion to earth shrines. The story roared with the idea the city is a place of individual striving, dreaming, working, and success measured in goods and place: car, land, business. The story made him “someone”.

Cusco fills with people struggling to live this story. Some succeed and others fail, while most hover on success’ edges, their tires barely holding to the highway, or achieve and then find their achievements somehow lacking as new dreams and new struggles appear around the bend.

The story throws everything in the vehicle of the individual and in the measure of will and action.

It ignores so much that is also important to life in the city, such as the friendship group of young men, the manada. Formed quickly as boys begin to struggle for place and success in the city, this group is not a solitary driver in a car roaring towards success.

The manada depends on group and solidarity, something that easily becomes ayni. The importance of togetherness is symbolized after the manada plays soccer—whether a pickup game, a challenge, or a contest—when the boys and men get something to drink and share the bottle and single glass with the whole group.

Many other institutions, neighborhood associations, syndicates (unions), businesses, parishes and evangelical congregations, political groups, and so on, make it possible for individual effort to be successful.

The truly disadvantaged person is he or she who is bereft of friends and other people to support them, though that is not the measure of the story. Instead, that ruler is solely property and independent business.

As we reach my destination and the driver pulls up to a new cement curb on a new cement-paved street, the story stands out along with the battered taxi. The story is so many people’s quest.

I pay my fare, wish the driver continued success, and get out, wondering at how his eyes and face had become more like well-polished wood while I listened. They shone.

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