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  • Ashli Akins

Selfishness is the deadliest illness. Compassion is the cure.

The dangers of traveling to remote Quechua communities in the time of COVID-19.

It has taken me awhile to write this story, because I wanted to ensure that I wasn’t writing with reactive anger. I didn't want to incite shame, but instead to provoke dialogue about how we can be better, do better, and travel better through and after this paralyzing year. I think this story is important to share, as one small sample of problematic patterns that seem to be happening all over the Sacred Valley (and possibly throughout the world), now that we’re “allowed” to leave our houses.


I am beginning to believe that selfishness - and its parallels of ego and greed - may be our deadliest illness.


Last week, mi compañero (see note 1) told me that he visited a remote Quechua community with whom I work very closely, only two days after our nation-wide quarantine had lifted. He had never been to this community nor had any relationship with them; he was simply traveling with a group of nine people living in Cusco city (some Peruvian, some expats) who craved an excursion to the Sacred Valley.


According to his account (2), the community had held a General Assembly the day prior to their visit; in this meeting, they had decided that they were not yet ready to open their town to visitors (3). Despite this, one community member - the most prominent and well-connected - decided to invite two groups of tourists (totalling 14 people) to his town the following day (4).


After an extremely discounted (practically free) tour, both groups encountered a heated discussion with town officials who asked them to pay a fine for entering their community. The fine was 3 soles (approximately 1 US dollar) each, or 42 soles total. A few of the visitors disputed the fine, angry that they had to pay more after already paying for their tour; there was no discussion about COVID-19 in the dispute, only about money. One in particular, who was from Lima, argued that she too was Peruvian “just like them” and therefore was not an outsider nor a tourist. She had every right to visit their land (5).


I asked mi compañero if he - or anyone in his group - had considered the potential risks that they were imposing on the community by visiting them. He said it never came up (6). And, he said, he was sure none of them had COVID anyway. And, after all, they were invited.


That is his account of what happened, to my knowledge. Here are my reflections:



Yes, it was inappropriate for the one community member and his family to invite visitors to his town, after the rest of his community chose to ban them. COVID-19 needs to be a collective solution, since it will spread as a collective problem. However, I am not going to delve into that aspect of the issue, since it is not my place to discuss this (at least on this platform); it is an internal community conflict.


What I would like to discuss, instead, is this: A group of outsiders visited a remote Quechua community, presuming that they were passive passengers in their journey, when in fact they were drivers of their own destiny, with three key ingredients at their disposal that they did not consider: agency, power, and compassion.


Agency:

The visitors were active agents in their journey. At any point along the way, any one of them could have questioned if this were a good idea, and why they needed to make this trip at this time. In my opinion, this trip was a selfish decision, centred in ego. They went simply because they wanted to see a new place, and "get off the beaten track". But why now? And why there?

Mi compañero repeatedly used the term “they.” (“They” invited me, referring to the community member. “They” chose to go, referring to his friends in the group.) But he was also culpable, as we all are. We all have the ability to ask questions, to think for ourselves, and to ensure that our actions align with our values.


A couple of days ago, a friend who wanted to go on a hike into the Valley asked me if I’d “heard of anyone having problems trying to enter communities because of COVID.” This, to me, pinpointed the crux of the problem and echoed the issues in this story. The focus of our questions needs to shift. It shouldn’t be about us and our inconvenience. It should be about the other and their wellbeing. This question could easily have been: “Have you heard of whether or not it’s safe to visit communities yet?” or “Does X community want visitors?”


Power:

Secondly, this group of visitors had power. Money equals power. They therefore failed to consider the power imbalance - and merely transactional relationship - that was at play between them (invited strangers who had no prior relationship with this community) and the community member (who was in a vulnerable economic state during a crisis). Why were they invited? Were they actually wanted, as people? Or was it instead because their money (i.e. power) was needed, and the community member was willing to risk the lives of his community for it?


I understand that the majority of people here are suffering significantly because of the closure of tourism, which was 90% of people’s income in the Cusco province, prior to COVID-19. Therefore, there is legitimate debate about when and how to safely reintroduce tourism in the region and in remote communities. The economic strife caused by the tourism shutdown is almost as dangerous to some as the health concerns themselves. I sincerely hope that, when it is safe to do so, travellers will indeed come back (7) - but that they will do so with respect as their primary intention.


If this trip were indeed a selfless act to economically support a family in a time of need, the visitors could have donated funds without risking the lives of the entire community. But would they have spared these funds had they not received the tourist excursion in return?


Compassion:

Finally, they had compassion at their disposal, even if they seemingly did not find the capacity to use it. I believe that all human beings have the ability to empathize with and act on behalf of other humans; however, to do so, we must shed the parts of our ego that blind us - that cause us to think with scarcity instead of abundance, to compete rather than cooperate, to act in fear instead of love. If this group had indeed acted through compassion instead of ego, I believe they would have stopped.


They may not have visited this community in the first place. And if they had, they would not have raised their voices at the community leaders who were afraid, who were asking them to pay a fine; the group would have instead simply apologized for their indiscretion and realized - albeit too late - that they had misinterpreted the invitation and were not in fact invited, as they had thought.


They would also have realized that a life is not worth 42 soles. They would have understood that someone in this community may indeed contract COVID-19 because of that visit, and if they do, that it will spread like wildfire, just as it has in Amazonian communities. That it will spread to elders and knowledge-keepers. To people without access to doctors. To kids without health insurance. To mothers who are scared of visiting hospitals because of the discrimination they have faced in the past.

They would have recognized the potentially deadly ramifications of their visit. They would have understood that a life does not equal any amount of money, let alone 42 f***ing soles.


FOOTNOTES

  1. "Mi compañero" can mean a variety of things in Spanish - acquaintance, colleague, classmate, companion. I have chosen to keep this anonymous, both to protect him and the community. This story is not intended to shame and blame, and therefore is not about the actors in the story; it is instead intended to teach all of us to pause and reflect before taking action during this time. We have all made mistakes, and as Maya Angelou says, once we know better, do better.

  2. This entire story is according to mi compañero's verbal account to me. I was not there.

  3. While their reason for this trip was a simple tourist excursion, many other "visitors", including teachers, doctors, and social workers, who have long-standing relationships with communities across the Sacred Valley and Mapacho River Valley, and whose services are much needed, are staying away at this time to respect communities' self-isolation mechanisms.

  4. By “tourists” I mean anyone who is interested in visiting this community for “tourism” or “excursion” reasons. Currently, everyone who is here lives in the region, since borders have not yet opened. However, they are still local tourists (or travellers) to that particular community. In this particular case, there were two groups; mi compañero’s group of nine and another of three, plus two chauffeurs, totalling 14 people.

  5. A note for context for international readers: Lima is the (non-Indigenous) capital city of Peru, far from Cusco. This situation would equate to a white Canadian settler entering a First Nations community of 100 people in the height of COVID-19 - one that they have never been to before, nor have any relation with - claiming that they are not a visitor and have every right to be there. Yes, I know it happens, but it doesn’t make it okay.

  6. Mi compañero and I had had a conversation one week prior to this visit about Mosqoy’s decision to postpone all of our community visits until mid-August, in order to protect our partnering communities from COVID-19 and to support their self-imposed initiatives to isolate.

  7. A more sustainable tourism industry here in Cusco was quietly brewing pre-COVID and this is what needs to return when the time comes - a micro-tourism industry in support of the local economy, land, and culture.

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