Leaving the village of Ollantaytambo, our bus driver was negotiating a narrow street that allowed him about two feet of wiggle room. Still, he suddenly stopped and slowly backed up to give passage to a small boy and his parents trying to get their overloaded rickety cart to market to sell their wares. Their need to survive rightfully outweighed our bus’s need to get to the next tourist stop. Still, I tried to imagine (unsuccessfully) a New York bus driver giving poor pedestrians a similar edge.
In Lima, Peru’s capital, streets have no litter-- amazing for a major city with overwhelming fiscal woes. When I asked a cab driver how this cleanliness was accomplished he said, simply, people had been, “educated not to dirty the streets!” I wondered what it would take to get Americans to accept similar responsibility as I recalled our own local roads and highways where discarded plastic bags, fast-food containers, beer cans and other “infinite shelf life” garbage are an assumed part of America’s landscape.
Our guide spoke passionately of his Inca roots, his eyes wet with tears when he told stories of Spanish domination and enslavement. In the hill towns, where children seldom have a chance for education since there are no schools, I met youngsters who taught themselves enough English to converse with tourists and sell trinkets, lest they fail to contribute to the family’s meager budget. The children were clean, polite and hopeful: they stole our hearts.
Peruvians demonstrate their love for their country—with all its pimples and wrinkles— in substantive ways. Their humanity to each other and to visitors is moving and rare. Reluctant as Americans might be to acknowledge it, there is much we can learn from the so-called “second” and “third” worlds, and, if there can be any such thing as a national personality, the people of Peru have much to teach us about grace. From the breathtaking and imposing Andes Mountains, to the serene, sunny valleys below, Peru’s people show us what real patriotism is.
They truly strive to represent their country and they understand that visitors contribute a great deal to its survival, and theirs. Unlike many Europeans, they do not put on a false face for dollars: in Peru the USA is still truly revered, and even the falling dollar remains their measure for success.
They approach each visitor with genuine caring, helpfulness and gratitude for even the smallest recognition in return. As they go about their daily lives, they respect their humble but well-maintained surroundings, their fellow men and women, their proud heritage while always aiming for a brighter future, unhampered by either the glories or the failures of their history.
Too often American “patriotism” is measured by flags on lapels and on every pick-up coast to coast. Until and unless we can honestly experience the Peruvian heartfelt “love of country” and truly believe in a better tomorrow, we are only going through motions.
Gracias, Peru, for such a valuable—and beautiful-- lesson.
Columnist Mary Ann Sorrentino can be contacted at http://maryannsorrentino.com