Friday, June 27, 2014

I am the Ivory Tower

Perched on our rock at the festival of Inti Raymi, Jeff and I were the lumbering giants in a sea of 5'5" brightly clad women. There wasn't much we could make out from our vantage point; blurred rows of shifting bodies off in the distance, flashes of gold in the scorching sun. Most weren't even attempting to see the procession, instead huddled around plastic bags of steaming noodles, baked potatoes and lean, oily meat, a festival as much about proximity of family as celebration of ancient culture. On a rocky ledge nearby, a group of men began hurling scraps of food toward the front of the crowd, while two women loudly berated them. I understood fragments: "tall gringos"; "they are here to watch, like you"; "it's not their fault"; "stop harassing them." I glanced over my shoulder, wondering who may be considering throwing scraps at us, but on our isolated rock, we weren't blocking anyone's view. That's when Jeff stepped down to let an elderly woman take his place, and I followed suit. We had planned on letting someone take our place. We are just visitors here, after all.

This tension—this need to see yet remain respectfully in the background, to say but not to speak for—remains in the forefront of my mind with every tentative step and carefully crafted sentence I make in this beautiful country. How am I portraying what I observe? How is my portrayal influenced by my own biases? Who am I allowing into this conversation? How can I engage, justly, thoroughly, with people whose voices aren't yet included? I walk through the world with this protective cloak of white, Western privilege, knowing I'll find others who speak my language, who will give me their time and expertise, who will feel compelled to help, to protect, to guide. Almost every organization that I have contacted in Perú which is working on climate change has been run by non-Peruvians. What you read will often be the western filtering of a western-filtered perspective. And when the icecaps are gone, the rivers and lakes dried, the crops infected and wasting, we can flash a passport, call up a favor, cut our losses, step off of our outlook and leave. That doesn't mean that we leave without aching hearts, without a deep connection to what we leave behind—but still, we leave.


The celebration of Inti Raymi has been happening for thousands of years, and while most Quechua now practice Catholicism, traditional belief systems tied to the mountains, glaciers, and land have been deftly incorporated into their post-colonial religion. The largest sacred pilgrimage in Peru, Qoyllur Rit’i (also spelled Qoyllur'riti) is at once a celebration of Jesus, Pachamama (Mother Earth), and the Apus (Mountain Gods).

And the Qolqepunku glacier is worshipped as sacred—its protectors, the ukukus (bear-men), guard it from harm, guide pilgrims to the glacier, and used to strap chunks of the ice caps to their backs, running them down the mountain at sunrise, carried back to their villages to be melted into holy water at church.


But as the glaciers recede—an astounding 65 feet every year, with most glaciers below 18,000 feet predicted to be gone in the next year—so, too, are the traditions of those who worship them. Several ukukus have died in the widening mountain crevasses; pilgrims have frozen to death while camping in record low temperatures. Ukukus now stand guard over the glaciers, preventing others from stealing what remains of the sacred icecaps. Though many are doing what they can to combat rapid deglaciation, they are facing seemingly insurmountable odds.

What happens when the glaciers recede completely? When the water that trickles down the mountains and sustains most of the country dries up? Jeff and I can step off our island and walk away, pack up our belongings, our beliefs, our customs, what we hold sacred. But what of those who worship the very land they may need to seek refuge from? They can't carry it on their backs, racing against time. This is a loss that I will never be able to convey, told through the minds and mouths of those who will never live that reality.

Of course, the effects of climate change are incredibly difficult to predict and prepare for, and perhaps in this unpredictability is a glimmer of devastating hope. All I can do is continue to walk gently and step aside when needed, to gather the stories that remain untold, and tell what I can in the hopes that those who are capable of walking away will do everything in their power to ensure others don't have to.

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