The spectacles of the Inca Trail (pics here, here, here, and here) are made accessible by the contingent of porters that accompanies each trek group. Last month, the 16 of us tourists were accompanied by 22 men from nearby villages looking to make some extra cash. They carried tents, luggage, food and cooking supplies; they set up camp before we arrived each night and took it down after we left each morning; they cooked our food, served it, and washed our dishes.
The Peruvian government passed a law in 2001 legislating porter working conditions, a job that had gained notoriety for its vulnerability to exploitation. It’s widely believed that the law goes unenforced, though. For instance, porters aren’t allowed to be given more than 20kg each to carry, but many who my friends and I questioned on the Trail claimed that they were carrying 25 or 30kg. Porters also complain of inadequate meals and sleeping arrangements, and not getting paid the $62 per trip minimum wage established by the 2001 law.
Portering for foreigners dates back to the arrival of Spaniards in the Andes. From John Hemming’s The Conquest of the Incas:
From the outset of the Conquest, Spanish armies and expeditions had commandeered regiments of native porters, and it was manifest that this abuse contributed directly to the country’s depopulation. There were dozens of grandiose attempts to discover eldorados in the forests of the Amazon. Hundreds of Spanish lost their lives on these desperate adventures; but their native porters perished long before their European masters. ‘Some two or three hundred Spaniards go on these expeditions. They take two or three thousand Indians to serve them and carry their food and fodder, all of which is carried on the backs of the poor Indians …. Few or no Indians survive, because of lack of food, the immense hardships of the long journeys through wastelands, and from the loads themselves.’
Gustav and I have been researching the subject. More to come.
So back at the farm I drew the above, uh, “diagram” in my notebook. Showed it to my travel-mate Sean.
He said: “It looks like an acid trip. ‘Everything is connected, man!’”
I responded: “Nah man, it’s not that. Whenever we go to a new place—like Chala today—I always find myself trying to figure out how well people there are living, but don’t really know where to begin looking. So I’m trying to organize my thoughts a little.”
Sean: “Well, people need three things. A place to eat, a place to sleep, and a place to poop.”
Me: “That’s enough to keep you from dying, but life is more than that.”
S: “Are you on some kind of personal quest to find the meaning of happiness?”
C: “That’s not why I made this, but yeah, basically.”
S: “Well, I’ve probably told you my philosophy a bunch of times.”
C: “I’m not sure you have.”
S: “It’s all about empathy and appreciation. The more empathy you have, the more you will appreciate the world we live in.”
There was some elaboration of this idea. I asked: “But why is that the true purpose of human existence?” Some talk that I can’t remember about neurons, and then Sean explained that his goal in life is “textured consciousness.”
S: “It feels good to learn new things, and that adds layers that your brain uses to appreciate things more. That’s why I want to travel a lot and do lots of different things. It’s a human tendency to form patterns and habits in your thinking, so I want to make an effort to break those patterns. Then I’ll have a more textured consciousness. For instance, since arriving to the farm I have gained more appreciation for cumbia music and for motorcycles, and I’ll use that to deepen my appreciation of other things.”
C: “But implicit in that is an entire philosophy about what the purpose of humanity is, and how we should spend our lives. I have some things I could say about that, but for me I guess it’s still an open question.”
S: “Well, for me it’s textured consciousness.”