The worst part about our vacation to Cuzco, Peru, last month was tolerating the street vendors who were always pestering us to buy something. Every time we left our hotel or a tour bus or a tourist site, we were bombarded with offers from poorly dressed, weathered looking women or children to buy sweaters, blankets or rugs, all promising that these identical-looking items were handmade and original.
Finding a restaurant without interruption was even worse. For the first time in our lives we knew how Britney Spears must feel being trailed constantly by the paparazzi. Every time we came near a restaurant, waiters would run up to us, three at a time, shoving English-language (how did they know?) menus in our faces and extolling the virtues of sauted alpaca or fried guinea pig. My husband learned that saying, “No thank you. Maybe later” would bring us some temporary peace, at least until the next vendor saw us coming. I just trudged ahead, head down, annoyed at the continual inconvenience.
Occasionally we’d accidentally catch the eye of a peasant woman while we were inside a restaurant. We were trapped. She would wait patiently outside, watching our every bite. Then, as soon as we opened the restaurant door to leave and our wall of protection evaporated, she’d follow us all the way down the street, pleading with us to pay her to take a picture of her in her native costume holding a baby alpaca or sometimes a baby.
I was somewhat relieved on our last day in Cuzco because I knew that we would be rid of the constant badgering. As we strolled around the beautiful town square one final time, I sighed in relief that soon I wouldn’t be forced to waive off some annoying, desperate kid and snarl an irritated “No.” My husband, meanwhile, was searching for a destitute-looking woman to give her his Peruvian pocket change.
Once we boarded the plane, I pulled out my latest how-to-be-a-better-human-being book and began reading from where I’d last stopped – when we landed in Cuzco five days before.
It was maybe eight pages later, when the author talked about all of us created equally and “least of my brothers,” that it dawned on me that maybe, just maybe, I needed a huge kick in the rear, a major ‘tude adjustment and a large, heaping serving of humility pie.
It’s easy to see a difference between me wearing my jeans and fleece and the Peruvian peasant wrapped in her brightly woven blanket. It’s not as easy to distinguish between you and the guy next to you at the stoplight or the woman in front of you at the checkout counter. But that’s the point there is no difference. Don’t be as stupid as me.
Get out and give back.
Jane Collins is a free-lance writer who lives in Alexandria. Please send your comments, volunteer experiences and suggestions for future columns to http://www.getoutandgiveback.com