Posts Tagged With: Cusco

A Love Letter To Ugly Americans

When traveling abroad, some things you just have to accept and learn to live without. My last grande soy vanilla latte, four months ago, in Piura, Peru. Haven't seen a Starbucks since then.

This is my love letter to you, my dear Ugly American. There are things I so love about you, that I’m willing to hang in there with you for the sake of our relationship, stick it out for the long haul, make our time spent together abroad work.

Oh, sure, you can be loud, arrogant and disrespectful of the customs and cultures of others, and there were times you made me cringe, but we share so much in common that I’m willing to forgive your overseas foibles – well most of them.

I still somehow can’t bring myself to forgive your decision to climb that fragile stone archway to that ancient sacred temple in Machu Picchu, despite posted signs not to do so. No, you didn’t care. All you cared about was snapping some “cool” photo to text to your Facebook friends. And when a group of stunned visitors – myself included – implored you to get down, your reaction was classic Ugly American, spitting out f-bombs and telling all to “mind your f’u****ng business!” Oh, you were brilliant that day.

And when you threw that large rock down an Inca well that has stood for centuries, simply to check if there was actually water at the bottom, remember how angry I got? Oh, and how could I ever forgive or forget the time you tossed your empty Coke can toward a trash can in Barcelona and missed? You didn’t even think to pick it up, did you? No way. That’s just not your style. But, you know what, I applaud your effort to at least put it in the trash bin.

I…Oh wait, remember that summer we spent in West Africa? You proceeded to offend every person with whom you came in contact. You snapped your fingers at waiters like they were dogs, complained about everything, demanded the comforts of home, and when you couldn’t find anyone who spoke English, well, that’s when you completely lost it.

I know you as an American expect -wait, demand! -that any given country you visit be like America in comfort, custom and language. In short, in every way. So you get incensed that nobody in Middle Of Nowhere, Boltusa, speaks a lick of English. Heavens to Betsy! The Boltusans speak only Boltusan! What gives?!

As we’ve traveled around the world, the one question you’ve never heard me ask on approach of a local person is “Excuse me, do you speak English? That question lobbed at locals in Not My Country irritates me to no end. Think about it. You are in Your Hometown, U.S.A., and you’re approached suddenly by some inappropriately dressed jughead with a camera that looks aimed at you who asks: ” ‘Scuse me, do you speak Boltusan?”

Of course, your response would be a quizzical no. And  would you expect the Boltusan to get angry that for the past five minutes he’s been striking out finding anyone in America who speaks his language?

Okay, I see you right about now scratching your head wondering where in God‘s name is Boltusa? You are notoriously geographically challenged, I know. And you are widely known as a monolingual species. So let me bring it back to reality. [Forget trying to Google Boltusa! It doesn’t exist. I made it up to make a point. Sheeez, you know so little about the world. ]

Okay, stay with me this time. Imagine the French, who are notoriously fixated on keeping France free of American culture – a losing battle that at times compels them to issue the most stupid declarations in the name of conserving French purity – visiting the United States and expecting every other American he or she encounters to speak French. Now do you get it?

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You are breathing fire at this point and firing up your e-mail mailer to teach me a lesson. But I heard it all before. You will tell me that English is the world’s common language, and that it’s spoken everywhere, so it should be normal for you or anyone else to ask that question and expect an affirmative answer. I say to you and them check your attitude on the Ugly American scale. Where is it written, dearest one, that it is the responsibility of locals to learn your language for your convenience? And who came up with the rules that the good people of Boltusa – sorry – must have English at the ready and deliver it at your command? Worst yet, why do you grow so angry if  the lovely Boltusans only speak their native language?

Let me share with you this story.

I once met a man from Ohio on a train platform in Japan who walked over to me and asked “Are you American?” When I responded yes, he said: “Thank goodness, someone who speaks English! Can’t find anybody who speaks English in this God-forsaken country!” Really Mr. Ohio?

Not a fact that in Japan it’s hard to find people who speak English, but if that were the case, why be surprised? You are in Japan, my good man, where they speak Japanese!

If I am planning a trip to Japan or Boltusa -can’t let it go – the first thing I do is try to learn a few survival words and phrases in Japanese and Boltusan. If I make the attempt to speak Japanese and fail and the Japanese person responds to me in English out of the kindness of his heart, great! I at least didn’t insult him by expecting him to speak my native language. That’s what mainly drives the French nuts about Americans. I don’t believe it’s a French unwillingness to speak English. I believe the French rightly get incensed when Americans on first approach practically demand that the French person direct them to the Louvre but do it in English, please, and thank you for speaking the dominant language. Perhaps these Americans who didn’t take the time to learn a few simple phrases in whatever native language should have stayed home in the Good Ol’ U.S. of A., where everyone speaks English. Well, almost everyone.

I suggest a better approach is to first try to communicate with the person in their own language combined with the true international language: point, gesture, smile. Give the local person the respect and courtesy and allow them the switch to English, if they so desire. Nine times out of 10, people who speak English in addition to their native language will gladly speak to you in English if you are struggling with their language. And they appreciate your attempt to first try to communicate in their native tongue. But strutting around the street like a bull asking one person after the other the dreaded “Do you speak English” question labels you right off the bat as an Ugly American and some locals – some French are evil about this – will say they don’t speak English, even if they do, just to stick it to you. Why? Because you are the umpteenth American to ask that question.

Two "ugly Americans" of another sort left in the wild in Chile

Another story, dear one, if you please.

On my third trip to Paris I was with an American woman I met during a casual stroll on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. Together we had reached the imposing bronze statue of Charles de Gaulle and we had questions.

“Excuse me, we need someone who speaks English to explain this statue,” she shouted to the first presumed Frenchman who walked by. His response, in English with a strong French accent: “You are in France. We speak French. You must try it.”

As the man kept walking, my very temporary travel companion blurted out “How rude!”

“How rude, indeed,” I said. “How rude of you!”

I spent the next 15 minutes trying to convince her that she was in the wrong. She never got it. We parted ways when we reached the statue of Winston Churchill, the one with the words “We Shall Never Surrender.” Can’t you just hear Churchill saying those words? I will never give up on you – surrender, if you will – dear Ugly American. The world is a different place and you must come around. So surrender those bad habits that make me, and I’m sure others, cringe.

In very few instances, say in a life or death situation, should you approach someone with the “Do you speak English” question. That’s different. There’s no problem there.

I love to be with you abroad, dearest compatriot American, though you know I’d rather spend time with local people. This notion that all Americans must flock together in a “we” versus “them” front is warped. Of course, I’ll hang out with one or two of my compatriots but you do know if they start to keep me from my mission of being with locals I bid them adieu. Ah, did you like my use of French there?

Not that I don’t find my traveling compatriots interesting – many of them are – it’s that I find the Boltusans far more fascinating.

Please, allow me one more travel tale.

I was in Beijing, China, for about a month some years ago and was doing just fine eating Chinese food. It was delicious and healthy! And I was even speaking enough Chinese to get around on my own. Then I met a group of prissy American girls who told me they, too, had been in China for a month and they were “sick of Chinese food.” They said they had spotted a Pizza Hut and invited me to join them. After I told them I found the food in China amazing, I nevertheless decided to join them at Pizza Hut, where, one of them pointed out, “the signs, even the menu is in English.” Umm, did she say her name was Ditz?

The first bite into a slice of the pizza I thought it had a weird taste. I took a second bite and still felt it didn’t taste quite like the pizza from home. At a slice and a half I quit eating. That day is etched in my mind as a pivotal moment in my travel history. I thought I was going to die in China of some uncharted form of food poisoning. The pizza made me so sick, I broke out in a cold sweat, spending countless hours on the toilet, then weak and bedridden for a week! Under the care of a Chinese doctor who gave me natural Chinese medicines, I was able to bounce back, but was so weak for days after I was barely able walk. Lesson learned: stick to local cuisine that is working for you and stay away from prissy Ugly American girls who look and sound like they’re from the California valley.

A final story, I promise.

This week I witnessed a culture clash between Americans and Chileans. And it was ugly. It ended badly. And it left individuals on both sides of the cultural divide with battered feelings. And it was all just a series of misconceptions that blew up into misunderstandings and produced casualties of a cultural war.

I am not suggesting that the teachers at the institute where I teach English are Ugly Americans. They very well  may be, but I don’t know them enough to say. I do know that some of them expect things to be the way they are in the United States, all nice and neat and orderly, and that isn’t always the case in many countries.

Complain and try as we might, Americans will never succeed in forcing others to conform to American ways and standards, especially in the workplace. This holds true for Chile. Chileans admit that they are a notoriously tardy people. They joke about it. Set a meeting for noon, you’re lucky if it happens a half-hour later. More likely than not, it happens an hour or more later or not at all. Or try to get Chileans to follow through on anything.  Or do what they say they will do “al tiro”, meaning right away. Doesn’t happen. This irritates the heck out of Americans for whom punctuality and keeping your word are important in a work environment. Chileans are irritated by Americans’ seeming lack of flexibility. But the way I see it, it’s not my country, I’m just a guest. So who am I to try to change the way people run their country? Mine has enough problems to be fixed. In six months, I will be in another country with different customs and ideals. Shall I try to change them, too?

I say as long as no one has a foot firmly planted on my bald head, I will work with what I have to work with, be it Chile, France, Japan or Boltusa. To get angry, throw adult tantrums or insist that things be a certain way in a country that is not your own is to be an Ugly American.

Want to speak English only. Stay in America or travel to English-speaking countries. Try Britain. You won’t understand half of what comes out of their mouth anyway. Want the comforts of home. Bring it with you or stay home. Hate Chinese food? Don’t go to China!

All this I say out of love, dear Ugly American. Because I know you will have a more pleasant experience traveling abroad if you let go of your ugly ways. And I won’t have to keep explaining YOU.

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What Has Stuck With Me About This Place Peru


The New York Times said it a bunch of times. Other newspapers and magazines have been saying it. And a gazillion trillion others have continued to echo it: Peru has the best cuisine in the world! But don’t listen to any of them. What do they know? Listen to me. It’s true! I may not be able to cook a lick, but I know food that goes beyond the ordinary when I see and taste it. I have not had one bad meal in Peru. You just have to know where to look, but you don’t have to look very hard or even far. Just about anywhere you turn in Peru, you will bump into great cooking. People who know a great deal more about food than I do credit Peru’s diverse cultures that have borrowed from each other – a spice or two here, a cooking method there – to create unique dishes and presentations. So Europe meets Africa meets Asia meet Indigenous meet in Peru! And Le Cordon Bleu Peru continues to crank out skilled chefs in the great tradition of the acclaimed Gaston Acurio. I had the pleasure of dining at two of Acurio’s restaurants – Tanta in Lima and ChiCha in Cuzco – and it made me happier than a fat kid in a bakery. The dishes were a burst of flavors. At ChiCha  where I struggled to get a table, I had a seafood risotto that was killer. I ate every grain and wanted more. And just as ChiCha, I found Tanta purely by accident: I was walking around looking for a place to eat and noticed the crowds. If you don’t take my word for it, listen to the New York Times and the gazillion trillions. And the other newspapers and magazines that have continued to extoll Peru as a gastronomic powerhouse. It truly is.


Peru has a race and class problem that has led to a bit of an  identity crisis. You see, white, wealthier Peruvians tend to look down at the Afro-Peruvian and indigenous populations. They don’t value them. If anything, they treat them as a thing to be scorned.  Of course I’m not talking about all Euro-Peruvians, those with Spanish backgrounds. Just some. It’s not talked about much. But ask any Peruvian about it and they will open up about it. A great deal of this disdain is reserved for the indigenous population. You hear the word “cholo” directed at the indigenous population and you know it’s not exactly a compliment.  This has lead to young descendants of the Incas denying their heritage. Some refuse to learn or speak Quechua. They are conflicted about who they are. They want to be identified as anything but from indigenous stock. And yet, were it not for their culture and the heritage that their ancestors built, Peru would lose a huge chunk of its tourism. You think the tourists are coming to see white Euro-Peruvians dressed in their suits and ties? No, they want to take home photos posing with indigenous people in Machu Picchu. Snap your finger and rid yourselves of the indigenous populations and Peru would be just another mediocre country known for not very much.  Well, except it’s good eats J Anyway. It’s time the indigenous populations of Peru – Cuzco, by the way, is somewhat of an exception – start fully embracing who they are and that white Peruvians stop painting them as low class nothings.


Okay, so I completely understand that what works for the United States and other supposed “civilized” and “refined” countries doesn’t necessarily work in other countries where chaos is somewhat of a norm. But rude to me is rude. If I’m standing in a crowd watching a parade and you come along and shove me aside to get a view of the parade with not an “excuse me” or “sorry” you are rude! rude! rude! Pushing and shoving people to take their spot was a daily occurrence in Cuzco. I thought at first it was an individual and isolated thing but it just kept happening. So I asked several Peruvians from Cuzco about it and they all said the same thing. That they were aware of this rude behavior and that it was due in part to people simply not being taught manners at home. It’s accepted behavior. Other outsiders – i.e. visitors – experienced this and also wondered about it. Sorry to say this behavior was largely in the indigenous population, i.e., poor and largely un- or miseducated.  Now, I’m taller than most in Peru, so being shoved to the back didn’t trouble me much. I could still get a good view over the people in front of me. But still, manners, manners!


Cuzco is so expensive  it has priced out even Peruvians. Many Peruvians are poor and can’t afford to travel beyond their borders. But I found it interesting that many Peruvians can’t afford to visit Machu Picchu and never have. The entrance fee, the transportation and other related costs put Machu Picchu and other Inca sites out of reach. I understand that governments try to squeeze every dollar or euro out of tourists, but they some seriously need to evaluate the money they ask their citizens to pay. This is especially true of Peru. One of the employees at my hotel said he had been to Machu Picchu only because someone else paid the costs, but his wife – a Peruvian born and raised in Cuzco – had never been to the site. They simply could not afford it. Just about every South American country has two or three different prices – one higher price for tourists, one for citizens of the country and one for locals. Galapagos, for instance, has such a system in which locals pay no entry fees or very little. Peru, it’s time you get a clue.


With all its faults, Peru is magical, breathtaking, beautiful, fun, and rich in Pre-Columbian and colonial history. And the civilization that the Incas built is everywhere, not just Machu Picchu. I loved Peru!

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After Almost 100 Years, Comes An Emotional Return

A proud people enter Plaza de Armas square, paying homage to their ancestors. They walk behind trucks carrying artifacts and bones of their Inca ancestors that were taken to the United States

On a guided tour, somewhere among the hand-sculpted stone wall remains of the fabled Machu Picchu, Jonatan the tour guide decided that I the American would be the perfect target for jokes. He asked if I had ever been to Yale University. Yes, I have, I said. Next time you go, he said, please ask when our Inca treasures will be returned.

Jonatan had spent a good part of the tour recounting Inca history from their early rule in the Peruvian valley and dominance across the continent to their internal powerful struggles that hastened their brutal defeat at the hands of Spanish conquistadors.

When he got to 1911 and the arrival at Machu Picchu of Hiram Bingham, Jonatan made a point to note that it was historically inaccurate to say that Bingham had “discovered” Machu Picchu since it was well-documented that two Peruvians had already found Machu Picchu years earlier. Also, when Bingham got to Machu Picchu there were two Inca families still living there. Nevertheless, Bingham did what the Peruvians had failed to do: announce to the outside world the existence of Machu Picchu. “The Lost City” – glory, hallelujah, had been found!

Machu Picchu

When Bingham, a Yale University professor and explorer, left Machu Picchu, he took with him to the United States many Inca artifacts, Jonathan said.  For decades, the descendants of the Incas and the government of Peru had been trying to force Yale University to return the items, which include skeletal remains of Incas.

“So everybody ask Mike when will Yale return the items,” wannabe standup comic Jonatan said, drawing laughter from the group. Hahahhah, Jonatan. Funny. This line of jokes – with me at the center – continued through much of the tour. “Mike, you have an answer about Yale, yet?”

Immediately after the more than 2-hour tour, as I explored the ancient ruins on my own, I heard a voice call out my name.  I turned around and saw that it was Jonatan. He asked a few basic questions about my trip, such as where had I been and where did I plan to visit next. As we then parted ways, Jonatan made another quip about the looted Inca treasures. He said he had never been to the United States and it was very difficult to visit, what with all the visa requirements and such. I said maybe the United States should have visa exemptions for the descendants of the Incas to visit their taken treasures. Jonatan said, yes, and then maybe he could go to Yale with me to help me petition for the artifacts. Yeah, funnyman!

El Jonatan

Fast forward to two days later. I’m back in Cuzco, the seat of the Inca Empire. I turn on the television for the morning news and on the screen there’s a live report from the Cuzco airport trumpeting the return of the Machu Picchu treasures from Yale University. Every speaker is declaring this a proud day for the Incas, their descendants and all of Peru. Say what?! When did this happen? I do a quick Internet search and learn that a deal had been struck months earlier between Yale and Peru to have the artifacts and remains returned. They would now be under the care of The National University of San Antonio Abad in Cuzco (Spanish: Universidad Nacional de San Antonio Abad del Cusco). The public university would partner with Yale on research and exchanges. In other words, Yale students and staff get to visit the artifacts and to study them for research. In turn, San Antonio University students and professors get to travel to Yale for study and lectures. Win, win.

Fast forward two hours later. I’m sitting on the balcony of the Cappuccino Café in the Plaza de Armas. Suddenly there is drumming and Andean music blaring. A procession of men and women dressed in Inca vestiges enter the square. They are followed by a motorcade of police vehicles and trucks carrying boxes that hold – drum roll Jonatan – the returned Inca artifacts! More people enter the square.

One of several trucks and vans carrying the returned Inca artifacts and human remains

Plaza de Armas quickly fills with thousands of people, including various university and government officials who take turns at the podium to trumpet the return of the items after nearly 100 years and declare this day, June 22, 2011, a historic and proud day.

More Andean music blares from loudspeakers and as the items begin to make their way around the square in trucks under heavy guard and police escort, some descendants of the Incas dance traditional dances in jubilation while others are overcome with emotion and shed tears. It is a very emotional homecoming, no doubt. But perhaps some of those tears were being shed for what once was – a people whose empire stretched across most of South America – a proud heritage destroyed with the arrival of the Spaniards and others, such as Bingham, who carted away Inca treasures. For years into the 20th Century, Inca tombs were looted and sold off to museums and treasure hunters.

In his speech to the still-swelling crowd, the mayor of Cuzco said he and others would continue to fight until all the looted Inca relics are returned to Cuzco and its people, including artifacts now held in prestigious museums across Europe.

More artifacts circle the square

I wish I could have seen Jonatan again to let him know that I had everything to do with the return of the treasures. In two days’ time, here they were, back in Inca land. That would be my joke to him, of course.  That I had made some calls.

On that day, as I sat on that café balcony, I admit I shed a tear.  To witness this historic moment was nothing short of amazing. For nearly 100 years these artifacts had been taken from this land, and an international fight that made its way to the White House – with Peruvian President Alan Garcia making a personal appeal to President Barack Obama  on a visit– had finally produced results. And I had a front row seat to the historic moment.

It was indeed a special moment and one the thousands of proud Inca descendants will remember forever.

The rainbow flag that represents the Incas and their long lost empire - this particular flag has the emblem of the University of San Antonio in Cuzco, which will take charge of the returned artifacts. The seven colors in the Inca flag represent today's seven South American countries that once encompassed the Inca Empire

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