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  • I’m in the Sacred Valley this week, in a town called Ollantaytambo, about halfway between Cusco and Machu Picchu — 600 miles and a psychographic world away from the boisterous streets of Lima. When I lived in Montana, I sometimes saw bumper stickers proclaiming this or that portion of the state as “Indian country.” The Sacred Valley is the beating heart of Peru’s “Indian country,” and between the bundled women in their bowler hats and the ageless Inca ruins on the hillsides, no one needs a bumper sticker to remind them.

    When Thompson passed through in 1962, the Quechua people were effectively strangers in their own country. “His culture has been reduced to a pile of stones,” Thompson writes. “Archeologists point out that it’s an interesting pile, but the Indian doesn’t have much stomach for poking around in his own ruins.”

    The line comes from one of Thompson’s best Observer pieces, “The Inca of the Andes: He Haunts the Ruins of His Once-Great Empire.” It’s an article that paints a pretty brutal picture of indigenous populations in the Andes. A Quechua in Cusco in 1962 was “ sad and hopeless a specimen as ever walked in misery. Sick, dirty, barefoot, wrapped in rags, and chewing narcotic coca leaves to dull the pain of reality....” The story is a tough read today, in part because it lacks the PC delicacy of contemporary reporting, but also because of a slight, embedded ethnocentrism. Thompson writes mournfully, for example, of the futility of “...trying to convince the Indians to give up their ancient methods of farming,” of the difficulties of integrating the Quechua into the nation’s cash economy.

    Today, we place less emphasis on assimilation and more on preserving traditional ways of life. But Thompson also shrewdly points out the double-edged sword of indigenous isolation. “...[O]nce the Indian begins voting,” he explains, “he has little common cause with large landowning or industrial interests. Thus the best hope for the status quo is to keep the Indian ignorant, sick, poverty-stricken, and politically impotent.” When all is said and done, Thompson emerges as a strong advocate of indigenous empowerment.

    That’s kind of a catchphrase these days for dozens of NGOs working in and around the Sacred Valley, a wide scatter of groups that seem to range from the essential to the largely ineffectual. On Sunday, I spent a day with one of the good ones, a small outfit called the Sacred Valley Project. For Quechua girls in the surrounding mountain towns, sixth grade tends to be the end of formal education. It’s a full day’s walk from many communities to the high school in Ollantaytambo, and very few parents can afford to board their children in the city — least of all the girls. So SVP offers a dorm in town where Quechua girls pursuing secondary education can find housing, tutoring, and support.

    Yesterday was the first day of school, and on Sunday, as the students arrived with their parents, SVP held a meeting and kick-off dinner at the dorm. The girls were shy and well-behaved, giggling a little among themselves as they toured their new rooms. The fathers were brisk and polite, the mothers mostly silent. Some spoke only Quechua. On their backs, they carried their trademark Andean blankets, brightly colored and deftly wrapped around large, mysterious bundles (“There’s a game we sometimes play,” one volunteer confided. “We call it ‘Baby or Vegetables?’”).

    For a while, I helped the women shuck corn and wash dishes. Later on, I tried a bit of chicha with the men, the tangy fermented corn drink that Thompson calls “the Andes’ answer to home brew.” I listened as the parents delivered short speeches after dinner, impressing upon their daughters the importance of good behavior and the value of this opportunity. The girls return home on the weekends (an eight-hour walk, in some cases) and the parents meet periodically throughout the year, to gauge the girls’ progress and discuss concerns. On Sunday, everyone signed a participation covenant with a number of conditions. The one that jumped out at me was the no-pregnancy clause, a stark reminder of what a fourteen-year-old Quechua girl’s life might be like in the absence of education.

    “Today the ‘wealth of the Andes’ is no longer gold,” says Thompson, “but the political power lying dormant in the Indian population.” This may still be true in Peru, where voting is compulsory, but where few Quechua are genuinely engaged in the political process. It’s impossible to predict what cultural contributions these shy, young girls will make. But with a whole new generation of educated and indigenous young women about to enter Peruvian society, I suspect the Quechua people have yet more wealth to offer.

    To keep up with new stories from the Hunter S. Thompson Trail in South America, follow me on Twitter.
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