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We flew back to Quito and then to Lima, where we spent the night before boarding yet another flight. Stepping off the plane in Cusco, we sucked in our first breaths of 11,000 foot air on the way to a bus that would deliver us to the hotel. On the tarmac along with a phalanx of street vendors, a small, middle-aged Peruvian man darted amongst us, furiously snapping photos with what looked like an old manual film camera. I assumed he was an employee of the tour company.

The next day I discovered that the little camera man was just another entrepreneur. While we toured downtown Cusco and ate a fine dinner; slept in comfy beds and devoured a lovely hotel breakfast buffet; our little business man was busy developing film, gluing the images onto pre-printed postcard stock, locating our hotel, and figuring out when we would next be huddled en mass, awaiting another group outing. So there he was, at 10 AM, trying desperately to match the printed gringo faces to the real gringo faces before they disappeared into the bus. All that work for the equivalent of 60 cents per postcard! They are hard-working, these South American street vendors.

Enterprising photographer

Another enterprising fellow, Julio, tagged me in the town plaza a half mile from our hotel. He flipped through his portfolio of watercolors as he trotted beside me. I kept saying, “No, gracias Senor, no!” But he kept smiling and showing me more. By the time I reached the hotel, I could resist him no longer. I negotiated a ridiculous price and he rolled up two of his masterpieces in a hard cardboard tube so they would pack well. He gratefully accepted my American dollars and entreated me to tell my friends about Julio! Of course, he was waiting for me each time our group assembled at the hotel. Their communication network is uncanny. Another time when I came out of the hotel with some friends he was there again, waiting to follow me once more.

Julio

I pleaded with him. “No, Julio. Muy bonito, pero no comprarlo.” He grinned and stopped pushing his art, but he followed me, nevertheless, and began asking all sorts of questions. He apologized for his poor English, which was far better than my truly awful Spanish. We were quite involved in our bilingual conversation when one of my friends stepped out of a shop just ahead of us and asked Julio if he could change her $20 bill into local money.

“Oh, Si, I can, I can!” he announced as he darted down the street clutching her money.

We stood in a clot and looked at each other.

“Sue, you know, you may never see him again,” I murmured, feeling somewhat responsible.

“Well, if I don’t see him again, I’m sure he needs that $20 more than I do,” she replied.

I could have kissed her right then and there. We were about to give up when I saw Julio’s head bobbing through the crowded street. He was racing back uphill to deliver Sue’s $20 worth of Peruvian soles. She tipped him $5 for his efforts.

The street vendors were ubiquitous and persistent to the point of annoyance. I tried very hard to be kind and polite, but after days and days of heckling, it got harder and harder to deal with them. I began assuming the typical defensive tourist pose: stony-faced, tight-lipped, eyes focused anywhere but on the faces of the poor. The saddest of the bunch were the Chiclet chics: young women with infants strapped to their backs or clutching their serapes who carried a tray of mints and chewing gum. They were experts at presenting the poor-me, poor-baby façade. When rebuffed, their faces and demeanor changed like a dynamic digital billboard. But I never saw an empty-handed beggar. It was strictly quid pro quo.

As I reflect on this incredible network of street vendors I am in awe of their wit and adaptability. Like life forms on the Galapagos, these people have adapted to new circumstances. Those who can learn the basics of several languages will succeed. In addition to linguistic skill, they exhibit lightening quick math and finance skills. Without the use of a calculator, they know the exchange rate and spin out prices in both dollars and in soles; Then comes the bargaining: One for $10; two for $15; four for $34. But is that dollars or soles? They cleverly skip back and forth between currencies with an alacrity that leaves mere mortals in a dizzy spiral. I think most of us gringos thought we were getting a far better “deal” than we were really getting. That said, most of us didn’t mind. We felt a bit guilty about begrudging these impoverished people a few extra soles or dollars.

Another fascinating aspect of the street vendors is the incredible talent that some of them have. Everything from textiles to jewelry, tamales to wood carvings, whistles, key chains, stone and gourd art, there was beauty everywhere. And even without bargaining, the prices were outrageously low, which prompted nagging doubts about the veracity of the “artisans.” There are officially sanctioned markets where artisans contract for a booth. The freelancers roam the streets and sneak under the radar of the authorities. From one of the official sites I bought some carved gourds from a beautiful young woman who was intently carving while she waited for customers. Those are the only items I know to be hand made by an actual artisan. Rumors abound about factories that pump out tourist goods and farm the sales out to peasants to pass off as their own. One can never be sure.
Gourd carver

I can’t speak of the local people without also addressing my most surprising observation. Haute couture dogs! No…not hot dogs, well-dressed dogs. First of all, dogs of all sizes, shapes, and colors roamed the streets at liberty—solo or in packs of three or four. They were all friendly and appeared to be well fed. Some seemed to have a regular circuit: cruise the market, swing past the master’s hole-in-the-wall store for a brief acknowledgment, then back out again to find the buddies, enjoy a siesta in the cathedral’s courtyard, then out for evening rounds. During the night the strays behave like college kids: raucous, roaming, and looking for adventure—found, of course, in sacks of garbage in the alleys. With all these happy hounds dropping doo where ever they happen to be, you might expect to be dodging piles on the streets, but diligent street sweepers armed with brooms and dustpans roam the streets as ubiquitously as the dogs. I never once stepped in a dog mine. Contrasting these happy-go-lucky mutts, were an amazing number of highly groomed and over-dressed dogs. I never got over seeing these pooches stuffed into warm dog serapes or hot pink rain coats.