While I was waiting to catch a combi back from the ruins of Sipán this evening, I had a nice long chat with one of the locals, who comes there each day to sell his artesanias (lit: "handicrafts", i.e. souvenir shmontses). My friend explained to me how Sipán is a very remote and impoverished area, and how the discovery of the gold-filled Moche tomb in 1987 did little to change this in the long-term. He described how impossible it is for the locals around here to travel, or to have any real hope of getting out and doing something different with their lives, due to their very modest finances. And he also said something that really made me stop and think: "you tourists that come here are our biggest opportunity, and our only hope".
We got on to the subject of "the tourist economy", because my friend started explaining-slash-complaining to me, about how easy it is for us gringos to make money in our home countries, and about when we arrive here, we're suddenly rich beyond our wildest dreams. We get paid quite a lot in our Western countries (even for very basic and mindless jobs); and as the international exchange rate goes, our money is worth a lot in the developing world. Therefore, he said, we should feel obliged to help the poor locals when we come here, by purchasing their local artesanias, and by contributing to their economy.
"But we don't come here to buy your souvenirs, we come here to see your country", I protested. "When we visit your ancient ruins, and we get bombarded with locals offering us their wares, we feel harassed and irritated. Plus, you overcharge us for everything. Why should we buy it, then?"
"Because", he answered, "you don't realise that when you visit our ruins, you're visiting areas that are inhabited by some very poor people. You need to understand that if you buy their wares, you're providing them with an income where they otherwise would have virtually none. Unemployment is a big problem around here. Sure, we overcharge you, by our standards; but by your standards, you can still easily afford it. If you were in our shoes, wouldn't you do the same?"
Up until now, I don't believe I've really thought about "the tourist economy" in Peru, except from a rich gringo point of view. My thinking so far has been something like this: everywhere I go, random locals are trying to rip me off by selling me their tacky, often-fake "hand-made" souvenirs. I don't want what they're selling — I just want to go sight-seeing — and I don't appreciate the aggressive selling techniques that they generally employ, in an effort to part me from my money.
But there's another side to it. When you stop for a minute, and think about it from the locals' point of view, you get a very different picture indeed: I have nothing, and this rich tourist is loaded with cash. I can try and scrape a living from selling potatoes at the market, or from laying bricks seven days a week, or from a zillion other ultra-low-paying and difficult-to-find jobs; or I can sell some souvenirs to these tourists, and get 10 times more money than I would otherwise, and all gained 100% honestly from people who can easily afford it.
Not sure that I particularly agree with the idea of the locals thinking of us as their "golden opportunity". But I guess that for them, that's exactly what we are. Anyway, next time I see an old lady trying to sell me something I really don't need, I'll think twice before saying "no gracias", and walking away.