We are back in Cusco. We returned from Chile to Peru with time to spare before Paulina starts working in Huaraz and the parts I need for my moto arrive from the UK. So we are taking the time to catch up with friends in the nearby Sacred Valley.
Cucso is a beautiful and enigmatic city, despite being inundated by thousands of tourists all year round, drawn here primarily by the lure of nearby Machu Picchu. It was once the capital of the great Inca empire, which at its prime stretched north to Quito in Ecuador and south as far as Santiago in Chile. As great as it was, however, the Incas were no match for the Spanish Conquistadors. Armed with both superior weaponry and decidedly unscrupulous morals, they captured Cusco and eventually defeated the entire Inca Empire, colonising the city along with most of South America.
The striking colonial architecture that comprises the centre of Cusco – notably the two imposing, rugged cathedrals which flank the central plaza – was largely built from the stone of the Inca palaces, temples and other buildings which the Spanish had sacked. Whereas the architecture in other Peruvian cities such as Arequipa creates a distinctly European colonial atmosphere, the fact that many of the Spanish-era buildings incorporate the stones of the former Inca capital gives the city a greater sense of history, of continuity. Somehow the culture of the conquering Spaniards has been fused with the culture of those they vanquished; whilst the physical character of the city, with its basilicas, plazas and elegant arched cloisters, is unequivocally Spanish, the cultural character – the essence of the city – is still distinctly Inca.
Casting a casual eye around the central plaza, it is easy to feel transported several centuries back in time. There is even a peaceful air about the place despite being in the heart of a busy city; the traffic is surprisingly light and it is the only place I have encountered in Peru where the use of car horns is forbidden. As you would expect, the buildings flanking the plaza house a selection of shops selling high-end artisan goods, a few banks and money changers, and the odd tour operator. But look more closely and you will see the light but unavoidable footprint of the most recent colonisers – namely McDonalds, KFC and Starbucks. Granted, their normally obtrusive, deliberately eye-catching signs have been muted so as to blend into the surroundings, but nevertheless their presence is unwelcome and disturbing.
I have travelled in many parts of the world over the last two decades. Whilst doing so I have become used to seeing the spread of western capitalism and materialism, and the brands that act as the flag-bearers of these social creeds. When in the US last October, I learned that their are approximately 29,000 branches of Starbucks globally and that figure is only going up. Arriving in Santiago last month and the centre of Lima a few weeks earlier after a year’s absence, I was struck by the explosion of Starbucks – they seemed to be on every corner.
Yet despite accepting the inevitability of this relentless corporate colonisation, intent on sucking profit from any open pocket within reach, I felt a sense of mourning when I saw the green-and-white crowned siren staring down at me from the edge Cusco’s majestic plaza. Cusco is much more than just another global tourist mecca. There is something very special about the place. It transports you back to another era with ease and perhaps more importantly, it somehow harnesses and transmits the unique and potent energy of the Inca’s which so tangibly animates ruined cities and citadels such as Machu Pichhu. Cusco is different. Yet the emergence of another Starbucks outpost in this unique and special place announces one thing loud and clear – profit is king and nowhere is sacred.
During my travels, I have learnt that the world is a magnificent place due in very large part to its variety. That is as true for the world’s continents as it is for two villages ten miles apart in the same county. Sadly, our high streets have long lost any individuality, as chains and franchises push out the privately-owned shops which together created the individual character of a particular place. This alone is lamentable. But to find no escape from this tidal wave in places like the mountains of Peru is down-right depressing. Much like the Inca’s did, I imagine, when they found themselves surrounded by the ruthless, relentless and heavily-armed Conquistadors, it is easy to feel like giving up when constantly confronted by these modern day imperial powers.
A new branch of Starbucks in Cusco plaza may seem a fairly innocuous example of this neo-colonialism and perhaps you think I am over-reacting. But don’t be distracted by this very minor example. We do indeed live in an era of cultural colonialism and economic imperialism; and whilst the forces making a grab for our money and, in part, our souls are more subtle than the armies or ruthless trading companies of the imperial countries that came before, they are just as powerful.
Starbucks and the likes are merely the more visible out-riders. Unnoticed by most of us, corporate power and control is now rife throughout the world, including in our beloved ‘Free West’. The truth is we are far less free and democratic than we think. Corporate money, and thus power, it behind much of so-called democratic government. And corporate power controls most of that on which we rely upon – food, oil and other sources of power, banking, health, and mainstream media. Even a casual browse of the internet will throw up numerous examples of this, but as a taster (with a very bitter flavour), check out the innocuously-named Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP if you need convincing.
But what bothers me most about this phenomenon is everyone’s, including my own, complicity in it. I feel a deep-seated sense of objection when I see Starbucks planting its flag in yet another high street, and in doing so probably signing the death sentence of a local coffee shop around the corner. Yet the truth is, I am one of their customers. I, like nearly everyone else, have been seduced by convenience; I’ve fallen into the trap of valuing predictability, of feeling comfortable in familiar surroundings and knowing exactly what I am going to get when I part with my money. Hypocritical, me? Absolutely, guilty as charged. We are all becoming brain-washed, ‘robotised’, yet the process is subtle and goes unnoticed amongst the daily rush of modern life.
I stayed out of Starbucks and searched out another coffee-shop in Cusco today; on this particular occasion it felt too incongruous and, frankly, disrespectful to do otherwise. Had I been in Lima, Santiago or anywhere else, however, Starbucks would have been a tiny bit richer this evening, and I a little more hypocritical.
It’s a pessimistic story and I don’t have a silver bullet to change it. But all conscious change starts with awareness – of the world around us and of ourselves. At least I am aware that I’m a hypocrite, so now I can choose whether to do something about it.