One of my main motivations for moving to Cusco, Peru last year was my eagerness to experience all the differences between my European background and the Latin American culture. I also wished to seek the roots of the culture I found myself surrounded by upon my arrival in Peru. I hoped to do so by immersing myself in the works of contemporary Peruvian writers and foreign scientists, as well as in those of the 16th century chroniclers, who were the first to write about the Incas and their customs. For me, as a literature student, reading traditional literature and the country’s classics was automatically the way to the heart of any culture.
Therefore, after visiting the cathedral on the main square and what remained of the once glorious Temple of the Sun, my footsteps led me to a bookshop that was recommended to me. Located in a typical colonial building in the city center, the bookshop seemed to be the nest of all I needed—until I approached its shelves. Along the walls of the little shop I saw glass, and behind that glass sat my dreamed-of chronicles and scientific publications on pre-Columbian Peruvian civilization, labeled with price tags demanding ridiculous money from me. The average cost of one of those books greatly exceeded my daily Peruvian salary.
I thought the museum-like nature of this first bookshop—with books exhibited as artifacts and priced equally—must have been due to its location in the heart of the city. I left with no concerns and with a strong determination to look elsewhere.
Strolling down the streets of my new hometown, however, I struggled to find any more booksellers. It was indeed a sharp contrast to the historical center of my hometown—Prague, Czech Republic—which was infested with little bookstores and antique bookshops. The latter were my particular favorites, as in front of them, cardboard boxes with heaps of books (which the shops failed to sell and thus displayed on the street, demanding about fifty cents per book) concealed hidden treasures of Czech as well as foreign classics.
After a couple of unsuccessful attempts at the solitary little bookshops in the tourist areas of Cusco, I finally wandered into the big bookstore on the city’s main street. Here, at least the glass had vanished, yet the books were still far from accessible—they were wrapped in plastic, and their price tags were equally as repulsive as they had been in the smaller shops. Taking a few books in my hands, I realized that they were priced so highly because most of them were imported from Britain, Spain and America, rather than being published in Peru.
All in all, I found myself in a bookless culture. When I visited some of my more wealthy Peruvian friends at their homes, I saw valuable sacred paintings, but never spotted a bookshelf anywhere. My own collection—five books I had managed to squeeze into my luggage when moving—was smiling sadly at me from a windowsill in my apartment, ready to be extended. Indeed a pitiful state, considering that during my last years at home, books had been my tenacious companions. Every day dozens of books would flow through my hands, and tall shelves would constantly surround me, whether it was in the school library or my own collection, sprawling along the walls of my living room.
Now, in the seemingly bookless Peru, without the appropriate literature, I felt I was left with no means of fully exploring the local culture. But ironically enough, one of the most significant elements of the local culture, and one of the biggest cultural differences between my birth country and my new home, was sitting on my doorstep without me even noticing it: the disparate attitude towards books and writing.
In Europe books gleam with the aura of wisdom. I remember sleeping at my grandparents’ house when I was a child, an enormous bookshelf by my bed. I was still unaware of the magic concealed in books; but even back then, my subconscious demanded respect for the silent wisdom of the written word. A respect for books seems to be automatically engraved in every European, whereas in Peru that is hardly the case.
“You’re forgetting that you’re now living in a culture that lacked writing until the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors,” a friend reminded me when I started venting to him about the high prices and unavailability of books. “Pre-Columbian cultures had no writing whatsoever, whereas your culture has been praising writing and books for millennia.”
I had to admit that he was right, and upon that realization a new desire was born inside of me—a desire to question the descendants of the pre-Columbian tribes about their attitudes to books and writing; a desire to try to get to know the way of thinking of an illiterate culture.
The other day I came across the perfect opportunity. While sitting in a tiny pub in Chinchero, a little village outside of Cusco, trying the local maize beer called chicha
, an Indian spotted my foreign white skin and immediately approached me. As the conversation uncoiled I remembered one of my pet peeves.
“It all starts with the different beliefs about raising kids,” the Indian said, sipping his chicha
, which eventually formed a little moustache above his slowly moving lips. “How do your children learn? They are taught things from books. Our children are different: they learn by seeing, by living.
“You can notice the difference at first sight—your women carry babies in a stroller, where the younglings can’t see anything. Our women always wear children on their backs so that the child sees everything the mother is doing, and that’s how the child learns. We believe that what you learn from books is not real, and that you can only learn by seeing and experiencing.”
“That’s why you have no writing then,” I said. “You don’t need it.”
“That’s right. All we need to know, we learn by seeing and experiencing. We don’t, for example, need any Bible like you do; we don’t need to read about gods. We feel them. They are energy that is everywhere and you cannot learn that by reading, but only by feeling. If you read about it, it is no good and you learn nothing. All ‘energy’ disappears in writing, it only exists in feeling.”
“But reading can evoke a feeling,” I said.
“But is that feeling really necessary?” the Indian said to me, the dark skin of his face revealing wrinkles as he smiled. “Isn’t it just distracting you from feelings that are more important in life?”
As one studies modern books on the Incas, one discovers they did leave a lot of reading material, though not necessarily in written form. Modern scientists are constantly trying to decipher the message hidden in their architecture, pottery and particularly in their weaving, which has survived from the Inca times.
It seems that whereas the Western culture strictly separated manual and intellectual labor, the Incas did the opposite, combining the two to such an extent that it is impossible to say where one stops and the other begins.
So rather than getting overwhelmed by a sudden disillusion concerning literacy, I instead became aware of the different shapes and forms it can take. Writing was created to convey a message, but it doesn’t mean that it is the only means of doing so. On the contrary, we can in fact “read” many things that surround us without necessarily making the link between the object and the literary value it may conceal. Jakub Hankiewicz has taught English for four years. After graduating with a degree in Czech and Czech Literature in his hometown of Prague, Czech Republic, he moved to Cusco, Peru to continue teaching English, as well as to pursue his career as a freelance writer.
© 2013 Jakub Hankiewicz. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise. Language is Our Heritage, But Will it be Our Legacy?