The region of Piura is unique to Peru in that it’s quite isolated; a province lopped off from the rest of the country by hundreds of kilometers of Secha desert. It took two taxis, one plane, and three buses to reach my destination, but two and a half days after leaving Lima, I finally arrived at a makeshift bus-stop in the town of Paita. Nicola, an old friend, was waiting for me. It had been 14 months since I has last seen her in the fertile foothills of the Nepali Himalayas, and the contrast could not have been more stark.
When I first met Nicola, I was half a writer, half a vagabond scratching a living around South Asia. She was an anthropology student from Lima stumbling around the region after being kicked out of her Canadian father’s place in Dubai. She’d seen the words “Kathmandu, Nepal” written on a napkin and decided that was reason enough travel there. By sheer chance, we were staying in the same neighborhood. One afternoon, she loaned me her copy National Geographic and we hit it off.
Nicola was thinner and darker now, having spent the past two months living in a fishing village in rural Peru. I assumed the opposite was true for me.
“So what exactly are you doing here?” Nicola finally asked, midway through a meal of fish and papas at a nearby restaurant. I’d tried to explain my project countless times since arriving in Peru and it was never quite picked up with the same enthusiasm as it was back home.
“I’m here to take portraits.”
“For a magazine?”
“No, it’s a creative project. I received a grant.”
“But in Piura?”
My draw to Peru was easy to explain; my choice of Piura – one of hundreds of equally unexplored Peruvian cities outside the tourist hotbed of Cusco and the surrounding highlands – was far more difficult.
“Because you’re here.”
She smiled and turned up her palms.
“I’m glad you came but you might find it more difficult than you think.”
After a few months of research in the fishing towns, Nicola had still to shake her outsider status among those she tried to interview for her thesis. She mentioned that just the other day, she’d been yelled at for taking a photograph of a boy she often played with. Earlier, the boy’s father had accused a Spanish NGO that frequented the region of only coming there to “prove how poor we are” (it seemed, to him, that they were visiting the villages to play with children but did not offer much more). Although I knew my intentions were different, I wondered if I’d be given the chance to convey this. Without language or knowledge of local customs, I would surely struggle – even more than Nicola.
Being a tourist is an inescapably political act. The sheer act of showing up somewhere makes three bold statements: i) I was able to leave my own country; ii) I was able to come to yours; and iii) I have a reason for doing so (the “reason” so often left to others’ imaginations). When you travel to a famous site or city, what you hope or intend to see is clear; when you venture off the tourist trail, however, your intentions become more blurry. Moreover, the way in which are received is decided by the region’s residents alone and, more often than not, that decision is based on previous experiences.
Heeding Nicola’s warning I joined her on a bus to Yacila. I fingered my camera bag as dunes rolled into cliffsides and held it like a secret, pressed firmly to my chest. Photography, at its purest, is an exercise in empathy. I hoped I could channel that in these coming weeks. The little town on the horizon was too small a place to fail.