As the bus climbs the long hill out of Cusco, a man stands up in the aisle at the front of the bus and fiddles with a portable mic and speaker system attached to his belt.
“Amigos lindos,” he greets us, “beautiful friends, thank you so very very much for being so kind as to gift me a small bit of your attention and precious time”.
While every day now, like a linguistic advent calendar, I uncover small delicious morsels of language, I have finally arrived at the point where I cannot choose to be deaf to the chatter around me. In this moment I would like once again to be oblivious; in the ten minute preamble to his inevitable pitch I have heard enough to know that this salesman’s speech is everything that I dislike about the Spanish language. It is pure earnestness mixed with nauseating supplication. His respect for us as an audience and his gratefulness for this small tiny precious bit of time is linguistically laid on as thick as the mayonnaise on a Chilean hot dog.
After ten minutes of complimenting us as parents, children, workers, travellers and of wishing us good health, safe travels, and fine weather he finally gets into the meat of his pitch.
“How many of you, beautiful friends, have a televisor in your home?” The audience isn’t prepared to participate and so hands are slow to rise.
“Well, beautiful ladies and fine gentlemen, please be so kind as to let me inform you of a recent scientific study that says that, due to the violent and sexual content in many television programs today, our children, yes that’s right my beautiful friends, our children, are more violent and prone to dangerous sexuality than ever before”.
He bows his head.
“I too have children,” he tells us, “and I will not deny that I too have used the televisor as a babysitter. My children are not perfect nor am I.” He lets this admission have its full possible impact on the audience and then straightens and holds up a finger. Even without words his message is clear: there is hope.
“Amigos lindos, with your generous permission, allow me to introduce you to something that will change the way you live.” He bends down to open a black suitcase at his feet. The audience is studiously feigning disinterest but there is an almost imperceptible shift as necks are craned every so slightly in order to see what comes out of the man’s bag.
He stands up and with both hands holds out a dvd case toward the crowd.
Despite the buildup and the dramatic presentation, it is difficult to communicate here just how uninspiring the idea of a life-changing dvd is in that moment. Not a single person in my range of sight looks even vaguely interested. The guy beside me leans his head against the window and closes his eyes.
Undeterred or oblivious, the salesman carries on to describe to us, point by point, the content of the three encyclopedic dvds and they way in which this educational material will almost certainly make our children and ourselves into better human beings.
I tune out entirely for the explanation of the first disc, human anatomy and for most of second, science and technology. As he discusses in detail the historical progression of our knowledge of the universe I spend ten minutes wishing I had a window seat.
We have reached the altiplano above Cusco and the mountains on the other side of the sacred valley soar skyward, jagged and snow-capped. In the fields on either side of the road, herds of llamas and alpacas are tended by women in colourful skirts and sweaters, their bowler hats dark against the bright blue sky.
In order to showcase the third disc, human civilization, the man reaches into his suitcase again and pulls out a pink portable dvd player. He pops in the dvd, walks us through the first couple of menus and holds his own microphone up to the machine’s tinny speaker.
Even from the middle of the bus the image on the small screen is unmistakable. As the camera pans out over the ruins of Machu Picchu the narrator’s voice fills the inside of the bus.
“Although it lasted for little over two hundred years, the Inca civilization was one of the most advanced in history”. The scene changes to a dramatic reenactment of indigenous men harvesting grain from a terraced mountain.
“Intricate architecture, a complex system of government and experimental agriculture are just three of the many things the Incas developed high in the Andean mountains all the way from Ecuador to Bolivia”.
The irony of this situation is impossible to ignore and the dilemma tangible; how does one sell the knowledge of someone’s own culture back to them? And, more importantly, why? The man pauses the dvd and surprises us all with a little pop quiz.
“How many people,” he asks, “were on the Incan high council?” People around me shift uncomfortably.
“Nobody?” he probes. The guy next to me mutters the number fourteen under his breath and leans his head back against the window.
“Not a single person?” he acts surprised and disappointed as he closes the dvd player, his point apparently made.
“Well, along with many other things, amigos lindos, you will learn that the Incan high council consisted of fourteen men and that they worshipped the sun as their supreme God”.
Across the aisle, two small girls sit bathed in the high altitude sunshine that pours in through the window. The smaller one gnaws on a bright purple potato while the older one braids her hair into two long black braids. Beside them their mother plays with her cell phone and absently fiddles with the long silky tassles at the ends of her own waist length plaits.
The message is unspoken and crystal clear.
Who are you to tell us of the greatness from which we have descended? Who are you to decide what things our children should know?
Forty five minutes have gone by since the beginning of the pitch and the salesman is impressively undeterred by the palpable lack of interest. Terraced stone ruins are visible above us on the hill as we pull into the first small town. When we come to a stop the man thanks us all again for our generous attention. And, without having made a single sale, he gets down off the bus, crosses the road and within minutes climbs onto a bus going in the opposite direction. Through the windows I can see him take his place at the front and fiddle with the speaker on his belt. Amigos lindos…
Six hours later we climb off the bus, sticky and sweaty in the surprising heat of the jungle. Along with a couple from Madrid I begin the hike along the river into the town at the base of Machu Picchu. We crack ourselves up by saying amigos lindos three times in every sentence.
“But really, amigos lindos” says Natso in his lisping Spanish accent, “it’s like the guy has no idea that you can look all that shit up on the internet…”. He shakes his head in disbelief.
The road we walk on is in shadow now but sunlight still bathes the tops of the mountains that once were believed to be gods. As we round a bend in the road, the valley opens out ahead of us and I watch my feet move over the uneven ground. And above all else there is this, I think, to simply follow the trails where feet have fallen for many thousands of years.