An American in Cuzco and Pakistanis in Tacna

Give them a hint of a job or the scent of a business prospect, and they will go anywhere, sometimes with the instinct of migratory birds, no questions asked, no maps required.

(Daily Times, 17 July 2013)

If Machu Picchu is a reminder of a bygone era, a city of the dead, as it were, then Cuzco is a thriving old town alive with history.  What with its narrow lanes, cobblestone streets, flourishing markets, teeming squares and crowded churches, Cuzco belongs to the past but lives in the present.

The main road of this former Inca capital is closed off for motor vehicles on Sundays to allow the public a good time, a free rein, if you will.  And a jolly good time they have, coming out in large numbers in their ceremonial costumes, holding parades and playing bands in the main town square, young and old, men and women, and everyone in between.  It is a very colourful spectacle. The distraction nearly got me a driving infringement ticket. An Indigenous female police officer whistled me to stop and then warned me, rather sternly in Spanish, to “respect the law”.

There are throngs of western tourists in the narrow, sloping cobblestone lanes of Cuzco, some of which are so slippery from centuries of being trod on that it is easy to skid, slip and fall.  An American stood in a corner, selling “Cuzco Times”, an English periodical of which he is the editor, publisher and perhaps the sole contributor.  Michael Thomson had come to Peru in his fifties from the US with his wife and two little sons.  Seven years later, he is still here with his both sons.  The lady, however, couldn’t cope and left, though they are still in touch and she supports the children with money.

“Why did you choose to move here, rather than live in the US?” I asked.  Both he and his wife were making good money in the US but happiness eluded them, he explained.  “Are you happy now?”  Yes, though there are times, he said, when he wonders.  But, on the other hand, his wife who returned to the US isn’t happy either, he hastened to add.  Surely, happiness can be very elusive and it can be very much at hand.  Perhaps it is a state of mind, rather than circumstance. It has been said that the only way to be happy is never to compare oneself with someone else or even with one’s own self, like wondering “if only I had done this or done that!”.

From Cuzco we caught a bus to Puno, about 400 kilometres to the southeast, on the road to Bolivia.  It took us about eight hours on a very comfortable bus with an English-speaking guide, including two stops for sight-seeing (remnants of an Inca temple and an old Catholic church) and one for lunch.  About halfway, the bus crossed the La Raya Pass, 4,338 meters above sea level, one of the most spectacular I have seen.  Part of the way, on either side of the Pass, the Cuzco – Puno railway train hugged the road and played hide and seek with our bus, appearing, disappearing from view and then appearing again.

There is something surreal about the view on the La Raya Pass.  Perhaps it is the llamas and the alpacas grazing against the backdrop of snow-covered peaks, kissed by the clouds, and Indians in their colourful dresses and hats selling trinkets and other local handicraft.  Perhaps it is the knowledge of being in high country, in the bosom of the Andes, and heading to Lake Titicaca.  A titillating prospect, surely!

The southern-most town in modern Peru is Tacna.  It borders on Chile, though the Peruvian-Chilean border was much further to the south until Peru’s territorial loss to Chile in the War of the Pacific (1879 to 1883).  But of that later.

I had not heard of this little town until, within hours of our arrival in Lima, my Peruvian host told me about the Pakistanis in Tacna and their large mosque.  What?  Pakistanis in Tacna, on Peru’s border with Chile, on the fringe of the Atacama Desert? 

Well, actually it is true.  And not so surprising either. Pakistanis (read Punjabis) may not know much about geography (except the direction of “qibla”) or history (except highly selective bits of Islamic history), but give them a hint of a job or the scent of a business prospect, and they will go anywhere, sometimes with the instinct of migratory birds, no questions asked, no maps required.

I have met Pakistani “businessmen” at Urumqi airport in Western China and in Nepal’s Kathmandu airport who were unable to read or fill out the passenger card.  At a hotel in Shanghai, a young Pakistani approached me while I was waiting for the lift and desperately asked me how he could go to a certain town, of which I had never heard.  His intention was to join friends doing “business” there.  All he had was their work phone number but, it being a weekend, he could not reach them to get directions! 

Even as I write these lines, Punjabis (of the turbaned type) are flocking en masse to Georgia.  No, I don’t mean the US state of Georgia made famous by Jimmy Carter, which already may have more of them than one ever thought possible. I mean another Georgia, which few of you (or the Punjabis who are rushing there) even know exists, let alone where.  Yes, Sikhs are going in large numbers to the small, independent country by the name of Georgia, located in the Caucasus Mountains, not far from god-damned Chechnya.  Their professed goal: farming.

Anyway, back to Tacna.  Here’s what I learned through the Internet:  In 1995 about 25 Pakistani (again read Punjabi) businessmen arrived in Tacna, their business being the import of used cars from Japan. And, as is their wont, they soon set about constructing a mosque. Now the community is about 350-strong and the mosque, a rather large one at that, and appropriately called Bab-ul Islam (the Gate of Islam), stands proud and tall since its completion in 2008.  Allah be praised!

By Razi Azmi


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6 Responses to An American in Cuzco and Pakistanis in Tacna

  1. PK says:

    Now have you now crossed to Columbia?

    Nothing wrong building a mosque or a temple, for it serves as a community centre, place to share experiences etc. Problem starts only when immigrants do not show curiosity and take interest in local cultutre, national history , language ,arts etc. Faith to most people, often provides a moral compass and solace at times of sorrow and conflicts. It is needed. Then of course , one understands that first comes is to make a living above everything!

    But in modern times, display of religion on one’s sleeves and not loosening the umbilical cord to country of origin is a source of conflict. Add to this is the presence of an ill read priest who quotes blindly and then isolates immigrants from the national culture of adopted land.

    S.Asians are not even aware of some of these factors nor would like to find out. It happens even in more developed countries like Canada where so many S.Asians live in a bubble of ignorance- enjoying all comforts no doubt! Anyway, let us see how it will turn out !. All one can do is to wish them luck and happiness.

  2. Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur says:

    Respected Razi Sahib, you surely have a knack for weaving the tapestry that you of lands in beautiful words.
    A book of your travels would certainly be a treat.

    • Razi Azmi says:

      Thanks Mir, Carlo and Kipp for believing that my random tales would be fit for a book. I would certainly give it a thought. For now, I do a 9 to 5 job, five days a week, and that leaves me little time to think about or do anything other than, I suppose, travel and write the weekly column. I am off on a long trip in September. There is so much to see.

  3. Carlo says:

    I agree with Mr. Ali Talpur: do the book Razi! We want to read it.

    • PK says:

      Publishing a book requires lots courage and funding. Sometimes even Univs. Like California demand a sum of $500 for a quote of 5 lines! Editors demand $45 per hour. You are lucky if you can sell 5000 copies , perhaps, it is much less in Australia!

      Any way, let us wish Razi best of luck first!

  4. Jacob Kipp says:

    When you mentioned Puno and la Raya Pass it brought to mind Thorston Wilder’s novella, The Bridge of San Luis Rey.” The tale of the birdge’s collapse and the death of five becomes a test to a frair who witnessed the event of whether life is only random events or planned and planned by whom? The comment about the American family and couple that went to Peru to find happiness and ended up separated struck a cord with me and reminded me of Wilder and the question of love. Love as the answer to the Puritan’s strict God and his predestined plan for each of us with no place for caritas. As always your prose enlightens and inspires. I hope you will turn your reflections on your travels into a book that we can buy.

    Best regards, dear friend!

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