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Batman por Cambio: the Peruvian Cape and Cowl

A few weeks ago, my fiance and I flew to Lima, Peru. We hopped immediately over to Cusco, where we would acclimate to the high altitude of the Andes. After a few days at 11,000 feet we would be ready to hike the Inka Trail. Our guide Jose Puma made it very clear: the acclimation process is vitally important. If you don’t let your body adjust, exertion can cause paralyzing headaches, shortness of breath, vomiting, and an overall general sense of illness. So we were stuck in Cusco for a few days.

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A series of observations during my trip had me so inspired to write this story that I actually scribbled the details on a piece of paper at the foot of the Inka Trail. I was so excited about this story that I carried that piece of paper for 26 miles on my way to see one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

We took a taxi from the Cusco airport to the Hotel Marqueses near La Plaza de Armas. I noticed a lot of posters and stickers for political campaigns. They were stuck on everything, and in overwhelming quantity. What really stuck out were all the Batman stickers. They were on taxis, store-front doors, and even city buses. Now, I love Batman as much as the next guy, but on a city bus? I was immediately obsessed. I had know: what's with all the Batman stickers?

The day we arrived, we were in an insomnia-tic haze. We hadn’t slept more than a few hours in days, and we ended up only staying awake for a few hours on that first Saturday. Our nap was consistently accented by the firing of black powder rifles -- five or six at a time. It seemed like some sort of festival. The next day, it all became pretty clear.  It was the Cusco Day Festival in the main plaza. There were dozens of heavily armed soldiers. Some, in fact, had gone as far as mounting suppressors on their machine guns -- from what I could tell, anyways. The festival started as a military parade in a square with grass so nice that it is illegal to walk upon. I hadn’t known that of course. I figured it was like grass anywhere else -- the gentleman in the big green hat kindly showed me the error of my ways.  It ended in a stream of tiny princesses and guys on stilts.

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The parade seemed like a Fourth of July celebration, but without any drinking or actual celebrating. There were more families marching their children about in odd costumes than there were people actually enjoying themselves. I was confused about the celebration, but it seemed awkward to ask. I was sitting on a bench with TJ House, watching the parade, when a local Quechua man named Alejandro asked me where I was from. My new friend informed me that this was not an annual celebration. This was a weekly celebration. Boom, splat, gorp -- my mind splattered against the inside of my skull. Weekly? The festival was enormous, and any actual enjoyment seemed somewhat forced. Having to do this weekly must be draining.

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The military had big weapons and tough dispositions, but their marching was disorganized, which made them seem fairly undisciplined. From my impressions of the U.S. Marines, if you can’t march correctly you sure as hell can’t fight correctly. So why the exaggerated display of authority? Why flaunt brute strength at a celebration? While some people seemed to be enjoying the show, the military presence made me a little nervous.

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From Alejandro’s bench I could see another local man with a sign. He seemed to be Quechua from his dress, and his sign implied that he was part of a local Christian organization. On one side, his sign said:

“Together, we can build a community government.”

It made my heart happy to see someone protesting with positivity at a patriotic celebration.

The other side of the sign read: “Don’t Vote for Corrupt Capitalists.”

Immediately, the government presence made sense. These soldiers were likely from Lima, and the protester's sign implied that politicians from Lima were being elected in Cusco and feeding Cusquenan taxes back to Lima rather than spending them on local improvements. The soldiers marched to the tune of corruption, and the festival seemed like a ruse to align the proud Cusquenas with a selfish political agenda.

I was back to thinking about the Batman stickers again. Maybe Peruvians are just sick of all the corruption. Maybe Batman is a Peruvian hero because he represents freedom from oppression -- hope. Maybe not.

We spent another day in Cusco before leaving for the Inca Trail. Getting out to the starting point of the trail would take a few hours by bus. We left early on Tuesday morning. The bus was the first vehicle we had been in since our arrival on Saturday, so again, I immediately noticed the excessive political signage along the roads. The signage was different as we left the city proper, though. All of the signs were hand-painted and each contained a pair of enormous symbols.

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Our guide, Jose Puma, explained that a large portion of the highland populace is illiterate. In Peru, it is legally required for all people ages 18-65 to vote. Until recently, even ex-pats had to vote remotely from wherever they were living, so it was natural to assume that the illiterate populations were forced to vote as well. The symbols are easily identifiable markings that illiterate citizens can check off on the voting ballot. Each candidate has his own marking: a mountain, a chaski (Inca scout), a shovel. I don’t know about you, but I always vote shovel. From the bus window, I saw what had to have been hundreds of hand-painted billboards. Each of them looked the same: Name, catch phrase, symbol. Ronon: por Cambio.

Over the course of the following four days, we would hike 26 miles. We hiked as high as 13,000 feet with insane dips and rises in elevation. The trail isn’t actually a trail -- it’s a limestone road. Little did I know before arriving, but the Inka nation was a well-organized powerhouse of cultural richness. They had sophisticated aqueduct systems, paved roads, and impressive architecture. Our hiking companions were mostly local Quechua folks (Inka decedents) who professionally hike the Inka Trail. Each of them carry 25 kilos and fly like devils. We talked during meals, though we heard more about them from Jose than anything.

Jose explained the history of the Quechua. Jose Puma was part Quechua and spoke with sincerity and passion about his people. His story was sad though, and I got the feeling that his people are still recovering from a history of Peruvian oppression that long predates Peru. It starts with the Inka nation. Their entire culture was burned, hidden, destroyed, and tucked away by the Spanish. The Quechua are Inka descendants, but know almost nothing about their heritage. I was enamored by the Quechua, and deeply sympathized with their experience.

Things were starting to make sense. The Batman stickers, the protester, and the political symbols were the same damn thing. But it didn’t click until I had spent some time with the local people. Our companions were kind, humble, and tough as nails. They wore constant smiles, and were grateful to be alive, but their eyes carried the burden of struggle and defeat. Batman is a reminder that people, not just governments have power, and that political corruption is meant to be opposed. I believed that Batman was a metaphoric symbol for a greater cultural movement happening in Peru. I was spot on, and yet further off base than I could have ever imagined.

When I got back to Baltimore, I hunted down my Cusquena friend Ivan. I had a lot of questions about Batman… and Peruvian politics. I was excited to hear that there is most certainly a cultural movement alive and well in Peru. Ivan explained that, until twenty years ago, there was no such thing as being “Peruvian” by culture. Now, there were a lot of people helping to raise awareness and push for a cultural unification of Peru. There is no aim to crush the Quechua identity. Rather to tell the greater story of all Peruvian peoples, including the Quechua.

When I told Ivan about the conclusions that I had drawn about Batman, he immediately laughed. He didn’t laugh because I was wrong -- he laughed because Batman isn’t just a metaphoric symbol for politics -- he is a literal symbol for politics. In 1992, a politician named Jhonny Vasquez Vinces ran for office in hopes of helping forge the New Peruvian Constitution. His political platform: Batman. He adorned the cape and cowl, got a lot of national press, gave out a ton of Batman swag, and ultimately failed to make the primaries.

Next time you’re at the ballot booth, remember to vote: Batman: por Cambio.