I hope that whomever is reading this, and wherever you are, that you´re having a wonderful day. I am currently super sunburnt, yet centered and happy - writing from my hostel in Cusco, Peru. This post will reflect on Ayacucho. This proved to be the most eye-opening stop, and I am very thankful for my time there, despite my ignorance and poor attitude upon arrival.
Ayacucho is a city in the middle of the Peruvian Andes, halfway between Lima and Cusco. I first heard of it at 2am at the Peruvian boarder, when I found an informational brochure while waiting in line to enter the country. The town looked beautiful, and there were llamas on the cover, so my sleep-deprived mind decided to add it to the itinerary. During the first two days, I regretted that decision. The city itself was quite large, which I was not expecting, and exploring it was a bit lackluster compared to the excitement of the other places I previously visited. There were very few tourists, which was made it challenging to get enough people on board for a natural excursion. The city was also under quite a bit of construction, which made my first night a sleepless one. I was fortunate enough to evade altitude sickness, but I got very homesick because I didn`t meet any other travelers. It was challenging, especially because the wifi service at the hostel was very poor, so I didn`t have good contact with home. In summary, after two nights I was in a bad mood and considered leaving a few days early to see Cusco sooner.
That morning, things began to change. I had a mood-booster dance party and decided to try again, and to engage in a more constructive activity than just wandering the city aimlessly. So, I looked in my guide book for a bit of historical context or advice on Ayacucho, and was stunned by what I found. It was the hardest hit town by Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path, which was a maoist insurgency that swept through the outskirts of Lima in the 80s and 90s. I learned about this group within the context of the Cold War and different social movements in Latin America at the time, but completely forgot that Ayacucho accounted for most of the movement`s deaths and forced disappearances, most of whom were young men. With this information, the things that previously confused me about Ayacucho began to make sense. There were tons of hostels but very few tourists. The town center hosted a beautiful Plaza de Armas and a rich colonial history, but a majority of the buildings were new brick constructions with little effort to modernize. It is very close to Lima, yet still pushed to the margains of the Andes. Finally, when just wandering the streets, you see way more older women in traditional dress than older men. It all made sense. The city is thriving, yet is still working to rebuild and re-establish itself, while bearing the scars of armed conflict.
The guidebook mentioned a museum dedicated to the relationship between Sendero Luminoso and Ayacucho, so I went over there to learn more. My cab driver took me across town for free, because he was so excited that I wanted to see the museum. It was small, but incredibly humbling and surreal. It hosted portrait photos and brief biographies of many who had died or disappeared, as well as many of their personal belongings. It also had a torture cell replication and buried body replication, like those found in harsly built mass-graves. These things were challenging to see, but gave important and personal context to the historical period. In addition to the challenging artifacts, the stories and portraits of those who lost family members during the conflict gave me hope. Even today, many are fighting for justice, answers, and government accountability in an organization started by women in 1983, la Asociacion Nacional de Familiares de Secuestrados, Detenidos y Desaparecido del Peru (ANFASEP). They built the museum, a memorial park outside of the museum, a safe and sacred burial site for the bodies of their loved ones, originally thrown into mass graves by the insurgency. The story of these women were incredible, and their hard work has ensured that this event will never be forgotten in Ayacucho.
During my remaining time there, I met many incredible native people, relied very heavily on Spanish, ate a lot of delicious and inexpensive food, and embraced my inner history nerd. I look forward to returning, and am very thankful for my time here. From here on, I will spend 5 more nights in Cusco, and will post about my experience here when that time comes to an end. Wishing everyone a happy Valentine`s Day, full of love both for yourself and for those around you.