Monday, February 8, 2010

Journey to the hinterland (HBS Peru IXP)

As I packed my bags in the early hours of a cold Monday morning, I wasn’t sure what to expect over the next two weeks. I was one of forty-nine students from HBS headed on an IXP to Peru. Amidst the cluttered array of my last-minute packing, I picked up the required reading for the trip, stuffed them into my bag and made a mental note to read on the flight. Having just returned from India a day ago, this would be the first time that I was heading to a new country without so much as having skimmed through the country’s wikipage.

We kicked off the journey in the capital city, Lima. Starting the day with a series of talks on the country and its industries, we ended it with a tour of some of the city’s most famous attractions and a dinner which introduced me for the first time to the gastronomical exquisiteness of this country’s cuisine. As I broadened my understanding – and not to mention, my belt – I was amazed at the depth of experience this culturally diverse country had to offer. I was determined to know more about the country before the trip to Caral the next morning.

Caral was an archeological site just outside Lima and one of the highlights of the IXP. Discovered to date back to nearly 2500-2000 BC, it was the most ancient city of the Americas and possibly the world. The road to Caral was long and arduous but the destination was arguably worth it. At Caral, the local Peruvian guides pointed out sites of interest, identifying some of the most important archeological findings and their implications.

But there was a reason I mentioned the destination was only arguably worth the trouble of getting there. Given the cultural significance of this heritage site, I couldn’t help but wonder why we were the only ones here. I compared the experience at Caral to a more recent trip I made to Stonehenge in England, an archeological site of which much is not factually known. And yet Stonehenge has turned its lack of information into an asset for curious tourists, serving as a mystery for all visitors to explore and try to solve. The mystery of Caral’s lack of tourist interest is perhaps not as elusive, and the respectful commercialization of one of Peru’s heritage sites was another project that we undertook as part of the IXP experience.

The next leg of our trip was to Puerto Maldonada, where we were spent two days nestled within the Amazon rainforest at Inkaterra, a private reserve surrounded by a vast jungle canopy. Forewarned about inaccessibility to telephone networks or internet, I was surprised to find my notions of ‘roughing it’ in the jungles of South America give way to a decadent indulgence in the lap of nature’s luxury. The lodges were by no means rudimentary. Although there were trifling inconveniences, Inkaterra is an example of successful eco-tourism. The more-than-generous room rates support the rainforest conservation efforts and research initiative of the hotel. The questions of sustainability, replication and far-reaching impact are tougher ones to answer.

One of my most memorable highlights from the trip was the rainforest excursions. We set off in the morning on the canopy walkways: a series of narrow hanging bridges that link eight observational platforms. Heavy rain played spoilsport for most of the morning, dashing any hopes of sighting exotic birds, monkeys, sloths and what-have-yous. But even the persistent downpour could not take away from the experience of floating amidst a sea of green leaves and interlinked branches forming a misty canopy in the sky.

The lake excursion in the evening fared better weather-wise, and we set off for a ninety minute journey along muddy trails that led straight and narrow into the depth of the Amazonian unknown. The morning’s rains had only served to turn the dirt path into a squelching river of thick wet mud, massaged by the marching boots of forty-odd HBS students and the local guides. At the end of ninety minutes, when the cake of mud had climbed to the top of my boots and remained precariously perched on the rim, the mud trail cleared to the mouth of a water stream, where four wooden boats lay tethered. After washing our boots we clambered into the boat and snaked our way down the meandering stream to where it opened into a vast clearing of the most serene pool of water, enveloped by a fringe of green trees and thick vegetation on all sides. The rains of the morning had receded, causing the animals of the rainforest to make an appearance.

Catching the last rays of the dying sun, the lake seemed awash in a warm glow as we circled our way around it, spotting spider monkeys and macaws and caymens and a myriad of the most exotic species. Who knew that Peru had such breathtaking beauty to offer? One of our guides mentioned that the forest excursions we embarked on was through the primary rainforest – trees that had never been cut down – unlike most tourist-visited rainforest areas that have been disturbed in some way and re-grown (secondary forests). Why then is Peru not on the map like Brazil or Costa Rica? It was another piece of the puzzle that we had set out to discover during the IXP.

The final stop on our journey was at Cusco – a popular stop for most tourists to Peru. Partnering with local students, we embarked on a field study, surveying the local business owners to understand the underlying essence of life in this hybrid city. The social tensions was palpable: the feelings of suspicion against international businesses, the resentment at being treated as second-class citizens in one’s own homeland, the shockingly apathetic attitude toward government involvement – or the lack thereof. Was this the price of liberalization? Is the birth of political stability only borne in the dying embers of protectionism? Are natural resources truly the ‘curse’ of developing nations?

Perhaps these are problems best discussed in the hallowed temperature-controlled rooms of Aldrich. Perhaps not. Perhaps opinions are most honestly forged – and challenged – precisely through field exercises like these. A crucial component of our learning experience dealt with uncovering the darker sides of rapid industrialization. Despite that old joke that a HBS alumni is frequently wrong, but never uncertain, I found myself unsure of which side of the fence I lay on. The only emotion that I held with any certainty was a deep respect for the entrepreneurial spirit of the people of Cusco, which in another context, could perhaps be described as foolhardiness. Or desperation.

The crowning piece of the journey was the visit to Machu Picchu. Considered "an absolute masterpiece of architecture and a unique testimony to the Inca civilization", the world heritage site was rediscovered at the turn of the last century by an American historian and has since remained Peru’s most visited tourist attraction and major revenue generator. Journey to the peak is either by the ancient Inca trail – a trek of three days – or by the quaint, though comfortable, Peru rail. As we journeyed by train from the higher altitude down to the town of Machu Picchu, the pale curtain of misty green slowly changed to the unmistakable thick, densely-packed foliage of the rainforests. After the train-side, a short bus-ride along winding roads circled its way up the mountain, where we then donned our rain gear and trekked to the top of the archeological site.

One of the most familiar symbols of the Inca Empire, Machu Picchu (meaning ‘old peak’) is often referred to as the lost city of the Incas. As I stood at the peak, watching the thick fog unfurl amidst the mountains and the rolling clouds play hide-and-seek with the stoned buildings of the Incas, I couldn’t help but marvel at the architectural sophistication of this ancient civilization. Why is it that only 400,000 tourists visit Machu Picchu, dwarfing the 6.2million to the Eiffel Tower? It was the final piece of the puzzle that we would hope to solve in Peru.

On the final day in Lima, all the groups presented their findings. Some parts of the puzzle were easy to piece together, others were more complex, scratching the surface of deep issues that required the coordinated efforts of the powers that be. Our goal was to explore, uncover and analyze each separate piece and understand how it linked into the whole while making our recommendations.

The professor crystallized the IXP experience when he said at the end of the journey – “when you are pleasantly surprised by an unexpected experience, you can consider it a happy accident. But when those unexpected surprises crop up again and again and again.... one asks then if it really is a series of happy accidents or whether it is a deeper, systematic failure that has widened the gap between perception and reality.”

I had set off to Peru without much notion of what to expect and was greeted by a series of happy accidents. Along the way, my experience working with the local students, long conversations with native business owners, first-hand experience of its cultural and natural beauty – and not to mention, the best part of the journey for me personally, its delectable cuisine! – had left me with as many questions as I came in with. Only this time, the nature of those questions was such that they could not be easily answered and I hope I have the opportunity to understand them more fully in my remaining time at HBS.

On the flight back to HBS, case discussions, section events and what-have-yous, I was already aware of how the two weeks had refreshed, relaxed and rejuvenated me. I arrived in Boston with the best remnants of a successful learning experience – an insatiable curiosity to learn more. And a deep, deep contentment for having sampled the other side of what HBS had to offer.


Yes, I know, this is not truly a post. I will return to the blog. I promise. when I have time.

Le sigh.


Ashok said...

Photos or it didn't happen.

compos mentis said...

I left my camera on the desk. grr, don't even ask... I am so infuriated with myself.

Geetika said...

That sounds like a very enjoyable trip. Would have loved to see more pictures, but you do create a good visual nonetheless :)

Who is the YST? said...

hi lavanya, michelle here....loved reading ur blog on peru...made it seem like i travelled there just by reading it...

deep said...

This seems like an excerpt from a record notebook,too perfect to relate to. Like pride and prejudice. But worth a nobel if you know what I mean. An account of what happened more than an experience. As impressed as I am with your tweaked writing skills, I miss the old you who *blogs*.

Anonymous said...

@geetika: it was!

@mich: thanks!!

@deep: sigh. this one is up only cuz I had to write it for another audience - hence the slightly brochurey language. my old blogs? i hardly get time to sleep, much less write :(


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