“Dude, just tell me the price” is what I want to say but never do. Grabbing the labels and shaking is another tempting option, and another that I don’t do. Gathering information at the community-level is at least a test of patience, at most an unproductive pursuit.

After two years serving the Peace Corps in a small town in Panama, I got good at indirect conversation and indirect statements. For example:

“OK, I’ll be there” = “I might go to your meeting”

“I’ll go if it isn’t raining” = “I probably won’t go to your meeting”

“We’ll see” = “I’d rather punch myself to sleep than go to your meeting”

Responding to direct, blunt questions makes most people in Latin America uncomfortable and doesn’t tend to yield useful information, particularly in the country. This was fine during my service, since I had plenty of time to learn what people actually meant, and to continually revisit issues that people tried to avoid talking about. Unfortunately, while I gather off-the-beaten-path adventure travel information for Keteka, I don’t have that kind of time, and I’m dealing almost exclusively with small-town community members in the country.

Occelle, Coporaque, Peru, Arequipa

The Occelle amphitheater in the Colca Valley

The past few days, I’ve been taking vans and hiking to small communities in the Colca Valley – an extremely popular tourist destination outside of Arequipa city in southern Peru. Tourists come to see the Colca Canyon and the famous condors that fly through it. While the entire valley is beautiful and contains many towns with tourism potential, local operators, the tourism bureau, and subsequently the tourists, have fallen into the habit of pursuing one or two well-traveled routes through the valley and neglecting the rest. Not the worst thing in the world, but tourists and small towns alike are missing out on the chance to connect.

Which is why I’ve been visiting the small, overlooked towns. And which is where I frequently want to grab community entrepreneurs by the collar and demand straight-forward information. Think of this from the perspective of an American: I show up at their house and tell them that I’m writing a travel guide and that a local Peace Corps volunteer recommended their horseback trip or hike or homestay or whatever, and that I’m going to include them in my guide, free of charge, free of any further effort except answering my questions about a business that they already run. All I need is the information and a few pictures so I can publish it. Seems straight-forward, right?

Absolutely not. If we wanted to talk about how much rain the valley’s received lately, or what their neighbor Edna has been secretly doing on Friday nights, that would be straight-forward. But as soon as I ask them how much they

Panama, Peace Corps

Coaxing Information

charge for an hour of horseback riding… “Well..” “See, the thing is…” The thing is what?! You’ve done this before and there’s an hourly price and I just want to know what it is! Is another thing I don’t say.

Again, if I had more time, this wouldn’t be an issue. Two years of country living in Latin America taught me to coax information out of somebody, but not while in a rush (there basically was no such thing as ‘rush’ during my service). But now, I’m pursuing an ambitious travel schedule that is often restricted by uncontrollable factors like public transport schedules and weather. And as much as I sincerely enjoy talking shop with country-folk over a cup of overly-sweet coffee (seriously, I love it), I just don’t have the time.

So I’ve basically settled on being what I know to be a little rude and a little overly forceful in my pursuit of information. Turning down a cup of coffee is already a major faux pas, turning down a cup of coffee and then asking multiple blunt questions is downright rude. But hey, they get an online presence and the chance to receive more tourists. Hopefully that makes up for my Batman-esque  inquisitions: