poverty, in landscapes of scarcity and abundance

I haven’t been posting any new writing in a while because I’ve been off getting married to the love of my life! Everything went amazingly with the food, pictures, families, and the party after the ceremony. I couldn’t have been a happier person on that day, nor will I ever be happier than I was that day – at least until some other huge life events.

We spent 10 days on our honeymoon in Peru. Many people asked us how in the world we chose Peru. The truth is that we found a great deal on plane tickets and it was cheaper than Hawaii. What sealed the deal was that we both had never traveled anywhere in South America and wanted to see one of the wonders of the world: Machu Picchu. As long as our horrible Spanish was deciphered, we could buy the lower deck seats on the overnight buses (top deck feels like riding in a boat), and could find some fresh produce to eat – all of which are not necessarily easy, then we did alright. People were helpful, the Plazas de Armas were beautiful and manicured, the mountain scenery was incredible, and there were plenty of tourists – Peruvian and foreign alike.

What most shocked me about the experience was going back to work the Monday after we returned from our honeymoon. Driving down areas near Grand Boulevard and Trumbull:

Detroit’s poverty hit me hard.

I know that poverty and urban decline in Detroit have become romantically connected to the grit of America and its loss of industry, but this was different. I wasn’t excited to see the “ruin porn” or the decay of Detroit’s empty landmarks. I was having true culture shock. Growing up near Flint, urban decay and vacant industrial buildings were nothing new. On this drive, however, I could see the downtown Detroit skyline from the expressway while on my left and right were neighborhoods falling apart and huge structures with broken windows and without any activity.

The stark contrast was the difference between the poverty of abundance and the poverty of scarcity. Peru is not a wealthy country. The country gets a steady stream of tourists from around the world due to its pivotal location hosting the Incan empire and its prized city on the hill, Machu Picchu. Beyond the Plazas de Armas and the tourist meccas, there are obvious signs of poverty. My wife commented that just two or three blocks away from the manicured Plazas seemed to be the boundary for where any wealth reached. I recently wrote about how Mount Kilimanjaro is known for having the highest percentage of tourist dollars go back into the communities nearby, Peru made me wonder where all the tourist dollars were going besides improving tourism. In every city, we were met with street vendors, but also women and children dressed in traditional clothing asking if we wanted to take pictures with them for a fee. It hurt to see because it seemed to be a selling of their spirit, their culture, but it was one of the few ways they had to get by. Taking the taxi from Cuzco to Poroy train station gave a clear visual of the layers of wealth and poverty based on access to tourist dollars. The housing became more and more rundown as we went further from Cuzco and down into Poroy, where the best looking building was the train station. On many long bus rides we also witnessed the vast, empty, barren spaces were dotted with square homes. The poverty of scarcity was obvious in Peru, but it was also mostly hidden from tourists.

Maybe the reason that Detroit’s poverty hit me hardest was because Detroit doesn’t try to hid its poverty. There is no large tourism industry in Detroit and buildings lie abandoned, burned out, and collapsed. Our honeymoon to Peru really highlighted the differences between poverty based in areas of scarcity and poverty in places of apparent abundance. Even while Detroit has a history of abundance, many could argue that it is just as much a landscape of scarcity.

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