Summer Trip to Peru: A Doctor’s Impressions of Cusco

Summer Trip to Peru: A Doctor's Impressions of Cusco, PeruOur summer trip this year was a medical/dental volunteer excursion to Peru. We signed up through an organization called ‘United Planet’ which tries to match students and professionals with a destination in need. It was great, since we got to stay with a host family (wonderful people) and we took Spanish lessons in the morning, and did clinic work in the afternoon.

Everyone seems to refer to these folks as the Inca people, but technically the term ‘Inca’ was reserved for the very small population of people who served as the ruling class. All the others were known as Quechua, and most people who live outside of urban areas still speak dialects of this language exclusively. They are still pretty mad at Pizzaro.

We were based in the city of Cusco, which, at 10,800 feet, is apparently the longest continually inhabited city in the Western Hemisphere. When Pizzaro conquered the city in 1532, he had already ransomed the Inca king for two rooms of silver and one room of gold. Once ransomed, of course, Pizzaro killed the king and his entourage and took over. Some historians consider Cusco to be as close as the Spanish ever got to finding ‘El dorado,’ the fabled city of gold.

The ruins of the old city, what remains of it, are really pretty impressive. The Quechua saved their best construction for their Inca ruling class, and their walls were large chunks of irregular basalt and granite, scribed together without any mortar. Amazing, really, if you consider they never smelted iron and did the whole thing with stone tools. Peru is along the Pacific ‘ring-of-fire,’ but the earthquakes since the Spanish arrived only knocked down the colonial buildings, not the Inca walls.

Contemporary Cusco relies almost exclusively on tourism for its economy. Brilliantly colored wool is woven into all kinds of garments and crafts, and it’s practical since none of the buildings are heated, and the average temperature is around 50 degrees.
In this city of 300,000, there is very little private auto ownership, but lots of taxis and buses and walking.

We loved the people. My wife and daughter did a lot of extractions and root canals and were also able to do some cosmetic restorations, much to the delight of the local staff. I was basically helpless without an interpreter, but still managed to get some things figured out and kept my eyes open to the local herbal treatments.

The first chest x-ray I saw made me jump just a bit. After the first hour in country I knew the locals had big hearts, but one look at an x-ray confirmed they literally had big hearts, too. The most amazing four-chamber enlargement I have ever seen. And she was just there for a stubborn pneumonia. Someone years ago had donated an oximeter, and I stuck it on her just to check. Resting pO2 of 72%!! And not even breathing hard.

Anyway, for having so little oxygen to breathe, they sure work awfully hard. We saw more proof of this when we spent a weekend in Machu Picchu, the most famous tourist destination in Peru and close to Cusco. Another ancient, intricate city with the marvelous stone walls and elaborate terrace farming and irrigation channels. Another case where the pictures don’t even come close. I can’t imagine them building those cities at that altitude without iron or hydraulics. Amazing.

We got called home three days early. My father-in-law, a dear gentleman of 85, fell and broke his neck and died. Fortunately, he didn’t feel a thing, and nearly the whole family was able to get together. Despite our grieving, we were able to feel that special good fortune about being Americans. Being able to see, touch and temporarily feel how the majority of the world’s population lives reminds us just how lucky we are, and how hollow our complaints sound when we voice them. It also reminded me why our Native Americans might still be a little upset.

And they are still pretty mad about Pizzaro.

Richard Malotky is a family practice physician and devoted outdoorsman who lives in Redding, California.