Arequipa, Peru · Nazca, Peru · Chifa el Sol · On the bus · Cast of characters · Start · Lima · Lima night · Olaf and Pierre · anticucho, picarone, y chicha · Street life · Floods · Arrived in Lima ·
I'm in Arequipa, taking at least one week of intensive spanish and staying with a host family. It's a very cool place... At 2300 mts high they say the sun is as strong and hot as in Africa, which they call "dulce calor." The light is pure and bright, and in the Santa Catalina convent, the main attraction of old city, with the walls painted azul and terracotta, bright red geraniums and silvery green succulents, snow capped peaks of the Sierras visible, it has to be one of the most photogenic places anywhere. Alas there isn't the hardware where I can upload my digital cameras here...
It's so true that time stretches in traveling. The first few days are great and you're a sponge absorbing everything around you. But the flip side... after a week in any place, you become blind to some of what you liked so much in the first place. After a week in Lima the pleasures all but disappeared for me; after a few weeks in Switzerland even the Alps became humdrum. Then you have to either move on or change perspective and learn to see new things, and it's easier to move on... so it's a bit of a curse too.
It's always a little strange to fulfill a goal set so long ago... from an idea planted who knows how in one's childhood, and seemed impossible to reach for all that time. And now I've done it... I've seen the Nazca lines. It doesn't change my life... but I've thoroughly enjoyed the experience. The four person plane, including pilot, was the smallest I've been on and have been slightly nervous about since yesterday, but the ride was perfectly calm and I did not feel queasy. We were one of the earliest planes to be off in the morning, and the primodial desert landscape and the mysterious lines were ours alone. The land is so impossibly barren, it's hard to imgine any civilized settlement, and to hear in the BBC video later that the lines were a prayer, or other means for water, it's incredible and sadly futile. (Then again, our greatest monuments can all said to be monuments to futile goals, be they the ideals of victory, peace, equality, or abundance.) For any purpose... the lines are beautiful in themselves, and on the flight back, the poor farmlands closer to Nazca seemed positively lush in contrast. The earth will always be our greatest canvas.
Though chifas day in and day out does not lead anywhere, she does not see going back. This must be more of a desert for her than for me. I know that she and I are in different places in the world, I know of her envy. I felt people are trapped in the ways of their families. Her diminutive figure, the tiny face with long straight hair that sticks close to it, belie the size of her desires for a bright future, that neither the past nor the present could lead her to.
The lunch was on the expensive side, though I only asked for rice and stir-fried cabbage. I paid it with a feeling of sheepishness as if I was paying for the stories.
Being on the bus has put me in a remarkably good mood. My Spanish is indeed getting better, and talking to people, no matter how difficult or unnecessary, is indeed the thing. Then it's just the openness, the long road, the vast ocean often not so far from the highway. Places in the country, anywhere in the world, can be remarkably similar. Everyone who passes by these places in a long distance bus is in a remarkably universal mood, I think, and so are the people they pass: every boy playing with a puppy on the village main street is not so different from each other, and every young family walking home on the long country road in the dusk has the same burdens and desires in their minds.
The coast is quite barren, like the cost of Mexico and Baja California. It is poor... the shanty towns outside of cities are just like Mexico's, brick shacks, adobe shacks, even dwellings encased only by sheets of straw. The never finished buildings of shantys make them look like ruins, and the abundance of TV antennas in every which angle reminds me of those low angle shots in period movies, of a battleground after the massacre, swords and spears like toothpicks on the bodies.
The mist, which finally started to lift today in Lima as I was leaving, covers much of the coast as well, and the coast line is monotonous. But it is still beautiful... a good background for the syrupy sweet Latin love songs as our bus rolls by.
A completely vegan, no salt (no condiments), no lemon, no fried anything kind of girl who has a cigarette occasionally. A Peruvian musician who plays heavy metal and reads tarot cards for a living. A taxi driver who lost his youngest daughter in a car accident. These are the cast of characters on the stage today.
One always has to start before she feels ready. There is no other way.
The cold and the damp make one unnecessarily tired and Lima is starting to push my nerves. My Spanish is one step forward, two steps back... and the city I'm too used to by now to appreciate. Interesting discoveries are still there--yesterday's Rafael Larco Herrera museum, with its unique pre-Inca erotic pottery collection, and today's stately Franciscan monastery and chilling catacombs. On the city streets it is always a glimpse of a beautiful courtyard that catches my attention, like an oasis in the desert that in many ways is Lima. Sometimes the building surrounding the courtyard is so dilapidated that the garden is a little like a burial place for the edifice. The literature I'm reading, by Cesar Vallejo and Peter Mathiessen, are influencing my view of Lima for the worse.
The night is alwys so light in Lima, the cloud cover the color of black velvet on the wrong side. No stars, no moon, only reflections of city lights everywhere in the gray mist, a bit David Lynch-esque. The eucalyptus groove, so precious in Lima, is beautiful in a surreal way, a bit ominous in its stillness, even the birds have gone to sleep. In this mood I hear more about the darker sides of Peru, from the young, slightly spacy anthropologist who's anxiously awaiting a plane a leave. It's a good conversation by all accounts... rambling, but not without some depth, and moments when we were well in tune. My enthusiasm for being here initially wanted an echo in Pierre, but soon gave up and is fine with it. This may not be the best place in Latin America, but it's where I needed to be. In Peru, in Lima. The drone of machinery never stops, however, and the undying horns in the street bring anxiety. Yes, smaller towns and villages are in my near future and could not be soon enough. Cities are so often too much... love/hate relationships are tedious, and I don't have to have such with nature.
Olaf and Pierre, two extrodinarily smart and young anthropologists that I've come to know and went out with last night, are certainly interesting folks. (In these parts they almost become a different category of people... are you a gringo, or are you an anthropologist?...) They studied related peoples in the Amazon, and naturally downplay the day to day nature of their work, the part that astonished most people. But the stories are there... the bush planes transporting anything that need to be tranported, including a dead cow that some used as a seat; the missionary who spent a life time translating the bible into the local tongue, only to have it completely disregarded in the end, used as toilet paper, that he develops an ulcer in his last days. Pierre is warm hearted but a cool observer of the world, quien no tiene sus pies sobre la terre (who doesn't have his feet on the ground). He commented that I respond to everthing with "interesting...," and I countered that his generic response is "why not?" Olaf, the German who's fluent in five languages and has all of his address book in his head, is a gather and communicator of all sorts of knowledge. We talk about that only 2% of amazonian plants are known to modern science; about genetic alteration of foodstuffs; about the push to revert the 1970s era entitlement of land to indigeous Indians, the ignorance then and the much more evil disregard now; about the seduction of material and visual culture; about how it's hard to be optimist about any of these things; about what would make a difference (laws and a change of world order). His inquisitivenss and ability to retain information are nothing short of astonishing.
I'm a bit too tired from intensive Spanish and from checking out Barranco, the suburb of Lima closest to the sea, late last night to be coherent. That's the problem with staying out late... everyone over a certain age knows there's a price in the near future. The night is precious for the price yet unpaid. Uh oh, here I go again, waxing poetic. Should just remember the sensory details... The slightly salty smell of the night air by the water; across from it the lit-up cross, so far yet so large; the infectious Latin dance music, the young man dancing on the table, a girating column of muscle shirt, bare midriff, throng underwear visible above very low-slung camouflage jeans; and the excellent Peruvian delicacies at four in the morning: anticucho, cow's heart as a kebab; picarone, a soft donut-like dough lightly fried and served with syrup, and chicha, the famous sweet drink made from purple corn. I'd have them any time.
Peruvians call the kids on the street that gather around tourists piranas, after the flesh eating fish. The people selling to cars at traffic lights are called venadors ambulantes, and there are always throngs of them. The traffic cops are always young woman, who suffer general disregard by drivers in addition to the incredible fumes. The buses are always very full and the taxis are so many they're always empty; on the sidewalks people are walking, buying and selling, eating, talking on the public phone, meeting friends and chatting. Everyone is always on the street.
I saw that "O Brother Where Art Thou?" is translated as "O Hermano Donde Esta?" I like that.
I learn of floods in Europe, flooding Mala Strana (old town) in beautiful Prague, where I was only one month before. This is very sad news. There is flood in China as well, many dead, and here too the weather has not followed the seasons. The whole climate is going bonkers, this much we know.
Nothing to complain about, quite a lot to like. I feel a sense of relaxation, a relief really, of being in a developing country again, a place that reminds me of China, and all developing countries in their mundane details remind me of China. The streets are dusty but otherwise clean, the traffic fills all available space in the street, the buses with conductors hanging out and yelling about their route, the street vendors selling everything under the sun, even the typist with his tool. I'm meeting nice people everywhere... need fresh questions in Spanish to ask cabbies. Transportation across town plus English lesson for $2, not so bad.
The first full day here has been more than full. I pass up the opportunity to travel with a big group of brits, nice as they are, as the size of the group bring a conspicuousness that's not my style, let alone such slowness. I chose the company of anonymous Limenos instead, who have been some of the nicest people I've come to know. With every cabdriver, every shopgirl, every cop you meet on the street, there has been an exchange of warmth and humanness. We all know what an incredible and precious thing this is. (Especially after Europe.) There is more positive energy here, if one were to take "Celestine Prophesies" more to heart.
The public places are full of young lovers, as in all Latin cities. (Brendan this is for you...) The woman and girls are of a natural beauty, with flowing shiny hair, dark and lively eyes, natural curves. Coastal fog covers Lima all of winter, so unfortunately the sweet young things are under covers as well rather than in revealing summer finery. But the Peruvians are a down-to-earth people, and I sense the young people rarely get so hip as the youth of developed nations to have their natural beauty coverd by artificial glamour. Only once did I see someone absolutely striking. With wavy long hair oiled and pulled back into a pony tail, he had decorated the two strands closest to his face with beads of carved silver. The face they framed is angular and handsome, a high straight nose, with skin that seemed polished--one is reminded of an Indian warrior. I felt the urge... to ask to take a picture of him, a portrait, I had black/white film in my camera which was perfect. But it was a busy street corner with a lot of people waiting for the taxi collectivos, and shyness got to me, though all I wanted was a picture. I regret this now... such an Adonis probably lived for pictures and public attention.