Sunday, July 31, 2011

An Ode to the Snail

July 31, 2011 – Snails

In Which I Unveil Just How Strange I Really Am
Several weekends ago Katrina and Oswaldo came out to the Casa Del Gringo to visit me. We are going from our picnic spot back to the house when Katrina pauses at a tree to admire a snail.
I admire snails on a regular basis myself. There are some that live on the underside of the giant leaves in front of the table where I do most of my writing and editing work during the day. They just hang out there all the time. Probably pondering deep thoughts, solving world problems, communicating with aliens, perhaps shaking their tentacles in bewilderment at the U.S. debt crisis. I talk to them at times when I need a break. I talk to lots of things that can’t hear. Snails can’t, by the way. I think this is because they don’t have ears.

Katrina makes a friendly passing comment about snails and I say in response (with an amount of emotion that surprises even me), “Snails are just wonderful!” Because just at that moment I’ve realized that they are.

One of my friends once told me, “I’m just getting used to your idiosyncrasies.”

I’ve got a lot. For instance, in the spice cabinet I used to have in my house, I liked for all the labels to face the same way and for the bottles to be artistically and evenly spaced. There was no touching. It was a very precise arrangement. That same friend knew this and he’d open the cabinet, give me a devilish look and shove a few bottles up against each other and turn their labels any which a way.
“I can handle it for a little while. I can even sleep through the night knowing what you’ve done,” I told him. “But rest assured that the next time you come visit those bottles will be back the way they’re supposed to be.”

Most of the time I keep my OCD tendencies in check, but occasionally I foster them, like in the instance with my spices. I also have a strange obsession with toilet paper. I used to buy the 24 roll packages from the store and hoard them in my laundry closet. I couldn’t stand the idea of running out. And I was the only one living there. If given the chance I’d have had a ten year supply of toilet paper on hand at all times. I don’t know why this is.  
In addition to my housekeeping weirdnesses I have a deep and abiding love for earthworms.

They’re so tremendously amazing. In Colorado when it rained I used to walk frantically up and down the sidewalks where I worked picking up the waterlogged worms so they wouldn’t get scorched to death by the sun when it came out in full force, and putting them back on the dirt. As my grandmother’s grand-neighbor says, “Earthworms are good for the world!” And they are.

I also have an unconditional love for honey bees, despite the fact that once I got stung on the tongue by one who’d gotten into a can of soda I was drinking.
Now, after making my statement to Katrina about snails I realize they’ve just joined my list of favorite things. And I hardly know anything about them. I do some online searches and learn. “Some people love snails and find them to be very fascinating,” says This describes me to a T. “Others though don’t enjoy them and find them to be quite gross.” This is probably in part because of the fact that snails leave trails of slime wherever they go. Slime might be a little gross. I’ll grant that. But this same slime allows a snail to travel across rough terrain without harming their very delicate bodies. As Darwin, my Machu Picchu guide said about the natural springs the Incans used, “AMAZING!”   

“Where are you from?” My research is interrupted by one of the Casa Del Gringo guests. He’s Canadian. Yesterday he’d come on to the main house’s patio looking for sugar. “Tienes azucar (do you have any sugar)?” he’d asked.
“Oh,” I replied in Spanish, pulled from my editing work back to real life, “if you need something, you’ll have to ask Jose. He can help you find whatever you need. I think he’s just over there.” I pointed across the lawn.

The guest asked me something else. I blanked, my face got that dreaded deer in the headlights look. I hadn’t understood a word. Lord, was my Spanish that bad?
“You don’t speak French?” he asked me then in English.

Oh thank the gods, he’d asked me in French! Though it hadn’t been, “Parlez-vous français.” That I do know.
“No, I don’t. I wish I did.” And I really do. I’m about half way through reading The Possessed by Fyodor Dostoyevsky and the whole book is littered with French and I feel like an outsider when Verkhovensky says all manner of witty things in the language of love and romance and I’m left in the dark.  

“I thought I detected a French accent in there,” he explained, and then trundled off to ask Jose for some sugar.
“You speak Spanish with a French accent,” he tells me again tonight after I tell him I’m from the States.

“I must not look quintessentially American,” I tell a snail after he’s gone. I’m glad. Not that I don’t like my country. I do. But there are things about the stereotypical American that I’m glad aren’t assumed about me.

The snail doesn’t answer. I don’t take offense. First off because I know snails can’t hear, but because sometimes I don’t answer either. There’s power in silence at times. Also snails are loners. This I understand because sometimes I’m a loner myself. There’s tranquility in being alone. However, there are great things that come through being with someone as well. I’m sure the snails know this too. But they don’t seek each other out very often. And when they do engage in nature it’s never in an aggressive way. They tend to live their own existence (according to without bothering each other. That’s a species trait that America might want to consider adopting. That’s a trait that humanity might consider adopting.

We should learn from all the snails of the world. We could too, if we just sought them out. “You will find,” says in its Facts About Snails section, “that there aren’t any shortages of snails around the world.” I’m encouraged by this information.
I read on and find that snails and I have a lot in common. I’m a vegetarian, they’re herbivores. They eat plants, fruits, vegetables, and algae. So do I. How similar we are, Helix Pomatia!

The one place we really differ is in our relationship to the sun. I’m a sun fanatic. There’s not much I love more than basking in the sunshine and letting my thoughts run rampant. Snails, because of their sensitive, slimy skin, can’t abide much sun and usually seek out shady spots in which to chill out. I’m usually most active during the day. They’re actually most active at night. I’d love to see that activity! I bet it’s hopping!
This afternoon I’m sitting out in the grass acquiring more freckles and half reading The Possessed and half thinking about climbing the avocado tree to get more avocados while Jose is showing some potential guests around the property. There are three ladies and two little girls. The little girls chase each other across the grounds, laughing joyously. I watch them for a while.

The girls put their hands in the swimming pool splashing the water out on the cement. They run around to the poolside swing and take turns pushing each other. When a squadron of squawking green parrots fly overhead, the girls look up in amazement as if they’ve never seen anything like that before. Maybe they never have.
Not very much later, the group is done with their tour and they all head back to the car.
“Quien es ELLA (who is SHE)?!” the oldest little girl asks with a delighted intensity when she catches sight of me.

“Quien eres tu (who are you)?” I ask her back.

She runs over to me, a huge smile coloring the page of her whole face, and presents her cheek for the Peruvian cheek to cheek greeting kiss. Her cheek is soft against mine. Her kiss a real one instead of just an air kiss. She stands back to look at me. Her little sister follows, though she’s too shy to play the greeting game. I pat the littlest one on her belly and she’s satisfied with the attention. Content, they both trot off.
Oh to be like a child always. Uninhibited. Accepting. Happy.  

Oh to be like a snail doing neither harm nor excessive good. “Who are YOU, snail?”

Now, in this moment, with the day gone and the snails getting ready for their great nightly adventures, I get ready to go to sleep and bid the snails happy nocturneling and smile at the last thing I read from my Snail Fact Site. “The snail has a very small brain which is known to have four distinct sections to it. They have more of an ability for thinking though than most people give them credit for.”

I’ll give them credit for thinking, those marvelous and slimy creatures. Never underestimate the snail.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Judge Not Lest Ye Also Be Judged

July 29, 2011 – Judge Not Lest Ye Also Be Judged

Some people are just better off not drinking. Walter is one of these. When he drinks he becomes a bully, just looking for someone to push into tears. He hasn’t tried this with me. Not yet. Hold up, now that I think about it, he did try to rile me up after that Harrowing Drive home, asking me about money matters and my futures plans. He intentionally goaded me about not getting on with adventure trips. I didn’t take the hook. I nearly did. I remember thinking at the time, “He isn’t my dad. These aren’t questions that are his to ask. He wants to get my goat, he’ll have to work a little harder.” For a moment though, he’d made me feel inadequate and I wanted to fight back, to justify myself, until I realized I had several pokers in the fire (he talks a lot in clichés and I’m afraid it’s catching) and I was working to do what I wanted to do. I also had seen in his eyes that he was spoiling for a fight. Nuh-uh, brother, find someone else to fight with.
Today, Friday, he has his friends over for a BBQ and he drinks some Pisco.
Maybe he has some rum. He’s getting louder, but it seems like he’s having fun. I’m not really paying attention because I’m enjoying the sun in my own spot. I’ve laid out a towel in the grass away from the pool and away from the guests. I’d thought about just catching a little bit of vitamin D before getting back to work on Walter’s memoirs, but it doesn’t happen that way. Not today.

“Hey, they’re missing you,” Walter tells me as he walks by. His friends Lawrence and Terry whom I’ve met are here. Terry’s girlfriend Fiorella is also here. Cosmo, an American who I meet for the first time today though I’ve heard his name before in conversation, is here.
I pack up my books and leave my private sun spot to go join the party. “I didn’t mean to be rude,” I tell them, “but I didn’t want to crash your party.”

“Oh no,” Fiorella tells me. “Join in.”
These aren’t my kind of people. They’re good people, I bet. And sure, I can blend in, somewhat. I can make conversation, but there’s no comfortable silence. There’s no easy camaraderie. There’s a pressure in the air that says “It’s better if you’re rich. It’s better if you have a big house. It’s better if you make up your face and wear the latest style of boots.” They don’t think the way I think, their concerns aren’t mine, and vice versa. They’re commercial, I’m minimalistic. They’re the upper crust, I’m the middle of the pie. Maybe they’re better and I’m worse. Or I’m better and they’re worse. Or maybe there’s neither good nor bad, but thinking makes it so.

I put in my time. I make small talk. I even drink a couple fingers worth of rum on the rocks prepared for me by Cosmo. In my mind I’m thinking of other things. I’m not really being in the moment. I’m wishing for this sun with different people. The kind of people I can laugh with.
Their meat gets grilled and they all flock in under the covered patio to get their food. I’m alone by the pool. Left with my thoughts to myself. For a moment.

Terry walks by on his way to get something from the house. “My email is,” he tells me. “Write me a note so I’ll know how to get in touch with you.” He’d asked me a little bit earlier how long I was going to stay in Peru. I’d told him I’d most likely be in Lima for at least another six months after August 31st.
I think I need to learn to lie. To certain people.

Maybe I’m reading him wrong. But he comes off bad to me. His twenty-four year old (he’s in his 50s), fashionable girlfriend is less than one hundred feet away and it feels like he’s coming on to me. I don’t assume every interaction with the opposite sex is a come on, but from him… well.
When he walks back by he asks, “What’s my email?”
I parrot it back to him. I wonder if Fiorella knows about this email address.  Walter had told me she gets really jealous and keeps a tight leash on Terry. She’d have to, I’d thought, he’s not really the trustworthy type. I wouldn’t trust him. And okay, I know my email address isn’t the best, but at least it isn’t
“I expect to see an email from you tomorrow so I’ll know how to reach you,” he says. “When you’re in Lima then I can entertain you.”

I just raise my eyebrows at him. 

While the whole party is filling their plates, I go into the house. Geraldine and I talk while she’s washing dishes and I’m waiting for it to get late enough for me to make my own dinner. Geraldine and I talk a lot on a daily basis. We talk movies, culture, language, music, world events, animals, weather, travel, religion, politics, pretty much anything. She gives me the 411 on a lot of things. She’s a great source of information.  She’s a terrific conversationalist and the closest thing I have right now to a Spanish teacher. She’s given me her impressions on Walter’s friends before. She likes Terry, she finds him to be funny. “He gives me a hard time about not knowing any English,” she’d told me before. “I ask him when he’s going to learn Castellano.” She doesn’t mind the mild flirtations. She can brush them off.

Now I lean up against the counter. “I don’t know about Terry,” I tell her. “He’s a flirt. I mean, his girlfriend is right here and he’s asking for my email?”
“I don’t think he meant it like that. He’s good people,” Geraldine contradicts me. “He’s not the same as Señor Walter. He’s all right. Señor Walter is good too, don’t get me wrong, but Señor Terry, if someone needs money he gives it. Sometimes Don Walter will say he’ll help out but,” she closes her hand into a fist to signify stinginess. “But, no, Señor Terry is good people.”

By their deeds you shall know them?

My personal opinion is that Terry tends to come on stronger to girls who speak English.
“Another English speaker,” he says when he spots me at the Casa del Gringo today. He doesn’t speak any Castellano even though he’s been in Peru for the last twenty years. Since Geraldine doesn’t speak any English he has no reason to really go after her. Or maybe I just don’t like his looks and for that reason don’t take to his perhaps innocent flirting. If I found him more physically attractive would I be less judgmental?

Or if I hadn’t heard Walter talking on the phone with him earlier that day about bringing a female coworker with him instead of his girlfriend would I be more inclined to feel amiable towards him?
“Did you sleep with them?” Walter asks at one point in the phone conversation.
I’m listening, not necessarily intentionally, but it’s hard not to hear because Walter’s voice is loud and carries through the screen door to where I’m sitting outside.
There’s one part in The Dawn Treader (a book in the Narnia Series) when Lucy intentionally eavesdrops on a conversation between a few of her classmates. In the course of the conversation Lucy hears one of the girls say something against her and thinks that the girl isn’t really her friend. It turns out that the poor girl had just felt pressure to fit in with the mean girls and really liked Lucy. But for Lucy because of her intrusion on the conversation, and the fact that she can’t distinguish between thoughts and words, she never feels the same way toward her friend. After Aslan chastises Lucy for what she’s done and told her the girl’s real thoughts, Lucy wishes for the rest of her life that she could undo that moment. But she can’t and their relationship carries a taint from then on.
I’ve often wondered what would happen if we really knew what others thought of us.
Would the discrepancies be too hard to deal with? Probably. Because we can like someone and hate them at the same time. We can admire and be jealous in one thought. We can want one thing from a person and deny the desire when they ask us. We can be with our best friend and wish for a moment that we were alone. We’re contradictory and complex creatures.  
Maybe I’d like Terry better if I knew he hadn’t first met his current girlfriend when he’d been out with his then girlfriend. Maybe I’d like him better if I knew he hadn’t been married four times already. It’d be better if I could like him while knowing these things about him. But I can’t.

While Geral and I are just chilling in the kitchen, Terry comes in. He and Geraldine exchange their jabs in their own languages. “I don’t know what he said,” Geraldine tells me. But they’re still communicating. They’re having fun.
“Geraldine doesn’t love me anymore,” Terry tells me with a pathetic tone.

She looks at me. I tell her what he said.
“She doesn’t love me anymore,” he repeats.

“It’s because you have Fiorella,” Geraldine says, teasing.
“Well, I have her on the weekends for sure, but I’m free during the week,” he says.

I translate. I give Geraldine a look that says, “You see what I was talking about?”
“Tuesdays and Wednesdays,” he tells her. “That’s when you could be with me.”

Now Geraldine gives him a look. “I couldn’t do that,” Geraldine says.
“That’s because you haven’t been with me at night yet,” he tells her and then turns quickly to me, “don’t tell her what I said.”

I’m not protecting him. I translate. You don’t want to get caught saying something bad then you best not say it, I think meanly. I feel a mite like the pot calling the kettle black as I write judgments and opinions. I know I’m no angel.

But also I think I’d say these things to him directly. Does that make it okay to write all this?
I often wonder what people think of me. Not just good things, but like a descriptive summary. I’m a writer. I think in paragraphs. I write people up in my head. I characterize them. I write myself up in my head. If I could leave behind my own desire to be liked how would I describe my character? In fiction the more complex a character is--the more flawed--often times the more interesting they are. How interesting am I? Am I willing to reveal me to the world as I see myself? In all the dark reality, not just dwelling on the résumé-type good points, how would I describe myself? And if while describing myself, would I ever really make myself out to be bad?

I am a girl who values freedom above family, and yet, at the same time, I’d give up my own happiness to ensure my siblings (especially) had happiness for the rest of their lives. I have the capacity to love with an intensity, but I am selective of whom I let in close to me. I am at times completely selfish. I can be uncommunicative and sullen. I have the capacity to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. I can see two sides to every story, even mine. I view the world with the excitement of a child. I am both naïve and jaded. Sometimes I hate people. I don’t want to be jostled, bothered, or talked to. Sometimes I ache so bad for the pain of others that I want to do anything for everyone. I want every person to live to their fullest potential. I want to be the best at anything I do. I have moments when I doubt that anything I do is worthwhile. I hold myself to a high standard of achievement. My biggest asset is my ability to accept people exactly as they are. My worst fault is my arrogance.
Does that tell everything about me? Of course not. That’s just my own view of myself in this moment. And probably only a partial view with still the majority of thoughts being good ones.

Walter to me is different to me than Terry. He’s no angel either. I know this for a fact. I’ve got my own opinions, naturally enough, based on my own experience and by what I’ve heard him say and seen him do. But then as his ghostwriter I also see many of the parts of him no one else sees. I know a lot more about his life because I’m helping him record his memoirs.
Lots of people have asked me if Walter’s life is interesting enough to write about. Anything can be interesting, I think. It just depends on how you tell it, right? I plan on writing a blog about snails. But yeah, he’s had an interesting life. Some of his behavior is abominable. Some of it is admirable.

Today he’s abominable.
He calls Geraldine outside, and for reasons I’m still not sure about, he reams her upside and down in front of everyone. This enrages me. I got reamed by a boss once in an inappropriate manner and for a reason that wasn’t my fault so I know what it feels like. I’m mad at Walter because I know he gets more aggressive after a few drinks. I know he picks fights when he’s got alcohol running in his blood and in this moment Geraldine is the easiest target.

He makes her cry.
She comes back into the kitchen and stands in a corner trying to get composed. I don’t bother her. I know that when I’m trying to get composed it helps if no one gets sympathetic. Mary comes in and pulls Geraldine into a hug, says comforting words. Geraldine doesn’t hug Mary back, but she also doesn’t push her away. When she has a chance, Geraldine leaves and goes to the small room she has at the Casa del Gringo to cry for a moment, I imagine, and then to stop crying.

I finish up the dishes and start my dinner.
“Where’s Geraldine?” Walter asks as he comes into the kitchen. He gives me a hug. The angel side to his bi-polar personality.
“You made her cry,” I say flatly.
“I’m not done with her yet either,” he says.

“I don’t know where she is,” I lie.
He leaves the room.

Mary breezes in. She can tell I’m mad after I tell her, “He shouldn’t have talked to her like that in public. She’s got this whole place to run on her own and here she is washing the dishes from his BBQ. He expects her to do everything all at the same time.” I don’t like that he sometimes treats her like a servant.
I have authority issues. I know this.

Mary tries to smooth things over. She’s mostly drunk on Pisco. She’s talking loudly to me in English. “He gets like this when he drinks,” she says. “But at the same time, this is a job that requires you to be able to multi-task. Geral knows this.” She gestures wildly, “I like Geraldine. She’s good people. She’s been here a long time. She knows a lot of things that happened in the past. I used to cry on her shoulder. I don’t want anyone else to come in and take her spot. I like Geraldine. I told Walter not to fire her right now. To wait at least until tomorrow to think things through.”
I stir my vegetables.

Mary breezes out. A little bit later she breezes back in. “Don’t say anything,” she says, putting her hand on my arm. “Don’t get in the middle. Don’t say anything to Geraldine about this.”
It’s good advice. I don’t like playing sides. I never have. But I’ll say it like I see it if asked. I remind myself not to talk bad about Walter to Geraldine when we talk later. They’ve worked together for a lot of years. It’s not my place to get in the middle of a work place situation. Mary is right, it’s better not to get in the middle.

When I can I retreat to my room. The drama plays out. I can hear it. Walter is loud and mean when he’s drunk. I don’t want anything to do with him right now.
Eventually all his guests leave and the house quiets down.

“Que drama!” I’d told Fiorella when she came into the kitchen where Mary and I had been talking.
“Oh this?” she asks, “This is usual. This is normal. When I first started going out with Terry and hanging out with his friends I thought, ‘Oh my god!’ But now, it’s no big thing. It’s always like this and it’s always fine in the end.”

Some people live for the drama. Me? I don’t like to live it; I just like to write about it. And I prefer it when the pain is all fictional. C’est la vie?

This morning, Saturday, I go out to my “office” on the front porch. Walter walks past me and puts a hand on my shoulder. “Employees have to have a tough skin to work here.” He says it as if to apologize and justify his behavior of the day before. I don’t respond.

Some people just shouldn’t drink. I think Walter is one of those people.
Geraldine has the weekends off. I’ll check in with her some other day. For now I’ll edit Walter’s memoirs and write the things that come into my own mind and post it for all the world to see. And then maybe even then, it’s a good thing for a Mean Girl to keep her Mean Thoughts to herself.

Friday, July 29, 2011

A Grand Tour of Downtown Lima

July 24, 2011 – Not Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon in Downtown Lima

In Which I Appear to Be Very Judgmental and Don’t Tip the Mean Dog Man

Rodney and Larry are waiting for Katrina, Oswaldo, and me in front of the Basilica Cathedral of Lima. We’re only five minutes late. That’s early if you’re going on Peruvian time.
We greet each other South American style with cheek kisses and exchange how-de-dos. Perhaps it leaked out that I’ve been in Peru for two months and not yet seen Downtown Lima in the daylight, or more likely, I think, Rodney, who takes his friends on tours of Downtown Lima wanted to show us--his writer friends--around. Over the years he’s gleaned more city history than most Limeños know. His previously-toured friends have told him he should do his tours on a regular basis and make money while he’s at it, but he says he prefers to take people he knows and potentially likes, and do it only occasionally. It’s nicer that way. This I understand.   

K, O, and I haven’t been inside the cathedral. We eye the opening with curiosity.            

“I’ve already seen it,” Rodney tells us. “Go ahead and take a look around and when you’re done we’ll get started on the walking tour.”

Larry comes inside with us for a minute. We stick together at first and then we find our own areas of interest and part ways. The side rooms are full of pictures of Christ, the Virgin Mary, the stories of the disciples, strange and grotesque images of the saints and their tragic ends, of the Spanish conquest, of gaudy, gilt-rimmed altars, and of graven images of the sacred ones.  

Mass is in process. The faithful line the pews and make the sign of the cross and mouth along to the Hail Mary. The words are intoned by two different men. The rhythm of their voices becomes nearly hypnotic, droning, and a little bit scary.

“Santa María, Madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros pecadores ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte. Amén.”

More than the paintings and the garish statues, I like the arched structure of the ceiling and the intricate, grand doors with their great knockers. Oh yes, I know that sounds irreverent. But check out the doors for yourself and you’ll perhaps agree with me.
“Santa María, Madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros pecadores ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte. Amén.”

I stand in front of the confession booth.

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” I think. I’m not catholic and I only know this confessional beginning from research I did for a novel a friend and I started to write before he moved to Afghanistan and I moved to Peru. I squelch more irreverence and pose for a more or less decent photo. The boy who runs in front of me looks like a karate kid turned into a ghost. Wax on, kid.
The place is almost too extravagant to be beautiful to me. I’m a minimalist these days. More of a Zen practitioner than a gold and ritual adherent.
I like the outside façade of the Cathedral better than the  interior.The saints and apostles that guard the front seem like old friends from my art history collegeclass days. “Hello, friends,” I say. The pigeons see them as friends too and I think to myself, “Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head.”
I pause in prayer position and all the while in the background the voices carry on: “Santa María, Madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros pecadores ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte. Amén.” Rodney laughs at me and says that my pose is very touristy. And irreverent, I think.
Rodney tells us that the difference between a cathedral and a church is all in the number of doors. A cathedral has three doors in the front and a church has less than three. In order to be a cathedral the cathedral-hopefuls have to get special permission from the Pope. I’m sure it’s all about how the request is worded, who the requesting priest knows and how much money is sent with the petition. A strange scripture comes to mind and I say it out in my head, “Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus, “Not one stone will be left on another, every one will be thrown down.”

We walk past the Bishop’s palace. The balconies are ornate, enclosed and shout out exclusivity. It’s beautiful in a closed-in way. See, I love open balconies. The ones where you can sit and let the sun burn your skin and the air chap your face. These feel a little too rich for me. I have this aversion to being caged up; figuratively, imaginatively, literally, and all the other “ly”s you can conjure up. I don’t see freedom on the other side of that wood. Dear Bishop, I do aspire to be you.

Some police officers walk our way from the President’s Palace. In only days, Humala, the Peruvian President-elect, will take office and replace Alan Garcia.

Humala’s a leftist candidate who according to rumors has said he won’t take residence in the President’s Palace. Maybe it’s too much of an elitist move for him. Who knows if he even said that at all. Time will tell where he stays and what he does for Peru. I take pictures of the building and get amused by the Palace Guard who is blatantly listening to his iPod while on duty.
Downtown Lima is beautiful. This area is the oldest district of Lima and many of the buildings still show the evidence of the city’s colonial era. Oh, Spain, how you infiltrated Peru. The bright colors are both tasteful and refreshing. I could sit in the middle of the plaza and people-watch and building-watch for days. But today we keep on going.
Katrina tells Rodney of a man and his dog she’d seen when she and Oswaldo had come to the center of Lima only a week and a half ago. At that moment the man and his dog appear nearly out of nowhere. Katrina and I take our lives into our hands and run across the street to get pictures. We’re such precious tourists.

When the old man kicks his dog into a pose Katrina decides not to give him a tip for the privilege of photographing them. A passing Limeña tells us in Spanish that the man is requesting a tip. We, heartless wicked demons (“Santa María, Madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros pecadores ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte. Amén.”), pretend we don’t understand Spanish and recross the street.
We tour the Iglesia de San Francisco. The story of the reliquaries and the bones and the catacombs are told in another place. But I’ll say again that the way we handle our dead and death is still weird; delightfully and gruesomely fascinating.

Past more colonial buildings, past the Casa de La Literatura Peruana, past the building that Oswald, an engineering student, is doing his thesis on, past a quaint bar, past the decaying backside of the Iglesia de San Francisco, we go stare at the statue of Spanish conqueror Francisco Pizarro. It’s huge. It’s so conquering. Pizarro has medusa-like snakes coming out of helmet. With that kind of viperous help how could he not have founded the city of Lima in 1535? Even his noble steed looks domineering and proud.
Pizarro named Lima the Ciudad de los Reyes (the City of Kings) and it became the capital and the most important city in the Spanish Viceroyalty of Peru (I’m getting a lot of this historical information from Wikipedia and from what I remember Rodney telling us as we toured). I’m watching a kid walk underneath Pizarro’s horse’s belly as Rodney tells us that there might have been a mix up with statues and that this might actually be the image of Cordova instead of Pizarro. But damn, all those Spaniards look the same, right, so who knows?

We pass a building that reminds me of the Hall of the time-frozen Jinn in the Narnian book The Magician’s Nephew.

It even has a lamppost in front of it. I snap a picture and hope that maybe one day I’ll be able to travel by wardrobe and lamppost. Next best thing to that is travel by Lima transit. At least it’s just as exciting.

In front of the Santo Domingo Church Rodney says, “Once upon a time in Lima there was a little orphan boy. He didn’t have a place to sleep. He barely found things to eat. One cold night he tucked himself into an electrical box to stay warm. In the morning when someone started the city up, the boy was electrocuted. In response to his death several orphanages were started and boys were given shoeshine boxes so they could make a living. This statue was set up so that that one boy would never be forgotten.”

We continue.

On the street a blind man with a violin in hand dozes. Rodney puts a coin in the bucket at his knee and we all go on by. Awakened by the sound, the musician takes the coin out of his bucket, feels it between his fingers then takes his bow in hand and plays a song.
We pay two soles to get into the house of the Almirante Miguel Grau Seminario who was a famous Peruvian naval officer who had the nickname of the Gentleman of the Seas for his sense of chivalry and fair play. The house is an interesting museum with pictures, maps, facts, and really creepy larger than life mannequins.

At the Gran Hotel Bolivar we, like Ava Gardner, John Wayne and Orson Welles before us had, stop and drink a Pisco Sour. The hotel was built in 1924 and was the first

large and modern hotel to be built in Lima. It’s also supposed to be the home of the best Pisco Sours. Though nearly all Peruvian bars make this claim. For instance, just a ways down the road is Maury’s where there is a sign on the wall assuring all who enter that the best Pisco Sours come from behind their bar. If you come to Lima and go on the Downtown Tour with Rodney be sure to have him tell you the story of the racehorse and his night of drinking at Maury’s.

We pass back through the Plaza de Armas and Rodney stops me. “You’ll want to see this statue,” he says. “See what’s up on her head?”

I get up close and take a look. Of course, every goddess should have a llama on her head.
I think we’ve all had a great day. I’ve seen so much and, yet, somehow there is still so much to see of Downtown Lima.

Rodney, great guide that he is, knows that it’s good to end a day long city tour with a full stomach so we stop at the oldest Italian restaurant in Lima. One of his favorite places. We walk past the air drying strings of pasta, past the giant loaves of fresh made bread, past the bottles of wine that line the shelves inside and get settled in at a table. On a little TV across from us I watch Uruguay beat Paraguay in the Copa America 2011 while I sip my glass of vino tinto and eat oven hot bread.   

Here I have a lapse of reason. I order the spinach ravioli instead of just sticking with bread like I’d intended on doing. Up to when I moved to Peru I was a vegan and since I’ve been here I’ve been vegetarian. This is mostly for health reasons, but the longer I’m vegetarian the less appealing meat is to me, for a variety of reasons. In Peru, vegetarian often means just free of red meat and to this moment I’ve steered clear of all chancy meat-infused situations. Maybe here, on this day, on this outing I don’t truly care, I don’t know what is going on in my head, but I don’t ask the waiter myself if the food is really meat free. The others field the issue for me and have a discussion with the staff about the sauce and the meatiness thereof. 86 the sauce, we say to him. And a little bit later, I get spinach ravioli without sauce. Ravioli, even sin sauce, is pretty tasty, it’s hot, it’s filling. But then horrors! A few bites into the ravioli I have the faintest suspicion that there is some kind of beef involved. Surely not, I think in the hope of the blindly ignorant. I eat a few more pieces. Alas, I fear it is so. I stop eating.

Guilt plagues me. What have I done? Oh cow, I’m sorry. Please forgive me. May you have lived and died well.
Since I can’t get back quickly to the confessional in the Cathedral Basilica de Lima I just whisper these words under my breath, “Santa María, Madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros pecadores ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte. Amén.”

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Birthday Party and Advances by a Real Dog

July 26, 2011 – A Birthday Party and Advances by a Real Dog
As the burgeoning socialite that I am, I get invited to a birthday party. So Saturday early afternoon I walk up the hill to the market to buy some sweet potatoes and then catch the bus from there into Lima. Katrina, wonderful as always, says I can come to town anytime and hang out at her house until the hour we have to head over to the party. That way I don’t have to go a new route in the dark to a different part of town all by myself.

After I write that sentence, I envision myself as a frightened little child holding a security blanket and standing alone in a corner too id to pass through the door for fear of what’s on the other side. I am not that frightened child (just an imaginative thirty-three year old), but it’s nice to go to a party already in the company of friends.

I get to Katrina’s house just in time to watch Peru whoop Venezuela’s ass in fútbol (So sorry, Rafa). While I’m wondering just what has happened to Vega, Venezuela’s goalie, who is normally a ball-stopping, powerhouse fiend, I’m also oven-baking some sweet potatoes. Katrina’s apartment has it all (This includes a shower that has water pressure and hot water that defy the stereotypical standards of a third world bathroom. I’ll have to post my opinions on Peru’s third worldness at some other point).
Mid-game Katrina and I split a sweet potato for an afternoon snack. “I have a business proposition for you,” she says.
"Okay,” I say. “Tell me.”

“How would you feel about writing a few lesson plans for me? I’ll pay you for the work.”

I haven’t made any money since mid-May when I quit my job. And I hate that sometimes in my mind I associate my own worth to monetary gain. Granted, my house is being rented and eventually, at some point in time, maybe the next millennium, I’ll be making some money off of the rent. For now the funds pay my mortgages and associated homeowner’s costs and leave just enough to pay for the repairs that were made to make it truly a rentable place. When all that is settled I’ll receive a small pittance that, if I’m smart, I’ll set away for future home improvements. That aside, I don’t have any incoming monies.
Sometimes a woman with a baby in the shawl on her back will get on a bus I’m on and ask for money. In the back of my mind I always think, “You, my friend, are gainfully employed. I know I look like a rich American because of the color of my skin, but you might have more than me.” Well, maybe. There’s room for a lot of discussions in these blanket statements I’m making. The main issue here is that if I keep spending money at some point I won’t have any left.

So when Katrina says, “I’ll pay you for the work,” this sounds like a great idea to me.
She’s been overworked and says that if I can help her by writing a couple lesson plans for her English classes then it’d be well worth the expenditure for her. Done. We all but shake on the deal and go watch Avincula kick an assist to Guerrero for Peru’s fourth goal against Venezuela. I fall in love with Avincula for his name and Katrina crushes on Guerrero for his dimpled smile.

We can hear all of Peru rejoicing. Even Sergio Markarian, Peru’s dyspeptic coach, breaks into a full smile and does a raised fist victory dance.
I wasn’t sure he had it in him. But I saw it myself on television. Way to go, Peru! When Diego, Katrina’s student, arrives he says, “All of Peru will be drunk before 5:00.” From the fourth floor apartment where we are we can hear the joy. I don’t doubt it.

I join in on Diego’s class for some conversation. Then I sit and work on some lesson plans while they go on with the day’s assignments. Katrina plays a video clip about the horror in Norway and then preps Diego to write a short essay on arms control. Unable to contain myself I ask, “Do you know what Norway’s Prime Minister said?” I’m a little overcome with emotion. “He said, “We will retaliate with more democracy.” How I wish that had been the United States of America’s response to the 911 attacks. I admire Jens Stoltenberg immensely for this and I pray for the peace of the world.
(This person had many of the same thoughts as I had and also there are more great quotes from Jens Stoltenberg:

I apologize for interrupting the lesson and return to my work.
When Diego’s class is finished Oswaldo comes over. We put on our coats and collect our things and head out the door.

The birthday party starts at six o’clock. Now this is Peru, and start times are more like guidelines (like the pirate code). Tonight we’re celebrating Juan Carlos’s birthday and Victoria (his wife) told us, “You don’t have to come on Peruvian time. You can show up right at six o’clock if you’d like.” It’s 6:20 now. And we have to travel about half an hour to get to their house in Callao. Also I hadn’t known what kind of gift to bring and Katrina hadn’t either. So we talk gifts and decide to go look for something to take along. There are some shops within walking distance of the apartment, but we don’t find anything in them that really says, “Happy Birthday, Juan Carlos!”
As my grandmother says and her grandmother said before her, “When in doubt, wear pearls.” My new birthday motto is, “When in doubt, bring food.” We find a cake, hail a cab and are driven through many dark and winding streets to finally arrive at our friends’ house.

We’re two hours late. But we’re not empty handed. This feels important.
I’m not as Type A about the time as I’d have been a handful of years ago, but I do feel a little bad. “Please forgive us for being so very late,” I tell Victoria as I kiss her on the cheek hello. I turn to greet the celebrated one, “Happy birthday, Juan Carlos! Felicidades!”

Only one other partier is there already. A former coworker of Juan Carlos’s. She speaks very precisely; her words each finely enunciated and clear, as if she’s teaching a class. I ask her some questions (to get to know her, of course) and also so I can keep on hearing her talk. She also has a delightful way of pushing her red framed glasses back up to the top of her nose with the middle finger of her right hand. I’m mesmerized by this motion. She reminds me of a windup toy with her exact movements; something like a mix between a music box ballerina and a Barbie Teacher Doll with glasses included.
Caption reads: Where's Oswaldo
There is a veritable feast laid out on the table. A real banquet. What food! Victoria and Juan Carlos had assured me there’d be plenty of fruits and veggies and that I wouldn’t have to worry about vegetarian fare. And there is and I don’t. I’d brought along a sweet potato or two, just in case. But I don’t even have to break them out. My friends are always very thoughtful and worried that I won’t have enough to eat. Sweet friends. At this party they stuff me to the gills.
We eat and talk and eat and take pictures and eat and drink some champagne and eat and listen to the background music.

At a previous party (remember, I’m a socialite!) Juan Carlos and I had discovered that we both love the music of Jean Jacques Goldman, an award winning song writer who is hugely popular in the French-speaking world. Juan Carlos lived in France for six years (I think) and is an avid music lover, so how could he not have come to a point of admiration for Jean Jacques Goldman? I mean really. When I was nine or ten years old we’d had a French Exchange student live with our family and at the same time another exchange student lived with the family of our friend. The following year our friend went to visit his and our exchange students in France and got turned on to the musical world of Jean Jacques Goldman. Our friend then passed on this music to my dad. And through my dad I too came to love Jean Jacques Goldman.

The J.J. Goldman cassettes I stole when I left my folks’ house survived the Great Possession Purge of 2011. These cassettes are probably at this moment melting in my parents’ attic. Fortunately, Juan Carlos has the entire J.J. Goldman collection on CD. I covet it. And Juan Carlos offers to make me a compilation of what he feels is Goldman’s best.

We talk music for a while there in the corner of the house next to the stack of French hits. We talk of powerful, emotive lyrics. Of melodies that can break your heart. Of beats so strong they nearly leave a bruise. Of the passion of harmony. Maybe not in so many words, but the gist of it is there.
Then we go back to the table and eat some more food. About 10:30 another partier arrives. Where the first partier’s language was clear and precise, this partier’s speech is quick and bubbly like a mountain stream. She’s energetic and expressive. Listening to her is like listening to a song; melodic and often with incomprehensible lyrics.

Cake cutting time arrives and we all sing and Juan Carlos makes a wish and blows out his candle. Happy Birthday!

For a bit we retire into the living room and look at the pictures of Victoria and Juan Carlos’s wedding. While I’m sitting there, Junior, the family dog makes his big move. He must have been eyeing me. He sidles up to me. “Hey baby,” he says in the International Language of Love. “You here alone?”
Then he bites at my hair and jumps up against my arm. It’s not precisely humping, but it’s close enough.

“Um,” I say, “Do you mind getting off my arm? We’ve really only just met.”

He doesn’t move away.
“What’s your name, sweetheart? You are so beautiful.”

I think he’s had a little too much champagne.

“Before we continue,” he says, still jumping against my arm. “Tell me how old you are.”

I pull my arm in closer to my side. “Junior, you seem like a really nice dog and all, but you know, I’m just not interested. So sorry.”
This hurts his feelings and he goes to hide under my chair. Occasionally he scratches the boards as if to say, “Won’t you reconsider?”

I won’t. I’m just not into dogs.
Midnight rolls around and we wish Juan Carlos his true birthday joy. We’ve partied through the night and welcomed in a new day; his birthday. It's been a perfect party and I feel honored to have been invited. We say our farewells and then the five of us squeeze together into a single cab and one at a time, until Katrina and I get dropped off together, the cabbie leaves us at our respective homes.