Monday, August 29, 2011

The Days Run Together Like Watercolor Paint

August 29, 2011 – The Days Run Together Like Watercolor Paint

I’d never think to ask for a submarine as a present. Maybe I need to start thinking bigger. Who needs a pony? I want a submarine. We head from the Naval Museum across the street to the entrance to the Submarine Park. Rodney told us about it and praised it as worthwhile to see. I’m eager to pay three soles and go tour an actual submarine. I’m practicing my favorite lines from The Hunt For Red October. “The hard part about playing chicken is knowing when to flinch.” “I always wanted to see Montana.”
And “холодный сегодня утром капитан
Which to me sounds like, “Show taladriga taverish, Capitan,” and means “Cold this morning, Captain.” I’m testing the limits of claustrophobia. So far so good. We file over to the ticket booth like so many precious sheep only to discover the cost is ten soles per person. The poor in our group exchange glances.
"Ten is too much?” Rodney asks intercepting our mind code.
We nod. I think also we’re all ready for lunch and know that another tour will keep us that much longer from eating.
To soften our rejection of the submarine we stand for a few minutes by the railing and gaze at the boat where it sits dead in the water.

“The submarine was a gift from the United States to Peru,” Rodney tells us.
“That was some gift,” I muse.

“Happy birthday,” Oswaldo says.
He and I laugh.

Why a submarine, United States? What was the gift for? I can just see the Chiefs of Staff sitting at their round table. One of the CoSs pipes up, “You know, Peru has been a great ally. Those spools of alpaca wool they mailed us have been a godsend. My nephew has knit three sweaters already. Winter will never have seemed so warm. Let’s send a gift back.” They all agree with nods and murmurs. “What should we give?” Silence. “I know!” Another CoS says, slapping his palm on the table. “How about a submarine?!”
With these thoughts in mind I board the bus with Katrina, Oswaldo, Larry, Victoria, Rodney and Juan Carlos and we head off to La Punta. We get off and start walking toward the beach. The wind gathers chill when it passes over the sea and I debate putting my fleece back on. Katrina and I pick our way over the rock covered shore down to the slope and gaze out into the waves.

“I want to go down and stick my hand in the water and then lick the salt off,” Katrina says impulsively.
That sounds adventurous. I want to too. Then I look at the water. It’s dirty and sad. Suddenly I don’t want to touch the water much less imbibe any of it. What have we done to our world? What have we done? The shore rocks rumble together when the water sucks its way between them. A clatter of stones. A voicing of complaint. I listen to the words of the rocks; I hear the voice of the sea. I could sit here for the rest of the day and try to understand the conversation, but we move on and away.

We eat lunch at a Cevicheria where five out of the seven of us eat ceviche. I have an avocado and rice with a side dish of chifles. After lunch, we say our farewells, thank Juan Carlos and Victoria for a wonderful day and go our ways.

The rest of Sunday is a blur and wake up time on Monday morning comes early. I’m trailing Katrina this week as she teaches her classes in preparation for me to sub (substitute not submarine) for her while she’s visiting her family and friends in the States.

“You don’t dress up to go teach, do you?” I’d asked the night before.
“I do try to look nice,” she said.

“Is it okay if I wear jeans?”
She thought about it for a second then loaned me a pair of slacks. I’m a little put off about having to conform to a dress standard, but I comply. After all, I did ask, and I know that clothes make the man. I’d brought my blue Toms ( with me and I have them on. I feel like a hippie playing dress up as a yuppie. I feel a little out of my self.

“My shoes don’t match my outfit,” I say as I don my jacket.   
Katrina looks me over. My shoes and jacket are nearly the same color blue and I’d actually brushed my hair. “You look like a J.J. Crew commercial,” she says. I’ve never been told that before. “Maybe I mean L.L. Bean,” she qualifies. I’m thinking more REI. Check me out being all trendy. I don’t see it though. There’s no full length mirror. I feel like a mismatched doll.
L.L. Bean
It’s raining when we leave the house at ten to seven. We powerwalk to the corner where we catch a big orange bus. As the busses pass by, Katrina tells me the ones I can take. She tells me the ones to avoid. I hope I don’t get them mixed up when I’m on my own.

First class is with Pietro at his office. He doesn’t want a sub while Katrina is gone and had actually blanched when Katrina mentioned that I might come to a class. But it’s easier for me to tag along the whole day rather than meet up somewhere later. “If he doesn’t want me in the class, I can wait in the lobby,” I say. “I have a book.”

When he arrives he’s gracious enough to have me in. He’s nervous and I try to be invisible, nice, nonthreatening. He’s an accountant. I think I’d have known that about him if I’d seen him walking on the street. The way he carries himself, the way he processes information, the way he sits upright in his chair, the way his papers are stacked on the table all speak of a Type A personality. He relaxes one jot and tittle as the class goes by.

After conversation, grammar and a reading exercise, I thank Pietro for letting me sit in on his class and Katrina and I head across the street to a coffee shop. We have a couple hours to pass before her next class. Soon enough we catch another bus.

She’s told me about this next student. She’s warned me about him. He asks weird questions, he doesn’t seem to listen, he can’t seem to grasp the verb Do. “If you decide you can’t deal with him and you drop him while I’m gone, I’ll be totally okay with that. The other students please don’t, but him, I don’t think I want him. When I get back he can be your student if you want.”

Katrina had told him I would be coming along this week.

“Is the substitute a girl or guy?” he’d asked.
“A girl,” Katrina replied.

“How old is she?”
Ah, Peruvian men. I have my creep-o-meter calibrated and set. I’m prepared to stave off untoward advances. This is just basic self-defense.

We wait in the front lobby of his business until he comes down the stairs and calls us up to his office.
Gian Carlo is probably only several years older than me. He’s dressed professionally in a suit, but no tie. My creep alarms don’t go off. But I keep all systems on high alert just in case. He has a restless energy. He seems like a child who is eager to please, wants to be accepted, and always tries to test his boundaries.

He’s a little nervous with me there. When Katrina encourages him to practice asking questions to me, she and I both expect him to ask me if I’m single. That’s the Peruvian Man’s Question Number 1. He surprises us both. He doesn’t ask that at all.  However, he doesn’t go completely off the question grid and does ask “How old are you?” That’s usually Question Number 2.
After Katrina explains Do, Does, Doesn’t, Don’t, Did, Didn’t again we bid him goodbye and call it a class.
We walk to Wong (a supermarket like Tom Thumb or Safeway) and eat the lunches we’d packed. It’s nice to sit, talk, compare notes, stare out the window, and just have a break.

The second hand ticks on and we truck it once again to another class. With Ivonna (a maybe nine year old girl) we read a really depressing story by Oscar Wilde called The Happy Prince. Don’t let the title fool you. (SPOILER ALERT) The Happy Prince is a statue who ends up torn down and burned up. His little sparrow friend dies of cold at his statuesque feet. Happy my ass.

Then to top it off we finish the book with another Wilde story called The Selfish Giant. Read it and then we can discuss how crazy a tale it is. Oh yeah, and The Selfish Giant who stops with his selfish ways, ends up dead at the end of his story too. Thanks Oscar Wilde.

I may have survived my first day of teaching, but for me... the night has just begun.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Krill Life

August 26, 2011 – Krill Life

Our walking tour of Callao and La Punta is still in full effect. I had a great time wandering the passages and dungeons of the Fortress Real Felipe in the dark. But I’m suddenly not feeling the whole museum scene. This is bad because we still have the Museo Naval De Peru, the submarine, La Punta, and lunch to go. I tell myself not to be such a wet blanket and pay the three soles to get into the Naval Museum. Rodney has been before so he tells us he’ll wait for us across the way. The rest of us; me, Larry, Juan Carlos, Oswaldo, Victoria and Katrina clomp inside.

The first thing I see on entering is a man on his knees with his hands behind his head. His wife takes his picture as he poses.
It’s funny. It’s also disturbing. It reminds me too much of the Goya painting I studied in Art History in college. It reminds me too much of the ways we kill each other. It reminds me of the pain and suffering and the end of life. I’m all for action shots, this one almost hurts me to see. I don’t want to ever die.

On that morbid note I split off from the group and we all go our separate ways. It’s a naval museum highlighting all the naval battles and the sinking of ships and the killing of men and the conquest of nations. I’m upset with killing. In this mood I’m halfheartedly glancing at things behind glass cases until I come to the navigational room.

On the ceiling are pinpoint lights marking the constellations. I love constellations. I love the stars.

I love the planets and asteroid belts and quasars and black holes and supernovas and regularnovas and the Milky Way and suns and the television show Star Trek Voyager and comets. Comets are really cool. In my next life I’m going to be really good at math and become an astronaut. I’ve always been a fan of space. In those questions about whether you’d want to go to the depths of the sea or into outer space I always choose outer space. The depths of the sea seem so much more frightening. It’s so dark down there and who knows what giant large-toothed thing is just lurking behind a rock waiting for a human sized me to swim by. I also have a healthy fear of drowning, but not one of explosive decompression apparently. All that to say, I love stars. I love the word declination. The idea of navigating the sea by the sky is brilliant and props to whatever really smart dude thought that up. I love the word sextant.
I mean, it’s so bold a word. What’s not to love about that? I kneel down to take some photos. The firing squad man and his wife hover near me. He asks if the pictures come out. I show him that they do, but we all agree the angle is wrong. He goes into the middle of the room and lies on the floor.

When he’s done taking his pictures I follow his suit. He’s my type of picture taker. He and his wife are having fun together in the Naval Museum and this makes me very happy. My morbidity flees and I am dreaming about the stars.
The next room is dimly lit. On one side of the room there are ancient maps. On pedestals along the other wall are old figureheads. There’s something so magical about figureheads. They were used in ancient times in illiterate societies as a way to identify and name a boat. In other societies the figureheads were mounted at the front of the ship in order to ward off evil spirits. They’re the first eyes. The lookout. They’re perfect images to make stories around.

When we were little, my parents taught me and my sibs not to touch things in stores. We had to keep our hands to ourselves and better yet, in our pockets. This was mostly because there were six of us and they didn’t want to pay for things we might break. Also it’s just good manners. The idea of not touching was ingrained in me. I appreciate that. It’s kept me out of trouble for a good portion of my life. Somewhere over the years, however, I stopped obeying. Now I really like to touch things. When I see this steering wheel I have to spin it. One if by land, two if by sea. Land ahoy! Avast.
Victoria and I cross paths and she says, “I feel so free in the museum. Like I can touch things and really look at them and it’s okay.” I feel the same way. I got yelled at in museums in both NYC and Washington D.C. and I wasn’t even touching anything there. But I evidently broke the personal bubbles of the artwork. Americans like their space.

I go past the torpedo. I don’t remember what movie it was depicted in –perhaps the 1943 film The More the Merrier-- but I have this eternal image in my mind of some military type man yelling, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” Which also means that anytime I see a torpedo (which is actually more rare than you’d think, thank goodness) or hear the word I shout that phrase out in my head. I used to be so shocked with myself for using such strong language.

I leave the room before I shout the words out loud.  

I catch up with my boyfriend in the Antarctic. We’re so happy together. I tell him all I’ve seen and all that I’ve eaten that day so far. Which now that I think about it isn’t that much. No wonder I’ve been having such morbid death thoughts. A snack does wonders for the soul. I forget my dreams of the stars and start dreaming about lunch.
I’ve made my museum circuit. I backtrack to gaze one more time at the constellations on the ceiling and then go to stand with Rodney outside.

The others seep out one by one. Katrina is the last.
“Did you see the krill?” she asks.

“No, I missed it.” I’m pretty sure I know what krill is. I’m almost positive krill is what the Baleen whales eat. I also love whales (but not the Orca). But sometimes I mix up words.
“You want to see it?”

I suddenly have a deep and unquenchable desire to see krill. So we walk back in the museum leaving our tour mates to wait for a little bit longer. I smile at the ticket lady and wave my ticket stub her way. I follow Katrina back inside through the main room and back to where my Antarctic boyfriend is standing.
On a glass covered stand, in a glass jar are the krill.

Oh Krill! With one look at these little black eyed things I add another creature to my list of Strange Things I Really Love A Lot. Already on this list are: Bats, Octopi, Earthworms, Snails, Manatees, and now Krill.
“I want them!” I tell Katrina.

“To eat?” she asks. “They look like they’d taste similar to shrimp.”

I’m horrified. “Not to eat!” I exclaim. “I want them alive. I want them…” I think I stop myself before I complete my sentence to say, “I want them to be my friends,” but with me, you just never know.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

No Good. I've Known Too Many Spaniards

August 25, 2011 – No Good. I’ve Known Too Many Spaniards

We do such strange things to protect ourselves from other humans. We build walls, use locks, set up cannons, shoulder guns, sharpen knives, avoid eye contact, lie and build higher walls. In the case of the Fortress Real Felipe the protection was made to ward against pirates and corsairs. These guys must not have thought that “Killed by pirates is good” for the Fortress sits expansively over a plot of land in Callao and is actually one of the biggest fortifications built by the Spanish.

Those crazy and conquering Spaniards.

On Sunday morning I get up early and catch a bus from Cieneguilla to Jesus Maria, a district of Lima, and walk from the stop to Katrina’s apartment. The front deskman buzzes me in and I take the stairs to number 403. It’s only 8:30 and I’ve already clocked in two hours of adventuring on my own. I’m thinking a cup of coffee would do me good. I drop my bags on the floor and smooth down my hair which has become extra frizzy in the Lima humidity. I ring the bell. A few moments later, Katrina answers the door. “Good morning,” she says breezily, letting me in. “There’s coffee ready. Help yourself.”
Bless you, my child, I think and mentally make the sign of the cross over her head.

I slurp some café while Oswaldo and Katrina get ready to go. Right on schedule we leave the house, jump on a bus and go to meet up with Victoria, Juan Carlos, Larry and Rodney for a walking tour of Callao and La Punta.
We group up and head under the arch of the fortress entrance.
It’s guarded by quite an array of official looking personnel and I’m beginning to wonder if it’s a working Fortress and not just a museum (I learn later that the museum and fortress is operated by the Peruvian Army).  A uniformed soldier escorts us to the ticket booth. We buy our tickets and wait to be called by the tour guide. She takes us across the entire property--it seems--at a quick stepping pace. “Come on, this way, come on,” she says when we lag to take pictures. She’s not our guide. Thank goodness, I think as I catch my breath. She’s just getting us to the starting point.

Does this lamppost make me look fat?
Our guide, a no-nonsense woman dressed in a red coat, collects our tickets and begins her spiel in Spanish. I am learning that I’m not a very good guided kid. I tend to lag behind, take pictures of random things along the way, talk with other people on the tour, and get interrupted by my own thoughts when the guide is talking. This trip is no exception. The guide tells us something about the three coats of arms that are stone etched over the entrance into the first building and I get distracted by the lampposts in the courtyard. I wonder if these lampposts are as magical as the ones in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. How can I test this out? Do I need an end point wardrobe? Will I end up in England or Narnia if the magic works?
When I turn back from my musing I realize I’m alone and I run inside after the others.
I find it ironic that the fortress, buttressed by cannons and a “stay away” façade has a chapel in the foyer of whatever building we’re in (I would know this if I’d been paying attention to the tour). The irony comes mostly after I see all the types of weapons the Spanish used to conquer and defend the land; guns, sabers, swords, knives, pistols, axes, spears, lances, mace clubs, frightening mustaches.

It’s that weird idea of justifying killing behavior. God bless us for what we do. God forgive us for what we’ve done. God don’t pay attention yet to what we plan to do.  

I trot past the church and trail the group into a room filled with fake people and artifacts from both the Spanish and the Indigenous Peruvians. I take a moment to do a Sun Salutation then, once again, scramble to find the others.

The most fascinating part of this building is the Room of Busts. I find busts (the statues--let’s just be clear) to be completely arrogant and delightful. They always make me think of the room of the seated Statues of the Jinn Queens and Kings where Jadis the final queen of Charn had put herself into an enchanted sleep after she spoke the Deplorable Word which killed all things on her world to avoid complete defeat by her warring sister.

The image of those statues has always stuck in my mind since the first time my parents read The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis to my siblings and me. They were so creepy and so cruel. The awakened queen so frightening and powerful. I’ve harbored this latent fear that one day I might inadvertently wake some harsh leader from some ancient time.  

One can never be too careful.

While I’m convincing myself these statues in the Fortress Real Felipe will never come to life I’m also doing my best to not sing “You’ll be a bust, be a bust, be a bust in the hall of fame,” out loud and do a Lollipop Guild dance where all my tour mates can see or hear me. Latent fear and hilarity do wonders for adding strange impressions while touring.

To top off my literary and cinematic comparisons my mind goes on.
Set up against the wall are two rows of boxed soldiers. They’re like life-size Ken dolls in glass cases instead of plastic tubes. They remind me of the truly frightening glass cased heads used by the witch Mombi in the 1985 Return to Oz movie. I have daytime nightmares about that film. Part of me wants to stay in that room forever looking at these strange representations of humankind. The other part wants to scream, “run away, run away,” and run away.
I get to run away when I follow the tour guide past the tanks, the Soldado Desconocido (the Unknown Soldier), the Door of Forgiveness, the Cafeteria and across the walkway.
I stop and ask Oswaldo to take a photo of me under an arch because it just seems like the right thing to do.
Then I take the steps two at a time and join the tail of the group. The inside of this part of the Fortress has many twists and turns and leads to some stairs that take us to the lookout point.

We do strange things to protect ourselves from other humans. We also do strange things to hurt other humans. Take the Spanish, for instance.
The Spanish have quite a history of conquest and cruelty. We all know about the fear invoking and surprising Spanish Inquisition, if for no other reason than because Monty Python told us about it. (“NOBODY expects the Spanish Inquisition!”)

But here I’m taken in by the cruelty. Not just of the Spanish, but of man against man. I’m surprised by the darkness inside this part of the Fortress. The lights are off and it’s truly and incredibly dark. I wander the tunneled pathways with one hand on the wall to keep my balance and bearing. I don’t know where these hallways lead and there is a tiny voice of fear that is picking up volume in my head. “Don’t you dare get lost or stuck inside here,” it says. Of course I’m on my own with my imagination until I bump into Juan Carlos and Victoria. The tunnel winds around in a circle and when Victoria talks from my left I hear her voice to the right. It’s a strange ventriloquism.

Other voices come from a separate corridor. That elusive group of mine. The three of us follow the sound of the voices.

We come to a door. A small barred door. Our group is just exiting. When they’re all out, JC, Victoria and I head in. The dungeon is maybe twenty inches wide with high ceilings. This part is not funny. I learn later from Katrina (who was listening to the tour guide) that the Spanish punished their Benedict Arnolds by throwing them in the dungeon.
The entire dungeon, which could not have been longer than fifty feet, was crammed with over one hundred and fifty prisoners. The dungeon was kept in complete darkness. The prisoners were fed once a day through the bars at the end of the dungeon. The ones by the grate ate. The rest died. The Spanish never bothered to take out the dead so the living prisoners stayed in that hellish corridor with the stench of their own bodies, the touch of live flesh against decomposing flesh and the feelings of pain, hunger, fear and terror until they too died.
The darkness presses against me like the inclosing walls. I stand in the blackness. There are three of us in the tunnel. It would be so easy to cross over into claustrophobic panic. But I don’t. I have a way out. I even squeeze between Victoria and Juan Carlos so I can stand by the grate and look out into the hall. Our camera flashes light the place up for a blinding second. There’s no way to translate the reality of the darkness and limited space with these pictures. I’m amazed that I’m enjoying this space as much as I am because I don’t like to be trapped. That’s one of my biggest fears. Here I don’t feel trapped, but I can imagine it. Fear hovers transparently in my mind like the ghosts of the dungeoned dead.

Later, after Katrina tells me about how the dungeon was used, she and I take a combi (a very small bus) home from one of her classes. We sit in the very back. At each corner, at each stop another person or two gets on. And the bus fills some more. Soon the small 15 seater is completely packed. There are probably thirty people in the bus. Suddenly the memory of the close walls of that dungeon flood my mind. I’m there, but in this bus, crowded with others. I couldn’t get out if I wanted to. I’m trapped here by a multitude of living bodies.
A tornado of terror spins in the bottom of my soul. I quell it with rationality and decide, just for good measure, never to get on the bad side of any Spaniards.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Life of Crime, Kuffufel and Inappropriate Comments

August 18, 2011 –  Life of Crime, Kuffufel and Inappropriate Comments
“You’ve outdone yourself,” Walter says. I’m packing my computer up for the day and thinking that watching TV would be nice. That’s how tired I am. I’m not exactly sure what he’s talking about since he often starts conversations with off the wall comments. I wait. “It’s epic!” Oh, got it. He’s talking about the parts of his memoirs that I’ve sent him to read.
Walter back in the day
“You like it then?”
“It’ll probably have to be published as fiction,” he says. I cringe. I’ve tried to keep his story to what he’s told me. I haven’t embellished it to make the writing easier on me, I’ve gone painstakingly by his outline and then gone back to confirm the details with him, and I’ve nearly pulled out my hair trying to put things in chronological order. Shoot, I think, I guess I’ve strayed off point.

He grins. “I mean, no one will believe any of it.”

Belief? Forgetaboutit. That’s the least of my worries. I’ve worked ninety-one pages of his life so far and am about one third of the way through. My, perhaps overly ambitious, goal is to have a complete rough and first draft by the end of August. Then I can wash my hands of the project, so to speak. If he wants to add more, or polish his life story up then he can knock himself out. But I’m relieved to know the hours I’ve put into it are not in vain. “I’ll keep working on it if you like the way it’s going.”

“It’s great. You’re making it all come together and it reads like a real book.”

“I’m glad you’re liking it.” And I am.
He spreads out his hands as if to embrace me. “Thanks to you!” he says.

I raise my eyebrows and give him a half smile. “I’m heading into Lima tomorrow morning for the writers’ group,” I tell him. “Do you just want me to let myself out?” A couple weeks ago he showed me where the key for the front gate padlock is kept so he wouldn’t have to get up early to let me out. This access to a key gives me a wonderful sense of freedom. Everything is so incredibly locked up here. So many fences. So many bars. So many walls.
“That’s fine. Have fun.”

I fix my dinner and go watch thirty minutes of Law and Order on TV in English before I write a blog entry and then go to sleep.
This morning I let myself out the gate and walk through the light drizzle to the bus stop. I catch the Molinero 49 as usual. The bus is crowded and I hover over an old nun who’s seated in the front row with another older woman. We’re packed in so tight I almost don’t need to hold on to anything to keep my balance. After a few stops the bus empties out a little. “Señorita,” the old nun says, “Have a seat.” She points to the console space between the driver and passenger seat.

“Gracias,” I say and I sit.
Some days I feel I’m a part of this world, like I blend in, like I belong. Some days I feel like an outsider. Today I feel like an outsider. I’m not sure what makes the difference. Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve been inundated with English because of all the work I’m doing on Walter’s book, in writing my blogs, watching Law and Order and no longer having Geraldine to give me my daily dose of brilliant Castellano conversation.

“Pasajes (fares),” the Cobrador says. He has a row of coins in his right hand that he jingles together as he squeezes among us to collect the fares and hand out the little paper tickets that prove a passenger has paid. The coin jingle is a practice used by most of the Cobradors to let people know they need to get their money out. It’s an unmistakable sound. It’s nearly musical. I think the Cobradors must learn it in Bus School because I know I’d be dropping the change all the time. Coins are used more often than bills here in Peru, they’re preferred anyways. Peruvians are very distrustful of paper money because there is, I’ve heard, quite a problem with counterfeiting.

I hand him 2.20 soles and say, “Bajo en la Via Expresa (I’ll get off at the Via Expresa).”

Do I sound that foreign? I take a breath to repeat it.

“Via Expresa,” the man beside me tells the Cobrador. I let out my breath.  The Cobrador checks the amount I gave him and rips the little ticket off his book and hands it to me. I don’t feel so outlandish, someone understands.
The girl across from me hands her coins to the Cobrador and says, “Moli-centro.”

“What?” the Cobrador asks.
It’s not just me. I feel a little less like a sore thumb.

I tune in to the Cobrador as he calls out stops and keeps the driver informed on when to go. “Baja, baja , baja, sube, sube, ya vamos (one to get off, one to get on, okay go).” I’m facing the passengers from my spot at the front and I feel their gazes on me. I stare out the window to avoid random awkward eye contact. I’m feeling self-conscious, I suppose. We stop and a little old lady gets on the bus. The reserved seat for senior citizens, children and mothers, and the disabled is already taken. All the seats are filled. I stand and offer her my seat. The girl across from me gives me an approving nod. She smiles actually.
“Gracias,” the old lady says as she works her way around me and settles down on the console.

I do belong.
I get off at the Via Expresa and walk down the street, across the bridge and into the Express bus terminal. It’s really a concrete building with turnstiles. Almost similar to a subway station. I catch the B bus and get off at Ricardo Palma. Eight blocks down Ricardo Palma, about five blocks down Commandante Espinar and I’m Madre Natura where the writers’ group meets.

Katrina, Rodney, Oswaldo (who’s joining us today), and I chitchat while we wait for Victoria to arrive.
“Just to warn you guys,” I say. “I have to leave here about 1:20. I’m supposed to meet a friend about 1:45.” We’ve been known to stay late in the afternoons and I don’t want to just jump up and run off without explanation in order to meet my friend on time.

“Your friend Mei Leung...” Rodney starts.
“Yeah, Mei,” I say.

“I saw it on her Facebook status this morning,” Rodney explains to Katrina. “Heading into Lima for the Peru Writers Group Meeting and then chilling with Mei,” he quotes my update.
“I met her on my way to Cusco,” I remind Katrina. “In the airport. Which seems funny since Victoria’s story is about people who meet in the airport on the way from Cusco to Lima. Mei’s in town for a few days.”

“I remember her,” Katrina says. “It’s so weird how we know everything about you from your blog and Facebook.”
It is kind of weird.

I eat the bananas I bought on my way in from a side street shop. Then I go order a muffin and a Café Americano from the restaurant. We have our meetings in the outside patio of Madre Natura. I’m not sure if the whole place is owned by one person but inside there’s a vegetarian restaurant, a shop with natural soaps, gifts, and other hippy type stuff that I totally dig, and a bread shop (whose constant aroma is the smell version of a Siren’s song and wonderfully intoxicating). The lady calls my name and I go collect my order and come back to the table.
“I’m going to quit teaching English,” Katrina says. “And I’m going to start a life of crime.”

“Oh?” I ask. I break off a piece of muffin and gaze at the raisins inside.
“Really?” Rodney asks.

Oswaldo just shakes his head.
“I learned that you can steal up to one thousand soles without getting a criminal record. It’s not enough for them to bother with charging you for a crime. I could steal money, cell phones, any item that doesn’t equal up to one thousand soles and never get tagged for it.”

Oswaldo bursts her bubble. “You’d get tagged for being a repeat offender. Then you’d have a record.”
“Really?” Katrina asks disappointedly. “I guess you’re right.”

My muffin gets eaten and my coffee drunk. Now a good day feels much better.
Victoria breezes in apologizing for being late. She lives the farthest out. No wait, I live the farthest out, but buses are unpredictable and arrival times are subject to hopeful estimations no matter where one comes from. We assure her that all is well and not to worry about the time.

We go around the table and talk through writing woes and successes for the week and then proceed to mince Victoria’s story. When we’re done going line by line with our critiques she’s still proverbially standing and I even see a spark of delighted inspiration in her eyes. I’m glad. Receiving a critique can hurt.
Victoria and her story have made it through the gauntlet and we’ve dissuaded Katrina from going into a life of crime so I think that today’s meeting is a ripping success. At 1:20 I kiss everyone goodbye and head back five blocks down Commandante Espinar and seven blocks over on Ricardo Palma to the ovalo of Mira Flores.

I’m three minutes early. I stand in front of the Haiti and wait for Mei. At 1:45 on the dot I see her.
“Hey!” We greet each other Peruvian style and add in a hug for friendly good measure.

“Have you eaten?” I ask her.
Apparently bananas, a muffin, coffee (and an avocado which I forgot to mention) were not enough to sate my appetite. But that was breakfast. It’s lunch time now.

“No,” Mei says. She’s hungry too. At the risk of becoming habitual and of having to talk with a waiter about why I’m not in Australia, I suggest the Café Beirut. I’m remembering the French Toast I’d had the other day and hoping they serve breakfast all day. Also the CB is more reasonably priced than some of the other restaurants I’ve menu-scouted in Mira Flores. I see the waiter I know and give him a friendly sort of smile which he returns. Mei and I aren’t sitting in his section so I avoid any new conversation with him.
“Tell me everything you’ve done since I last saw you,” I say.
Mei has been in Peru for seven weeks now. She has lived most of that time in Cusco, taken an intensive Spanish course, seen Machu Picchu, spent time in the jungle with possums and giant spiders, been to Puno, visited Lake Titicaca (I’m sure all the jokes have been make about this name already, kids), traveled to Arequipa, lost a credit card in a bus, met a slew of interesting people, broke at least one heart, hung out with Rasta types at her hostel and is currently waiting for her replacement credit card to be sent from Hong Kong before she heads over to the beaches of Mancora to meet up with a friend.

She orders a hamburger and I order hummus, and rice with vegetables (breakfast is not served all day). In between bites we talk boys for a minute or two. This conversation is spoken under the Get Smart “Cone of Silence” and is not available for transcription purposes. However, the end result of the conversation is our agreement that “Boys are complicated.”
The Cone of Silence
We settle our bill and she invites me over to check out her hostel.

As we walk I’m chattering away about Lima and the weather and about my soon to transpire plans of moving to the big city, and about working on Walter’s book. “I’m trying to get as much done by the end of the month as I can so I don’t have that project hanging over my head. I’ve been working hard to put it into chronological order, but…” I trail off and pause.

“It’s a bit of a kuffufel,” Mei says.
Which it is. Exactly. But I stop dead in the middle of the sidewalk and hold out my hand to stop her too. “What was that word you just said?”

“I’m going to have to write that down.” And I do. “Is that spelled right?” I show her my notebook.

“I think so,” Mei says.
“And it means--”

“Like a pickle,” Mei says. “It’s a bit of a kuffufel. A mess.”
“Yeah,” I say, thrilled to the core of my being. “Where does that word come from?”

Mei’s mom is from Australian and her dad is from Hong Kong so I don’t know if the word derives from either of those places or comes from somewhere else.
“I don’t know. My sister said it one time and we’ve always said it.”

It’s one of the best words I’ve ever heard.
She shows me around the hostel. She’s already told me about her roommates and the other guys that are staying there. “They do a lot of drugs and they drink and there are all these guys with dreadlocks and they’re painting murals on the walls. It’s a really chill place. I think some of these things I’ll just skip mentioning to my parents.” It’s fun getting the inside scoop and then seeing things for myself.
The tall American whose increasingly forward advances Mei’s staved off is kind enough to take our photo for us while we’re chilling on the rooftop lounge.

“I want a place like this,” I say. “If I were staying at this hostel I’d spend all my time up here.”

“That’s what I’ve been doing,” Mei says.

The day has sped by and I’ve got some buses to catch. We promise to keep up with each other via social networks and bid each other cuidate and chau.

I go home by way of a new bus to the corner of Arequipa and Javier Prado and then catch the old faithful Molinero 49. The driver drives. The Cobrador collects the fares. I doze. When I open my eyes I see it’s raining again. There’s a dense fog over the mountains from Lima to Cieneguilla. It reminds me of another bus ride where:
The woman makes the sign of the cross
when she sits beside me
we both doze
when she wakes
and sees the clouds that have
descended down over the road
she says, oh my god
I stop at the market and buy a couples days’ worth of groceries and walk home in the just perceptible drizzle.

After I’ve cleaned up and eaten dinner, I take my dishes back into the main house and wash them. Walter is on the phone so I poke my head around the corner and whisper, “Chau.”
“Hey, let me call you right back,” he tells the caller and hangs up. “So! I’m in Perugia now.” He’s referencing his memoirs. He’d lived in Perugia, Italy when he was just out of high school and then gone on to tour Europe. Walter reiterates that he’s liking the telling of his life.

“I’ve got about twenty more pages done that I’ll send you once I’ve got it to a stopping point,” I say. “I’m going to work on it some more the next couple of days and see how far I can get.”
“I’m going to miss you when you’re gone,” he says. “Only two weeks more.”

“Yeah, I can’t believe I’ve been here two and a half months already. The time has gone by really fast. I’ll have to come back to Cieneguilla to visit after I move so I can be sure to get some sun.”
“You’ll always have a home here. And to be a true Limeña you’ll have to have your country home to come to.”

We discuss this for a bit longer then he looks at me.
“Did you take a shower?”

“Yeah,” I reply. It seems pretty obvious since my hair is wet.
“What did you do roll around in Lima? You have a boyfriend there or what?”

I laugh at him, bid him goodnight and go write his words in my notebook as another example of: Inappropriate Comments by Walter.


Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Goodbye Geraldine

August 17, 2011 – Goodbye Geraldine
Casa Del Gringo has lost its most brilliant spark and we’re all feeling the effects of Geraldine’s leaving. I go around in a state of mourning, humming Elton John’s Goodbye Norma Jean and replacing the name with Geraldine’s. I’ve lost my favorite conversationalist and my friend.  

Not for good. I mean, it’s not like she’s dead, and to be honest I’m thrilled that she quit this place and is going on to live her own adventures. So there is that.

But who will be my wellspring of knowledge now?
 “I’m missing Geraldine,” Jose tells me in between cleaning several of the rooms and answering a barrage of phone calls two days after Geral’s last day. “We worked together for a really long time. It’s going to be really different around here without her.”

I’ve only known her a little over two months, and I feel the same way.
Walter takes all the responsibility and none of the blame. “This is another case of me and my big mouth,” he says the first Monday after she’s gone. He’s half way up the ladder on his way to fix the roof. “I told her she needed a change and not to take all her family’s problems on herself. And now look.”

“She’s going to go out and live her life,” I say proudly while somehow simultaneously biting my tongue to keep from making a retort about other cases of him and his big mouth.
“We’ll see.” Walter takes another step up. “When she gets back from her trip with her mom, she’s not going to live with her parents anymore.”
“Really? Where is she going to go?”
“She wants to do charitable work,” Walter says.

Geraldine had told me this a while back. She was inspired by the lady from Holland who came for a couple of weeks to work as a volunteer with an organization here in Cieneguilla. “If people can come from all over to help why can’t I do it from here? I’ve always thought it’d be great to help others. I think it’s scary to step out and volunteer. You don’t always know about money but the work is satisfying.”
For now, she’s heading off for 15 days with her mom and several other family members to the small pueblo where her mom was born. “I want to see the place. My mom doesn’t talk much about growing up. All she remembers is all the sad stuff. I want to talk with people and hear the stories of the good things that happened too.”

She’s dusting the patio bar and I’m working on Walter’s book.
“My mom’s pueblito is far in the mountains. We’ll go in a car up to point. Then we’ll have to get out and they’ll bring burros to carry our luggage. Then we have to walk for an hour and a half.”
“That’s far,” I say.

“There’s no electricity there.” She stops dusting. “That’s going to be tricky. If I don’t read the news every morning I’m not at peace during the day. I’m going to have to take a little battery powered radio with me or something so I can hear what’s going on out in the world.”

I understand that. I like to be informed and connected. Most of the time.
“And they don’t have regular beds.”

“No, my brother told me that I’ll have to sleep with the cuys (guinea pigs). They build special houses for them and they sleep all together with all the animals. My mom says if it gets too cold she’ll find a llama and stick her hands in its wool to stay warm.”
Jose walks by. “You’ll have a bed, Geral,” he tells her with a smile.

“No, my brother went there before and he told me that they sleep with the cuys. They make a pile of woodchips and then sleep on the ground.”

Jose nods. “I have a friend who lives in the mountains and I went to visit him and it was like that. It’s a different world in those pueblos. He told me one time, ‘I have to run home for a minute.’ It took him three hours to get to his house from where we were.”
Geraldine and I laugh.

“It’s true,” Geraldine says. “There they’ll say, ‘My house is just around the corner,’ and it’s around the whole mountain, on the other side.”
It sounds magical to me.

“They don’t have electricity there, Jose,” Geraldine says.
“You’ll be waking up at four in the morning and going to bed at six when it gets dark.”

“I can just see myself sitting in the dark with nothing to do.” Geraldine puts her thumbs together and looks into space as if she’s in the dark staring at nothing but darkness while the whole world sleeps.

“Since Geraldine is leaving you’ll have to stay until December here,” Jose tells me.

I raise my eyebrows.
“Su tarifa no es en soles (her charge isn’t in soles),” Geraldine says, “es en dolars (it’s in dollars). I don’t think Don Walter will want to pay that.”  Then she gets a twinkle in her eye, “You can take your payment in avocados.”

“Now that would be good pay,” I agree.
Jose goes on to rake the leaves. I turn back to my computer and Geraldine starts sweeping.

“How’s the book progressing?” she asks.
“It’s coming along. Little by little.”

“What do you think of his life?” she asks. “Is it good or bad?”
I think for minute. “You know, fortunately I don’t have to be the judge of his life. I just have to write what he tells me. We’re all a little good and a little bad. I think it’s the same with him, that there’s both good and bad in the things he’s done. But,” and here I have the unfair advantage of being his ghostwriter, “he might be a little more bad than good. You know how you were saying that Walter does things to help people but usually with some benefit to him in mind?”

“Like Mariella,” Geraldine says. Mariella is the eighteen year old girl who is taking Geraldine’s place. “She wants to study gourmet cooking so Don Walter told her that Mary could teach her how to cook. Mary can cook, but she’s not a chef. Her cooking is disorganized, it’s not like learning gastronomy in an institute. Don Walter always thinks he’s helping people out but he doesn’t really understand how things work.”

Emerald Colored Filters
“Exactly. I think Walter tries really hard to be a good person,” I say. “But it’s like at his core he’s bad, so he does things he thinks are good to try and better himself. So that makes him like a bad person who does good things. I don’t think I’m making any sense.” I work the Spanish words around in my head. “We tell the stories of our lives through our own filters. We tell ourselves our own stories to justify how we live.”

Geraldine is following along. “Like Doña Mary saying what he’d written was all lies and that she won’t have anything to do with his book. You said she was mad, right? Aren’t there rules about being able to use someone’s name and tell about their life in stories?” Suddenly she stops sweeping and looks at me. “Amanda, if he writes me in his book, me avisas (you have to warn me).”
I assure her I will and wonder if I should advise her right now that I’ve been writing her into my own memories, into my blogs.

“You’re going to have your own memoirs to tell after your trip,” I say.
“It’s going to be so different. Some of the people there don’t speak Castellano. They only speak Quechua. I’ll be like a stranger in my own country.” Geraldine looks thrilled.