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.

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