Wednesday, September 28, 2011

In the Company of Trees

September 27, 2011 – In the Company of Trees
I have a need for trees. To hear them talk, gossip, whisper. To watch them sway, dance. Under their bark, inside their trunks, in the veins of their leaves, trees seem to embody the idea of tranquilidad which doesn’t quite translate into the English for me. Tranquilidad is more than just peacefulness or calmness, more than the English word tranquility. Just a little bit more. Tranquilidad. It’s what I told Jorge (the very persistent barfly in Cusco) I wanted out of life. He’d told me that tranquilidad had to be found inside oneself, that one couldn’t look for it. I think this is true, but I can tap into mine much better when I’m in certain environments. For instance, when I’m in the company of trees.
The city of Lima has been pounding its beat into my head for the past 28 days. It’s been feeding me with its frenetic energy. It only shares its momentary calms with me when I happened to wake up in the hours between 2:00 and 5:00 AM. Then I listen to the silence with an intense longing, almost with fear, until it’s broken once again. When I remember to breathe, when I remember to relax my furrowed forehead, when I let the tension fall from my tensed up muscles, I long for the trees.

My need for trees, i.e., peace, is as great as my need for solitude, and as great as my contradictory need to connect with others. So when the sun comes out on Saturday I lock the apartment and head over to the park.
When I get there, I nod to the trees. I say “Buenos Dias” to the wind. I bless the sun. I smile without reserve.

I don't trust the grass to sit on because of all the dogs I'm watching use it as their grand toilet, so I take a bench seat and turn my face upwards. If I were to come back in my next life as a flower I’m sure I’d be a Sunflower. I photosynthesize. I make the most of the available light.

I people-watch over the edges of the book I brought along. I grin at the sight of three little terrier dogs chasing each other across the park lawn. They run back to check in with their human, stop for the touch of her hand, for a friendly word from her, then they dart away to play again. The most feisty one snags his sibling-dog’s sweater in his teeth and with a practice twist flips him over onto the grass. They wrestle in fun, separate and start all over again.
I muse about the similarities between humans beans (as the characters in Pogo say) and animals with regards to packs and herds and families. Pandas are the anomaly, I think.

Pogo and Friends
With this thought in mind, I smile at a little child who’s passing by hand-in-hand with his father. He’s a tiny little child. His steps brand new to him. His balance still a bit unsteady. His trust in his father implicit. It makes me happy to see these two together. I can tell the father loves his son. And children, they’re quick and complete to love until they’re taught not to. I let my glance rise to give the father a polite, "Yes, I was smiling at your child and he’s very cute," smile before I go back to my book.
I read and watch the sun and reflect. Remember…

Tuesday night I meet back up with Sarah.
We’d caught each other online the night before and she’d said, “Hey so i can't wait to hang out tomorrow!”

me: I know!
Sarah: I'm really looking forward to it. I wanted to ask you something though. Are you okay if my friend Will comes along too?

me: that's cool
Sarah: so i was thinking all three of us could hang out- i think you guys would totally get along

me: absolutely!
Sarah: oh cool! I think you guys would totally get along! he just seems into meeting new people

me: sure. the more the merrier and it's fun knowing more people
Sarah: oh awesome!

We get it all arranged and then on Tuesday, I go straight from work to Sarah’s hostel and wait in the dining room while she finishes up an online class. My Colorado friend Jo Ann had sent me four Dick Francis books.
The package had arrived the day before, and book-starved as I am, I’m devouring one of them. So while I wait, I read and eat the sweet potato and rice dinner I’d brought along.

Soon enough, Sarah is finished with her class and 8:00 rolls around. Sarah’s friend Will picks us up [in non-Peruvian on-timeness] in his car and drives us to Barranco.

Will greets me with a handshake, not a kiss. Fine by me. Sarah had said we could talk in Spanish, but he starts off in English and we never deviate. He's tall and thin. His skin is lighter than the majority of Peruvians and he has a tragic light in the back of his eyes which speaks of distant sadness. His English is impeccable and in it I hear a European, not a Peruvian, accent. His vocabulary is impressive and I'm jealous. I judge my own language ability against the people I meet by the words they use that I have no clue how to translate. He uses a lot that I don’t know. I make a pact with myself to enrich my Spanish vocabulary. I want to know words like grim, conquest, frantic, seagoing, plea, nomad and introspection. I’ll buy some 3x5 cards and make flashcards and memorize new words on my daily bus rides. I want to sound intelligent too.
Barranco is a bohemian place known for drawing to itself musician and artist types. So I’ve heard. I’d equate what people have said about Barranco to places like Austin, Texas or Boulder, Colorado--places with a flavor of their own. Barranco is supposed to have its own flavor too. I've been in Peru for four months and have yet to visit this artistic district. Not for lack of desire, mind you. So I'm excited to finally go, and with a new friend and a local, no less.

Sarah and Will had discussed going to see a Woody Allen movie in San Isidro or going to Barranco. Barranco wins out and we cruise over to get coffee and have conversation.
I think he and I both feel a little subdued. Both of us want to monopolize Sarah’s attention and yet neither of us wants to be rude. I try to make talk with him that will get a three-way conversation going. We succeed somewhat when we talk about the idea of appearing in strangers’ photographs and how there is a developing technology which will allow us to identify unknown people in photographs by an online search. These conversations start, lose steam and then peter to a halt. It's not uncomfortable, but we’re not entirely at ease. The coffee shop is just closing so we finish up our drinks and head outside.

Barranco is…

It doesn't feel like any of the Peru that I know. Not like Lima. Not like Cieneguilla. Not like Cusco. Not like the Sacred Valley. It’s calm for now. It’s not quite the bohemian musical local I’d expected, though I hear the drifting music from a rich restaurant below us. It's dark--a comforting dark. I can't put my finger on why Barranco seems so foreign. It feels more European. How would I know? I've never been to Europe. It feel more first world, maybe? Geared to the wealthy. I catch a whiff of that bohemian vibe in the air. It fills the atmosphere with moisture from the sea, it's almost trendy. Almost commercial. It feels more familiar, like something I know. Maybe that's what makes Barranco seem strange. The familiar is now foreign; the foreign is now familiar. Add a few colonial buildings to the street where I grew up and that's almost what this place is like. At least in the dark.
We wander. The median is lined with tall and intertwined-limbed, canopy-providing trees.

"These are really old trees," Will says.

I've been eyeing them. Maybe that’s what’s so different. That one thing I can’t really quite put my finger on still. The trees. The tall, old trees. Suddenly, I can't remember if Peru, the Peru I know, has trees. Of course it does, I'm being silly, but it's these long lines of orderly and ancient copses that I haven't seen, that I haven't been among in a while.

“She had the most desired trees." I say this a lot in my head. It’s a sentence my parents’ across the street neighbor had said one time about another neighbor. If I could have something that was the most desired thing what would I want that to be? Something so deeply rooted like a tree? Maybe. These are ficus trees. Stately, rooty and inviting. I send them “nice to meet you” thoughts. I take their picture. I try to draw some of their calmness into my soul.
We turn off the main road. It’s dark. I don’t know that I’d walk these streets alone, but with Will and Sarah it’s okay.

“There weren’t all these gates and fences last time I was here,” Will says. “You could go stand by the sea if you wanted.”

We try to go through one guarded gate, but the guard growls at us that the entrance is one gate down. The next guard lets us in. “Looking like tourists helps,” Will says. “I was just trying to work out an argument in my head for letting us in.”
We head past the residences inside the gated area and go stand on the grass, against the railing to stare at the sea. With the trees and the strange-familiar feeling, and the ocean I feel at home, I want to stay there forever. The water pulls and pushes with the aid of the moon’s tidal impulse, the lights of the Jesus Statue glow, the stars might even peak out from behind the clouds.
“I don't know what seems so different about this place," I say to Sarah.
“It's quiet,” she says. “Maybe that's it.”

It is very quiet.

No car noise. Just the hum of the ocean, the sounds our voices, a suspect whisper of the leaves. We wander more. We talk. Then we leave, take our pictures on the Sighing Bridge, and get back in Will's car. He drives us slowly and carefully (this in itself is totally foreign to my Peruvian experience) and all the while criticizes the Lima drivers. He's kind enough to take me home and then take Sarah back to her hostel. It was a fun and strange and…
At the Sighing Bridge
My musing is interrupted by a voice. “No va a molestar a usted si nosotros sentar aqui (it won’t bother you if we sit here will it)?”
I look up. It’s the man and his child.

"No, it won't bother me."

I turn back to my book. Out of the corner of my eye I watch them settle in. The dad pierces the top of a juice box with a straw and hands it to the boy. The boy looks over the box at me timidly.
“Hola,” I whisper.

The little boy doesn’t respond, but his dad does. “El es un poco timido (He’s a little bit shy). He doesn’t speak much yet. He doesn’t understand a whole lot yet either.”
“How old is he?” I know how to make a little bit of small talk.

“One and a half.”
There’s a pause. I put my nose back in my book. I turn a page.

“Where are you from?” he asks me in Spanish.
Here it is. Question #1. This isn’t an innocent sit down after all. This isn’t just a place to refresh his little son with a juice box snack. I always assume the innocent way first, how preciously naïve I am. A friendly smile from one human to another to him means a possible opening. They grasp at straws, these men. Or, he’s just a human-animal looking for a herd-pack connection.

“The United States.”

His face lights up. “I lived in Chicago for three years. From when I was thirty-eight, thirty-nine and forty. Now I have forty-five years. I’m, how do you say? Un hombre mayor.” He’s speaking to me in a mixture of English and Spanish.

“An old man?” I suggest with raised eyebrows and a laugh.
He points a finger at me and laughs too. “How old are you?”

“Treinta y tres (thirty-three).”
His eyebrows go up. “Three three? Thirty-three?”

I nod.
“You don’t look it. I thought maybe you were twenty-two.”

We’re all twenty-two year old cocktail waitresses without last names, I think, misquoting a line from You’ve Got Mail.
And what? You were planning on robbing the proverbial cradle while holding real cradle fodder in your arms? My thoughts are often more scathing than my words.

This dad is not wearing a wedding band, but then again, many Peruvian men don’t.

“Thanks for saying so,” I say.
“Are you here alone?” He’s following the traditional pattern of questions. It’s like all these guys get handed a script when they leave the house. Fortunately, I have the right responses to keep the act going.

He gets serious. Turns his body a little. Adjusts the little boy. “You have to be very careful here.” He looks severe, worried, fatherly. He holds up his fingers to emphasize his words. “Never go to La Victoria or to Surquillo. Miraflores is okay. San Isidro is okay. Jesus María is so so.”

“Thanks, I’ll be careful.”
“My name is Franklin, this is Frank.” We shake hands across Frank’s back. “He’s my only son.”

“He’s very precious,” I say politely. Are all Latin boys Juniors?
“Do you have any babies?”

I shake my head no.
“Why not?” Franklin asks.

A million responses collide in my head and there’s a sudden traffic jam with words. I shrug.
He looks sad for me. He gets quiet for a moment, still sad. “I understand.”

No. No, I don’t think you really do. But it’s easier just to let him think whatever it is he’s thinking.
When his moment of silence is up, Franklin tells me all about his time in Chicago. How it’s a place of history. How the new alcalde (mayor) of Chicago had told all the mafia and gángsters to get lost, including Al Capone (he says it Caponeigh). “In Chicago,” he says after my history lesson. “It’s fucking cold, man.” He looks at me to see if by swearing he’s secured our solidarity.

Al Capone
“It is cold there,” I agree. I’m not solidified. Friendly, sure, but not of one mind.

“Talking with you makes me remember that wonderful part of my life,” he says. “Of your beautiful país (country). I loved it there. My boss loved me too. When I told him I had to go back to my country because of my family he told me, “Don’t go, Frank, you’re a good worker and I like you.’ But I had to for my family. He threw me a big going-away party. He told me anytime I come back I have a job with him. He was good people.”

“That’s really nice.”
“Now I have my son.”

“And does your wife work?” I ask.
He looks at me as if we’re not speaking the same two languages. Then enlightenment strikes. “We’re separated,” he says.

Uh-huh. You were on the prowl after all, I think, while shaking my head. Tsk-tsk. I want to ask him a score of questions. How did he meet her? Where is she now? Does he always watch his son? Were they even married actually? Is he just leasing this child to make it easier to talk to (apparently) single women in the park?
Frank interrupts my mental inquisition. “Do you have a phone or mail?”

I need to practice lying. I’m not very good at it. “Yes, I do.”
“I’ll give you my number and my email. I work as a bodyguard,” he tells me. “I have a gun and everything. Anywhere you want to go, you tell me and I’ll take you.”

“Thanks,” I say. He writes his number and his email on a piece of paper and gives it to me. Well, one step forward for me, I didn’t give him my information. That’s something. I might just be learning. One step at a time. I don’t pat myself on the back though.
Frank has pushed the juice box straw down into the box. He holds it up sadly to his dad.

“I can’t get it out, Frank. Sorry, man.”
Frank looks disheartened. Franklin can’t bear it. He cuts the edge of the box with his teeth and helps Frank take a sip. Franklin kisses his son on the head and says in English, “I love you, Frank, I love you so much.”

I gaze out into the distance, past the green of the trees to the buildings that block the sky.
“Do you like motorcycles?” Franklin asks.

“Um,” I start.
“I have a black one. Una negra. You tell me where and I’ll take you. You have to wear a helmet. For your safety, but not just for your safety, if you don’t wear one the police give you a ticket. I don’t like tickets. The fucking po-po, like they say in Chicago, right?”

“Right. Do you ever think you’ll go back to Chicago?” I ask him.
“I want to,” he says. “But one year after I came back to Peru my house got robbed. Everything was taken. Everything everything. Even my passport and visa. ‘Sorry, Frank,’ the police told me. They never got my things back. I was out of my mind crazy-mad for a year after that.”

I guess it’s not easy to get a replacement passport.
“I’m sorry.”

Frank is fading fast. His head finds a pillow of his father’s shoulder. “I’d better go,” Frank says, assessing the back of his son’s head. “It was nice to meet you.”
We shake hands. I hold the juice box while Franklin stands.

I hand him the juice and he thanks me.

I go back to my book. I’m thinking about going to get some groceries and then heading home and wondering just how sunburned my face is going to be after two hours in the afternoon sunshine.

I’m not used to hearing my name called. Like so many of the comments and honks and whistles I receive I pay it no mind.

“Amanda! Come here,” the voice says. This time I do turn.
Oh lord. It’s Franklin on his black motorcycle. With his helmet on. He motions me over with a flick of his wrist. I hope he doesn’t expect me to go for a ride right now. I practice my lines, “I’m so sorry, I’m supposed to meet someone in five minutes.” “I’m sorry, I don’t know you well enough.” “I’m sorry, I just can’t.”

“This is my bike,” he says proudly.
“It’s black,” I say. “Just like you said.”

He reaches into a pocket and pulls out his wallet. “Here is my bodyguard certification card and my DNI card.” He hands them to me. The DNI card is the Peruvian ID card like our social security cards. More or less. I check out the name and the pictures. “So you know I’m legit,” he says.
According to his cards he really is a bodyguard. I do not ask to see his gun.

“What places in Peru do you know?”
“I’ve been here in Lima and to Cusco.”

“Where else do you want to go?”
“I’d really like to see the Nasca Lines,” I say. I really would like to.
Then he tells me that if I go to the Amazon I have to be really careful not to go in the water or I’ll get some god-awful parasites that sneak in through any orifice and can even climb in your body underneath your fingernails. “I saw it on the Discovery Channel,” he says. “Be careful with the water in the North.”
I shiver. “I’ll be careful,” I promise.

“And only eat the food that you know. Don’t just try any food. The food here is okay. But there, ten mucho cuidado (be very careful).”
Sir, yes, sir. I want to say. But he’s being nice.

“I forgot to ask you how long you’ve been here,” he says.
“Four months,” I tell him. Where has the time gone?

“Oh, wow,” he says. “Call me, if you want to go anywhere I’ll take you. I have to go now,” he glances at the time on his phone. “I have to go. Cuidate, chau.”

I go back to my bench. I finish my book in the company of the trees. Then I pack up, go get some groceries from Metro, and head back to my apartment. The trees bow their boughs as I walk by and laugh at me. I laugh along with them. They mock me for my silliness a little bit. But it’s okay, they know, as I do, that I’ll be back to visit them. I can’t stay away.

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