Monday, October 17, 2011

Pueblo Libre

October 16, 2011 – Pueblo Libre

“I don’t think I could ever live in Lima,” I told quite a few of my friends while I was making preparations to move to Peru. With a population of nine million people? Forget it. Colorado Springs has just over 400,000 people and that was a little too crowded for me.  “I’m going to Cieneguilla. It’s about thirty miles outside of Lima. It’s more in the country. Just my thing.” And so I did. I breathed the fresh air, I made the outdoors my office, I listened to the parrots squawking, I endured the all night barking of the dog pack next door, I was amused with mild indignation at Walter’s inappropriate remarks, and I occasionally rode the bus in to the city to visit friends or explore.  
“They really roughed you up bad, didn’t they?” Walter told me on several occasions when I shut off my computer and went to go absorb the sunlight. He never defined the “they.” But if he meant the Rat Race and the Corporate World and the Caged Life then sure, I felt roughed up by “them.”

Each time I returned from a Lima day trip back to Cieneguilla--as I made the trek from the bus stop to Casa Del Gringo--the weight of the city would drop off me. It was like leaving a dystopia with the relief that I was never really a part of it.
Three months later I’m living in an apartment in Lima. Go figure.

The complex where I live

Adjusting to city life is easier than I thought it would be. The constant noise blends into something I always hear but can ignore like white (very resplendent egg-shell white) noise. The sirens, the horns, the alarms, the whistles, the crying children, the screaming children, the playing-laughing children, the streaming zoom of cars, the public address system carried voices, the scraping of the upstairs chairs on the floor, the roar of descending airplanes all combine into a cacophonic orchestra piece. I’ve mastered the transit system enough to be able to get to nearly any place I’d like to go. And then back home again. If I’m not sure, I’m comfortable enough to ask someone. Despite my gringa appearance I must look at home enough here, because on several occasions people have stopped me on the street to ask for directions.   
“Disculpa (excuse me).”

I glance up from my ignoring posture to find a young man with a backpack waiting expectantly for a response. I raise my eyebrows. It’s my last week subbing for Katrina and I’m heading to my last class of the day. I’ve just crossed the busiest street and am about to shift from first gear into second in my walking pace.
“Do you know if there is a Banco Continental nearby?”

“There is nothing nearby, not for miles,” I say. Oh no, just kidding. That’s a line from The Princess Bride.

It’s really funny that he asks though. I’d just scouted the area for a Scotiabank because I needed one to pay a bill later in the week. I also know there is a BCP on the corner of Benavides and Caminos Del Inca. I scour my memory for a Banco Continental. It’s no good. I come up blank.

“Sorry,” I tell him. “I don’t know. It’d be better if you asked someone else.” I feel I’ve failed him.
“Gracias,” he says and canters off.  

I resume my walk and make it through several more weeks of city living.

At times, the tall buildings and cement and dirt and cars and noise and the overcast sky oppress me. I’ve reached another transition point in my life and I haven’t quite got it to fit the shape of me yet. I worry about wasting my time. I’m bumbling through the days and always, always always, dreaming of the sunshine. Am I writing what I should be writing? Am I not being disciplined enough? How many projects can I work on simultaneously? What about money? What about my friends and family? What about dinner?

Adjusting to city life is much harder than I thought it would be. I want to--as Christians say--be in this world but not of it. This bustle, this craziness, isn’t me. I miss the Colorado mountains. I miss the deep blue of the high altitude sky. I miss nearly constant sunshine. I miss the chimera of silence that I crave, that eludes me. And yet, but yet, I want to be here in this moment. Living everything up. Being here, enjoying, loving here.
Am I zen enough to be the tranquilidad I desire?
I don’t know.

I can live in Lima because I’ve accepted some things as constant.
1. It will always be noisy. 2. The sun never shines. 3. It’s dirty and busy. 4. People are not outwardly friendly. 5. I will be honked at, whistled at, talked at. 6. It’s going to be chilly and damp and cold because it’s still winter time. 7. I don’t have to live here forever if I don’t want to.

I expect items 1 through 6 and that takes the pressure off. My expectations don’t set Lima up for failure in my eyes. To my delight, every now and then I’m surprised by quiet, sunshine, cleanliness, friendship, real connection and warmth. And then I rejoice.
Por ejemplo (for example), as everyone says here, just when I begin to truly doubt the existence of the sun it overthrows the garúa and sweeps the sky clear of clouds. And in those magical moments when the pale blue of the coastal sky gets unveiled, all the pressing worries I cart around in my head vanish. The air calls my name and I have to answer. I have to go outside. I’ve spent too much of my life locked up indoors. I shed the walls like a winter coat and dance.

On Friday, only moments before I wilt from solar deprivation, the white wall outside illuminates with rays. My eyes brighten and I go exploring. Out the front gate, to the left and I’m off. Katrina had told me about a museum in Pueblo Libre within walking distance of our house and I’m going that direction. It’s been ages since I’ve seen the blue sky. It’s been an existence since I’ve felt the sun on my skin. It’s been a lifetime since the air felt this warm. I can accept that Lima seldom has sun, but suddenly, in this new light, I feel fully alive. I’m living the dawn after the proverbial dark.
I walk past several parks, past the museum, up to a church. I sit for a moment on a bench outside the church and think about what I want to do. My consensus is just to sit in the sun.

A group of school children rounds the corner of the church. They’re holding balloons and being shuffled along by some effective adults. “Stay with your partner.” “Hold hands.” “Stay together.” I watch them from under the brim of my baseball cap. One little girl catches my glance and gives me a shy return smile.
After they trudge by and successfully cross the street I stand to take stock of where I am with a few pictures. A taxi drivers leans out his window, “Ay, preciousa (ay, precious),” he says to me. This is only to be expected so I let the words go in one ear and out the other. When the way is clear I cross the street and head back to the park in front of the museum. I scout out the sun spots and take a seat on a ledge. I pull out a book; it’s like my spy cover. I pretend to read while I people watch.

There are trees. There is grass. There’s less franticness in the air. I breathe. I feel some tenseness ease from my skin.
Two old men sit kibitzing on a bench off to my right. The hum of their voices filters over my way though not strongly enough to make out the conversation. They remind me of a line in an old country song, “As long as old men sit n’ talk about the weather/as long as old women sit n’ talk about old men.” I imagine they’re talking about the weather now. If they asked me, I’d say that it is a very fine day! I turn my face up to the sun and close my eyes.

Then I read a paragraph or two.

There’s a fountain in the center of this park. Apparently the museum brings in a lot of tourists. They’re milling about, eating lunches and snacks, waiting, going inside the museum and coming out from the museum. They all stop to have their pictures taken in front of the fountain. Oswaldo once said that all Peruvians love to have their pictures taken in front of fountains. “I don’t know why,” he’d said.

It’s more than just Peruvians; a gaggle of French tourists take turns getting pictures in front of the fountain. One poser twists my way, the photographer swivels, and I’m sure I just ended up in their picture. I wish I’d made a funny face.
When they’re done with the photos they circle around the park to come sit on the ledge next to me.  
There’s about ten or so people in their group. They’re conversing happily in French, taking a break from tourism while waiting for their bus to come to pick them up. One guy hands his camera to his wife and goes to stand at the end of the platform. He wants a picture of him with the Peruvian flag waving in the background. She tells him to be careful as he’s one step away from the edge. He perches safely and strikes a pose. He says, “Whisky,” and she presses the button. They inspect the digital display and both decide it’s not a good picture. So he goes back again. Another check, another rejection. The poser takes off his jacket and looks at me. I’m caught red-handed, so to speak, as I’m staring again. He smiles, holds out his thumb and two fingers. “Three times a charm,” he tells me in a language I understand. I laugh.

The man next to me tells the poser to take a step back. It’s only one step down, but a stumble like that could turn an ankle, crack a tailbone. “Go on,” he teases (I interpret by their gestures). “Just one more step back.” They’re a bunch of jokers.
Whisky Man
I pretend to not be so nosy and eventually they amble off.

The two old kibitzing men leave. A lady pushing a baby stroller takes their bench.
Across the park a young pair of lovers intertwine their limbs and pretzel together. The girl has the boy’s jacket on backwards; it must be chillier in the shade. The boy talks into her ear and then they kiss.

A few feet from me, a boy of maybe fourteen tries to win over the pigeons with an out held palm and clicking sounds. The birds don’t go for it. He follows them across the park, trying to get near, trying to befriend them. I want to tell him taming would work better if he had some food.
Speaking of food. I pull out an apple and munch away.

The square is coming to life, the area restaurants’ maître ds come to stand outside in order to entice people to come and eat. It’s lunchtime. The aproned man at the restaurant across the park, across the street from me waves. Each time I raise my head, each time I look around he waves again. Dude, I think, I’m not going to wave back and I’m certainly not coming over to your restaurant to eat. Another aproned man joins him and I imagine they talk about me. The first one waves again with more gusto. Nice try, no cigar.

It’s a perfect day. I’m really lucky. I don’t forget this. I remember sitting at the front desk at my job, gazing longingly out the window, wishing I were outside, wishing I were free. Now I am.

Skimming through my journal I run across my own words from June:

I feel like I’m living a life I’d
once read about
and wondered about
and here I am
really living.

This is still true in the city. I haven’t forgotten. I just got covered by a little bit of my own garúa.

“There are your fog people & your sun people, he said. I said I wasn’t sure which kind I was. He nodded. Fog’ll do that to you, he said.” – storypeople


I know what kind of people I am. No question about it.

Two siblings run across the park. Chasing each other delightedly. They take a moment to stand in front of the fountain. The older sister puts her arm across her brother’s shoulders. When the moment has gone too still for too long for the little boy, he shrugs his sister’s arm off and goes to jump through the puddles. Puddling is fun.

Puddling is Fun
I read a few more pages. Just as I’m thinking about leaving, the two old weather-talking men return. They pause when they see their bench is occupied. I hear their brief conference. It’s amiable and without any remarks about a proprietary claim to their previous spot. They settle on a bench across the park. Where did they go? For lunch? For coffee? To get a paper? They’ve certainly chatted the morning away and now they’re aiming to do the same with the afternoon.

We’re lucky aren’t we, old weather-talking men? I ask them in my head. We’re just so lucky.

But not everyone can live the way we do. The lover boy passes by me calling out his girl’s name. Absorbed as I’d been in my book and my other spying I hadn’t seen her pass. I look over my shoulder. There she goes. She’s off at a fast pace, shoulders rigid, head held chin up, angry. She doesn’t look back. She’s no longer wearing the boy’s jacket. The boy calls after her. His big diamond earrings catch the light of the sun, glinting. He changes his walk into a jog, yells a line in his defense and then they vanish from my sight in the dusty throes of a tornadic lover’s tiff.
AsÍ es la vida. That’s life.

Ain’t it grand?

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