Monday, March 26, 2012

Mate with Matt

March 26, 2012 – Mate with Matt

A Brit, an American, and a calabash gourd walk into a park. Sounds like the start to a great joke only I don’t know what the punch line is. I’m thinking about this as I take a bus into Miraflores and hotfoot it over the tree Matt and I have set up as our meeting spot in Parque Kennedy. I’m about thirty minutes late. It’s partially my fault, leaving the apartment seven minutes later than I’d planned, and partially Lima’s transit system’s fault, I’d waited curbside for at least fifteen minutes before one of the three combis I can take into town drives by. I flag it down. The bus is crowded and the Cobrador tells me to take the front seat. The man inside gets out and lets me climb up into the middle seat and then he gets back in next to me. I twist over so that my knees are out of the way of the driver and the gearshift and settle in for the twenty minute ride. The air sifts in through the open window. It feels nice against my face. I’ve been off my routine for about a week while Matt was staying at the apartment and I’m feeling pressure from my self-imposed need to do things. The last few days I’ve been frantically achieving and scratching things off my To Do list and then turning right around to add more to the mix. I need to chill out. To be. To slow up and remember to breathe. A half day off will give my thoughts time to settle, the story ideas I’ve got drowning in my head time to surface, and my OCD tendencies a Time Out.
It doesn’t matter that I’m late. Matt isn’t here yet. The thirty minute grace-period is one of the nice things about South America. Sometimes it’s also one of the most infuriating things about South America too.

I glance up and down the park making sure I haven’t missed Matt. He’d introduced me to mate (pronounce mah-teh) while he crashed at the apartment for a few days. He’d shown me how to dump the yerba mate leaves into the gourd and shake them up, add a touch of cool water to soak the flavor out, and how to set the bombilla—the silver straw that acts as a sieve and straw—just at the right angle. He’d made several trips to bring out the thermos of hot water, the extra herbs, and the bag of yerba mate in case we needed to strengthen the mix as we drank. We’d taken our chairs out on the patio and sat with our feet up on the balcony edge.
He took the first sip. “As the host, I’m actually supposed to,” he explained. Then when it was set to taste and he’d added in some fresh hot water for me, he handed the gourd over and I sipped my first Argentinian-style prepared mate. Then he’d caught me up on the last eight months of his life since he’d left Lima in June just after he and I met for the first time, up to the moment when he stepped off the bus back in Lima once again.

We passed the calabash gourd back and forth. When we drained the water, Matt added more. When the thermos was empty he went back inside to refill it from our water boiler.
We sat there for hours, drinking tea and sharing life stories. We talked about wicked men, patriarchal cultures, injustice, pain, love, choice, obtaining visas, jobs, Lori Berenson, ideals, books and language. Fictional characters took residence in my head while we talked. I jotted some notes in my book so I wouldn’t forget. Inspiration is always an unexpected and welcome gift.

I’m making a slow round on the sidewalk near the tree when I hear my name. Matt approaches. He has his mate bag slung over a shoulder and a 2 liter jug filled with hot water in his hand.
We make the usual greetings; forgiving and apologizing for being late. The park is busy. All the benches taken. We find a spot on a curb in front of a tree while we wait for a bench to free up.

“I wanted to be closer to the cats. I wanted to get a bench,” Matt says mournfully. There’s a clowder of cats that live in this area—fed by tourists and loving citizens. Matt calls it the Cat Park and he points the cats out to me as they mill about. He loves them. One dark cat darts in front of us with a dog in hot pursuit. The cat claws up a tree and I know it’s thumbing its nose at the dog.

Matt sifts the mate into the calabash gourd and shakes the leaves. He adds in a pinch of the extra herbs.
Matt and the Fortuneteller
“The man over to your left,” I tell him, motioning with a flick of my eyes. “Is the fortuneteller of Parque Kennedy.” I’d spoken with him once when I came alone to the park to have a change of pace from the quiet of Cieneguilla. I’d spoken with the fortuneteller about his travels, his retirement, his need to be out with people instead of home alone watching TV. I’d been the Adivina of Cieneguilla at the time myself, predicting the emergence of the sun each day at Jose’s request. I smile at the memory. How long ago that was. Wasn’t that just yesterday?

Vigilant, Matt sees a couple leave their bench. “Quick,” he says. “Go save the bench and I’ll bring everything over.”
I hop it over and save the spot for us.

We settle in.
“You don’t talk much,” Matt says, arranging all our mate paraphernalia on the bench beside him. “You’re going to talk for a while now.”

I do have something on my mind. “I was thinking about something you said the other day,” I say. We’d talked about physical and psychological pain and I’d been pushed on to think about people who cut themselves as a way to cope with the pain in their life. Or the ones who cut tiny lines over their skin in order to feel real again, to bring them back into reality from the disembodied existence they live within for whatever reason. I’m fascinated by what drives us to do what we do, why we are the way we are, and if, and how, we can change. I’d been thinking about this for days. Why would someone cut? How do we deal with pain? How do I deal with pain? There’s a female character taking form in my brain. She’s gathering strength to whisper her story into my ear. But she’s still phantasmal. I’ve enjoyed my conversations with Matt. We both have different perspectives, but we can discuss things from our own spheres. Like some conversational Venn diagram where we approach our talks from our own mental processes and somewhere it overlaps. Matt’s interests pivot around political, social, cultural and personal instances that relate back to values—ideas he’s cementing to put into the book he will write as an aid to the Green Party.  My interests are in human relationships, the way we are, fiction, and psychology (to name a few).
I find our talks absorbing, interesting.

“I was thinking about pain,” I continue. “And how sometimes a person will create physical pain when their emotional pain starts to build up to a certain level. Like someone who cuts. They cut so that the pain of the cut will distract or take them away from the emotional pain. It’s their way to cope.”

Before he has a chance to comment, a Peruvian man totters over to us. “Can I have a seat? I just need to sit down,” he tells us in Spanish. He waves at the jug and the bag taking up space. Matt moves everything down to the ground. I scoot over and we make room for this man.
“I’m sorry to bother you. Sorry to bother you, señorita,” he says. He’s missing a couple teeth and his words are hard to follow, slurred and rough. “I have to take my medications. They cost a lot of money. If I don’t take them, I hear voices in my head. The voices started after the time I was in the army. Sometimes I feel they’re chasing me.” Matt and I can both tell this guy is truly tormented. “I just need a little money so I can buy my medications. Just a little tiny bit of money so I can buy some lunch, buy some medicine.”

I’m thinking it’s ironic that this man, with these problems would sit next to us to ask for money just after I started a conversation about psychological and emotional pain. I’m not heartless, I’m really not, but I know if I give him what I have then I won’t be able to pay my bus fare home. I don’t have uncontrollable voices in my head, but I also don’t have much to offer monetarily. I feel awful at this, my fierce stinginess. Guilt is another topic for another day.
Matt reaches into his pants pocket and pulls out all the change he has. “I’m sorry,” he tells the man. “I don’t have very much.” He slips the money into the man’s hand. The man’s face brightens. He looks at the wealth. “Look at all this money!” he says under his breath.  “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, Señorita, for letting me take up your time. Thank you.” He pulls himself up. As he leaves I watch him with my heart breaking for the pain in the world.

“I wish I had more to give him,” Matt says.
I let out a soft whiff of air. “He said, ‘Look at all this money.’” I shake my head. “You gave him a lot. To him, that was a lot of money. More than he was expecting.”

“It was maybe three soles,” Matt says. Three soles being just over one U.S. dollar. And that, from one begged at “tourist”, is a fortune. What a world, yeah?
Left to ourselves again, I don’t know if I want to take my thread of thought back up. The contrast of my thinking and the reality of pain is so very real in the moment. I take the gourd when Matt offers it to me, take small sips and empty out the water before I hand it back. Mate is an Argentinian custom. From underneath my eyebrows, I watch the curious, suspicious, judging, and even accepting glances from the passerbys. Several men say, “Buena mate,” as they walk past. A mulleted guy and his girl give us appraising looks.

“They’re definitely Argentinian,” Matt says. “The mullet is a dead giveaway.”
A trio of English speaking tourists asks if we’d mind taking their photo. I stand to take the picture, and one of the ladies leans in at Matt. “Is that a hookah?” she asks.

He sets her straight about mate, I take the photos and we shoo them on.
Matt and I speak the same language, more or less. We have more cultural similarities to each other than we do to South America. But there are still differences.  Judgments. He has a very sarcastic wit at times. I have long stretches of silence. He doesn’t spare insults even as he acts under, what he says is the very British tradition of sorry, sorry, so sorry. I don’t rein in my thoughts or hesitate to take notes when I want to remember something for later—when I want to remember something to write about it later.

We’re talking about money versus need, trading versus gaining and profit, and social change. I take a breath, wanting to draw a picture about how Americans think about money or something. I have a point, a comparison, a way in which to give understanding for one mentality.
“Americans think,” I start.

“I don’t care about fucking Americans,” Matt interrupts with an intensity in his tone, and he continues without letting me cut in.
I’m surprised at my anger; it boils up quick in response. I’m not every American. And every American isn’t me. But this dismissal hits a little like a sucker punch to the gut. Because I am American. I’m not sure I need him to care about me, but there’s a ferocity in his words that cuts me off—locks me out. I raise my eyebrows and shut my mouth. I do love some of the ideals America espouses. I hate the ignorance that we get judged for so often. I love the tenacity. I despise the arrogance. We’re not perfect, but hearing the differences, comparing, contrasting, accepting--this, I feel, leads to understanding and potentially to change. I fume next to him on the bench. Marvel at this dark emotion that I don’t often experience, surprised at how I bristle at the insult. I keep silent and only half listen to him while I try to understand myself.

When he’s done, with a bit of apology in his voice he says, “What do the Americans think?”
“I might have lost the thread of it after you said you didn’t care,” I say. I shrug. My anger is gone. I think back to the place where my mind had been. I recapture the comparison I’d wanted to speak out. This time he listens.

We sit there and talk and drink mate.
There we are, two people from two different countries sitting side by side in Peru while practicing an Argentinian tradition. This is what living is. Being all people and nobody at all. Holding to a place and relating to people as humans, to humans as people.

When we’ve exhausted the hot water, we pack up.
“I might have some time Tuesday morning before I head out of town,” Matt says. “We could have mate in the park then if you’re free.”

“Sounds good,” I say, waving goodbye as I go to find the corner where my bus will be, “let me know. See you later.”
The bus isn’t as full on the way home. I settle into my seat, pay my fare, and think about emotions, pain, and about what it means to be human.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Happy Birthday from South America with Love

March 19, 2012 – Dad’s Birthday

“I have to ask you something,” my grandmother says.
On the other side of the line, on a different hemisphere, I freeze. These conversational beginnings never bode well.

“Okay,” I say. Trepidation swells. An odd guilt builds and I wonder where this feeling comes from. I’ve done nothing wrong. That I remember. I brace myself and wait.
My grandmother takes a breath. “What should we do about your dad’s birthday?”

Relief nearly drowns me. Silly kid, I think, scared of your own shadow. Then a fresh guilt forms. Since I left the States I’ve given myself the excuse that I’m too far away to really do anything extra special for birthdays. That used to be my thing. I’d send packages weeks in advance to make sure they arrived on time and mark them in black, bold ink with warnings like Do not open until 3/19/10 or else! and other such things. But, suddenly, the hassle with customs, the chance that a gift might not arrive, and my dwindling cache of available funds give me (self-justified) license to turn into a sloth. I’m not sure these are good enough reasons.
Year of the Water Dragon
“It’s his sixtieth birthday,” my grandmother says.

I think something that rhymes with “spit” and sit slack-jawed and numb. “No!” I exclaim. Then I do the math. Yes. Oh man. I’ve been a little self-absorbed. I can’t just gloss over this birthday. But if I pay attention to one person’s birthday, I’ll have to pay attention to all. Distance is no excuse. “Spit,” I think again. I assure Grandmama I’ll ask my mom about it and then ring off. I go to bed depressed. I’ve got three weeks until my dad’s birthday and what can I do? It’s the thought that counts, right? But my thoughts are running around in circles like Uncle Jeff’s old dog Hannah Banana. They’re no help to me at all.

What can I do? I’m tossing ideas out left and right as I toss myself around the bed. Then I go still. An idea whispers itself at me. No way, I tell it. That’s crazy. But it’s good. It’s a really good idea. It’s a scary idea. The idea catches and grips at me. I can’t just let it go. What the heck? What have I got to lose?

What if I got sixty people to say Happy Birthday on camera and then made a video? Sixty happy birthdays for sixty years of life and one to grow on. That might be special, right?
The next day I try to talk myself out of it. I feel schizophrenic as I argue with myself. I’m an introvert, I say. Sixty people is a lot of people. What if they all say no? How many days will it take to find sixty people to cooperate? It’d be easier if I were in the States. It’d be easier if I hadn’t thought this up at all. Where would I go? Out to the bus stop at the corner of our street? This is a city of nine million people. Sixty is a tiny percent of that. And besides, Lima is chock full of tourists and backpackers. Tourists and backpackers are generally more receptive to crazy things than “normal” people are.

That’s true.
Maybe this is the perfect place to be to pull off this idea after all. To test out the craziness factor I tell my roommate my plan.

“That’s a really great idea!” she says.

Yeah! I think, it is. My fears get squashed and I start to view every person I see as a number out of that sixty. My roommate and a friend she has over for lunch become people one and two. I eye the kids in our apartment playground and wonder about permission and rights and parents. How hard will this project be? Sixty people isn’t so many people. Alright, I’ll do it.  

Friday morning I pack my bag and head into Miraflores. I’ve decided I’ll start at Café Zeta and work my way down to Larco Mar, waltz around the Park of Love and then, if I have to, head over to Madre Natura for their lunch rush crowd. I have no idea how long this project will take. I figure it’ll be days.
I practice my speech in Spanish the whole bus ride over. I almost solicit my co-riders in the full combi, but I’m too shy. What if I have to take this bus again sometime with this same driver and same cobrador? Sixty people is a lot of people. An awful lot.

When I get to Café Zeta it’s practically empty. Oh no. The breakfast backpacker crowd I’d expected isn’t here. Maybe it’s too early. Maybe it’s no longer traveling season. Maybe Friday is the wrong day to be here. So I order a coffee and pancakes and think maybe this idea will be a wash. It was stupid. But I’m not one to give up when something feels just a little too hard. Maybe. I cut into my pancakes and spy on people. I judge each passerby as a possibility or impossibility. Some really cute kids walk by, hand in hand with their adults and I want them all in my video. Desperately. Maybe after the caffeine kicks in I’ll go beg their parents for their children’s beautiful, creative innocence and joy.

I watch a girl at the table next to me order and eat and leave. That’s one lost. She looked like she would have been open to helping. Two, then three traveling paired customers leave. I feel like they’re slipping through my fingers.

Fortified by my breakfast, I gather up my resolve and go to the check out. I give my spiel in Spanish to the girl behind the counter. Then I give it again when she calls her coworker over.

“Sure,” they say. “We’ll do it. But can you come back in like an hour?” They both glance over their shoulders at the lady busy with a cell phone and laptop behind them. “The owner is here and we don’t want to do it while she’s around.”

“Oh, yeah, I see,” I say, thinking that this will be harder than I thought. “An hour?”
I pay my tab and thank them, tell them I’ll see them later and walk out.

I walk all the way down to the ocean. Several times I pause with the words to stop a couple, a single soul on the edge of my tongue, but before the words leave my mouth, I chicken out. It’s a long mile down. When I get to the Park of Love I see two guys. They’re obviously travelers. They look American. They’re approachable.

“Excuse me,” I say. “Do you guys speak English?”

They admit they do and I give my speech. “My dad’s birthday is the nineteenth of this month. He’s turning sixty and I’m not going to be there to celebrate it with him. I’m wanting to make a video with sixty people saying happy birthday. Would you guys mind being part of that sixty?”
“Of course not,” they say.

I pull out my video camera and say, “Whenever you’re ready.”

“What’s your dad’s name?”

“John or Johnny,” I reply.

The first guy looks into the camera and starts to sing Happy Birthday. It’s awful. It’s wonderful.

When he’s finished his friend laughs at him.
“I’m not singing,” the friend says. “I’m just saying happy birthday and that’s it.” He does.

I’m up to four out of sixty with my roommate and her friend. Bolstered by my success, I go on. Another couple is taking pictures at the edge overlooking the ocean. I pull in close and hear them speaking English so I know what language to address them in.

“Sorry to bug you,” I say, edging in closer, getting their attention. “I’ve got a strange request.” I give them my speech. They gush. They think it’s the best thing they’ve heard. They tell me all about their travels and their friends and their life. They’re from New York and defy all the stereotypes of New Yorkian rudeness. On film they personalize their messages to my dad. They’re numbers five and six and I’m already one tenth of the way into my project when they bid me a friendly farewell and good luck.

I’m buzzed off this enthusiasm. I’m sparked and I’m enjoying myself. The daunting fear of this endeavor melts into a happy contentment. I knew people were friendly. I knew people were helpful. But sometimes I forget in the business of big city life how that is. We’re all willing to help
someone else out if it doesn’t take too much out of us and especially if it’s fun.

I walk from the Park of Love toward the shopping mall of Larco Mar on the Malecon being passed by many people who don’t look approachable until a shirtless man nears. “Do you speak English?” I ask him, pausing with my hand out so that he stops.

“Yes. I’m white,” he says, stopping and wiping the sweat from his face. “It’s only to be expected, right?”

His words are free of bitterness over the skin color assumptions. He’s from France and is both friendly and has a sense of humor. He sings happy birthday and in his message to my dad says, “Stay cool with your daughter. Bye, mate.” He’s number seven.

I wipe the sweat from my own face as I turn the corner that leads to the plaza above the shops of Larco Mar. The policemen at Larco Mar watch me approach. Their mannerisms become more official as they can tell I’m in need of something. “Un favor (a favor),” I start.
“Dime (tell me),” one of them says.

I give my speech. They look at each other and shrug. They’re eight and nine.

I only get turned down a handful of times, mostly by people who either misunderstand my request—perhaps thinking I want them to come someplace later on to be a giant happy birthday shouting group of sixty—or are just too shy to be recorded.

I get a group of eight Peruvian youths to say their happy birthdays together. And then a group of six. I meet some French Canadians, a girl from Holland named Ezra, three wild Peruvian drivers, a guy from Denmark, and a smattering of Americans.

I make my way back up the road and circle back to Café Zeta. The girls there have me explain what I’m doing again and then with a modicum of shyness and laughing embarrassment join in my video. “Feliz cumpleaños,” they say.

I don’t know how many I have at this point. At least thirty. I count my interactions up in my mind. I can’t have that many already. I can’t have that few after all this time. Several of the Café Z patrons are kind enough to join my fun. An American couple each say happy birthday, a green-shirted guy and a grumpy guy from Minnesota do as well.

I’m feeling a little flagged. My face is flushed with sunburn over the sunscreen I’m wearing. I’m hot and the breakfast is wearing off.

I head once more to Larco Mar where I meet up with Ezra, the Holland girl, again. She gets directions to the Love Park from me and asks me how I’m doing on my quest. We stand gazing out at the ocean for a moment, two strangers like friends in that place. Then we bid each other good lucks and take our leaves.
I sit on a ledge at the front of Larco Mar and count up my videos. Then I count them all again. I’m only eight short. It seems impossible and magical.

I snag a couple nuns who, though a bit reluctant, both participate and lower my quota by two. A group of five starts past me and I jump into their space with my over-spoken spiel. They’re drunk off life and willing to play along. They’re French Canadian and they review the words to the birthday well-wishing song in French as I ready my camera.
“I don’t know it,” one of the ladies tells me. “I’ll just stand over here out of the way.”

“Would you mind saying happy birthday anyway?” I ask her.

She does more than that, she sings in English. And then her group with their arms slung across their shoulders, start their singing, gathering enthusiasm as they progress through the song.

“Bonne fête, John,” they say. They sway off together, carried off on happiness, joyful under the sun.

I smile after them. I sway on my feet from four hours of requesting and walking, held together by happiness, myself joyful under the sun, with a camera full of strangers’ love for my dad.

This is Lima. This is me in South America. This is my answer to my grandmother’s question of what to do for my dad’s birthday. At least on my end of things. For now.

This is a day in my life in celebration of a day in another’s life.

Happy Birthday, Dad!

Friday, March 16, 2012


March 16, 2012 – Chinatown

There are worlds within worlds. You can live in a place your entire life and never see all the things it contains. I know this. That’s how I am with Dallas. I lived there twenty years of my life and what do I know about it? Not much. Ten years in Colorado. I know a little bit more. And now Lima. In the past nine months, I’ve done so much here, and yet, I’ve done nothing at all. I know my way around my neighborhood in Jesús María, I’ve seen some museums, I’ve been to some ruins, but what else do I know?
For instance, I didn’t know Lima had a Chinatown until my Chinese-American friend, Nan, came to visit and said she’d read about it in the Guide Book. She’d wanted to go see how it compared to the other Chinatowns of the world, but, as we only had one day to traverse Lima, we didn’t make it there.

Sunday night I go.
It’s the day after Matt’s birthday and in honor of this he, Fiorella, and I head to Chinatown for vegetarian Chinese food. Matt’s just back to Lima after spending the last eight months traveling around South America and we’re going out to celebrate. Fiorella and Matt have eaten there and regale me with the remembered goodness of it all. I’m thrilled about the whole dinner out deal. When I’ve asked at several Peruvian Chinese food places before, they say, “Yes, of course, we have vegetarian food—it only has a little bit of chicken in it,” and that’s the end of that for me.

With food on the mind, we walk from the apartment down to the street Brasil and catch a bus. Twenty minutes by bus, three blocks by foot and we’re at the Chifa San Joy Lao (“Where You’re Part of the Family” the front door banner says with the formal usted (you)). There’s a bit of a wait, but soon enough we’re at a table with our noses pressed into menus. I’m in Eating Out heaven. There’s actually an entire page dedicated to Vegetarian Options. We’re hungry. We’re celebrating. We order four dishes.  
Our waiter—possibly the handsomest South American man and the most helpful waiter I’ve encountered—dissuades us from ordering two too similar meals and when we’ve finally got it all straightened out he leans in toward me, his pencil still scraping the pad of paper, and says, “You’ve ordered four complete dishes. That’s correct?”

“We can get it To Go if we don’t eat it all, right?” I ask.
“Of course,” he says.

“Then yes, we’d like all four.”
Mushrooms. Noodles. Vegetarian Fried Rice. Vegetables. Tofu. Soy Sauce. Cerveza. The only thing we can’t get is vegetarian Spring Rolls. “They’re all made with a little bit of chicken,” the waiter tells us apologetically. We talk about the world, South America, North America, Europe, pink noise, brown noise, bus rides and life before the food arrives. With an artist’s pride of presentation, the waiter sets the dishes before us. Steam wisps off the plates seducing me with smell. Acknowledging that I’m a complete hippy freak, I pull my bamboo chopsticks out of my bag and use them to dig in. It just doesn’t seem right to eat Chinese food (vegetarian or not) with a fork.

“You’ve got your own palillos (chopsticks),” Fiorella says, without being mocking. I hold them up as she takes a picture of me.  
It seems a little wrong to be drinking Cusqueña instead of some kind of Jiu, but what can we do?

Salud,” we say, clink glasses and sip.
Over dinner we talk about choices and jobs. Matt and I are unemployed writers-travelers and Fiorella is in a job she doesn’t like.

“Just think,” Matt says. He and I are both 1978ers, born in the Year of the Horse. Fiorella is a handful of years younger. “When you’re our age, Fiorella, you could be out of job just like we are.”
“I should be a fortune teller,” Fiorella says.

“Do you know how to read palms?” I ask her.
“A little,” she says.

I turn up my hand and press it her way.

“Oh my god,” she says, staring at my right hand. “You have too many lines.”

I give her the other hand and she peers down at it. “Maybe two kids,” she says.
“Oh no! I hope not,” I say, pulling my hand back defensively. I brush my hands together. “What other job might you like to have? What would you do if you could do anything?”

Fiorella talks of her dreams. I imagine them as reality.
We eat our way through two thirds of our four dishes.

I’m still picking up rice with my chopsticks and thinking, Now you can pick up anything! as the paper packaging on wooden chopsticks always assured me after its pictorial tutorial, and wondering what else I can pick up (a table? the tab? juice?) when Fiorella says, “I just have to ask you.”
With that kind of opening it’s hard to know where the conversation will go. We’ve already broached some deep subjects, so I wait. Chopsticks in mouth. Images of me picking up a couch with my chopsticks on pause in the video of my mind.

“Why are you both so peaceful?” she asks. “How did you get that way?”
I smile. I feel peaceful. I feel happy. I feel full.

“Peaceful?” Matt asks.
“You both are very peaceful. You really are.”

Well. What’s the easy answer? I’m not sure there is one for me. It took me a long time to get this way. I let a lot of things go. I put some effort into it. I remember to breathe. I believe that things will work out for the best. I practice living in the moment. This doesn’t always work, I’m not always calm. But, here in this moment, in the center of Lima in Chinatown, the peace sits inside me, filling me full like the vegetarian Chinese food.
And--in this world within my world within Chinatown within Lima--I’m happy.


Saturday, March 10, 2012

La Huaca Pucllana

March 10, 2012 – La Huaca Pucllana

“Have you been to the Huaca Pucllana yet,” Rodney asks me when we’re getting set to leave our Thursday writers’ group meeting.

“No, I haven’t,” I reply. I’d heard about it from Nan when she came to visit in January. She’d read about it in her guidebook and wanted to visit, but the one day we had to explore Lima the Huaca was closed. The guidebook had proclaimed that it was one of the Must Dos for Lima. I’d stuck it on my mental list of things to do just above a slew of museums I’ve yet to see.

“Alright. We’ll go there on Sunday then,” Rodney says.
Sunday morning I lather my face in sunscreen, put a bottle of water in my bag and head out early. Per his weekend tradition, Rodney is already in Miraflores having breakfast with a couple of friends at Café Zeta. They’ve come and gone by the time I arrive and Rodney is sitting alone at a table with a book. I interrupt him from his first time reading of To Kill a Mockingbird and make him wait while I eat my second breakfast. The panqueques con fruta (pancakes with fruit) are my splurging breakfast of choice. I’m in no way disappointed; the mango, banana, and strawberries are exceptionally fresh, the pancakes warm and the syrup just lightly coated enough to sweeten things without drowning the differing flavors. Thus fueled, I’m ready for our adventure. Rodney leads the way and we head across Miraflores towards the Huaca.

The morning air dial is clicking up towards hot and I wipe the sweat from my face. The café americano I had with my panqueques has loosened my tongue and I’m chattering nonsense as we go. Rodney doesn’t seem to mind and chatters back at me.
When we get to the ticket gate, he generously pays our entry fees and we obediently wait the five minutes for our English speaking guide to come collect us. We’re bunched in with a group of about fifteen others; some passing through tourists, a volunteer church group, and us. When our guide, Percy, sees Rodney his face lights up with recognition.

“Amigo!” he says. “It’s been a long time! Where have you been?”
Rodney, over the years he’s been in Lima, has brought several of his visiting friends to see the Huaca and as a result of his natural friendliness has accumulated many new friends, not just at the Huaca but throughout the city.

“I haven’t had any visitors to bring in a while,” Rodney explains. Even though he’s been to the Huaca before, Rodney assured me he didn’t mind returning since the recent excavations have uncovered several new layers which he’d been wanting to see.
They chitchat a bit more then Percy collects all our tickets and we’re set to start.

“My dear friends,” Percy says, kicking off the tour. “Welcome to La Huaca Pucllana.”

Huacas (pronounced wacas) “are commonly located in nearly all regions of Peru (with the exception being the deepest parts of the Amazon), in correlation with the regions populated by the pre-Inca, and Inca early civilizations. They can be found even in downtown Lima still today, the city having been built around them, in almost every district of Lima. Huacas within the municipal district of Lima are typically fenced off to avoid common graffiti vandalism.” – Wikipedia

The word Huaca is a Quechua word for an “object that represents something revered, typically a monument of some kind.” –Wikipedia. So mountains, impressive rock structures, things of exceptional beauty, places that are astronomically aligned, or the pre-Incan monuments built for the dead were called Huacas.
I have to learn most of this information after I’ve completed the tour and returned home because as we’re taken through the Huaca Pucllana I find myself lingering behind, snapping pictures, spying on our tour companions, eavesdropping on conversations and whispering with Rodney. I catch just enough of Percy’s instruction to know enough to not really know anything at all.

For years, decades, perhaps even centuries, this Huaca had been covered—just one more giant dusty mound making a topological rise in the cityscape-- even used as a trash pile by the Limeñas until 1981 when someone came in and started to excavate the site. The pyramid layers are still being uncovered level by level and reconstructed brick by brick. Several years ago mummies were discovered in part of the site, but that section is not open for public viewing, at least not yet.

“The tour information changes,” Rodney tells me from our place at the back of the group, “as more of the pyramid is uncovered and the archaeologists try to rearrange the new data to fit their views of these ancient cultures. This is one of the only sites where the guides are actually instructed on what to say by the archaeologists themselves.”

“And then it’s still really only speculation after all,” I muse aloud. “Because how can we really know exactly what happened or how things were? For instance, if some archaeologist in the future found my room they may have an idea of what I used things for, but they couldn’t really know how I actually lived day by day. They could piece together a hypothesis of what I did, but they couldn’t know my actual daily habits or what I really thought, how I really lived.”
Kicking up dust with my flip-flops, I think about the things I have in my room–the collection of things that survived the 2011 Relentless Purging of Things and how an archaeologist might form a view of who I was from those things. There’s a story there somewhere. The thought snags the edge of my brain. I file it away into the back of my mind and catch up once again to the group.

We’ve made our way around the ground level and follow the sign that says Entrance to the Grand Pyramid. “It’s like training for Machu Picchu,” Percy jokes. “Don’t worry, it’s easy to get to the top here in Lima.”
I laugh. It’s true. Sea level air is much easier to gasp down into my lungs than Machu Picchu’s thin high elevation air is. Percy leads the way up the path.

“Those trunks,” Rodney tells me, pointing out a grouping of tree trunks sticking up out of the gray dust, “are thought to be totems representing the ancestors.”
I like the thought of tree ancestors and file that away for a future story too. It reminds me of all the Greek mythologies where fleeing virgins chose to be turned into trees rather than be raped by some lusting, pursuing god. Better to be a tree. Better to be a trunk, perhaps.

“Where are you guys from?” a man asks Rodney and me.
“Originally from Illinois,” Rodney says, “but I live here in Lima now.”

After I tell him I’m from Texas and we compare notes on Houston where he’d visited for business a time or two and I had visited once for a judo tournament, I ask, “Where are you guys from?” He tells me they’re from Oregon and explains that they’ve been here with a church organization helping out at an orphanage in Cieneguilla.
Well, well, it’s a small world after all, as the song says. “Was it Westfalia?” I ask. That’s the orphanage I’d gone to one day with Walter when I was living in Cieneguilla.

“No, not Westfalia,” he tells me. “It’s the other one.”
“So,” I start, thinking the world just gets smaller from there, “do you by chance know Geraldine?”

After Geraldine had quit working for Casa del Gringo and had returned from her month long visit to her mother’s family in the remote mountainous areas of Peru she’d volunteered at an orphanage in Cieneguilla.
“Of course!” the man says. “Geraldine! But she’s not there anymore. She’s living with her sister in Lima now.”

I’d been meaning to call or text Geraldine since I returned to Lima in January and getting this second hand information about her delights me. I fall back into a few Geraldine memories as I trail behind yet again.
Moving right along and heading back down the slope on the other side of the pyramid, Percy is talking about the early civilizations’ worship of the sun and the moon and the ocean. His words drift over to me while I’m planning out the text I’ll send to Geraldine later on and taking pictures of this old world with the new world in view just behind it. I love the contrast.  

One of the men from the church group lingers behind me talking with a Peruvian girl. “Human sacrifices,” he says. “I just don’t get it. I just don’t understand how these people thought that a human sacrifice would satisfy the gods. Why would they think that?”

I have a moment of ironic marvel at him. The back of his shirt says Community Bible Church. Christianity is based on blood and sacrifice too, I think. Maybe he forgot that. Maybe, as Caiaphas said, “it was expedient for one man to die on behalf of the people” but the repeat sacrifices made by these civilizations are just too foreign to understand.  

I’m dwelling on death and sacrifice and religion when I pass a little dead bird. I crouch down and whisper something to it. Something like, “Rest in peace, little friend.” Death happens, whether sacrificially or not, and this is what we try to understand, to accept, to make provision for. This great pyramid, this Huaca--a place to store the dead, a place to revere the ancestors, a place to perform rituals to the cosmic deities—in its monumental impressiveness, speaks to me of the transient nature of things. We all just want a recording of our existence whether in the image of a giant pyramid or in the telling of a story. Don’t we all just want to be remembered?
Our group trudges down the slope and then past the Peruvian Hairless dogs whose origins come from the pre-Incan civilizations. They’re sprawled panting in the shade until two leashed dogs with their owner in tow pass the gate. Then they rush up to defend their Huaca, barking loudly.

I stop to talk with the llamas on the way out. They’re drowsy with the heat. They eat lethargically and blink slowly at me. They don’t have much to tell me on this day.
When we’re at the end of the tour Rodney slips Percy a couple soles tip.

“Next time you come, amigo,” Percy says, “you have to tell me beforehand! I’ll bring you some of my mom’s estofado de pollo (a Peruvian chicken stew) and we can have lunch!” He writes down his email address for Rodney and all but makes him promise to write. As we’re leaving, Rodney explains that he and Percy had talked about estofado de pollo the last time he’d come.
“Nothing against his mother’s estofado de pollo,” Rodney says, “I’m sure it’s really good, but I make a pretty mean estofado myself.”

Rodney and I head across the street to a pretty restaurant for a glass of wine and a dessert. We both know we’re lucky to be able to live the way we’re living at the moment. We feel like all those artists who hung around Paris in the 1920s, mulling over ideas, creating, plotting, dreaming, drinking wine, drinking coffee and agonizing over words.
Today, living like those artists, we talk about death and burial and writing and travel.

“I want to be cremated,” Rodney says. “And have some of my ashes scattered at sea, some near the mountains, some in the city. That way I can take vacations. Spirit vacations. I don’t want to be trapped.”
Freedom. That’s what I love too. Freedom to be.  I don’t want to be caged up. Not ever.

After we talk more over lunch at the Vegetarian restaurant we’re beginning to frequent on a regular basis, we bid each other good afternoon and part ways.
I’m sunburned, walk-tired, and content. I text Geraldine from the bus on my way home.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

O Holy Southern Cross

March 6, 2012 – The Southern Cross
“Are we still on for the water park?” I ask Oswaldo one morning when I pass by him in the living room.
"Sure,” he says, looking up from his computer.

“Saturday still good? What time?”

“Maybe six, maybe five?”

Saturday comes and I work all day. Hunched over my ironing board desk, typing, erasing, retyping, moving words around. My head hurts and the sounds blasting in from outside are making me flinch as if from actual physical blows. All I want is a good night’s sleep. All I’d like is a little peace. Tranquilidad. It’s not to be. So I shrug it off and go on. I work some more.

When my stomach tells me it’s time, I get my dinner ready. Shrill girly screams scrape the evening air. There’s a party going on in the common room behind our apartment. It’s the third party this week. I go stand at the patio window and watch the girls run and skip and scream and play. It’s nearing six o clock and Katrina and Oswaldo aren’t home. I’m thinking about calling to see if we’re still going out even while part of me hopes they’ve forgotten. When I sit down at the table with my bowl of quinoa; my phone rings.

“We’re running a little behind,” Katrina says. “We’ll be there by seven at the latest. The park is better after dark anyways. By the time we get there it’ll be way past dark.”

I glance at the clock and do a little Peruvian math. Seven at the latest probably means eight o clock. Okay. That’s good. Now I know how to plan my evening.
The shrieks gain in joy and loudness and I’m suddenly glad I’ll be leaving the house. I’m about common area partied out.

Sometime close to eight, Oswaldo and Katrina rush in. “Sorry we’re back so late! Are you ready?”
“Ready!” I say.

“We’ll take a taxi since we got here so late and we’d have to take two buses and who knows when we’d get there,” Katrina tells me.
We stand at the edge of the curb outside the apartment complex and flag down taxies until we get the price we’re willing to pay.

Ever since I arrived to Lima I’d heard that this water park was amazing. That I must go. I’ve heard how beautiful it is, especially at night. “It’s something you won’t want to miss!” everyone had told me. I’d stuck it on my mental list of Things to Do and more or less ignored it. Not that I had anything against it. But somehow fountains didn’t have the draw on my soul that ruins have had. This place is no Wet ‘n Wild. No Hurricane Harbor. This is no Ellitch’s Garden Water Park. This is Parque de la Reserva – Circuito Mágico del Agua. Fountains not slides.  
There are cotton candy vendors lining the sidewalk outside the park’s entrance. Vendors selling candy, ice cream, popcorn. We snake past them all and inch toward the line. Lima is a city of nine million people and I’d bet the four soles entry fee that one million of those people are here now.

It’s packed!
There are two weekends left before school starts back up for these kids and they’re all cramming in the last late nights of fun they can. We get through the line surprisingly fast and head in with the mob.

The first fountain is the Arco Iris (rainbow). The jets spray the water up high and colored lights radiate the full spectrum of the rainbow. We take some pictures. Water mists down over me. It was a hot day and the coolness of the water is a nice relief.
“Whose idea was this park?” I ask.

Oswaldo shrugs.
“Maybe one of the mayors?” Katrina hazards.

“Was it designed by a group? By a particular sculptor? By some random artist?”
None of us knows. The informative plaques next to the fountains don’t know either. They just tell how many jets and tubes and water pressure each fountain has and what the designs and names mean.

We pass the red water pyramid. I take some blurry pictures and then get distracted by a tree that looks like it’s giving me the A-0kay signal.
Katrina’s favorite fountain is the Tea Cup. We take some photos, playing with the flash and the light. Night pictures are not my specialty.

The coolest thing about this park is that more than half of the fountains are accessible. It’s not forbidden to get in. It’s not forbidden to play. Katrina captures a really creepy photo of me with my palm next to the rope like shoot of water.   

"It’d be fun to come here in our bathing suits on a hot summer day,” Katrina says.

“Yeah, it would,” I agree.
We have to cross the park, go through a tunnel and over to the other side to see the rest of the fountains. There are a quarter million or so people lingering in the tunnel reading the information about Peru’s water sources. I scan the data and mosey on.

When we’re through and out into the open air again, I look up. I don’t get out much at night. I try to be in bed by ten o clock most nights if I don’t get carried away with my work and usually only get a cursory glance out the window at the night sky. With Lima’s nearly constant garúa I know I’m not missing anything.
Tonight it’s clear. I can actually see stars. I stop dead in my tracks. In the middle of the walkway. I crank my head back. My mouth probably hangs open. And I gaze upward. I love stars. I love the constellations. Since I’ve been here there’s been only one night that there was a clear enough sky for me to see a good handful of constellations. That was when I was still in Cieneguilla at Walter’s Casa Del Gringo over seven months ago. I’d cricked my neck staring up at the stars that time and then it had clouded over again.

Even in Cusco the nights hadn’t been clear.
This clear sky—even hazed out by the city lights the way it is—is a gift to me. And I accept it with all my soul.

I’ve never really had the chance to examine the Southern Hemisphere sky and I wonder what I’ll recognize. Sure enough, I’ve seen Sirius, the Dog Star, out my patio window. I’ve seen it plenty of times staring up from my balcony. But that’s been about it. I wish I had my Edmund Mag 5 Star Atlas that I kept from my college Astronomy class with me now. It’s in my dresser drawer back at the apartment. Too bad.

The stars are faint, (even Sirius the brightest star) but I see them.

When I realize that Katrina and Oswaldo are disappearing into the crowd I close my mouth and put my feet into motion.
We skirt the thong and stand off to the side in the grass to watch the light show. There’s music and hologrammed images splashed off the rising water. I try for a couple pictures and then look over my shoulder to see into the darkness of space.

The next fountain is very beautiful. It’s supposedly the highest fountain in the world. Or in Lima. Or somewhere. There are two pairs of Brides and Grooms having their pictures taken with the fountain as their backdrop. There’s a mob of people staring at the Brides and Grooms having their pictures taken. There’s Katrina and Oswaldo walking closer to the fountain. There’s me trailing behind with my chin up and my eyes to the sky.
I come back to earth. We huddle together in our little group and watch the middle spout shoot up.

“Wow,” I say.
“That’s nothing,” Oswaldo says. “Just wait, it goes even higher.”

And it does.
Katrina catches me stargazing.

“I’ve never seen the stars here,” I tell her. “I’m looking for the Southern Cross. Is that it?”
I point to some faint stars.

“No,” she says. “That Orion’s belt.”
“It is not,” I say in disbelief. Orion is my favorite constellation. I know that one. But by Astraeus, sure enough, it is Orion and his belt. I see it now. He’s over on his side and his belt and shoulders and feet are fainter than I’ve ever seen them. “I didn’t recognize you,” I tell him.

“Let me see,” Katrina says. She looks over to the left. “There it is! That’s the Southern Cross.” She points out the three stars. Marks the faint spot where the fourth is. I’m not sure we ever see the fifth. I’m transfixed. O Holy Southern Cross, I sing the line from James Taylor’s Only a Dream in Rio in my head. Wow, I think. Wow.
Oswaldo looks at us and shakes his head. “Everyone is looking at the fountain,” he says, “except for you two.” He finds this very funny.

We walk down into the outlying basin at the foot of that tallest fountain. I admire the statues. A passing guard tells us to get out. It’s a good thing we obey because seconds later the area is flooded by the cascade of descending water. We walk up on the adjoining terrace, admire some flowers, check out a raucous band playing behind the steps and take some photos in the walkway.
We pass the fountain with wispy water that looks like flames.

We pass the one that becomes my favorite with its blocky structure and Moche looking sculptures.
Then we come to fountain that I’m sure the children love the most. The water sprays up out of the ground in a mazelike, unpredictable rhythm. The children brace their arms against the chilling breeze and wait. When the water bursts upward they squeal and laugh. Giggles and shrieks echo. Some adults join in the fun. Teenagers saunter in, trying to look cool, as if water couldn’t get them wet. If the air weren’t so cool and if we didn’t have to take public transportation home, Katrina and I would probably get in too.

One of the final fountains is a long arch of red lit water. It makes a tunnel. We watch a large group troop through. Crowds of people pass us. Then an armed guard marches by. A girl dressed in an extravagant princess-like gown holds the arm of the leader. A film crew tapes her. They pause in front of the tunnel to take pictures.
“What the heck is that?” I ask.

“Probably some girl’s quinceañera,” Katrina says.
“Sheesh. And that’s her boyfriend? Do they just hire the armed guard?”

Katrina asks Oswaldo.
“That’s usual,” he says. “It happens all the time. The girl gets the whole armed escort. That guy is just part of it. He’s probably got nothing to do with her. It’s normal. It’s just part of the celebration.”

Katrina and I look at each other. It’s not normal to us. We probably get into the Princess’s photos when we walk behind them to join the next group to walk through the water tunnel.

There are a few more fountains to see and we see them. I spend at least half the time staring up into the blackness trying to relocate the Southern Cross. It’s there. I apologize to Orion for not seeing him for who he was earlier. The mist gathers into clouds and starts to move across the sky. I’ve seen it all just in time. I tell the stars goodnight.

And as we get into the taxi to go home I softly think, O Holy Southern Cross.