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.


  1. I didn't know that Orion is your favorite constellation! He's mine as well! Wow. I love going outside and looking into the southern sky to say hello to him. I do it as often as I can, especially when it's clear and crisp outside. That's when he really stands out for me.

    In the spirit of Orion: Happy hunting for the right words for your next brilliant story!

  2. I love fountains AND stars! And btw, Orion is my star friend too! He's in the Southwest sky now in Dallas. Thanks for sharing!