Friday, May 25, 2012

The Dead of Cahuachi

May 25, 2012 – The Dead of Cahuachi

And how do we think of the dead? As spirits? As bone without flesh? As nothing but remains? When we pay respect to the ones who’ve left us here, is this for us or for them? When we disrespect the graves of those long gone, how does this change us, the living?
Vito, Rodney’s guide from his morning expedition to the aqueducts, picks Rodney and me up in his blue Suzuki and speeds us out along the Pan-American Highway toward the ancient Nazcan city of Cahuachi. A fistful of kilometers later, we turn off onto a dirt road and roll past the farms where seaweed is laid out like trash on the ground to dry. We bounce over the pitted road. Dust billows out from beneath the wheels and the sun beats in on me through the side window. The mountains behind me rise up to meet the blue sky in varying shades of goldenrod, saffron, ochre, earth yellow and brown. Barren fields of sand stretch out to my left looking like the landscape to some alien planet.

“This is where my SkyCats live. In a place just like this,” I think, remembering a short story I’d written several years ago about a far off and two-sunned planet. It’s just how I’d imagined it (minus the second sun). I see the SkyCats flying over this desert, owning it, ruling it and know that eventually those stories will be written down. Some day after the sand of this trip has settled in my mind and I can see things clearly again.
Off to my right there’s a surprisingly alive strip of land. Trees throw their limbs up to worship the heavens. Green shrubs and maybe even grass plunge their roots deep to thrive. I’m amazed by the contrast of death and life. Of barrenness and fertility. Maybe I shouldn’t be. Isn’t that just how this life is? Contrasted.

Vito tells us about the underground water channels that flow subterraneanly from the mountains. “The ancient Nazcans knew just where to live. They tapped the water and knew how to direct and utilize it,” he says. He tells us about how a great storm destroyed and killed many of these ancient Nazcans when El Niño raged in from the ocean and flooded the land. “They buried their dead either to the right of left of the valleys, careful to keep the burial grounds away from their immediate living areas. You can see off to the left that these graves have been dug up. Even recently, grave robbers have come to look for ceramics or gold.”
I look to where he’s pointing. Bones adorn the dry land, a strange jewelry to the dry body of the earth. These bones call out to me more powerfully than the impressive terraces of the great pyramid I can see out of the corner of my eye. They fascinate me. I wonder at my morbidity. Is this curiosity of death a normal thing? These femurs and skulls and ilea were once joined like the dry bones of Ezekiel and danced with blood flowing through their veins and muscles, fibers, ligaments and skin that kept them all together. Like my veins, muscles, ligaments and skin keep me together now. I want Vito to stop so I can get out and talk to these bones. Try to imagine the lives they lived. The movements they made. The stories they told their children and their friends. The lies they wove for their lovers and enemies. But I don’t ask him to.

Several meters later, Vito pulls off to the side of the road and we tumble out. “Come on,” he says. He leads the way up to the top of a sand mounded hill. “Under this is a house. You can see the thrush they used for the roofs.” He squats down to point out the roofing material. “These branches were used as wall supports. You can see the shape of the houses by these.”
Sure enough, I can.

“There are over forty pyramids in this site. Each of these mounds is a house or a pyramid. This place was the Vatican for the Nazcans. It covers over twenty four square kilometers of area and is the biggest mud construction in the world. This holy site, all these pyramids, they used for ceremonial purposes. Cahuachi was a pilgrimage site and only the few elite shamans lived here permanently.”  
Vito’s pride shows through as he tells us about the Nazcans. He keeps trying to pull me back to the tour when I get distracted by the bones.

“Look,” he hands me a woven rope, “see this, amazing!” I turn it over in my fingers. How many centuries old is it? Who made it? And for what purpose? I have no clue. I set it down and step carefully on. Vito points out the shards of broken ceramics scattered all over. “The Spanish took what they thought was the best of things when they raided the tombs. They came looking for gold and often left the valuable pottery behind either because they didn’t realize the worth or because it might have been broken in two pieces.”
“I want to take a piece home,” Rodney tells me. He stoops to palm a smooth, ovoid rock. “I bet this was used to grind grain.”

“Yes,” Vito says. “They used stones like that to mash their food.”
Rodney hands me the stone and I hold it, heavy, useful, for a moment before I hand it back to him. They move away and I turn to look out over the rolling dunes.

One lone tree stands regally in the middle of this place. Alone. Majestic. It’s like a tree right out of Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. I fall in love with that tree. I think of the beautiful sadness of the Little Prince’s tale. I walk over to another mound and gaze at the tree. Hi tree, I think to it.

“Amanda, come here,” Vito calls. “Under here is another pyramid. You can see the lines of the walls and how this was a pathway and that was a corridor.”

What are pyramids when you have trees?
But I go join them again.

We walk over the roofs that were covered at various times through history by weather, by the Nazcans themselves to hide the location from invaders, and then uncovered by archeologists and recovered by them again for preservation’s sake.
We go up an incline alongside the great pyramid. I forget to listen to what Vito’s telling us about the Nazcans and their ceremonies and how some people think that they used the Lines as part of their rituals.

My soul flies out over the desert, communes with the spirits that hover there. My heart sings across the sand and swirls around the lone tree, flirting through the bare branches and then returns to me.
When we drive back over the bumpy road, back towards where the living are, I put this experience into a locket in my mind and close it up tight to save it for forever.

The bones rest in the sand. I bid them farewell. We speed back over the SkyCats’ land and leave behind us:
All their bones
as white as mine
will be
one day

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Nazca Lines!

May 23, 2012 – Nazca Lines!

The sun’s gone, Orion’s long since set below the western horizon, and the Southern Cross is arcing its way through the southern sky as the bus stops at the Nazca Cruz Del Sur station and Rodney and I climb out. At the front gate, we’re greeted by name – “Rodney? Amanda?” – by a Peruvian who gathers us up and tucks us into a waiting cab and then waves goodbye to us through the dusty windows. We glance at each other and hope the driver knows where to go. He does. Five minutes later we pull up in front of the Nazca Oasis Resort. The driver honks, and a blurry eyed attendant lets us in.
The older gentleman at the front desk greets us with, “It’s pretty late,” as if to chide us for arriving after nine o’clock. I smile and agree. He hands us our key and escorts us to the room. To save money Rodney and I are sharing a room. This arrangement provides others with plenty of strange ideas about the nature of our relationship and makes me wish that I’d done as my sister-in-law suggested afterwards and made up a different explanation for each questioning assumption.

“I’m his bodyguard.”
“We’re Alien Intelligence sent to spy on you and your infamous lines.”

Or “He’s our leader.” As if I was part of a cult (or the whole cult itself) and Rodney the shaman.
It’s been a long day for me, starting with the stress of the dentist and ending after a delightful and many-miled road trip adventure. I’m exhausted. With my head on my pillow, I close my eyes and listen to the silence. The city noise is left hundreds of kilometers behind me. All I hear is the barking of dogs. It reminds me of Cieneguilla. I put in earplugs and fall asleep.

In the morning, we’re up early and soon at the breakfast table. Food in my belly and coffee in hand, I go ask the desk clerk, Ivan (a different clerk than last night), what time I’m supposed to be at the airport in order to catch my over flight of the Lines. He has no clue. With my ticket voucher in hand, he calls several people to find out for me, including the agent who booked the trip and who doesn’t know either.
“You have to be there by nine o’clock,” Ivan eventually tells me.

I check the time. “Can you have a taxi come get me?” He says yes. Then Rodney comes over and we arrange for him to go to see the Aqueducts while I’m flying, and then for us to go to the Cahuachi pyramids later that afternoon.
When my taxi arrives I wave goodbye to Rodney who’s now reading in the lobby. Ivan introduces me to the driver, Orlando, and asks him to find out what time I’ll be finished so that he can be there to pick me up.

“It’s complicated to get a ride back from the airport,” Ivan tells me. “So if for some reason Orlando isn’t there, here’s my number. You can use one of the coin phones outside to call and let me know you’re finished and I’ll arrange a ride.”
So long as I get there, , I think,  getting back can be a worry for another time.

It’s less than a ten minutes trip to the airport.
“You’re going to see the Lines?” Orlando asks in Spanish.

“Yes, I am so excited about this!” I’m like a little kid, hardly able to keep my seat.
“Wow!” Orlando says. It’s his favorite word. “There are a lot of theories about the Lines. Some people say that extraterrestrials made them.”

“What do you believe?” I ask, expecting skepticism.
“Wow!” Orlando says. “I think maybe there were extraterrestrials that made them. Because how else would they get here? Wow!”

I shrug. Yeah, how else? and wow.
He comes inside with me to ask the attendant when he should come back to collect me. The attendant is busy checking passports and tickets of six other people who seem to be taking an inordinate amount of time to be helped.

“Can you please wait back there,” their agent asks me with a little pique when I step up to hand my own passport over to the attendant, thinking it’s my turn. Orlando and I exchange a “oops” look and both go sit down. When a break comes in the bustle, Orlando squeezes up to the counter.
“When will she be done with her flight? When should I come back to collect her?”

The attendant shrugs. “It’s a thirty minute flight.”
“But when will she board?”

“I don’t know,” the attendant says.
That definitive answer made, Orlando waves goodbye to me and leaves. A bit later, the attendant motions me up, takes my passport, checks my voucher and tells me to go pay my 25 soles airport tax. So I do. The tax attendant gives me a receipt and then another attendant gives me my boarding ticket. Next step is going through security. No problemo.

I’m booked with Aerodiana, but there are probably ten or so different airlines that do the over flights. I wait in the little waiting room with all the other airlines’ passengers. As I wait, I watch the other tourists, listen to the melody of languages and accents, and wonder at the surliness in the posture of one girl who is standing in the corner as far away from her companion as possible. As the planes are readied, the pilots enter the room, read off the names on their lists and take their group to the little Cessna planes.
Four or five groups get called. The seconds turn into minutes and then the minutes into an hour. My patience is waning and I’m more than ready for my own flight adventure. Finally an Aerodiana pilot arrives. Names are called. But I don’t hear mine. Until--

“Amanda Jahneee?”
“Amanda White?” I ask, hopeful. I’ve never heard my last name pronounced that way before. I go to look at the sheet. Oh! He’s assumed that Jane is my proper surname as it would be if I were Peruvian. “That’s me,” I say. I gather up with my group of ten and we walk out to the plane with our pilots leading the way.

I’ve got the #1 seat.
“You’re right behind the pilot,” an older man tells me as he takes his seat across the aisle from his wife.

“I know it!” I say. I buckle myself in to keep from flying away on my own.
The pilot in front of me is the copilot (I think), he’s also our guide. The pilot to the right runs through the checklist in a book he’s got in his hand, talking quietly into his headset speaker. Then switches are flipped, the propeller comes to life, knobs are turned and the fancy screen in front of the pilot lights up like a computer game.

“Okay, friends, let’s go!” the copilot says, “Vamos, amigos! Then something in either Japanese, Chinese, or Korean that ends with, GO GO GO!”
The Asians, sitting in the very back, yell along with him when he gets to the, “GO GO GO!”

We taxi down the tarmac. Take a turn. Then with gaining speed we rush down the runway and then we’re off!
The ground falls beneath quickly. This place is beautiful. The mountains make me feel I’ve come to someplace that’s like a memory of what Home is to me. The stark desolation of the desert intrigues me. How would anyone think anything could grow or thrive here? The contrast of green and sand. The extreme variety of landscape. I’m totally in love with it all.

The pilot veers us over the first Line. I press my nose to the window trying to see. I don’t want to miss anything. I’m afraid I’ll be looking in the wrong spot or won’t know how to see. But no! There it is, The Whale.
“Under the wing! Under the wing!” the guide pilot says to get us looking in the right place.

We all exclaim with joy and wonder.
The pilot banks and turns and brings us around so we can view it from the other side. I pull my seatbelt loose and lean across the aisle trying not to get in the way of the grouchy lady sitting across from me, but wanting to see as much as I can.

The Giant is easier to see etched against the side of a dark faced hill. I can’t stop a laugh of delight from escaping my lips. It’s the best thing I’ve ever seen! What a figure! I’m seeing the Nazca Lines with my own eyes! I’m amused at myself for thinking in exclamation marks. But I can’t help it. And why should I? This is amazing stuff!

The Monkey. Its tail curves into an impressive and perfect spiral. I’m trying to take pictures and look at the same time and end up with a lot of cock-eyed photos. But it doesn’t matter.

When we’ve flown on the right side and the left, the guide asks, “Did everyone see it?” before we move on to the next Line.
The Dog.

The Hummingbird.
We fly over terrain that takes my breath away. The pilot loops around and I catch a vertigo that’s as thrilling as any amusement park ride I’ve even been on – only a million times better. Below me, the land is etched with thousands (it seems to me) of geometric lines that indicate water sources, ceremony sites, celestial occurrences, or the runways of an ancient airfield used by E.T.s. depending on the person I’m speaking with.

The Condor

The spider

The Pelican

The Hands

The Tree

We fly over one that I can’t now identify from my pictures. Maybe one of the Lizards.

A final sweep. “That’s the tour,” the guide says.
When the wheels touch down we all clap. It’s one of the times I can’t help myself. By now, I think even the grouchy lady is happy. At least happier. The pilots exchange an amused glance.

“A great landing!” the guide-pilot says.

We get out and have our pictures taken at the plane and with the pilots. I feel like an eager child and have to bite back the words, “Let’s do it again!”

As I walk back to the airport I don’t think my feet even touch the ground. I’m almost to the outside exit when I see Orlando. He smiles at me.
“Have you been waiting a long time?” I ask him.

“No,” he says. He opens up the car door for me and drives me back to the hotel. “Did you like it?”

“Wow!” I say, using his favorite word. There’s not much else to be said at the moment.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

And the Moral of that is...

May 22, 2012 – And the moral of that is—
Five days after my dentist visit one of the three new fillings falls out. Ten days after, things are even worse. The tooth that I’d gone in to have fixed feels sensitive. The actual sensation of the tooth being there, in my mouth, has been growing day by day. It’s like it’s been packed with nerve sensors and suddenly has a strange softness. Very untoothlike. Noticeable and unwanted. The gum is tender, sore, and throbs a low pulse that builds as the day goes by and that I try unsuccessfully to ignore.

My grabbed at hope is that this is all due to the dentist’s rough hand, but this is a hope that disappoints. Something is definitely wrong.
I’m angry at myself for not having been smarter about this and upset it’s not fixed. I should have researched better before jumping into any old dentist chair. I should have waited until I returned to the States and had my long-time dentist do the work. I should have… I should have… I know better than to think this way.

“Let this be a lesson to you,” I tell myself.
“It’s a lesson I didn’t want to have to learn,” I reply.

“What are you going to do about it?” I ask.
“I wonder if I can make it until I get back to Texas,” I wonder.

I’m certain the gum is infected, the filling is bad, and I’m an idiot. So doing what I know to do, I clean the gum with isopropyl alcohol and think Heal, Heal, Heal. I’m worried because I’m leaving in the morning for a weekend trip to the south of Peru. I’ve been looking forward to this trip to Nasca for a long time. I can ride out a lot of pain. I have before. But tooth pain is a different kind of hurt and I’d rather not travel with it.
When I call my grandmother that evening I tell her I’ve been stupid and that things in my mouth have gone bad. This is the first time I’ve vocalized it. To anyone but myself.

“My dentist has told me to rinse my mouth with diluted hydrogen peroxide on a few occasions,” my grandmother says. “That might help.”
Oh yeah. I know this trick. I’ve used it before. I’d only used alcohol this time because it’s what’s in my bathroom cabinet.

“I’ll go to the store when I get off the phone with you and buy some. That way I can keep it clean and hopefully the infection with go away.”
Go away, infection!

“But it’ll be okay,” I say, willing that thought into existence. It will be okay.
“Well, I’m going to try not to worry about it for you,” my grandmother says, but I can hear that the worry is close to her mind.

As I walk to the pharmacy I think about what I know of gum, mouth, and tooth care. There are gum treatments like analgesics. Maybe the pharmacy will have that. I can numb the gum and get the tooth taken care of when I get back.   
At the store, I pick up a bottle of hydrogen peroxide and then go ask the girl at the pharmacy counter if they have anything for gum pain. She searches the computer and quotes me the price for some pills.

“Do you have anything topical?” I ask.
She types and says that, in fact, they do.

“Okay,” I say. “I’ll take that and this,” I put the peroxide on the counter.
With my self-care products bagged and ready, I walk home with a better sense of having done something to fix the problem.

Back at the apartment I gargle the diluted hydrogen peroxide. The bubbling fizz reassures me that everything will be okay. After I’ve rinsed my mouth out, I apply a touch of the analgesic to the gum. It helps a little.
I leave off with the tooth and finish packing for my trip. Just then I hear the front door open. When Katrina passes my room she stops to say hi. In the middle of our conversation, still concerned about my mouth, I say, “I should have asked you about your dentist friend. I’m an idiot. This filling is bad and I think the gum is infected.”

“We could try to call Karen right now,” Katrina says. “She might be able to fit you in before you have to leave tomorrow.”
“Really?” I look at the clock. It’s nearly nine o’clock at night. Normal business hours don’t apply here.

We try Karen three times and don’t get through. The calls go to voicemail. We don’t bother leaving a message. People in Peru seldom check their messages. It’s just the way it is. I don’t even know how to retrieve the messages left on my phone.
“Thanks for trying,” I say. “Maybe I can get in with her after I get back.”

Katrina goes to make her dinner and, with my packing done, I start to get ready for bed. As I’m fiddling around, my phone rings.

“Hallo?” the voice answers.
I wait.

“Someone from this number called me three times?” the girl goes on.
“Oh! Karen?”

“Yes, this is Karen.”
“Thanks for calling back,” I say. “I’m a friend of Katrina’s and was wondering if by chance I could get an appointment with you. Maybe tomorrow morning?” I tell her the tooth’s recent history and my worry about infection.

“I have an opening at ten o’clock in the morning,” she says.
“Would I be able to get to the bus station by one o’clock?” I ask. “I’m going out of town for the weekend.”

“Oh sure,” she says. “It shouldn’t take much longer than half an hour. An hour at the most.”
I get the address from her. Then I go ask Katrina which buses I have to take to get to the office. She gives me a couple route options and tells me how much time to allow to get there.

Nervous about time crunches, bad teeth, and weekend trips I sleep fitfully. I wake up tired. I make a shake for a later breakfast (in the event that I can’t chew), shoulder my small bag, and walk to the bus stop. Just as I get there the blue and silver #02 bus coughs by, I flag it down, run over, hop on and settle in for the forty minute ride.
Off the bus, I walk seven blocks and up some stairs and into a very professional looking waiting room. I can hear the dentist in the back room talking reassuringly to a patient. I’m early. But then the time goes by. Twenty minutes. Half an hour. It’s now 10:30 and I’m starting to wonder if I will make the bus.

“Don’t be silly,” I say. “You’ll have plenty time. You don’t have to be there until 1:00.”
“Oh yeah,” I say. But I’m worried about more than the time. I’m dreading that this filling will have to be drilled out and repacked. And the poor infected gum. I just want it to be over with.

Eventually. Much later. Karen bids her patient goodbye and comes to collect me.
We exchange a cheek kiss and I tell her that Katrina had sent her saludos. Then I take the chair and she has me explain everything again. Mirror in hand, she examines the tooth.

“Ah, yes,” she says. “I see the problem.”
She uses a digital camera to take a few shots of the back area then shows it to me. She tells me why it might have happened and what it all means. Then she says, “I can fix that tooth and replace the fallen filling for thirty-five soles each.”

“Okay,” I say. “Sounds good.”
Her equipment is set and ready to go. The moveable arm light is plugged in and works. The water-sucking device is hissing. Everything sounds just the way the dentist office should sound.

I should have come here to start with, I think. Then I wouldn’t be dealing with this mess now.
There you go with your shoulds again.

Yeah. I know.
“I’m going to give you anesthetic so you won’t feel anything,” Karen says as she places instruments on the metal side table.

At this point she could put me under, and, so long as I made the bus, I’d be fine with it. I really don’t want to feel what’s about to happen. But I’m a little older, a little wiser. I want to know what she’s going to do.
“So,” I say, “You’re going to take out the bad filling and repack it and also fix the other tooth?”

“Exactly,” she says.
“The filling in the back tooth isn’t packed in tight enough, so there’s space and that’s causing some of the problem with the tooth. Also some teeth get more pressure when you bite and this one seems to. The added pressure pushed the filling into your gum causing the area to get irritated and infected. I’ll pack the fillings in really well so there won’t be any gaps or holes. Then you’ll be all set.”

I glance over at her dentist certificate on the wall and believe everything she says.
When she says, “Open,” I do. Soon enough, half my mouth and tongue are deadened. They feel huge and clumsy. When she starts the drill, I don’t feel a thing. I close my eyes and start the litany of quotes I used to use to distract my mind when I was training hard to stay in peak shape for Judo competitions.

“Give me a sign with your hand if it hurts, okay?”
“Okay,” I mumble around her fingers. I put my hands together in my lap. I try to relax and breathe normally.

Karen gets me positioned and then goes to work.
She hums this “hm hmmmm” as she works. It’s reassuring, like a lullaby. It’s a two, sometimes three note song that she sings the whole time she works. When I don’t hear the notes, I worry. But then she starts up again and I know she’s focused on the task and that she knows exactly what to do.

It takes a lifetime. She uses this plastic thing to hold my mouth open to the shape she needs to access the back of my mouth. My jaw begins to tighten. My lips hurt from being pressed outwards. The back of my head is sore. I’d like to pop my neck.
I go through my litany again. And again.

But the sounds are all right. She drills. Sucks out the detritus. Rinses and sucks out the excess water. Cleans the gum. Packs the teeth. Smooths them down. Packs them in tighter. Smooths them out again and again. Adds gauze. Takes out gauze. Taps. Pokes. Presses. The time goes long. But this is no slap-dash filling like the one I’d had ten days ago. Through it all, Karen hums the notes--one, two or three at a time--and I listen for them so that I can sing along in my head.
And then, finally, it’s over.

“Okay. You can close your mouth now.” She takes her gloves off and pulls the face mask down to hang around her neck. “I’ve put a protective glaze [that’s how I understand it in Spanish] over the tooth and gum. That should help clear up the infection. For the next few days don’t use any kind of mouth wash or brush too hard which would irritate the area again. But you’ll be fine. The numbness should wear off by the time you reach Paracas and you should feel normal.” She pulls out her phone and checks the time. “It’s twelve-fifteen,” she says, “you have plenty of time to make your bus.”
It’s been an hour and a half of work. No wonder my jaw feels locked in place.

I pay her. Thank her. “You’ve saved my life.” I tell her. Then I ask her how long it should take to get to the bus station and how much a taxi should cost from here to there.
“Five soles,” she says. “It’s really close. No more than that.”

I cheek kiss her goodbye and go flag down a taxi.
“How much to Cruz Del Sur on Javier Prado?” I ask, leaning my head in the passenger side window of the taxi.

“Nine soles,” he says.
“Nine! No way. It’s really close. Five soles,” I counter.

“Eight,” he says.
I shake my head and back up.

“Seven,” he goes down.
“Six-fifty,” I tell him. I don’t want to miss my bus. “I’m not paying more than that.”

He shrugs, turns up a palm as if to say, “What can I do?”
I get in.

He looks at me through the rearview mirror. “You drive a hard bargain,” he says.
I smile. At least that’s what I try to do around the still strong anesthetic. Even with half my mouth numb I tell the driver I’m heading to Nasca and Ica for the weekend when he asks me where I’m going. Then he tells me about fifteen other places in Peru I have to visit.

“There’s just not enough time!” I say. “Peru has too much to see.”
“That’s true,” he agrees.

I arrive to Cruz Del Sur with time to spare. I go sit in the upstairs lobby while I wait for Rodney to show up. We’re going on this adventure together and I know he’ll be here before the one o’clock deadline. He’s always early. With my teeth woes behind me. With the weight of that worry lifting off my gums, I close my eyes and experiment with moving my jaw. It’s tight and stiff. But I can tell a difference already. A good difference.
Rodney arrives. We go stand in line to board. Eventually, the ticket man checks our passports and tickets. The security guy wands our bags and us. Proven to be safe people, we’re let on. Rodney is on the lower level because it has more leg room. I’m on the upper level because it’s cheaper. I have the front seat. And I’m thrilled! I’ll have the best view of anyone, better even than the driver because I don’t have to drive.

I put on my seatbelt and grin. This is going to be an awesome trip. I can’t wait to see what lies along the Pan-American Highway. I can’t wait to reach the desert. I’m ready to see Nasca and its mysterious lines. I’m ready to see the impressive dunes of Huacachina. I’m ready for anything.
The bus fills up. The engine starts and we’re on our way. The miles pass away and my anesthetic wears off. My mouth hurts. It’s a new, different, healing kind of hurt. Despite the pain, I have assurance that my mouth will be fine. For the first time in maybe four years, I pop two Aleves and wait for the anti-inflammatory med to do its work and take the edge off. I send my I Should Haves packing and wonder if there’s a moral to all this.

"Tut, tut, child!" said the Duchess (from Alice in Wonderland). "Everything's got a moral, if only you can find it."
Well, in that case, the moral of this story is: always choose your dentist with care.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

A Day at the Park or Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner

May 12, 2012 – A Day at the Park or Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner

As Katrina and her houseguests, Dave and Linda, head out for breakfast and to a museum in Barranco I belatedly decide I’d like to go. The elevator door is already shut and the elevator descending when I stick my head out into the hall to invite myself along. It’s too late to call out after them and I’m not sure that I really want to go badly enough to take the stairs and beat them down to the lobby. I close the apartment door a little sadly and try to talk myself into wanting oatmeal and the treasured alone time I crave so often.
It’s no good. I’m not having any of it. Really I just don’t feel like making my own breakfast. I want toasted bread with avocado. Or pancakes. Or something. Anything else.

After listlessly wandering through the kitchen, living room, my bedroom and the study, I make up my mind to go see if the vegetarian place around the corner is open for breakfast and, if it’s not, promise myself I’ll get some bread and an avocado and come home and make that. I’m in the mood for solitude in the midst of activity, for lonely-companionship, for time to read and people-watch, for silent connection with humanity. The apartment can’t satisfy me in this moment.
I stuff Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way into my bag, pack my notebook, check to make sure I have enough cash for a meal, change my flip-flops and leave the house.

The clouds are misty and chill. Winter is presenting itself more confidently each day. Behind the haze I see the outline of the summer sun which is still not ready to cede completely to the encroaching garúa. The sidewalks are crowded with people out buying flowers for mother’s day, waiting for buses, footing it to their destinations, talking on phones, pushing baby strollers, or skateboarding. I weave around them, cross the streets and make it safely to the plaza. I’m in luck, the restaurant is open. With care, I read the daily menu, but it doesn’t matter, I know I’m staying. I take a corner table that hides me so that I don’t have to catch the gazes of those who pass by and tell the waiter what I’d like. There isn’t a breakfast fare per se, but I order vegetable soup for my starter and the tossed salad with (what I assume is) seitan over French fries.
I pull out my book and stare at the long paragraphs. I’ve been cursing Proust for his tedious wordiness in Combray, and it’s with relief that I head into Swann in Love which is section II of the book. In between sentences I think about the characters I’m creating for my own next writing project. I’m happy now. I’ve got food, ideas and literature. For an hour or so I have the blessed reclused-in company atmosphere I desired.

The lunch crowd is filling the door as I grab up a loaf of bread, pay for it and my breakfast, and leave. The sun has triumphed. Wispy, slighted clouds frown and dissipate into the blue sky. The breeze teases me. I’m not yet sure if I’ll regret the long sleeve shirt I’m wearing. I’ll find out as I go around the corner to the little bodega and get an avocado. Then I’ll sit for a bit in the park.
“Excuse me,” a youth, dressed in his school colors, says to me as I walk by, “We’re trying to raise money for our school group and are selling these little cookies,” he shows them to me. I open my mouth to say something nice like, “I’m sorry, no thanks,” and only get part of it out in an incomprehensible muttering.

“Are you French?” he asks me.
“No, I’m from the United States,” I reply, as usual oddly flattered by the assumption that I’m European. “Thanks for the offer, I can’t buy any today, best of luck to you.” I scuttle away and duck into the bodega.

One of the three men who tend the store turns as I enter. “Senorita!” he exclaims. “Buenos dias!
Buenos dias,” I say, “Como estan? I need an avocado that I can use today.”

He yells to one of the other guys, “An avocado to be used today!”
A moment later, the guy brings a fat avocado. “How’s this one?” he asks, handing it to me and looking for my approval.

“It’s perfect,” I reply. “Thanks.”
Just then the third tender comes around the corner. When he sees me his face lights up. Brilliant. Happy. “Are you here for cauliflower? We have one! A big head, a really nice one!”

I’d been in at least twice before looking for cauliflower to put in a soup and they hadn’t had any. He’d tried to upsell me broccoli in its place. Or potatoes. Or corn. Or squash. Or a mango. “Aren’t these nice?” he’d asked. “Would you like some of these?”  I never leave this bodega with just the items on my list. These guys are masters at talking me into buying more produce. They’re bad on my budget. Now that they have cauliflower, I don’t have the heart to tell him I don’t want it. Besides, he’s already lopping off the leaves and scraping the black tips from the florets with a bottle cap for me.
I pay and leave before he can trick me into getting more vegetables.

With my head down and my eyes to the ground to avoid unwanted human contact, I find a park bench lit by the sun. I place the gigantic cauliflower head and avocado carefully on the seat next to me, set the bread in my lap, turn up my face, and close my eyes.
I listen to the children on the playground behind me, to the birds gossiping from the trees, to the one-sided phone conversations of passerbys, to the group talks of friends, to the barking, playing dogs, and to my own thoughts. I try to relax and to be in the moment, to settle my brain into idea-hatching mode, but I’m afraid to truly relax. I’m too out in the open here. When I let down my guard I get talked to. When I forget to be defensive, it shows on my face.

I successfully keep my “leave me alone” wall up for about half an hour. My skin warms under the waning summer sun. My soul gets solar-ly recharged. I pick up my heavy cauliflower, adjust the avocado so it won’t bruise, sling my bag of bread over my forearm and head in the direction of home.

The outside air is too pleasant. I’m not ready to go back inside. Another bench sits under the shade and I take it and pull out my book. I’m watching people from under the guise of reading. (This is generally a mistake.)

A little pink-shirted, ponytailed girl, somewhere between seven and ten, walks by hand in hand with a guy--her father? older brother? uncle? I don’t know.
Pucha madre!” she exclaims. “Que calor hace!

I choke. The guy looks at me and I hold back a laugh. Pucha madre is a euphemism for the Spanish equivalent of the F-word. Que calor hace is It’s hot! This little girl is apparently seven going on all grown up.
“Hey, where did you learn to say that?” the guy asks her, obviously taken aback but trying not to make a big deal of it.

“Well,” she explains, “My dad always says, ‘pucha madre.’” Then they’re out of my hearing range. From down the sidewalk, the guy glances back at me once more and I don’t hide my smile. He’s probably wondering if I’m French and if I even know what pucha madre (or it’s stronger version) means. I put my face back into the book and try to read. Swann is falling in love in the story and I’m getting distracted by people in real life.
An old lady pulling a wheeled cart behind her catches my eye. I smile.

Buenas tardes,” she says, wishing me a genuine good day and not even pausing as if to sell me something.
Buenas tardes,” I reply, surprised and delighted to just exchange pleasantries.

From the other direction an older couple passes me by. I smile at them. The older man does a double take and smiles back. So I say, “Buenas tardes,” to him too. He nods and goes on. Then three steps later he stops and comes back.
Oh shoot. I forgot the rules. Never smile at anyone. Never talk to anyone. Don’t even look. Don’t ever assume an old man is with an old lady. Too late now.

But he’s lonely. Some people just have that hurt aura. As if the person they loved the most has died sometime in the near past and left them with two grown daughters and the world to handle.
Of course he asks where I’m from. Then he tells me of two other foreigners—boys—who live in the nearby apartments. “I have an apartment,” he points it out to me, “in that building, 204, it’s for rent. I’ve tried to rent it out before, but I’ve had it empty for a year.”

“I bet it’s nice,” I say.
“If you need a place to stay and would like to come see it sometime…” he says.

He’s not coming on to me. He’s trying to find a good renter. Americans are notoriously good renters here. “I’m sorry,” I tell him. “I’m leaving to go back to the States in June. But if I come back, I’ll look you up.”
He starts into a new subject then realizing where we are, what I had been doing, he stops, “I’m not interrupting your time?” he points at my book.

“No,” I reply. “This is just fine.” Just then a candy vendor comes alongside him and begins his spiel. My new friend ignores him and I shake my head and say No Thanks. After a little more of being ignored the vendor leaves. The man tells me more about his daughters. Then he bids me good day. A step later, as if he’s just thought of something, as if he’s forgotten something else, he returns.

“Do you know the big park in this residence?”
“Which one?”

“The one near the big Metro.”
I pretend I know it.

“On Wednesdays,” he tells me.
Disculpa,” a buxom lady says, coming alongside him. But before she can start her selling pitch the man tells her, “Not now, later.” She takes the hint and leaves. I’m impressed. I should write that down for future use. The man continues, “On Wednesdays, there’s dancing in the park. Maybe not this coming week because of Mother’s Day, but the next one from 6:00 to 8:00. I go nearly every week to listen to the music. One time they played a song (he tells me the name) and it nearly made me cry.” He stops talking and looks at me. “My wife died, you see, and the song reminded me of her. It’s a good memory,” he assures me. I nod to let him know I understand the edge of that pain. “Sometimes when I have a partner I dance. If you ever go and need a partner—well, it’s Wednesday from 6:00 to 8:00.”

We shake hands and he leaves this time for good. Sometimes a smile from a stranger in the park helps assuage the sorrow of missing someone you’ve loved.
I’m thinking I should get out of the park before I smile at anyone else.

I am not quick enough.
A flash of red fills my vision. It’s a guy in a red polo carrying a black satchel. I don’t smile at him, but he talks to me anyways. “Excuse me for bothering you,” he says, “But can I take two minutes of your time to show you my paintings.”

“You can take the two minutes,” I tell him with complete honesty, “but I don’t have any money to spend. I just bought my things,” I point at the cauliflower, avocado and bread, “and that’s all there was.”
This does not deter him. “I’m an artist,” he says. He opens up the satchel and pulls out a water colored paper. “It’s hard to get work here and I’m trying to make a living doing my passion and using my imagination.”

“That’s good.”
“Here, take it,” he says, putting the picture in my hands. “It’s Machu Picchu. See.”

I see. Pencil lines show through under the water colored green of the mountain, under the yellow he’s used to paint the steps, in the lighter green of the leaves of a tree he’s placed in the foreground. I want him to succeed. I want all people to be able to do what they love to do. But it’s only a fair piece of art, not great.
“What do you think?” he asks me.

“It’s nice,” I say. I hand it back.
He tucks it under his arm and with his other hand pulls a tour guide brochure with pictures of Machu Picchu from his pocket. He opens it up and points to the images. “You could tell me, ‘Javier, I want this picture.’ And then I’d paint it for you, but maybe use different colors. You know, I’d use my own creativity. For example,” he turns and points to the tree that faces me. “You could say you want me to paint this tree. And then maybe instead of using green I’d use another color, magenta perhaps, to bring out the essence of the tree. You see, I’d use my own imagination to create a new piece of art.”

I’m seeing the essence of the tree and trying not to laugh. I don’t want to laugh off his creativity, but his example amuses me. I should beg off and leave while I’m amused. But I’m cornered there on my bench.
“You could think about what you want me to paint for you and then call me and tell me. But if you call me tomorrow you have to call early. I have to be at my other job early in the morning. So you’d have to call before 8:05.”

“Oh. Okay. I really don’t have any money,” I reiterate.
“When’s your birthday?” he asks.

I blink at the sudden change in topic. “My birthday?”
“Yes. Did it already pass?”

“No, it’s in June.”
“Mine is at Christmas. My name is Javier Jesus. All Jesuses are hard workers. That comes of being a Capricorn.” It’s as if he’s suddenly trying to show me his work ethic for personal application, but then he seems to recall that he’s a struggling artist wanting my patronage and switches back to that, “But you know, it’s hard to be an artist. You can’t always find people who want to buy your work. For example if you have two couples, on this side it’s an Asian with a Peruvian and on this side it’s an Asian with a North American.” He uses his hands to place the imaginary couples to each side of him.

“And I do some artwork for both of them. And one of them,” he indicates the sides he’d assigned to the Asian and Peruvian couple, “doesn’t like the work and doesn’t want it. And the other,” he indicates the space reserved the Asian and North American couple, “does like it and buys it. But it’s really hard to find those people who will want your work and buy it from you.”

“That’s true,” I say.
He writes his phone number, name and address on a sheet of paper and hands it to me. “Call me and let me know what you want me to paint for you. And you should give me your email.”

“I’ll give you a call if I want a painting,” I say.
“But what time do you log online?” he asks.

“You know, it depends on the day. I’ve got your information.”
“But what is your email address?”

“I’ll contact you, okay?”

“Good day, good day,” he says, suddenly getting the hint and skipping off to hide his disappointed embarrassment.

I’m alone again and I decide to book it home before I get caught up in any more conversations. I don’t look at anyone as I go. I barely say hi to the front deskman before I rush up the four flights of stairs and let myself into my place. The apartment welcomes me with silence and emptiness. Thank goodness. I’m all peopled out.
For lunch I eat avocado on garlic toast and send out a blessing on the head of the bodega man who knows how to pick out a perfectly ripe avocado. He gets it spot-on right every time.

I read for a while and in between pages I capture a scene between my two new characters as it plays out like a video in my head.
I plan to have cauliflower soup for dinner.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Even the Dentist Asks

May 8, 2012 – Even the Dentist Asks

Apropos of nothing, one of my fillings falls out. Being the responsible adult that I am, and also realizing after a week that the hole won’t fill itself, I decide to put matters into a dentist’s latexed hands. On my way to meet up with Rodney and the guy who is handling the travel details for our upcoming trip to Nazca, I stop by a dentist office I had happened to notice the other day when I was leaving the grocery store.
Since I’d put “Go ask dentist how much to fix filling” on my To Do list there’s no getting around it.

I walk from the apartment, cross the streets, shake my head at the honking taxis and beckoning bus cobradors, pass the grocery store, head up to the second floor of the shopping center and come to a stop in front of the dentist office’s glass doors.
Although I’m within the hours painted on the wall outside and I can see a girl sitting behind the front desk, the door is locked. I peek in and peer around. This is not unusual. Most businesses do not have Doors Must Remain Open During Business Hours signs. In fact, everything in Peru is locked and double locked, especially when people are inside. While I’m spying in and rattling the handle, another girl dressed in a white smock comes to open up for me.

“Good morning,” I say. “Question for you (this actually sounds better in Spanish as Una pregunta) I lost a filling (I’d looked up the Spanish word for filling before coming over. I should be more thrilled for the chance to increase my vocabulary) and I was wondering how much it’d cost to have it filled.”
“It’s fifty soles if it’s an easy fix and eighty if it’s more difficult,” she replies.

“And how do I make an appointment?”
“Well,” she says. “We’re all booked up this morning. Would you like this afternoon?”

I’m taken slightly aback. I’ve never made any type of professional appointment in Peru and I’m still accustomed to the U.S.’s “We could maybe fit you in sometime next week” style of scheduling. Today is much too soon. “What do you have for tomorrow?” I ask.
She goes back behind the desk, slaps a daytimer down and flips through to find the day. “We’ve got some morning or afternoon times open.”

I lean over to look at the options. I try to remember if I have anything I’m supposed to do the next day. I think I’m free until my evening class. What I life I have. “How about ten o’clock?”
She writes my name in and takes my phone number and that’s that. There’s no ream of paper to fill out about insurance. No assurance that I have money to pay. No hassle about referrals. Not even a client sheet to fill out for personal info. She doesn’t even give me an appointment reminder before she unlocks the door and lets me out into the open air.

I stop at the head of the stairs and write down “Tuesday 10:00 AM Dentist Appointment” in my notebook. Then I go catch a bus to Miraflores.
All through the day I remind myself that I have an appointment in the morning and wonder if I should have looked for a dentist referred from someone I knew. To be fair to myself, I had asked Rodney about his dentist. “I’m sorry,” Rodney told me, “but his mother sold his dentist chair after a family matter and he’s not currently taking clients.” Well. Heck. I should have asked Katrina about her dentist friend, but for whatever weird reason I hadn’t. Sometimes I bewilder myself.

With my appointment made I’m asking myself the questions I should have thought of earlier: What types of fillings do they use? Do they follow sanitary measures? What if I can’t understand the dentist? What if the dentist didn’t even go to dentist school? Should I just wait until I go back to the States? Could I even afford to get my tooth filled in the States without insurance to buffer the cost?
I go to sleep and dream about a past employment. I must be stressed.

Tuesday morning I get up, do a quick exercise, eat my breakfast (in case I can never eat again), and break a coffee cup. I decide not to cry over spilled coffee, but only just barely. After I’ve cleaned up the mess, brushed my teeth, and made sure I have enough cash for both easy and difficult filling possibilities, I leave the house.
I arrive seven minutes early. The receptionist unlocks the door and lets me in, “It’ll be just a moment,” she says. I take a seat. A moment later, she tells me, “This way.”

I squeeze in through the door and past the dentist. I look at the dentist chair and the empty desk chair. The dentist points at the dentist chair. “Have a seat,” he says. The assistant moves some things around and I take a seat.
The dentist never introduces himself. But he does put on latex gloves. There’s one worry gone. “Are you here for any particular reason?” he asks.

“I lost a filling,” I say. “The last tooth on the bottom.” I point at my cheek.
“A filling,” he repeats and says something else I don’t understand. Little mirror in hand he has me open my mouth and peers around. When he reaches up to flick the switch for the moving-arm dental light it doesn’t come on. He shouts for the assistant and a second later she comes inside looking put out. “Plug the light in for me,” he says. The assistant reaches over my feet and plugs the light in.

The bulb lights with a sad and half-hearted strength.
The dentist adjusts the issuing ray to shine into my mouth and looks and looks. “Where?” he asks me.

It feels like quite a gaping hole to me. I’m losing faith in him. Could I see some certification, please? “Bottom left. Last tooth.”
“Oh, bottom,” he says. His words come out muffled through the doctor’s mask he’s wearing. Then he calls for the assistant again and starts calling out teeth numbers to her. I begin to realize he thinks I want my amalgams removed and replaced.

When I can talk around his fingers and the mirror, I interject, “I’m really just wanting to get my filling replaced. For today.”
“Oh, okay,” he says. “We’ll just mark this down so that you can know for the future what it’d cost.”

He goes back to my problem area.

“You actually have three lost fillings down here.”
Shoot. I haven’t been responsible at all. I’d lost a filling a while ago. I hadn’t done anything because I’d remembered my U.S. dentist saying that these fillings fall out if you look at them wrong (which had annoyed me to know), but that I’d be okay if I brushed a lot and got back to their dentist office to have them fixed when I returned to the States. Also it hadn’t been sensitive to food, air, or temperature so I was ignoring it. I’d never even noticed the second one was gone. Poor little teeth.  

“One for fifty,” the dentist says, “or I’ll fill all three for one hundred soles.”
“Let’s do all three,” I say. One hundred soles is roughly thirty-five dollars and it’s a cost I can just afford.

He hollers at the assistant and she comes in and gives him a new mirror out of what looks like a toaster oven. I guess they’re sanitized in there. I’m having all my concerns knocked out one by one.
“Do you want anesthetic?”

“No,” I say. “I’m okay without.” I hope.
He sticks in some gauze, has the assistant plow the water sucker thing into my gum, and starts cleaning around the teeth. The second assistant hands him things (maybe a topical anesthetic, the filling material? the newspaper?)

“You’re not from here, are you?” he asks. “Where are you from?”
“The United States,” I reply.

“Oh, the United States.” He nods. Question one is out of the way. “What part?”

“Oh, Texas. Texas has a lot of places, big places, Houston, Dallas.”
I’d tell him I’m from Dallas only his fingers and a drill and a mirror and a water sucker thing are taking up all the talking space I have.

He puts a bit on his drill and I close my eyes and try to find a happy place.
He drills the holes and I try not to cringe. Poor teeth. He blows some air in to clear it all out and I cringe when the cool hits. Poor nerves. The dentist packs in some filler and uses the heater to dry it in place.

“Please use the water to rinse and spit,” he says, backing away to give me space to move.
I sit up and take the plastic cup of water off the sidearm of the chair, swish and spit.

The two assistants leave.
The dentist starts to smooth the fillings down. He removes his fingers and the buffer and says something that sounds like, “Okay, we’re all done.” Then he says something else and I nod. The words catch up to me with a jolt as he continues, “Your husband is Peruvian?” I’m still nodding. “Do you have any little children? Any little Peruvians?” Now I’m shaking my head. “No, no children.”

He’d asked me if I was married! And I’d accidently said yes. Which is all for the better. As he finishes sanding down my new fillings, his encircling arm seems awfully like a hug around my neck. His masked face close and his shoulder near enough to cry on. I wish I’d said I had a household of little Peruvian babies waiting for their now teeth-fixed mother to return home. But I’m too busy running my tongue over the new composites and wondering if I can pay and leave before he asks me how old I am.