Saturday, March 27, 2010

Travelogue 330 – March 27

I’d like to start with this photo, an accident of time and circumstance. We’ve stopped in a town at the bottom of a mountain road. We’ve pulled off the road in front of a school. We are simply checking in with the women gathered in front of the school gate. It’s a Saturday; the school is closed. But schools are points of contact, like structural supports, like crossroads where many streets meet. That’s one thing I like about them. These moms are comfortable here.

Carmen and I are checking in to find out what the needs are in this area. What schools are in location, moms are in societies, the structural supports. They can and will speak about the needs of the community.

The Cusco area is still recovering from floods that swept through its valleys a few months ago. We have visited one community in which adobe school houses have been swept away, leaving no trace. Brick buildings were half-buried in mud that is still being cleaned up. Whole villages have been declared uninhabitable and are being moved back and forth across the maps of district planners while hundreds of villagers live in tents. It’s still rainy season, though you couldn’t tell by the sunny weather today.

This school is intact. But the moms have a word or two about the little ones who walk hours a day from farmsteads above us in the mountains and back. The young woman in this photo doesn’t have much to say. She might not speak Spanish. She might speak only Quechua, the surviving language of the Incas. She has in one hand the half-spade, half-pick of potato farmers. She is heart-breakingly sweet and young. And when she sees the photo of herself, she laughs.

A lot more survives of the Incas – and other indigenous peoples – than the languages. There are walls. There are incredibly resilient customs, symbols, dress, and music. There are faces.

What does one say when one finds them, the poor, the ones who have suffered, the ones who pay the heavy price of history? They appear quite suddenly.

It happens that the president of a community association up the mountain is in town. He and a few moms join us in our hired car, and up the mountain we go. This is the mountain road the children walk every day, a wide dirt road cut into mountainsides, traveled by heavy trucks in a hurry. It’s currently being paved to serve as a highway for more traffic.

This road is only the final four miles of their journey. We arrive at the bottom of their steep valley, a picturesque, green concavity in the mountainside, where a stream tumbles down its gully beside adobe cottages and small, terraced fields of potato, quinoa, and corn. This gully and its attendant fields are the early morning route of commuting children.

Flying into Cusco, a few days ago, I’m wondering where we could possibly land. The land is all peak and valley, not a flat space in sight. The mountains are very green, some carved with terraces that are even greener. And there are some trees! My experience of Peru so far has been of a land without trees.

Carmen and I are the focus of an impromptu community meeting. Moms and small children climb up the rocky path, from the communal laundry spot beside the stream up to the meadow beside the crude meeting hall, set on a grassy platform above the valley. Few speak Spanish. No one speaks much English. But these issues are essentials. My elementary Spanish serves me. The president translates to Carmen, and she simplifies the Castellano for me.

What does one say? When I first saw this young mom and again when I saw the photo, I was struck dumb by something, something like Beauty. I don’t know what one says. I suppose one just reaches out a hand.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Travelogue 329 – March 20

The sun takes a long time to rise in Chivay, which makes for a long dawn. That’s because it has a rather tall mountain to scale before it can smile on the valley. The central plaza is awake well before the sunshine pours in, as awake as it ever gets in this small town. The town church is broadcasting its blessing or its sermon. The hardy mountain people are on their way to the market, women in braids and hats, thick skirts in bulging layers. Some are in colorful traditional garb, much embroidered and spangled, because they market tourist goods or because it’s a day for visits to family, I don’t know.

Chivay is the anchor and eastern entry among the towns in the Colca Valley, some four hours north of Arequipa, into the sierra. Further west, the Colca Valley becomes the famous canyon that rivals the Grand Canyon in dimension. I won’t be traveling that far; I don’t have time. In fact, I won’t be going any farther than Chivay.

The ride north is scenic. The landscape is both tranquil and dramatic, volcanic peaks in every direction and between them sweeping high plains grazed by llamas, alpacas, and vicuñas. During the course of the drive we climb some seven thousand feet, from the bone-dry hills above Arequipa, through the greening high plains, and to a cold mountain pass, where we take pictures of snow-capped ranges in the distance. Ahead is Mount Mismi, which I’m told provides waters to one of the tributaries to the Amazon.

Padre Marcos is the priest at the main church in Chivay. The church is hundreds of years old. It stands in the shadows of a magnificent mountain even older. It faces the central square. Behind the church is a grassy stretch of land that the padre would like to see host a school building. There are schools in Chivay, but the teachers are unreliable, there are few class materials, and the poorest children, Quechua speakers, coming down from the mountains are often hungry and receive insufficient support. Recently there was a parents’ strike against the underpaid government teachers who travel home to Arequipa or even further from Thursday to Tuesday.

I have some time before I catch the midday bus back to Arequipa. It’s my second day in Chivay. I take a walk out of town to investigate some reputedly pre-Incan ruins (and to escape the unrelenting, tinny song emitted by one trash truck, sounding like ‘No Place Like Home’ on an electronically processed penny whistle). From town, you can see a stone tower on a hill. I cross the Colca River, raging along the bottom of a narrow crevasse. I climb to the tower and discover it’s just the outpost of an extensive complex of ruins, all assembled from grey stones fit roughly together.

It’s disorienting to walk among ruins without any background or guidance. There’s a sense of discovery, but also a lonely sense of dissatisfaction. One will never know what anything meant.

God knows if these ruins are really pre-Incan. The tower seems suspect, with its abundance of concrete slapped on. Is it a botched restoration or modern? But beyond are several long roads across the hills paved with stones. Follow one and you pass a series of little igloo-like ancient hotel rooms of rock. Here and there are round clearings with stone borders. One has a pestle set in the center. Go further, and you come across something very strange. In a small bowl among steep hills, there is what looks like an amphitheater. It might be a system of terraces for farming, and it currently looks to be used that way. In the center, ‘onstage’, there is a pit half-hidden by bushes. Look down and you realize that it’s pretty deep. Then you realize that the hole intersects a tunnel, dug and framed with wood like a mine. One step above the ‘stage’ is what appears to be an altar with a half-circle line of stones in front of it.

I sit for the next show, contemplating the hills. Across the little valley, an ancient wall jogs across the hillside. An ancient couple is herding sheep there. The old woman has a surprisingly powerful voice, made for theatre, shouting at the poor strays. The stage remains dark, and I head back to town.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Travelogue 328 – March 15
Alto Cayma

The funny thing is I’ve seen Cayma before. As the Peruvian Airlines flight approached Arequipa, I was already studying the town and its structures. Arequipa lies in a bowl around the Rio Chili, as the river descends from the mountains. One flies south from Lima along the line of the mountains, over the gentler foothills that appear like uniformly gentle slopes from a plane’s altitude, ambling toward the ocean.

Not so Arequipa, which glistens like a sunstruck city, which gathers to itself green, terraced fields arranged like groups of stamps along the brown parchment of the dry land. The plane circles over the town and glides in toward the landing strip that slips out of the town itself, like a strip of highway unfurled onto a bit of unsettled land.

The city one sees as one cruises in for landing is dry and cramped, composed of tiny domiciles and tiendas built of crude white blocks and all shoving each other for a secure square of tawny, crumbled earth, all clinging to uneven terrain, hanging on against the pull of one steep gully or another. This toppled jigsaw puzzle of a suburb rolls like a small desert avalanche almost to the edges of the landing strip. This is Cayma.

Actually, Cayma is the name of one of the city’s three major districts. Alto Cayma, or High Cayma, is where the city climbs a slow grade up toward the base of Chachani. It’s a sort of unconscious movement, a frontier with its own mind, growing house by house, block by block, migrants gathering at the high ends of dirt roads and outlining more of them, improvising walls, collecting piles of bricks for the next time they can afford cement and iron supports. Peru allows these squatter settlements to organize and claim land legally.

From high side to low, some five kilometers or more, Alto Cayma represents fifteen years of growth. Come early in the morning and you see the community take to the streets and head downhill to schools and to work. Thousands of children in uniforms start a trek that will include miles on foot and then more on public buses.

Padre Alex and I bounce along the dusty roads of his parish in his SUV, stopping in every settlement to elucidate energetically in his Maltese accent. The padre has been here for fifteen years, already a seasoned priest in a variety of deserts, in locales like Libya, Pakistan, and India, (working beside Mother Teresa in the latter). Here he has been a builder, erecting churches and nurseries, kitchens, clinics and schools. He has parceled out food, medicine, help, even floors and roofs for the most destitute.

We’re talking about one gap in his programming, a primary school for the parish. He serves some thirty thousand souls in his parish, and there is no public school for those early grades. He has land. He shows me the plot, parking the silver vehicle and standing at the uppermost corner of the land, arms on his hips and square jaw set. I pace off the spacious strip of land, taking photos, visualizing the buildings, the children, the network of streets around us. When I return, he turns his pale blue eyes on me and says, ‘Ready to go?’

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Travelogue 327 – March 13
Misti Blue

This place is not entirely real. That’s my suspicion. I’ve left the hard-bitten Lima for a place half-fantasy. Imagine a town that sits under a high volcano that looks like something out of a cartoon. This mountain rises so starkly from the horizon that you’d expect a little cartoon collar of clouds two-thirds up its height – and sometimes there it is! It’s the end of summer here, and there are traces of snow on the summit. Clouds collect against it sometimes, sometimes just behind it, looking like volcanic smoke. This is Misti. Turn thirty degrees or so to the left and there’s another volcano, this one craggier, broken, higher and capped with more snow. That’s Chachani.

Chachani stands above the city’s central plaza, the Plaza de Armas. It rises between the towers of the cathedral, one of which was toppled by an earthquake nine years ago and reconstructed. The cathedral itself contributes the one side to the elegant quadrangle of the plaza, fronted on the other three sides by colonial arched arcades made from the local white sillar stone. This volcanic stone is everywhere, earning the town its nickname of the ‘White City’. The plaza itself is green with palm and flower, set with fountain and benches, and always abuzz with activity.

There’s a guy playing guitar underneath the walls of the Santo Domingo church, not far from the Plaza de Armas. His face is indio; his face is slack with sad concentration, his eyes far away while his fingers pluck and strum, pluck and strum in a calm rhythm. His hair is shaggy, his features melancholy in that way particular to the indigenous. I find myself endlessly fascinated by the faces here. There’s an intense beauty there, whether male or female, and I catch myself staring in admiration.

Above the guitar player is the pitted sillar wall of the church, supporting some of the oldest mestizo carvings in town, carved by locals trained in the artistic methods of the Spanish, but adapting them to express something unique. Stark indio faces peer out from curling elaborations of vines, leaves, flowers and grapes in rounded relief. Winged angels appear, as do doll-faced madres in full queen-of-heaven gear, outfitted like Elizabeth I in her iciest glory. The doll quality of these simple figures matches the oddly precious figures encased in glass inside the churches, campy, diorama-like displays with female saints or the holy family, rosy-cheeked manikins dressed like Christmas trees to attend to the prayers of old women with bad knees. Outside, the brown-skinned indio keeps up the sad drone on the Spanish guitar. I wonder if he prays to the wedding-cake madre, and whether she manages to direct a few centimos his way.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Travelogue 326 – March 11
Orient, Part Two

Pampas is a neighborhood of the capital city. Lilia works in Pampas. She heads up an agency called PRISMA. Their projects relate to public health, either research or hands-on work among the community. Pampas is a large squatter’s settlement, or barriada, that has been organized into a legitimate district. The people are poor. Their neighborhood climbs a steep, bare hill and spills over is crest. At the base, the houses are older, and therefore better-built. At the top are the newest settlers, who live in patchwork huts among dirt roads. Lilia has agreed to pull together her staff to discuss with me the state of education in the barriada.

We take a drive; we visit a few schools. Each school is small, only 3-5 classrooms, on terraces carved into a hillside, paved with concrete. But the construction is solid, brick and mortar, plaster and paint, strong enough for a country prone to earthquakes. The classrooms are well-appointed, lots of toys and books, furniture solid. The children are plump and smiling. All in all, I finish the school tour feeling regret for the Ethiopian children. The schools in the barriada could pass for schools for the very richest in Addis Ababa.

This is a trip of firsts for me. It’s the first time I’ve been south of the equator. It’s the first time – incredible! Despite years of Spanish in school – first time as an adult in a Spanish-speaking country. (There’s family lore of a trip to Mexico City: people stopping to touch my blonde hair. My sole moment as traffic-stopping beauty and I don’t remember any of it.) It’s my first trip to this continent, land of brutal conquests, of tragedy and music, of sierra and pampas. And, did I mention, the first time south of the equator? Why is that so exciting? There’s little to it: I haven’t even bothered to watch the waters in my toilet. I enjoy seeing the Southern Cross high in the sky, and seeing the sun in the north. The latter sounds completely arbitrary, whether the sun tilts left or right, but I swear I can sense a difference, a weirdness. In fact, there’s something a little weird to the entire experience, something so far-reaches-of-the-world to it. Though this spot is no further west than Minneapolis, more or less, I feel, standing on Lima’s Oceanside cliffs, like I have traveled west to the utmost reaches of dry land, West as West can be.

Oceanside in Miraflores is extremely pleasant, by the way, worth an afternoon’s investment to stroll. Just about the entire stretch is devoted to attractive, green parks overlooking the cliffs, often carpeted in ivy, tumbling down to the coastal avenue. The waves are dotted with surfers. The air above is dotted with parasailors. The parks are grassy and criss-crossed by clean walkways that are dotted by a harmless variety of bourgeoisie. Offshore are those crazy, barren islands that serve to remind you that you are on another planet. The center piece to the Oceanside park system is the Parque del Amor, with its colossal monument to tender embraces, its bright ceramic mosaics, and its giddy middle-aged tourists who push you out of the way in their frenzy for photographs. Ah, the raptures of Amor!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Travelogue 325 – March 10
Orient, Part One

Finally I get to sit for a coffee somewhere outside an airport. I’ve found an Italian-style café, where I’ve found some carrot cake and espresso, where I’ve found some afternoon sunlight in which to warm my back.

Where am I? The sun on my shoulders lulls me into a sleepy, blank state. I could be anywhere. I had to run several urgent errands immediately after arrival at the hotel. This city, with its crowds, its concrete domino high-rises, its hot sun, this city reminds me of a dozen others, Cairo and Rome being foremost.

People from around the world stroll by the café window. This is a rich neighborhood. It’s a haven for tourists. I’m staying here because it’s near one of my first meetings of the trip, and because it’s safe. I’ve been issued so many warnings about the dangers in this city. The neighborhood is called Miraflores. Like most rich, cosmopolitan neighborhoods, this one has little original character. I snap to from my daze, and I’m disoriented. It could be any sunny city.

Arriving here, the plane wheels over huge, tawny islands offshore, shockingly barren and jagged. We swing around to glide over a leg of the city, toward the airport. The mountains beyond are brown and dry. I am overtaken by a familiar sensation, a familiar question, ‘What have I done?’

I see poverty below us, near the airport, unplastered, unfinished buildings of cinder block or brick, streets in various stages of development or deterioration. Poverty, as well, has its international characteristics. She welcomes me in her brusque way. Poverty is my unfriendly companion, my host, and my reason for travel these days. She stares at me with unblinking eyes from her dismal doorways and alleys. She knows me, while I can never entirely know her. It’s one of those relationships. Poverty doesn’t say much.

The coffee does its job, and I can’t resist a stroll toward the ocean. Water is a magnet, and there’s plenty of water out there, pulling at me, luring me with a sad lullaby for the deserts.
Travelogue 324 – March 10
Old Man

The old man has a face like granite; he has a face like time. It’s like both, as though time were a cliff suspended above a violent stretch of ocean and carved over eons by wind and rain, shaped by innocence -- in a world where nature is innocent, that is. His weathered face is innocent, as though age might in some cases liberate the soul, year by year, from the corruption of this world.

Much of the night he stares with his mouth agape, in a kind of sublime astonishment. The cabin of the jetliner is darkened for the unnaturally long night. Mute images blink from the video screens hanging at intervals above the central aisle. The cargo of bodies lies still and bunched under blankets. The roar of the jets is constant. Outside the portal the bright stars turn according to their clock, Scorpio surmounting by degrees the horizon and eventually soaring free. The compass tilts invisibly, and the southern stars climb. The old man leans forward into the aisle and stares with wonder. The way is lit by small bulbs embedded in the floor.

Our deferred dawn is a slow explosion of red along the eastern horizon, raging silently and vividly, like an antidote to end-time. It is exceedingly slow to burgeon into day because of our time-bending trajectory. I watch a massive river wind under the pre-dawn light, winding across a flat plain, shrinking with the miles. We seem to be heading toward its source. Then cloud cover takes over, and there’s nothing to see but the smoldering sky.

The old man pulls out his handkerchief and wipes his glasses again. Wiping his glasses is the only time he moves. The stewardess had advised me to change seats when he first sits down next to me, implying, I suppose, that he would either be a disturbance or a dead weight blocking my way to the bathroom. I stayed. He was fine. I had to help him open his food packets when meals came, but he jumped right up when I had to get out, though he rode in on a wheelchair. He’s still strong.

The clouds part and we’re over the mountains, severe and jagged peaks, and I know we’re near our destination. They march on, as far as the eye can see, these famous mountains, quiet as the old man, but tragic and brooding. We approach the capital city and suddenly the mountains descend into a white carpet of fog and cloud that extends to the horizon. It’s a striking vision, as near a picture of world’s-edge as one could imagine. I have traveled far. The clouds crash against the mountainsides like surf in still motion.

We descend toward the white sea, touching eventually, and breaking through. Immediately we are in a new world. The clouds are grey underneath, hanging over a huge city spread out over brown hills. The plane glides toward another ocean, this one blue.
Travelogue 323 – March 10
The Waves

There’s an art to travel. Not a very high art, to be sure – perhaps even a dark art. Sometimes I think it must be, this crossing of lines and intrusion. But I’m an innocent: sometimes the greatest practitioners have no malign intentions.

Either way, great artist I’m not: I’ve arrived at my resting point in a foul mood. This is a long trip. I knew that going in – a bus to Heathrow from Bath, a short flight followed by a very long one. But I allow myself to be thrown before I’m halfway through.

I’m cheerful enough as I walk down the green hillside that separates Pey’s house from the town center, a hill so infamously steep that the steps in either direction are like a half marathon on the knees, so steep that Pey won’t walk it twice in one day, so steep that I have yet to run up its entire length. It’s a great place to pause, by its nature as a struggle and virtue of its nature, all peace and prospect. I’m cheerful enough, pausing for a little sigh over bustling Britain, halfway through its busy day.

The moral of this story might be never to start a long journey with a bus trip. But I don’t have a choice, given the geography of options. Train requires a transfer and an extra hour. So, though it makes me nauseous every time, I board. They’re comfortable buses; it’s a good service, but driving in England is a bit of a village carnival ride. One might be tempted to raise one’s hands and shout, but there’s no wind inside these vehicles. Instead, there’s a stagnant hush. We might all be holding our breath in silent suffering.

I choose my seats on a flight according to a rather simplistic model of human behavior, one that says two types of people sit at the front of an airplane, those who travel with small children and those who will shove and step on toes in order to be first on and off, a neat coincidence that would save me countless headaches if it were always true. But tonight there’s a mom and her colicky baby one row behind me, at the back of a nearly empty plane. I could break out into desperate squalls of tears myself by mid-flight, particularly as the climbing and plummeting levels of temperature and oxygen cross in a violent X on the great chart of human discomfort. Add a third line for hunger, recalling late how intra-European flights never serve free snacks, and by landing time I have contracted a severe case of bitter disaffection.

It’s my first time in the Madrid airport. For you connoisseurs of grand and/or comfy airports, I can heartily recommend this one. The halls are vast and new. They are long in a way that invites meditations on distance and its hypnotic power over the imagination. One craves that sometimes, to stride in straight lines down spacious passages toward an ever-receding point where the clean lines that bind one merge and vanish.

That’s what I need, I think, a long walk. My everything for the trip is on my back. I have three hours. The longest leg of my journey awaits me. I’m going to put on some miles – across polished tiles; by wall-sized midnight windows on tarmac; by closed and closing shops, blandly pastel and alluring (alluring in the way a rack of glossy magazines catches the eye sometimes; the content is irrelevant), by the occasional verbal and visual monotone of TV news in Spanish, under fascinating undulating ceilings half a football pitch above.

And … it works. The forced march down squeaky long Spanish hallways has lifted my spirits! I’m refreshed as I arrive at the crowded gate for my next flight. I join the queue with new resolve.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Travelogue 322 – March 7
The Mankini

The sun is trying to drive temperatures above freezing this morning, and the city of Bath is particularly beautiful from Pey's second story window. The sky is clear and a brilliant blue. For a town that rarely sees the sun, it's odd that the characteristic yellow stone of Bath seems made for sunshine, particularly of the early- or late-in-the-day variety. Light spills across the lip of the valley, and the stone of the famous abbey and its contemporary structures glows and joyfully casts quarter-mile shadows across roofs and alleys.

I'm supposed to put together my 'kit', meaning a change of clothes and whatever else I might need after I cross the finish line, IF I cross the finish line. But glancing over the frost on Pey's tiny lawn, and then up into the bright, warm sky, I'm confused. How many layers do I need? I'm thinking of horror stories from previous years of the half marathon, in which the race starts a half-hour, an hour late. Shall I stand among the masses of runners in the chill morning air in my shorts and light jersey? Will I make it all thirteen miles in long sleeves and full length sweats over my legs? I'm running out of time; I throw all possibilities in my backpack and jump into Pey's car.

I'm fortunate: the race starts on time. Guided by a few race veterans, I sneak into my cohort of runners some ten minutes before the start. I hop and stretch and grumble about the cold like I've been there for a half hour. I've opted for long sleeves top and bottom. We're treated to a brief speech by Britain's only gold medalist in the recent winter Olympics, Amy Williams, who is from Bath and who rides a 'skeleton'! (Go figure.) And then we're off! Sort of – the crowd is so tightly packed that it's a walk for a full minute.

I'm fortunate: Pey's daughter is manning a table at her sister's school, selling cakes. As I run by, I'm able to toss her dad's sweat pants to her. By Mile Three, I'm pulling off the long-sleeve shirt underneath my Tesfa jersey. By Mile Four, I'm tossing it by the side of the road. There's a pound in my hand and ten pounds from my wallet, tossed aside. But a sacrifice must be made. I have a time to beat in this race, and I'm in earnest.

I may be in earnest, but the crowd is not. It's a city run, and there are people lining the course the whole way, and they're having a good time. Too good a time, it seems. I'm wondering why everyone is laughing when I go by. It doesn't take long to figure out. Once the runners have settled into their paces, I see that I'm among some colorful characters. I'm just ahead of the South Asian guy in a tutu, and I'm right behind the red-haired Mankini, a guy who's running in nothing but a lime green thong, stretched very tightly over shoulders and between butt cheeks. The Mankini seems to have something like the Mayan calendar tattooed on his back. Or maybe it's a Celtic mandala. I have far too much time to contemplate this. I would really like to pass the Mankini, or be left behind, or trip him, but he's matching my pace almost perfectly. I'm doomed to spend an hour and a half ten yards behind his behind and running in the laughing wake of his progress. “Go, Mankini!” from all sides. But it's a day of sacrifice, and I'm not afraid.

Despite the adversity, the cold and the male nudity, I have a great race. I feel wonderful; I never reach the 'wall'; and when I make the turn onto Great Pulteney Street toward the finish line, I have enough for a kick. I suppose the cold and the laughter finally got to my friend, the Mankini, because he dropped behind me in the last two miles. The laughter fades away; the cheers rise. I'm dashing down the final hundred meters. I'm done.