is unlike any place you have ever been. I know this because I have been there and you have likely been to places like Chicago
or New York
or Key West
in the winter time is something that is hard to describe. There is only a limited amount of words to use to talk about a place being old and dirty and fucking beautiful all at the same time. And still none of those words would do it justice.
My mom had gotten a grant to work in the Andes
for a year. I don't remember the significance. A lost camp site of the Inca
, up in the mountains. I traveled down in the summer (winter in the southern hemisphere) to see her, my mother the explorer, and to see all of the things she marveled at.
I stood in downtown Lima and finally understood why it was that my mother kept going away all of these years. Maybe I had gotten an idea of it when she brought home trinkets and small treasures. But now I really got it
, like hearing music live or seeing art up close.
There are not many paved streets in Peru. Mostly dirt. Some brick. Thick with dust
clouds and people and Spanish slang slinging across roads at passerbys. Peru is an old place and it shows. Buildings are falling down. Brick is crumbling, power lines are slumping, no one is in any hurry to replace it.
The odd thing is that you can go into the hills and find structures
built thousands of years ago that are still standing strong. No state of disrepair or crumbling bricks. Thick ivy on the sides and a few knicked edges, but nothing compared to the city.
And oh my mother would say that these structures, temples, monuments, homes, built by those ancient people are what makes the whole place worthwhile. What makes her want to stay there.
But for me, it's those broken down hotels with the shitty wiring running four channel basic cable through twelve rooms and the sound of wooden cart wheels cracking on a broken road bricks while the air comes down thick and foggy all around. Because the air is always gray and low and you can feel it when you walk, clinging to your skin and soaking in. Because it's old and it's new and it's everything and nothing. Because it is there
and not here and that makes it all the more special.
Because Peru has a history that doesn't get detailed in text books. You get to talk about your New York yuppies or your California hippies or Midwestern farmers and think of them as the great Americans, the hip, the rich, the tragic, the heroes. And in the end, the history books will be about them because it was written by them. And the books will talk about Haight Street
or Wall street or the last great American Cowboy, but it will not talk about modern day Peru.
But I am not a history book and I will talk about it because it deserves to be told. Because Peru is so beautiful in such a bad way that it will break your heart in at least seven different places.
Señor Guzman must have sat on the old stoop of his house all day for the entire two weeks that I was there. He watched people. Smoked cigarettes, the real kind
, none of that store bought stuff--this was his tobacco wrapped up in the leaves off the same plant and dried and cured in his shed. No filters. No worry about cancer.
Peruvians are wrinkly people. Maybe it's the tobacco. Or the coco. They chew on coco
leaves like we do with skoal
. Could be the air. Or just the fact that they're hiding something big from their history that we are not yet privileged enough to know.
Señor Guzman was the village storyteller. Because, they said, every town has one elder that knows all the past
and what may be their future. He keeps it mostly secret, telling only ancient stories that have always been for entertainment, or sharing little bits of it at a time. Most people, if not of Incan origin, can forget about hearing any of those little bits. Not me.
I took several hours each day just to sit with the old man. Not because I had nothing better to do--there were thousands of places to go, to see, that I passed up to be there with him. Not because I thought he was lonely--little kids crowded around his porch and gave him the respect that all elders deserve and listened to his stories. But because I wanted to hear, to know at least a little bit of what he knew. Because I somehow know, like I always know, that it was important.
My Spanish is broken. I can say what are considered to be the important phrases. ¿Perdón, donde esta el cuarto de baño
? Covered. ¿Puedo utilizar el teléfono? Mispronounced, but understood. But the only thing I wanted to ask Señor Guzman was something my mother taught me to say a long time ago. Cuénteme una historia, por favor.
I can tell you this much right now. I didn't understand the whole thing. English is a weak man's language for an old Peruvian like Señor Guzman. And even Spanish is a fading language for him, mixed with old words from the tribes of his grandfathers, and his grandfathers before that. The old words are what keep the stories here, because the new words just don't sound right with the ancient ideas.
If I caught enough context instead of noun verb noun adjective verb
, I would recount the story to you. Something about the hunters in the mountains and a temple. Maybe the one my mother was digging at. I don't know.
I want to
But it was a good story, I could tell by the smile sitting ever so sly on the old man's lips. The way he used his hands
and stopped smoking in order to divulge the details. It was important that he told it, passed it on the generations below him.
The old man told me before I left, and I was sure to catch every word of it, that Peru is a dying land. The ocean is sucking it up, the war lords are destroying it. Capitalism and Catholic
ism are taking the place of the ancient knowledge that lies somewhere buried in the Andes. Maybe Señor Guzman knew all of that knowledge already. Maybe he still wanted to find out.
I have not been back to Peru. My mother has. Someday, I too will go back. The old man died five years ago. There is a new story teller. I will meet him, on the stoop of a dirty house on the edge of a dirty road and I will say,
Cuénteme una historia, por favor.