Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Tourism, Travel, Life

Back in La Paz, I sit in my favorite Alexander’s cafe. For a little over a month, I have not been here. But it is like home. The staff greeted me and asked where I had been.

Where have I been? The question is not only relevant for them but also for this blog. I disappeared from both for a month, although the timing was a little different. Where have I been? And, why?

If only that question were really easy to answer. I told the people in the cafe that I had been in Peru, mostly true. But places on the map tell so little of where one has really been.

Unfortunately, a more complete answer must engage a writer I have been reading. Alberto Fuguet, the founder of the McCondo movement of contemporary Latin American literature and a brilliant novelist of the interactions among popular culture, urban alienation, and Chilean life, published a book of essays entitled “Apuntes Autistas” (Autistic Notes) whose first section is about travel and writing. As a known writer he has done much traveling, to give readings, attend book fairs, and to give lectures. But he has also traveled in his personal life, since he grew up in California and later went to Chile and became a Chilean writer.

Fuguet’s movement is blasphemous for those who think the epitome of Latin Literature is Gabriel García Marquez, or Isabel Allende, and magical realism. Instead, he writes of a world of cars and films, reporters and drugs, skyscrapers and smog. This is not the world of people floating or butterflies filling a room. It is not a world that separates the Latin America from the United States with its NIN and Bruce Springstein. Instead it is a world shared, although some people in it have English as their only language, while for other people it is the language of much of the culture they consume, while their ordinary speech and thoughts are in Spanish.

He frankly pisses a lot of romantics and tourists off. They may go to Machu Picchu with NIN pounding in their ears, but they hope to touch the rocks and be transported to a world of magic so unlike the suburban neatness, or urban grit and noise, of home. They expect locals to play a Marquezian role as magicians who channel what they think they do not have.

In his first essay Fuguet comments that much travel advertising and indeed literature is about the idea of “escape”. This word “has more to do with departure than destiny.” yep. I agree. In fact the destiny almost does not matter as long as it can portray what is not at home, the place of departure.

Fuguet argues that this creates the point of departure as a place of “stress” that must be relieved by long hours on a plane, and then being somewhere not home. Of course that “not home” erases the reality of places that are homes and that live in the same world we do, with stresses and strains like the endless honking of horns.

Where have I been? I voluntarily exiled myself from Bolivia where--like it or not--I have been so many times that it is natural. As people teased me in Peru, even though the Spanish I learned as a child is Mexican, with its own strong accent and vocabulary, I have spent so much time here over so many years and so much time with Bolivians in the United States that my Spanish is now mostly La Paz. Other than for a few "ay Chihuahuas" or "¿mandes?", I whistle, slur, and drop vowels like any paceño.

Yesterday, I almost left my camera in an internet cafe. Immediately on crossing through the door, I realized and turned back. But in that moment of realization I reverted to Mexican and exasperatedly muttered “Chihuahua”. Why? I have no idea other than that is the way people spoke around me when I was young in El Paso. It is kind of like my “y’all”. It is just something I keep, perhaps like linguistic souvenirs from the places of my life. But I turned around, went in, and started talking to the attendant--Fernando--in my best Bolivian and he gave me my camera.

Fuguet writes about how he and the prominent Bolivia writer Edmundo Paz Soldán, who teaches at Cornell, became instant friends when they realized they both spoke Spanglish and shared a passion for popular culture. Somehow, their linguistic souvenirs are powerful enough to make friends and also to keep people at bay.

So, yeah! I was in Peru. They do not speak like the people of La Paz. We can communicate, mostly, although there were many moments when I had to ask my equivalent of “huh” and break my Paceño Spanish with a perfect Mexican “¿mande?” When I was young, I thought “¿mande?” was stupid and much preferred a simple and vulgar “¿qué?” But now, I seldom seem to say that three-letter encyclopedia of a word and instead ¿mande? comes from my mouth to my and--no doubt--other’s surprise.

In Lima, a long stretch of a city, congested and hot, I rode buses packed with people and had to stand, all the way from the Avenida Arequipa down the very wide and very congested Javier Prado to Constructores, about an hour all told. Lots of horns honked. People got on and off. I overheard lots of pieces of foreign conversations, and got bumped and shaken.

I did find Fuguet in a bookstore by the Óvalo Gutierrez on the border between San Isidro and Miraflores. But, really most of my time was spent in Starbucks looking at people and writing, or sitting at the table with an enticing and cultured family having long conversations about most anything you can imagine from sexual orientation to abstruse political theory, with long interludes on art and folklore. In so many ways, for me, that sobre mesa, talk at the table, is as close to heaven as you can get.

Starbucks is another matter. But I did find things to write there that were supposed to be long posts to make it to my blog. They did not, but more on that after one such lost post.

Starbucks, Lima. A coffee house with wifi. Not my favorite cafe by any means; only its wifi makes it tolerable. I would rather be in the Haiti , where many of Lima’s intellectuals and artists meet and hang out.

But I am in Starbucks. I sit on a couch for hours, letting my fingers play over my laptop’s keys while occasionally watching the people around me.

On the back wall, where a gap opens that leads to the bathrooms stands a series of three, small tables with two chairs each. At one of them, for almost three hours, a thirty something man sits a white apple lap top open before him. Dressed in a dark blue suit and an open collared, light blue shirt which shows off his taught abs, he has several day’s scruff on his face and a small yarmulke on the crown of his head.

On the table, by his side, a book entitled Zohar stands upright against the wall.

A group of women, of changing number sits a table or so away. They gathered a couple of small tables and various chairs to make themselves a place in the corner. Upper middle class housewives, they chat in the rushed and jumbled tones of Lima about their kids, husbands, and shopping.

I cannot help but overhear the women’s conversation, though I am not listening. They are close, a little closer than the man and are speaking loudly.

One by one, they take a place at the man’s table. He asks their name and then writes something on his laptop. I can’t hear other than occasional burst of conversation and would not deliberately listen in, even if I could. But the pieces I hear suggest he is asking them about their lives and they narrate stories while his eyes and cheeks raise and lower, widen and close to what they say. I hear him speak, “as the books says...” and then nothing more.

I cannot help but suppose they are studying Jewish mysticism, but really have no idea other than for the traces that come my way, while I try to concentrate on my writing.

Lima is a large and cosmopolitan city with traces that flow around the globe.

Some years ago, in January, I found myself in Jerusalem with a small group of scholars, attending intensive seminars at various think tanks and universities. Most were mainstream to conservative, although we did attend a seminar at one progressive institution. A rabbi, known for his scholarship on Jewish law and the state, spoke to us. His talk was dense but enjoyable. Afterwards, over coffee and cookies he spoke with us personally. When finding out about my connections with Peru and Bolivia, he mentioned that for years, he had been the rabbi of Lima. Though he now lives in Israel, he maintains contact with Lima’s complex Jewish community, part of which was here before me in Starbucks, if the Yarmulke and Zohar really mean that.

What’s up with that? The almost post, I mean, not the reality of the guy in the Starbucks counseling all kinds of bourgeois women.

I suppose he could have been a Peruvian Jew with red hair and a big-splotching birth mark on his face, like Vargas Llosa describes, completely exoticizing a part of the reality of his country in the form of living people with real communities and an interest in Torah, Talmud, and even Zohar, although if it is like everywhere else, most Jews are probably like most of their neighbors and not terribly religious. But he was not exotic. he just was a dark haired buy, in a dark blue suit and a light blue, open collared shirt, doing what Starbucks is for. He was taking advantage of coffee house culture to make a place to meet with people interested in him and what he had to say.

The only reason that is any different in Lima from in Salt Lake is that Peru is the home of Machu Picchu and a place where people are supposed to have thousands-of-years old traditions, including a mystical site known as Machu Picchu.

I went to Peru about a month after Machu Picchu closed due to massive rainfall that cause flooding, and mudslides. Cusco had almost no tourists. Like a spigot that was turned off, the flow of tourists came to a sudden halt. And Peru’s economy shrank.

To be honest, I loved walking the beautiful plaza de armas in the center of town without the hordes of tourists, although I did not enjoy the crowds of vendors that would fix on one to try to hawk that exotic which really does not matter, except it is not home.

I left Lima after two weeks and returned to Cusco for a week to write and get myself readapted to the altitude. I loved the normality of an almost tourist free city, but one with services like places with internet where I could write. I also had long conversations about this, that, and archeology with people I already knew and people I just met.

It was hard to leave, to return to Copacabana, even though I know so many people there and feel so at home. Cusco is not home. Even though I did teach a graduate class there once upon a time and stayed for almost a month, and even though I have been going there most years since 1976, it will never be home. It is a place precisely to not be home. Not in the “escape” that Fuguet describes, but like when I lived in Colorado Springs and would just drive to Denver to be away. If I had lived in Denver, if it had become home, I would not have enjoyed the difference so much. This was not about avoiding stress and going to some fantasy other, that really is some inverted mirror image of how I imagine my home to be. It is, instead, a place where I do not go to work, where I do not have obligations to neighbors, where I do not have the same bed., if I decide to stay.

Lima used to be like that. I used to love to go there to sleep long hours, tranquil in the coastal oxygen-rich mugginess, or wander long hours in its streets and sit in its cafes knowing no one. It was a place I could be alone with all the richness and trouble that can mean.

Now Lima is not that. A family broke my solitude. I bless them, though I also need to find another alone place to sleep and wander in solitude.

But solitude can be found in many places and in many times. In Copacabana, after the fiesta of February 2nd, I began writing about the events this way.

A sliver of shade, cast by a wall offered some relief from the sun on the broad atrium of the basilica just after noon. A line of teenagers dressed in jangles and I sat on the ground in the shade, waiting for mass the end. It was a long wait.

Inside, the Franciscan bishop, with his miter and staff, introduced religious friends from Germany and had them speak. He gave a long homily about how though it is the feast of the Virgin of Candelaria one should not lose sight of the real focus, the baby Jesus she presented at the temple. He was to raise the new parish priest, Father Felix Apasa, to that position.

And we waited, outside the gleaming baroque nave with its gold-leafed curlicues and hidden felines on the main altar where the Madonna carved by the Inca Tito Yupanqui, looked out from her place in the vertical hierarchy of space and time.

“When you enter someone’s house, what do you do?”, we heard from the sound system inside. “You greet the inhabitants of the house. Everyone wave to the Virgin, our mother, in greeting and say ‘Hola mamita’.”

The sun beat the broad atrium causing the paving stones to shimmer in strange rhythms before the domes giving shade to the three crosses. Like a few other seventeenth century churches in the altiplano, Copacabana’s basilica has both an inside and an outside chapel. We were in the outside one where the boundary between the sacred and profane seemed unclear.

Four women were tearing petals from flowers at the main gate and loading them in plastic bags. An old, blind man sat on the ground, marking the main path to the inner chapel, in a ragged, much-patched suit coat and slacks, with tire-rubber sandals on his feet and his hands outstretched. Across from him a similarly clad elderly blind man scratched at a violin to pull from it the notes of the Virgin’s hymn, a plastic cup at his knee.

“To your feet Mother comes a suffering man, surrounded by anguish and a thousand embarrassments.”

From inside the basilica a choir sang in the tense, high pitched voice and scale of indigenous music, but I could not pick out the words. The sound reminded me how the priests had borrowed Andean hymns --in a process as old as Christianity creating itself int he Roman Empire--and given them new content in local languages. Many of these hymns continue, along with new, popular songs similarly reworked; in this case Simon and Garfunkle’s “Sound of Silence”.

Women in broad gray skirts and sweaters were trying to keep a row of silver braziers lit and stocked with coals and incense, against the outside wall of the porch by the entrance to the main chapel.

Members of various bands, instruments by their side, stretched out in whatever shade they could find.

Then, a man dressed as a caporal, a hyper-masculine and aggressive figure from a dance of the same name came up to me, sat, and asked who I was and why I was there. In a zig zag of revelation and questions he, for some reason, trusted me and told me some things that suddenly made the last two year’s research in Copacabana find clarity. As the mass ended, he got up, gave me his cell number, and said goodbye. I got up, left the shade--and my solitude--and went into the bright sunlight of the fiesta.

But, I lost my voice. Not for my academic writing. That continued well. I lost it for this. It was as if I had crossed some ritual threshold and no longer had a means to narrate Copacabana. I tried, but only found an absence of words.

Copacabana, the object of much of my writing, the place where I was, had changed for me. And I did not know how to tell that.

I left for La Paz, and then returned for Carnaval in Copacabana. My comprehension of the town deepened exponentially and I was drawn ever more into its depths. Something changed about me and my relationship with the town. I crossed a rubicon, but I do not yet know how to tell it.

After Carnaval, I briefly returned to La Paz to reflect and write. But as February drew to a close I needed to leave Bolivia to save at least a month of the potential time allowed me as a US citizen in the course of a calendar year. I knew I would need to return for Holy Week, from Palm Sunday to Easter, and I knew I needed to come back in early May with another student, to introduce her to people so she can do her work. So I took a bus to Cusco and arrived before dawn, drawn and sick.

The intensity of the February Feast and Carnaval, plus whatever changed, left my defenses down to the cold viruses that pullulate in the highlands. As soon as I was over that, I got a bacterial infection and had to take antibiotics, then that was over and I immediately got another cold, then bacterial infection and ... then my bowels...

Major transitions do not come free of cost. My body‘s March in Peru was part of my cost. As was my silence, it more than the other.

Tomorrow, I leave La Paz again for Peru, because of the visa. But now I am going home to Cusco, strangely. No longer am I in a word of travel, or a world of literary reflection, as Fuguet writes. Neither Macondo nor McCondo are what I see and experience, though there is both Megadeath and the mystical, but the realism is neither the exotic magical of García Marquez and many others nor is it the neoliberal realism of Fuguet. Mine is neither tourism nor travel. Instead it is the contrast Fuguet fortunately provides: living.

Whether occupational hazard or methodological necessity, this complex shift is part of what many of us ethnographers go through. We leave travel, and began to live in places foreign to our family and friends in the places where we have jobs and other lives. And, I still do not no how to tell the story. So much has become silence at the same time so much is loud and brilliant.





  1. Dear David-

    I've been lurking on your blog for some time now and I love how I can hear your voice in each and every entry. Thank you for sharing this experience - these experiences - with the rest of us.