Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Senses of the Street

Cusco, Perú
July 2003

Yesterday was a day of errands.  But errands with a sensuality that is at once new and old.  It is not that of home and has not yet become so omnipresent as to pass into the background, uncommented and unnoticed.  
To get places I walk.  Through my shoes my feet feel the roundedness of old cobblestones or the flatness of stones shaped like bricks.  They feel the smoothness of cement and the softness of asphalt.  Sidewalks are not broken by tree-roots into jagged planes like at home, but are smooth, broken only by square, open holes for utilities with no cover to protect the unwary pedestrian.  Your feet have to see and sense.  
The sidewalks are capricious though.  They flirt, seducing sometimes with broadness that tempts you into an almost Texas-like gait.  Other times they dip their eyes and shrink into a size no larger than a curb.  At times like that you almost have to walk sideways, and if too many of you are trying to occupy the same tenuous space you get forced into the street and play tag with cars and buses, with their incessant rattles, growls, and bleating horns. 
While at home if you walk, you feel the splendid gringo isolation.  So few people walk that there is both a camaraderie of those beyond the hermetic temple of cars and the separated, expansive, concrete space of the self.  Here the sidewalks are filled with people.  Walking is normal.  You know people are there.  Not only can you see them, individuals, clumps, and crowds, but you feel them as they bump your shoulders and press sometimes against your sides.  They have sound.  Bits and pieces of conversations beat against you in a stream of disconnected, displaced consciousness that still feels connected and alive.  It is as if every person on the street trails sound, slowly dissipating in knots of meaning behind him or her.  We pass through each others sound wakes, sometimes oblivious and sometimes with a quick bump of comprehension.
Then there are the sales people, much more intrusive than the telemarketers or panhandlers at home.  “Postcards mister” accompanied by the flap of a small, cardboard portfolio snapping open. “Shoe shine sir.  Your shoes are dirty, I will dust them.”  And the beggars, hands out, displaying interrupted limbs and broken bodies with pained eyes that look as if the came down from a church’s wall, an icon made life.  “Please a little help.”  “Mister shoe shine.  No? Well maybe later.  My name is Carlos. Later then Mister”. . . “You promised me yesterday mister.  I shine your shoes.”   “I wasn’t here yesterday.”  “You promised mister. I shine.  I do a good job.  You see.” “Postcard mister”.  “You need a doll for your wife.  See a beautiful doll.  Hand made.”  “Please mister buy a watercolor.”  “Sweaters mister” “Gloves? Look baby alpaca.”
You either ignore them, walking with an imperious stare of disengagement.  I am not here with you.  I do not see you.  I will not interact with you.  Or you talk.  “No gracias.”  Simple and terse.  Or you play and joke, but the goal is still to pass by, money intact.  In any case you are caught in a baroque world where you have to define a role at every step, where each one challenges and changes your sense of self only to fold into a new definition with the next step.  There as many folds here as there are on the gold leaf altars of seventeenth century churches.   The self is a labyrinth.  But not a private one.  It is always challenged and on display.  
Sound is everywhere.  Rare is the pastoral silence adored and codified into law by gringos.  Everywhere there is sound.  Young men whistle loud individual chirps that make the caw of a crow seem sedate.  These are their calls, marking space and calling friends.   “Let’s go and hang out.”   
Radios blast, pulsing dislocated bits of music or news.  Cars honk at every corner while deciding if they have to stop for the light or stop sign, or just continue onward while warning any and all, “I am here. Beware”.  Saws wrench the ear with a harsh whine as they tear wood or flagstone.  Hammers thud into adobe, or crack against a nail piercing wood.   Water splatters in softer but percussive waves as a boy comes out of a building and splashes the waste from his bucket onto the street.  
Policemen keep a metal whistle in the lips as they signal traffic with their arms and the throaty sound of the bead vibrating just past their lips.  
As you walk past an old church, down the long outer wall of its nave, well before you round the corner to encounter its glorious facade, the pungent smell of urine surrounds you in sharpness.  You pass someone with rich, earthy perfume filled with must.  A popcorn vendor tantalizes with the unmistakable scent of corn bursting from heat and oil.  Eucalyptus reaches out in a menthol steam as another vendor pours glass after glass of a hot elixir.  Meat roasting on a spit throws out an enticing charred smell.  Pungent exhaust informs of a bus’s passing.
Time is different.  It is tangible, not so much in the weighty ticking of the clock’s morality, like at home, but in the sense that although people can race down the street, suddenly you find yourself behind people slowly sauntering.  Or a bench opens up and you sit as the city passes by.  Time is a something you can give and as a result time is woven in strands, like a rope you knot marking your interactions with people.  There is the simple, terse knot of I don’t know you and I do not care.  There is the elaborate, almost Celtic, knot of loop after loop that says I enjoy you and your presence. 
This sensuality has yet to fade into a background where the errand is greater than the process.   
Today has also been a day where I am aware of language.  Not Spanish.  I am too used to the tongue of Cervantes, even spoken with Andean accents.  That is innate for me.  But instead there is another language. I pass three women standing tensely, blocking the sidewalk.  From their lips escapes a beat of a different tongue, different combinations of sound and waves that cannot exist in Spanish.   At times like that you cannot help but realize how foreign Spanish is, even after five hundred years.  There is another tongue, another way of being encompassed within it that belongs to this place.
I know what it is to live in a world with multiple languages, where your identity and social compass are contained in the words that play on your lips.  You live in a space of comprehension, but are always aware that there is another world just beyond your grasp.  In my world, that of the US Mexican border, I always understood both Spanish and English, even though in every conversation you define identity by the way you choose to combine the two, or not as you want.  But there were other languages, Tewa, Navajo, Apache, whose sounds were very familiar and comforting, even if I did not understand more than a word or two. 
Here it is different.  I open my mouth and people say “oh you speak such good Spanish”. In every encounter, such as when I went to buy my bus ticket to La Paz for Monday.  “Where are you from?”  “Oh you speak such good Spanish.”  “You speak such good Spanish”.  My gringo-ness is thrown in my face, time after time.  When I was young I could avoid my Whiteness, but now, my Nordic looks are laid down like a gauntlet at the beginning of every conversation.  
Every time I have to defend my right to speak a language I grew up with.  It makes me miss the subtle code switching of home.  But then it shifts.  Today many people have asked me if I speak Quechua.  “Uk chhikallata” a little bit, I answer.  Suddenly things change.  I pass from the curious Nordic Spanish speaker to a stranger who is interested in the local glory.  “Maymanta kanki?” “Ima sutiyki” and so on in the standard questions of first encounters. 
Then they start talking and Quechua rattles off.  But my ears are cold and my tongue is thick.  I find myself answering back in Spanish, apologetically. Yes I can speak it.  I can explain its grammar to you.  But it is still strange on my tongue and in my ear.  I retreat to my foreignness.
It would be so easy now to really speak the language.  I have flirted with it for so many years.   When I was nineteen I found myself in a town where Quechua was spoken by most people.  The lady who had a store across the street from my house would teach me bits and pieces.  I learned how to identify myself as a Mormon missionary “Ñoqayku kayku jesucristoq iglesiamanta.”  I learned how to bear testimony in Quechua.  I was fine as long as no one spoke back, like so many missionaries whose monologues sound so secure but who fade when engaged in discussion.  I vividly remember the times the language flowed from my tongue fluidly and smoothly.  I remember later being a twenty-four year old anthropologist back in Bolivia after studying the language for a year in graduate school.  I was riding in the back of an open truck as it slowly wound its way up the steep curves of the dusty road between Sucre and Potosi.  The other people in the truck were talking in Quechua and I joined in.  
Four five hours, or so, we talked.  No religion. Nothing but ordinary talk and play.  For me it was like being in heaven.  I could speak.  I could fit in. 
But then I went to live in an Aymara speaking village and Quechua, the warm language of valleys, got displaced by the tattoo of the snare-drum like Aymara and the valleys faded before the enchantment of a very high plateau and an azure inland sea.   
Some day I will stay and learn to feel comfortable in Quechua.  


  1. You capture walking the streets of Latin America so well. Beautiful writing! I hope you are well

  2. Thank you, Rachel. I am well. How are things for you?

    Take good care.