Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Sharp Sun

July 2003    
This morning the sun is sharp.  It slices through the shadows and flattens people's faces like a scalpel removing excess.  Though it is early, the light cuts through shadows and the dust of night in broad rays with a quality only found at high altitude where the atmosphere is thinner and the air dry.  I always forget how the sun pierces at this altitude, until I return.  When the sun is out the temperature rises, when shadows prevail the air is around freezing.  You live the constant contrast of light and shadow, hot and cold, but not in the abstract. Instead, like the sharp sun, they are felt viscerally.

I arrived in Peru very early Tuesday morning, shortly after Monday’s midnight.  We were supposed to arrive at Lima’s Jorge Chavez airport around ten pm on Monday, but were delayed in a massive thunderstorm in Atlanta.  Water pummeled the airplane.  We had already boarded and they had closed the doors.  The rain flowed off the rounded plane in sheets and the view through the windows became even more surreal as we looked out through water.  A water fall rushed off the wings and left foam on the tarmac. 

You would think we were delayed because of the waves of water. But no!  After we had been sitting on the immobile airplane for an hour or so breathing ever warmer and danker air, the captain announced that Ecuador had revoked our over-flight rights.  We were stuck.  We were neither in the US, officially, despite the ground under our wheels, nor abroad.  We did not know if we would ever be able to leave.  A battery of lawyers and officials in Washington DC and perhaps Quito negotiated with the Ecuadorian government a temporary pass so we could continue on our way.  We had become some sort of pawn in foreign policy struggles between our government and that of a country to which I was not even going.

In one of the ironies of long distance travel I was, in the wisdom of the computer, sat next to a young man in his late twenties, with an angular face pulled taught nervousness and excitement of travel.  He was from the University of Illinois and was on his way to Cuzco to study Quechua.  He was going to the school in an old part Inca, part Colonial building where I had taught a year before.  He was a graduate student in ethnomusicology and I a professor of anthropology. He was tall and lanky and seemed a bit nervous.  He turned to the window and then looked back at his watch many times as we began to converse.  The music of the Andes, with its five toned scales and relationships with the times and seasons had captivated him and he wanted to make a career of studying it. 

His main professor in the states is a friend of mine, another lanky man who had led the Andean music ensemble at the University of Texas in Austin, where I also studied.  I had not seen my classmate for a long time.  Instead, as often happens in academe, I was left with memories of his intense look as he would correct my finger placement on the Charango—a ten stringed, small, guitar-like instrument—while reading his articles and book.  Our relationship had become textual.   

After a couple of hours of more nerves and hoping the attendants would open the door and let us enter the airport while we waited, the captain announced over the intercom that we had a temporary pass and to prepare to take off.  The flight was smooth. I slept as much as I could for the almost seven hours of bustle in the cabin, since I had stayed awake all night prior to departure.   

At the Lima airport, after waiting in line at immigration and entering a big room with two snaking carousels, mine were the last bags to appear it seemed.  I waited and waited while suitcase after suitcase was pulled off the rotating black band.  I was worried because I was carrying a huge duffle bag stuffed with clothing and some toys for a Peruvian family I had barely met.  

Late, the night before my early morning departure from the US, they appeared at my door in the company of a couple I knew who was also Peruvian.  “Please, will you take these as luggage to our family?  There is no way we can send them.  Please we beg you” they pleaded with that tone from the Andes that makes it very difficult to say no.

Still, I made them open the bag and take everything out.  I said I would not travel with it unless I knew every thing it contained.  It was densely paced with rolled dresses, pants, blouses, shirts, socks and pajamas for their family members in Peru.  Everything had to come out and be unrolled.  I felt every item into my hands to make sure nothing was sewn into it.  On the one hand, it is embarrassing to go through someone’s packages like that, but on the other hand it is respectable to be cautious since, as a Bolivian and Peruvian Aymara proverb says, You shouldn’t trust even your own shadow. 

The packed duffle bag was enormous and very heavy.  I worried it was oversized and mentioned that to the family.  They said “we will pay if it is.  Even though you already have your luggage limit, take it please for the love of God, we beg you.   We will pay for the extra bag.  Here is money for what the airline says it will be and if it comes to more, we will pay you.”

In the morning, well before even a summer’s dawn, I trudged into the airport loaded with my own bags filled with things I had to carry for people to Bolivia and Peru, as well as gifts for people I knew, and the monster black duffle.  It was over weight and over size, as I had expected.  I had to pay one hundred dollars of my own money, but did so knowing my friends would cover it out of honor, since I was doing the favor for their friends.   

When almost no one was left from my airplane in the luggage room my bags finally came and customs just flagged me through.  Thank goodness.  I was worried how I would ever explain the bag filled with clothes that obviously were not for me.

Outside customs, where people crowd the rail to greet incomers in a thick, tightly tied, and shouting knot of people, I looked to try to recognize the son in law of the lady who had given me the duffle bag in the US.  All I had was a description.  He was thin, tall and angular, and was a policeman who had traveled eighteen hours from Arequipa to get the bag from me.  As a scanned the crowd, one man who looked like the description, as did several, looked at me expectantly and hopefully.  We made eye contact.  “Are you the son in law” I asked?  “Yes and are you David Knowlton?”   I handed over the bag, received his formal thanks and reflected about how hard immigration is for families that are suddenly separated by thousands of miles and impenetrable government bureaucracy.  I also thought about how difficult it can be to send things back and forth and how those of us who do travel regularly become kinds of couriers.  I suspect it has always been thus, with travelers telling stories to people on both ends who hunger for a view of their kin and who carry packages of goods whose value is as much symbolic as material.  They symbolize love and ongoing concern.

It feels weird to travel as burdened as I am.  But over years of going back and forth my human connections to this part of the world have become ever richer and denser. That is reflected in the amount of luggage I carry.   Nevertheless I envied the tourists, with their sleek, plastic covered back packs.  I was more like the Peruvians with their unmatched bags tied together and their boxes bound by tape.   Since I was a gringo, though, I was a strange hybrid, neither the one nor the other, but someone who exists in between.

As I was giving the duffle bag to the Arequipan police man dressed in jeans and a polo shirt,  Mrs. Navarro and her daughter Rocio Coral rushed up to me, having seen me stop to talk with someone in the crowd.  Mrs. Navarro is the mother of the woman who introduced me to the people of the black duffle.  Her daughter married to a man from Lima who served as a Mormon missionary in Colombia with a man who is a friend of mine in Utah.  My friend helped his friend and wife immigrates to the US.    Since I brought a filled suitcase for them, they insisted I stay the night at their home and had waited at the airport in the foggy Lima night for three hours.  So we grabbed a taxi and entered the nocturnal labyrinth of the working class and lower middle class neighborhoods north of the airport in the Chillan river valley. 

Lima extends over three important river basins the Lurin, Rimac, and Chillan, from South to north on this coast that has almost no rain fall and hence almost no vegetation except near the rivers.  Historically these were three separate cradles of ancient civilizations.  Their valleys are dotted with ruins to witness to the thousands of ears of history.  Now they are part of the same city.  Modern homes of brick, cement, or adobe crowd the pyramids of the ancients.

I had never been to these northern neighborhoods before.  But I felt very much at home.  These are kinds of neighborhoods I became very familiar and comfortable with from living as first a Mormon missionary and then an anthropologist in Bolivia.  They also filled books and articles that I had to read in my graduate training and professional work.  English speakers would call many of the houses shanties at best and the neighborhoods shantytowns, but to me they were homes and the rows of streets curving into the night seemed filled with promise.

We sat talking until Rocio could hardly stay awake.  Her eye lids would thicken and her head droop, although she tried to stay part of the conversation. She had to get to work early the next morning and had an hour commute by bus to her job in a pharmacy company in Callao.  But her mother insisted on preparing me a dinner, after midnight, of suprema de pollo, rice, a salad and so on.  You cannot avoid eating, without causing offense.  I was tired and my digestion did not want to work.  But I ate, accepting the Andean custom of massive hospitality.  It really was a lovely touch of concern.  Finally as my eye lids seemed to grace my toes we called it a night.  I slept a few hours before getting up exhausted to wait for a phone call about whether I had a ticket to Cusco.  Given the kind offer of Carmen Rosa to get me ticket through friendship networks, I had entered the Peruvian world of favors and friends.  This is really how Latin America and much of Latin American business works.  So finally I was informed I had a flight out at two pm.  I could have gotten a ticket myself, but it is better to be part of these networks.  After all I have become part of this country and society because of my work.  It is almost impossible not to accept the people's love and their huge hearts.

As soon as the time came through the mother, frustrated by my resistance to have anything for breakfast but a glass of juice, immediately ran to the market and began cooking.  She was not satisfied with fixing me a single lunch but gave me a double lunch that I had to eat until finished.  The lunch came at ten am, so I would be ready to go to the airport at eleven thirty.

So stuffed like a thanksgiving turkey--strange irony in this image--I boarded the plane for Cusco, with no reservation, as I often travel, and found my way from the airport to a hotel.  In the airport I ran into the guy from Illinois again.  We were on the same flight once again, compounding ironies.  I helped him get to his place at the Centro Bartolome de las Casas, where I have worked and where I am going later today.  Then I collapsed on my bed and slept.  Finally this morning my stomach no longer feels distended and I have escaped the sun to an internet cafe. 

No comments:

Post a Comment