to a guy who has seen the same thirty or forty buildings now for what, about five years, a town like arequipa peru is a beggar's banquet- beautiful architecture, in varied shapes and colors, the straight lines of the colonial fronts broken by graceful arches which, in essence, protect people from volcanos and earthquakes. a feast of old buildings, narrow stone alleys and streets, the eyes of people who have lived here forever. but the irony of it is, to me, that I'm always going too fast, afraid for my life. cabs pull right into moving flows of traffic; people jump out of moving buses; people try to cross streets where there is really no opening. From the first moment i arrive, the taxi takes off at about sixty in the parking lot alone, and I'm in a struggle to allow such things to be out of my control, to not just walk everywhere, in rebellion.
i really have no time, given my schedule; i teach from eight to twelve, and again from three to seven, but the heck of it is, the long three hour lunch is entirely taken up by running around to the various major sights of the place. an andes museum, basically telling the story of the young people who have been found there, sacrificed by the incas; it leaves me shaken, wondering if, given that the incas truly believed in the divinity of the people they sacrificed, uncovering their graves, even in the service of history and science, isn't a practice of serious spiritual disrespect; another day, a tour at a monastery, right in the city, where generations of women live in the service of a roman catholic system, in which ornate paintings are made of jesus, and churches are decked out in the finest of gold, while women live simply, celibately, arguing over whether it's ok to be rich, and still be a nun. From these places I go straight back to work, but, exhausted, my afternoon classes sometimes drag at around six or seven, and I feel I may be ready to keel over at times. The weather is at its stunning best, at all times, right out the window, right out the door, wherever we go. My hosts, also, attending to my every need, making sure I'm fed, rested, shown the sites, happy. sillar
is a kind of volcanic lava which is cut into slabs and used to build houses, and this gives the town its name the white city
, but it turns out that sillar
is not as solid as cement, when you get right down to it, and occasionally comes down in the frequent earthquakes that hit the place. Nevertheless even cement is often given the textured look of sillar
and painted white or light colors, so the place has a soft textured look, along with its angular lines and arches. These of course fly by as taxis jolt into traffic or people whip around ancient curves reeling from one end of town to another. We don't often go to the sea, they say, not this time of year, because even though it's technically spring turning into summer, this is the foggy, cold time at the sea; and it's nicer, later, like in the winter, july. all of this is slightly confusing. i try to find out if water really runs counter-clockwise down the toilet, and find out that it runs straight down, in a hurry, not making much of a whirlpool, when it runs at all. License plates show me that apparently a hundred percent of drivers are from peru; all look the same, and say "pe" on them, and nothing else. ghey don't come here from chile? or bolivia? bolivia sounds like another universe, the best I can figure, although most people are quite familiar with chile and chileans, who they say come to arequipa all the time; to me, an avid license plate watcher, it's unusual to see 100% of anything
, though the usa would be the same if it didn't distinguish by the state. The license plates, all the same, are in contrast to the architecture, which changes in dizzying and stunning speed as the cars dart in and out of traffic. There is a pattern; people take what they can get, and ignore the laws and the lines in the road; this results in what appears to us to be anarchy, but in fact is a system which everyone lives with, and which probably generates the same number of accidents, no more, no less, than ours. driving is hard on the heart, it forces one to give up some control, and just hope the taxi drivers are paying 100% attention. They are. The bright, blue sky puts an impressionist background on every hilltop view; the volcanos tower over, and look down benevolently at the city from every angle.
the plane trips were endless; on the way there, way too much time in concourses d and e of miami-dade; trips without views on the way down, and finally, a window on the way back, but a wing blocking most of the view even there. Time in concourses is time suspended, the same newsreels over and over; in this case rawalpindi, and a flood in waldron arkansas in which people were at least saved, a snowed-out baseball playoff in Colorado. Flights leaving for such places as puntacana, st. croix, st. thomas, freeport, kingston, santo domingo, managua, quito, and in some parts, for laguardia, ohare, lambert. on the way back, I catch glances of the andes, of the sea, of finally, panama and the canal; then, cuba. some islands off of cuba sparkle in the beautiful sea, but the land itself, like panama, seems to attract and be covered by clouds. a long wait to see anything, and then, after all that, twenty eight hours down and sixteen back, and there, I finally see it; the world, in all its glory, and I've gone around its fat middle, and up into miami. Same with the traffic; four days of putting my life in my hands, every time I jump into a taxi, and finally, on the early-morning trip to the airport, and the streets of the city are dead empty; it's four am, and people take a break; this time we fly through, glancing only at the buildings. In the earthquakes, they say, the sillar
doesn’t really hold up, and that's really a problem for the churches, which have belltowers made of sillar
, but which then have to put a new bell-tower on an older cathedral. The central city, with its mismatched cathedrals and towers, and gorgeous old ornate archwork and stone carving, actually has tourists, but they don't seem to be American, but from any other country instead. People all wear the bright colors peru is famous for; some are doing clearly for the benefit of the tourists, but some do it just because that's how they dress; that's who they are. One lady is completely decked out in local, colorful dress, but is buried in a cell phone as she would be if she were in our central square. On the way there, a man in the lima airport introduces himself and encourages me to sleep there, in the basement, across three chairs; his alarm will prevent me from sleeping through my own flight, and it does; he wakes up, and we go on our way together. On the way back, I run out of money, but a man flying through the tax-station gives me a ten-spot (about three dollars) and I get through. If the mountains, or volcanos, rumble, I ask, what do you do? Feel like doing anything to appease them, or keep them from blowing? Don't feed them people, I say; there's light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak, and the rumbling will settle, and if it blows, that's not so bad, usually they can live with it. It's part of the big picture, a world with its unique form and shape, most of it the fair waters of the deep blue sea. I'm wondering how the gods feel, about the girl in the mountain, about the ornate golden offerings, about the jeweled island in the middle of it all. Is this paradise, is it a dream, or is it just part of the big wide world, a world that has patterns for sure, but patterns that are a bit beyond us at times, not always obvious. another narrow street, back up by the monastery of santa catalina, its beautiful angular patterns framing the volcanos at every turn, and there is a chile license plate, on a bus. one, a solitary, the one different one, that, in my case, would keep me watching for another year or two. until you get used to the stunning everyday-ness of it, the benevolence of the almighty sun, the beauty of the old architecture, fly by as we hurtle through narrow streets, around corners, over hills and down around narrow curves.
the idea that volcanos are alive was laughed at by some of the teachers; maybe they were sensitive that outsiders considered the incas to be primitive, superstitious, scary in the way they offered young people to the mountain in order to keep the harmony. scary, yes, i'll allow it. back in the airports, particularly lima where an american saw me fumbling, not having enough cash for the tax, and unable to manage a spanish-language atm- gives me a ten on his way through; on the plane, i'm now listening to rock, headphones against my ear, as we zip around the fat part of the earth, across the canal, and up through the clear-blue turquoise sea. i don't recommend headphones as an everyday thing. i will say, though, that the airplane wing, in its stunning bright silverness, makes a still-life pattern, around which the world below, off to the side, looks intense, an elaborate quilt of everyday wealth. under the arch, i'd tell my kids. you never know how the mountain feels about the whole thing.