Peru awakens a kaleidoscope of images, reflections, and memories. We glimpse that line of conquistadores grimly, inexorably, riding down to Cajamarca, where they will kill Atahualpa; we shield our eyes at the glory of Korikancha, Cuzco's Temple of the Sun; we wonder at the "two-l llama" ("that's a beast," says Ogden Nash); Machu Picchu rises green from the Andean mists.
"Entonces en la escala de la tierra he subido entre la atroz maranna de las selvas perdidas hasta ti, Macchu Picchu" (Pablo Neruda).
Peru shares a throne with Egypt and the Arabian tales, sultans and sultanas, on the broad wavelength of our common universe--the open panorama--at once, she quietly and deeply grips each human heart. She is yours, and his, and mine.
Since Christmas, I've been listening to huaynos in both Spanish and Quechua. Some rake ears and sensibilities--while also keeping that strange hold; others pour down like crystal streams from the misty heights--down the quebradas like a torrent. I have a new Quechua grammar lying about, beckoning to me. I carry it around like a gift, a prize--when I want to; I may one day leaf through a chapter and come to grips with a verbal paradigm, though it's enough to carry it around, or move it from shelf to shelf and never too far away.
The Spanish Conquest at long last ends. I've discovered the triumphant music of Edith Ramos Guerra. She stands in the Korikancha and sings El Pajonal. Singing isn't the best word, she calls, she summons. She commands with a bracing, aggressive lordship--sultana de las sultanas--the songs of Puno, the South that I do not know--and yet I know it. I know it in the way we all know Puno and Cuzco and the Inka in his glory, before Pizarro comes. I watch the Miski Takiy (Sweet Music) TV sensation on YouTube, which features Andean musicians performing in the open mountain air against a backdrop of shooting fountains of the purest water. Shooting fountains of clean water. Here rises a phoenix from the burnt out decades of Andean terrorism and police state militarism, ambiguously brutal beyond imagining, phoenix from the subjugating centuries.
I don't know why I listen to these songs. But the poor and the simple people won--and they didn't need Mao.
My deeply held Peru, deeper yet and stranger for being something beyond imagination, certainly includes the memory of a visit to a small home, at evening, in the North--so far away it seems tonight:
We spoke of Lehi and the Liahona,
Of desert ways, where sighting can be tough.
"My papi has a compass too," she said,and ran and brought it.
It was heavy.
"It guides his boat when out at sea.
and brings him safely home to us."
Seared in my senses is the acrid poverty, the sharp nasal tang, the sand forever blowing in the eyes, the spluttering of a candle, the incandescence of a rich wick lamp piercing the darkness of a room washed in blue walls and holding,
precariously, a rough, unsteady table. I attest the struggle to provide remnants of food for that table, the hospitality of the North, a dry land, cut by small rivers coursing down from the fabled Andes--from Cajamarca. I remember the little river towns, rising proud from desert sands, not far from the sea, Mamacocha, source of all her woes.
I remember the noblest little kingdom of them all, on the banks of the Rio Chira, two-l Sullana: "Del chira eres la perla, sultana de las sultanas." I dream of going back one day. I picture myself walking into one of her famous restaurants. I sometimes even search out these places online, circumscribing them on GoogleMaps, then zooming in on lofty Sullana, green Marcavelica, mango groves, papaya. I Google the restaurants and check the closing times, and pronounce on the menu. Sullana is what she is in dust and theft, a fickle sultana, but there's a stateliness about the Chira, a lazy peace about the Plaza; there's a flavor of home.
The vision snaps like the bridge of San Luis Rey, a bridge of ropes that the Inkas suspended over space and time.
I just saw a video of Sullana. A huaico runs through it--a torrential flood of devastating mud and rocks and wood (in Quechua, wayq'u). I look at videos shot from helicopter: The entire North appears to be underwater. And las lluvias e inundactiones promise to continue. Thirst, hunger, homelessness, joblessness, and torrential sickness have all begun--and promise to continue. And children always pay the greatest price. All 2017 will be consumed by las lluvias e inundaciones--and by the home lost, the street lost, the harvests and the jobs that will never be. Long long ago, the wayq'u swept away the great civilizations of the North; now the huaico lays waste to the little homes, huts, and streets of the most poor. Rivers overflow their banks ruining vast swathes of acreage (see Enrique Planas, "Los moches y El Nino: asi castigaba al norte el dios Aiapaic," in Luces, 20 March 2017).
One thing I remember of Peru with no nostalgia whatsoever: children and babies die at a startling rate. It's a plain fact--like Dostoevsky's St. Petersburg percentages (see Crime and Punishment). You see it, hear of it--and pass on.
Once I strove with all abandon to save a baby's life. The effort was as deliberate as it was tenuous, the sand impeding every long step. How could I help a baby, when it took so long to walk even twenty-five or fifty feet? Yield to the percentages; it's all so foolish--even vaguely embarrassing. Abandon the quixotic; accept Peru as she is, fickle sovereign, sultana de las sultanas--or just keep kicking up sand, step-by-step.
The baby lived. She got to see the inside of a hospital again, for a cursory review of the case--one of a dozen--and a sharp word to the mother--and she lived. It was the mother I was fighting for, so desperate in her straw shack, her windbreak, a bit of quiet cut out from the world, where she could watch a child die. That was the expectation. Who was she?
And she had already abandoned all hope, this Mother--and still she wept, as if there might yet be some hope. But I thought too of how the baby just might live, just might grow into adulthood--a person--a young lady that brought joy to her parents. She had that Divine birthright. At least she could live another year or two; she could even do all the living she wanted to. What did I have to do with it? And I never think of it. Not then, not since.
I guess she's there now, en el norte.
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