Peru stirs 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 Golden 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 sits enthroned with Egypt and the Arabian tales, sultans and sultanas, above the open panorama of history; at once, she quietly and deeply grips each human heart. Peru is yours and she is mine.
Since Christmas, I've been listening to sierran huaynos in both Spanish and Quechua. Some rake the ears; others pour like crystal streams from the misty fastnesses--down the quebradas like a torrent. I have a new Quechua grammar lying about, beckoning. I often carry it around like a prize. I may one day even leaf through a chapter or tackle 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 doesn't suffice to describe the effect Ms. Ramos has on her hearers: 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'm going to cut the Passive Mode ("the Andeans were conquered") out of my new Queshwa grammar.
I don't know why I listen to these songs. But the heirs of the Inka Empire 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 simple fare for that table, I affirm the hospitality of the North, a dry land, cut by small rivers coursing down from the fabled Andes--from Cajamarca. I call to mind the little river towns, rising proud from desert sands, not far from the sea, Mamacocha, source of all her woes.
There sits 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 walking along the river-- or of "paseos en las canoas"--I fall into the reverie of her blue heaven. I sometimes even search this demesne online, circumscribing, even besieging her, on GoogleMaps. I spy green Marcavelica, just over the Chira, rich in groves of mango and papaya. I visit a juice bar. I Google Sullana's Villa del Mar and check the closing times, pronounce on the menu. Sullana is what she is and may be a fickle sultana, but there's a stateliness about the Chira, a lazy peace attending the Plaza.
The vision snaps like the bridge of San Luis Rey, a bridge of ropes that Inka Pachacuti suspended over space and time.
I just watched a video of Sullana. A huaico runs through it--a torrential flood of devastating mud and rocks and wood (in Quechua, wayq'u). I scan footage shot from helicopter: The entire North appears to be underwater. And las lluvias e inundactiones promise to continue through April. Piura, la Primera Ciudad of the North, saw 2.17" of rain in the last 24 hours; she averages less than 3" a year (25" since January). 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 eaten up 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 ephemeral homes of the very poor. Rivers overflow their banks ruining vast swathes of acreage and pasture (see Enrique Planas, "Los moches y El Nino: asi castigaba al norte el dios Aiapaic," in Luces, 20 March 2017; http://www.accuweather.com/en/weather-news/more-rain-expected-as-death-toll-rises-to-75-from-peru-flooding/70001160).
One thing I remember about Peru with no nostalgia whatsoever: children and babies die at a startling rate. It's a plain fact--like Dostoevsky's St. Petersburg percentages (described in Crime and Punishment). You see it, hear of it--and pass on because you can't tilt at the "awful arithmetic." Yet Thornton Wilder, summing up the lesson of the snapped bridge of San Luis Rey, responds brilliantly: "each of the five lost lives was a perfect whole" (see Luke 13:4 and also "Second Reading: Jonathan Yardley on Thornton Wilder's 'Bridge of San Luis Rey,'" Washington Post, 7 December 2009).
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? The rope bridge frays above the yawning abyss. Yield to the percentages; it's all so foolish--even 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. Mother and child had been seen and summarily dispatched just a day or two before--one of a dozen such cases, I fear. But now a sultanic nurse gave something more than a sharp word and cursory review. And she lived. It was the mother I was fighting for, so desperate in her straw shack, fragile windbreak, a spot of quiet cut out from the world. There she could weep over her loss and Who was she in a Dickensian world?
Yet she stepped back into the sun. She called for help. Two Elders heard that call. Before, during, and after the priesthood blessing, I weighed the awful percentages. I thought, too, of how the baby just might live, perhaps even grow into adulthood--"a perfect whole"--a young lady that brought joy to her parents. She held that Divine birthright, though you couldn't actually see the title clenched in her tiny hands. At least she could live another year or two; she could even do all the living she wanted. 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.
*Donate to the Cruz Roja Peruana