27 March 2013

Enrichment Voyage, Part 14: The Things They Sell on Avenida Abancay

If you're just joining the voyage, you can catch up on the previous Enrichment Voyage posts over here. Or, if you prefer, you can also start from the top and read all the stories, oldest to newest, in one long post.

Location: Lima, Peru
Today's telling detail: the bathroom scale

Nearly every sidewalk square on Avenida Abancay has its own vendor. They squat and stoop and kneel and sit against the beat-up brick walls that form the back edge of the sidewalk, the dividing line between official and unofficial commerce, although neither seems to be doing much business today.

The street vendors bend their legs, pull them to their chests, trying not to steal space from their displays, which are already perilously close to being trampled by the endless, dense, frenzied stream of humanity passing by inches away. Trying not to impose. This isn't their first choice, sitting out here. But you have to do something. Their wares are spread on folded blankets or swatches of cloth or panels carefully, pridefully torn from cardboard boxes. The arrangements are neat, tight lines for knockoff luxury goods--watches, bracelets--or anything of which there is plenty; haphazard strewing where there are few items to offer. Perhaps increased surface area will draw more customers. Anyway, it feels better this way. You have to pretend, for your own self-worth, even if no one else even acknowledges your existence as you sit there trying to sell whatever it is you have.

The things they sell on Avenida Abancay are things that are easily carried on buses or on foot. Aside from portability, anything goes.

A burly man has set out his wares on a paint-spattered drop-cloth: wrenches and tape measures, all different sizes, all carefully organized. He looks like he just came from a construction site, wearing worn, baggy jeans and clear safety goggles, which shield his downward, stoic, squinted gaze.

A man with the appearance and bearing of a down-on-his-luck aristocrat--hair in tight curls, fingers long and uncalloused, gestures subtly theatrical--has a wooden box full of metal corkscrews in clear plastic wrappers. Unlike his typically-silent colleagues, he keeps trying to strike up conversation with passersby, his expression puppy-dog-hopeful. I don't understand his words, but I imagine them to be: "All your fine wines at home deserve a fine corkscrew to open them! Buy now, before they're all gone!" No one buys; no one stops.

A rotund woman with a scowl and jet-black hair in a high bun sits on a plastic stool with a basket at her feet. It's filled with little jars of white cream. To make your skin clearer. To make your skin softer. To make your skin lighter.

Other vendors have filled their tiny piece of real estate with reading glasses, with batteries, with small padlocks that look like they could be broken with a finger-flick--but together, for now, for this one person, carry the weight of the world.

They sell services on Avenida Abancay. A lanky young man in fashionable clothes made with cheap fabric stands by a small cart. He holds a digital camera; a small printer sits on the cart, which is covered with examples of his service: passport photos. A few people stop to chat with him, eddying the foot traffic, which is simultaneously pinched in from the other side by an arriving minibus. A bouncer-looking man leans out the side of the minibus, holding a sign with the vehicle's destination, then hops down to the sidewalk, yells the destination a couple of times, and twirls his sign. We're here, all aboard, let's keep moving.

The crowd keeps moving.

The air is thick, particulated. Lima's famous panza de burro grey--"belly of the donkey"--from the ubiquitous fog takes on an extra dirty-donkey-ish tinge. All those vehicles, as dense and focused as the humans on the sidewalk. This mass of humanity. A woman wearing an orange jumpsuit and a dust mask pushes a broom against the prevailing tide of foot traffic, Sisyphus as sidewalk-sweeper.

An empty plastic step stool sits next to a liter jug full of brackish water with a scattering of rose petals floating at the top. A small sign next to the jug reads "Asesoramiento tarot y espiritual."

They sell food on the Avenida Abancay, and it is these vendors who have the best business and, not coincidentally, the broadest smiles. If you sell food, you typically set up on the street side of the sidewalk.

Quechua man with a large knife, just a few ticks short of a machete, slices a pineapple--juicy, succulent, a Pure Platonic Yellow devoid of any other colors.

From wicker baskets, they sell tamales and alfajores; from small carts they sell freshly-griddled hamburgers, freshly-fried churros, freshly-roasted maize, its kernels like gleaming marbles. They sell chicken on skewers and nuts in bags. And every block, several people, often of Chinese extraction, have set up carts with a large, see-through container full of quail eggs on one side and a sizzling pan of oil on the other. 

The smells are not quite omnipresent--there's too much frenzy here for anything, even an odor, to linger for long--but come at you in regular waves as you walk down Avenida Abancay, a metronome of scents. 

A block or two down from the area of peak density--although there are still plenty of people here--a woman stands in the doorway of a vacant storefront. She is perfectly upright, not a trace of a hunch, even though she has a baby strapped to her back. She is Quechua, in the traditional attire, including a bowler hat and an intricately woven shawl with a pattern that is variations on a theme of red. The baby wears a knit chullo hat, blue, the ear flaps brushing its shoulders. The woman looks slightly lost and baffled by her circumstances, her eyes haunted and wide. She seems on the verge of crying but fighting to maintain her composure--for her potential customers, for her child, for herself.  

In her hand, she holds a bag of individually-wrapped green apple hard candies, similar to Jolly Ranchers. This is what she sells on Avenida Abancay, one or two or a handful at a time. 

At her feet is a bathroom scale, worn and rusted, the glass over the dial scratched and foggy, although not so much that you can't read the numbers--not so much that she can't squat down, her back still perfectly straight, and carefully shake out some candies, letting them scatter across the surface, and estimate the weight by tracking the red pointer's almost imperceptible progress from 0 to 1. Not so much that she can't tell you her fair price and make the sale. 

18 March 2013

Enrichment Voyage, Part 13: Of Skulls, Guinea Pigs, and the World's Most Beautiful Library: A Visit to the Convento de San Francisco in Lima

If you're just joining the voyage, you can catch up on the previous Enrichment Voyage posts over here. Or, if you prefer, you can also start from the top and read all the stories, oldest to newest, in one long post.

A monk enters the Convent of San Francisco
Location: Lima, Peru
Today's telling detail: the dust

On the list of fascinating things to see at the Convento de San Francisco, the piles of skulls and bones are actually only fifth on the list.

Admission to the convent is a mere 7 soles (about $2.25 when I was there) and it is, not even kidding, quite possibly worth the trip to Lima by itself. Built in 1774, the convent is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it's not hard to see why. 

By "piles of skulls and bones," I mean catacombs. Below-ground, dimly-lit, labyrinthine catacombs with vaulted ceilings and room after room with pit after pit of bones and more bones and still more bones, organized by bone type--femurs in this stone bin, ribs in that one, fibulas in the next--and tastefully arranged in giant careful lines or herringbone patterns or concentric circles. The care and artistry is actually kind of unnerving--it's as though these are displays at Morbid Pottery Barn.  Whose job was it to sort the bones? Who art-directed the arrangements? Who made the final call about which skulls, exactly, to put in the niches, in precisely the sort of way they do in haunted houses, except this is supposed to be solemn and respectful, not campily creepy? 

The mind boggles; the mind wanders. Most days, that would be the most intriguing tale of the day, the likeliest candidate for dinner-table conversation.

Today, it's only number five. 

Number four is the restoration happening on the underside of a staircase. There's a scrim hiding the work, so it's hard to see precisely what's going on, but it appears that there's a short hallway that cuts under the stairs, the ceiling tilted, its plaster painted in some elaborate manner. There are two people sitting on chairs perched atop a scaffolding, so that they can easily reach the ceiling when they sit upright. They're doing touch-up work, their brushwork tight and careful. Because of the scrim, I can't see the workers' faces or even what they're working on--but I can see their outlines, because their shadows are cast onto the scrim by bright spotlights. It's mesmerizing: Portrait of the Artists As Shadow Puppets. No one else in our tour group seems to notice as we walk past, but I'm so entranced that I linger for a good minute before catching up with the group and then whispering to a couple of my friends from the ship that they have to slip away from the group for a second, because there's something I just have to share with someone. (Unfortunately, photos are very strictly forbidden inside the convent, so I don't have any pictures, which kind of breaks my heart. But you can find convent photos taken by rule-breaking tourists on Flickr.)

Number three is the painting that the group is admiring when I track them down after my moment of awe in the company of shadows. The painting takes up nearly an entire end of a long, skinny room. It looks a whole lot like "The Last Supper." It is "The Last Supper." Except that on a big platter in the middle of the table--being admired by Jesus and his disciples--is a delicious meal of roast guinea pig. Cuy, to use the Spanish word, was historically a fairly common food in Peru (and it's still not too hard to find on a menu, although definitely not on your typical tourist-restaurant bill of fare). (Students of art history: here's the full Cuy Supper story.)

Number two is a vast, unbelievably beautiful, jaw droppingly intricate dome over the grand staircase that leads to the upper level, where there's a library and a choir loft open to the church itself. The dome features a cedar lattice of star shapes. I'm not doing it justice. It kills me not to have photos. But suffice it to say, if this dome were in any given building in the USA, tourists would come from miles around just to look up and gape. The intricacy of the pattern and the pure craftsmanship of the execution seem very nearly impossible--as beautiful, to my mind, as anything I saw at the Vatican or in Florence. 

And then there is number one, which is, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, simply the most beautiful space I have seen, ever. That's a strong statement, prompting eye-rolls and charges of hyperbole. I absolutely mean it. 

It's a library. The church itself didn't do much for me, spiritually, nor did the works of religious art and iconography throughout the convent. But stepping into this library probably about as close as this agnostic has ever felt to the divine. It literally took my breath away; it literally made me cry.

It's one big room, long and skinny and lit by three very small chandeliers and three very large skylights, which flood the space with an ethereal glow. The light, my God, the light. On either side of the room, directly across from each other, are two perfectly symmetrical spiral staircases that lead up to a small balcony area, which overhangs the shelves that march all the way to the back wall. Brackets that call to mind small sections of spiderwebs join the balcony to the shelves. It's all a study in symmetry, intimacy, and serenity, the details impeccable but not ostentacious. (This photo gives you as sense of it, but really doesn't begin to do it justice.)

The shelves are packed with books, most of them upright and organized, but some stacked in piles or leaning oddly or otherwise arranged a seemingly haphazard manner, as though some monk was recently browsing the stacks and didn't quite put things back correctly. And, actually, that's possible. These books are all very, very old, and in various states of deterioration, but they're not behind glass or protected in any way. They're literally gathering dust here--this is not a museum, not a gallery. It doesn't feel twee or contrived or preserved simply for the sake of tourists--it just is, as it always has been. The dust and the scattered haphazardly-shelved books--all perfectly-lit, the colors warm and saturated, the lines perfectly defined--add to the sense that you've just stepped into this magnificent room not with a tour guide but through a warp in the space-time continuum. You're not sure if it's 1780 or 1870 or 1920; there's not so much as a glowing exit sign to signal that you're in the twenty-first century. 

The natural thing, in these too-perfect moments, is to think of film--it's like something out of Indiana Jones, or maybe Hogwarts. Shakespeare, maybe. Something. This can't be real. You start looking for the flaws; it starts to feel uncanny, even creepy.

Except, sometimes, your brain doesn't even get that far. It's too busy being overwhelmed, too strained by the very literal awesomeness of a place. 

11 March 2013

Enrichment Voyage, Part 12: Lima's New Path

If you're just joining the voyage, you can catch up on the previous Enrichment Voyage posts over here. Or, if you prefer, you can also start from the top and read all the stories, oldest to newest, in one long post.

Location: Lima, Peru
Today's telling detail: The scene at the mall

In a park in the thriving Miraflores neighborhood of Lima, atop bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, there's a massive statue unlike any other I've seen in a city park: a much-larger-than-life couple making out. I mean, they're really going at it, in a way that would make you avert your gaze and think, "Get a room!" if they were actual sentient humans. Their much-larger-than-life arms are around each other, the man's much-larger-than-life shirt is removed (and, ahem, get your mind out of the gutter--I did not look at the relative sizes of anything else).  

Welcome to El Parque del Amor, dedicated in 1993. 

It was toward the end of a bike tour of Miraflores that we stopped here. Our guide, Jose, said that the statue and the park--which also features walls with mosaic inlays of quotes and poetry celebrating love--were inspired by the fact that coiled lovers are a frequent scene in Lima's parks. Other sources trace the origin to an observation from the Peruvian poet Antonio Cilloniz: "In the cities, they do not build monuments to lovers" but only to warriors. 

In either case, the citizens of Lima seem to be following instructions. As we biked out of the park, we went along a narrow path lined with eight benches. Seven were occupied by couples in getting cozy--and on the eighth sat a well-dressed young woman who seemed to be waiting expectantly.  

On one side of the park, there's a deep, wide ravine spanned by a bridge carrying cars and pedestrians across to the southern part of Miraflores (you can see the bridge in the background of the photo above). The sides of the bridge are hemmed in by tall walls of thick, transparent plastic, which curve back over the sidewalk, forming a partial tunnel that looks a bit like a massive hamster Habitrail. The barricades were erected to prevent jumpers--the bridge had become infamous as a suicide hotspot.

As Jose put it while we stood in the park: "If things don't work out here, you go over there."

It's the easiest cliche in the travel-writing playbook to juxtapose a place's contrasts: its old and new, its simple and extravagant, its melancholy and joy. Sometimes, there's no escaping this observation, though; to do so is to miss a genuine story.

In Lima, this sort of thing is everywhere you turn. Some are more telling than others. Other cities have their  romance/despair dichotomies, although Lima's park and bridge are particularly potent versions. And while it's initially amusing to see teenage boys skateboarding in a park that has floral re-creations of the ancient Nazca Lines, it's ultimately not especially interesting.

I mean, what's the story? "DUDE! Old ... and new! In one place! Where's my camera?!" There's no link, though, no accurate metaphor to be read into the scene; no narrative thread. It's A plus B without equaling C.


But in Lima, very often, the ubiquitous combinations tell all kinds of nuanced stories. Like the trees in El Parque Olivar. The area was a thriving olive plantation in the early nineteenth century, and after the Peru won its independence in 1821, the fleeing Spaniards chopped down many of the trees. But from these stumps grew new trees--often gnarled and Dr. Suess-looking, but objectively beautiful in their own way. 

Today, it's a preserved green space, one of the city's most beloved, where families go for picnics and tourists go for bike-rides. From an act of conquest grows a space of respite. That's a nice story. 

Far more powerful, though, are the scenes that show the ongoing reconciliation of a painful recent past--just as I saw all over the place in Berlin, where flashy billboard rise directly over somber monuments and Checkpoint Charlie, that potent symbol of Cold War division, is now, to a large degree, just another kinda cheesy tourist trap.  

Back in Lima, see if you can spot the telling detail in this photo: 

What you see here is the LarcoMar mall, which is built below street level, wedged into the cliffs of Miramar. This isn't the greatest photo, but if you click for the larger version, you'll see that the storefront in the middle of the image is Tony Roma's, the American restaurant chain. 

Keep looking for the telling detail.

Upper left. There are three people. Above them: a beaming cross. 

That cross is 50 meters high; it's on the hillside far in the distance. It was erected in 1998 on the occasion of Pope John Paul's visit to Peru--and it was constructed using materials from electrical towers that had been destroyed by the Shining Path, the militant group that terrorized Peru throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, and may be, as The Economist recently noted, "Still smoldering." 

"The terrorists used to bomb power facilities often," says Jose. "I would have to do my homework with a candle. My mother would be cooking in the dark." 

This not ancient history. Jose is fairly young, around thirty, and his memories of the Shining Path are vivid. He doesn't seem haunted exactly, but deeply frustrated, his typical smile and gleaming eyes turning into a more solemn mask. 

Things are different now. Not perfect, by any means. But connect those dots--the blackouts, the cross, the mall--and you have a complicated story that has unfolded over a short period of time, and continues to play out each and every day. 

05 March 2013

Enrichment Voyage, Part 11: Scenes From a Park With 300 Iguanas

If you're just joining the voyage, you can catch up on the previous Enrichment Voyage posts over here. Or, if you prefer, you can also start from the top and read all the stories, oldest to newest, in one long post.

Well hello there. 
Location: Guayaquil, Ecuador
Today's telling detail: Those sinister eyes. Just look at them.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a tourist who enters across a park filled with 300 iguanas will ignore the signs saying "DO NOT TOUCH THE ANIMALS."

Officially, the park in the center of Guayaquil is called Parque Seminario. Officially, the main attractions are the statue of Simon Bolivar; the well-maintained stone paths and manicured lawns of refined urban parks everywhere; the large historic gazebo that host concerts by a municipal police band (every afternoon, I'm told). Officially, you're not supposed to touch the iguanas.

Hahahahaha. Right. To all of that.

Pretty much everyone seems to call it "Iguana Park." They're everywhere. They're the real stars here. And they're what brings in all the gawkers--both locals and tourists.

You can't really tell from this photo, but this tree is FULL of iguanas.
You are strongly advised not to stand directly below it.

Our taxi driver, Christian, had wanted to take us to the local history museum, across the street from the park, but we were disappointed to learn it was closed.

Kind of disappointed. Soooort of.

Okay, honestly, not really.

I mean, dude: 300 iguanas.

Christian looked on as we snapped our photos. All day, during our extended drum hunt and our later quest for lunch--during which we rebuffed his suggestions of international chains and their slick local knockoffs, because we didn't particularly want pizza and burgers but something just a tad more authentic and traditional--he kept offering us that most desired of travel compliments: "You're not like most tourists." Our egos soared.

In the park, though, he's openly laughing at us as we pose. "Now you are real tourists!"

We know. It's true. We can't help it. Sometimes, you have to embrace the goofiness of travel, the tacky tourist moments.

In case I haven't mentioned it: 300 iguanas.

And the thing about 300 iguanas is that the scene sounds cool until you consider the up-close realities, like the fact that holy crap those things are freaky. It turns out that as with all animals, there's a certain distance at which an iguana suddenly goes from interesting to terrifying--you cross what one might call the "Oh, HELL NO! Threshold." This distance varies widely by animal.

A Sampling of Oh, HELL, NO! Thresholds
  • Tiger: 68 yards
  • Dragonfly: 8 inches
  • Giant squid: 2 miles
  • Goldfish: 0 Goldfish are harmless. Don't you dare ruin that for me by pointing out examples of ravenous, blood-sucking goldfish; I'll be over here with my fingers in my ears, LALALALA.
For iguanas, the distance is about two or three feet. From afar--even, like, ten feet away--they look regal and intriguing, always standing there, posing with their chins up, like a bald eagle or Christian Bale. At two to three feet, you start to feel your eyes get very wide and your sphincter loosens. You have sudden insights, like, Damn, those things look like dinosaurs. And I forget, was "Jurassic Park" a documentary? How fast, precisely, can they lunge? My buddy Ralph is standing next to me--if I push him in front of me, will they go after him instead? He's wearing zip-off nylon khaki pants, so he's basically asking for it, anyway.

Unfortunately, I had no nylon-khaki-wearing friend named Ralph along to protect me as I approached this scrum of iguanas:

Keep an eye on that cheeky critter directly under my butt.
This will become important very, very shortly.

As I started to squat--and just as the Oh, HELL, NO Threshold was kicking in--a woman in an official uniform yelled something at me.

I assumed she was shooing me away--but, no, she was offering to take the photo for me. I handed over my camera. "Kneel down," she commanded, in Spanish.

I knelt. Carefully.

"It's okay to touch them," the woman said, grinning.

Oh, hell, no. 

But she was waiting for me to lower my hand. And, really: I couldn't pass up the opportunity for officially-sanctioned--make that officially-mandated--iguana-petting. Very, very gentle iguana-petting. It had to be done.

As I was posing, I heard a voice behind me. "Dude, do NOT back up. And the second that photo's done, STAND THE HELL UP, nice and slow--there's one that's about to chomp on your butt."

I ignored the "nice and slow" part.

I later asked Chuck, the naturalist, if--you know, hypothetically, asking for friend--an iguana could've actually bitten off my finger.

"No," he said, face totally deadpan. "But it would make you wish it had."

So there’s a life lesson for you: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean there’s not an iguana out to get you.