Wednesday, November 17, 2010
When you come upon a scene that is completely unexpected and enormously outside your personal experience, incredulity rises to protest. How can this be? In the midst of your amazement, lies the small shape of your own world. Sacsayhuaman, with rounded, eighteen-foot stones that meet the eye in staunch solidarity had stretching walls which undulated in ancient defiance. Uncannily, I thought of my father as I stared at the phenomenal ruins.
Miguel Ángel gave us a brief history of the site: originally settled around 1100 AD by the pre-Incan Kilke culture, Sacsayhuaman was said to be a fortress. “You can’t even slip a sheet of paper between the stones, they fit so tight,” he claimed. Leaning against the giant stones, I sensed my own, tight self, yearning not just to make things right with Miguel Ángel and his family, but also to make something right deep within my soul. Why was it that the image of my father was invoked at the strange, haunting ruins? I thought for a moment about how Miguel Ángel had compared its spiraling shape to the ruins of Native American Kivas in New Mexico, each formation imitating the interior of a corncob when it is cut in two. My father, the corn breeder, would have liked that comparison.
After Miguel Ángel left, promising to send a taxi our way in an hour, Diane and I strolled through the countryside, each of us contemplating the pastoral scene set against the hills which rose up in green mounds behind the rock fortress. A couple of children herding goats drifted by, and Diane chatted with them while I sat on a flat rock, gazing up at the scintillating sun. Tomorrow we were planning on going to Machu pichu. What would we discover in those ancient ruins, whose history has embodied the essence of Mystery since its recent, twentieth century discovery?
Por Fin, Machu pichu
We took the train to a little town called Aguascalientes, and stayed in the largest youth hostel I have ever seen. It reminded me of a big, cement YMCA dormitory. Because we wanted to beat the tourist buses, Diane and I woke up at dawn and walked the two miles to the ruins, following the railroad tracks and the rising sun.
To be able to walk about in such antiquity alone, accompanied by the silky breath of wind and caressing sun, is an undeniable privilege. Although I’ve been fortunate to visit several pre-Colombian ruins in Latin America, only a few have evoked a strong presence of God. Machu pichu is one such place. Even though I’d read that the city was a sacrificial site where virgins were tossed off Huayna pichu, the jagged mountain that gazes down upon the ruins, I still felt a spiritual pull within. Machu pichu was the perfect place to contemplate the whys and the hows of my very presence in Peru. I knew that my role as Winnie’s messenger to her son was only a pretext, a reason for looking at my own shakey relationship with family. Why, for instance, had I decided to come to Ecuador in the first place? Did my psyche require thousands of miles to feel safe from their understated critiques of who I was? When I sayed at the Santa Clara pension in Quito I frequently met young people who traveled all over South American, accumulating one amazing experience after another, stories of risk and danger and admirable feats. Was I destined to be such a person? More importantly, is this where I wished to place my fragile self-esteem, seeking the approval my family would never render in the admiring eyes of a more pubic “family”?
At one point I went directly to the most sacred area of the site, which was a kind of altar/sun dial, and, ignoring the knotty rope that warned tourists not to approach any further, I sat down in the center. I did this not because I was trying to be funny or rebellious, but because an unfathomable force drew me to its core. It was as if I had been asked to enter into a prayer.
“Well, are we going to do it?” I asked Diane, as we both gazed up at the towering Huayna pichu.
“Corinne, how can we not try and climb that mountain? I mean, y’all know if we don’t, we’d always wonder what it would be like to stand at the top.” I looked at Diane with open admiration. She’d already explained to me about the weakness of her lungs, due to her mother’s history of smoking while she was pregnant. The fact that she was so willing to attempt the climb inspired me greatly. I already knew that part of the trip entailed holding onto swaying ropes as you pulled yourself up the steep side of the mountain.
“Vamanos! “ I exclaimed, and we set off to climb Huayna pichu. To this day, I am grateful for the adventuresome spirit of my colleague. One of my most cherished photographs is of the two of us, grinning as we sit on the edge of that great mountain. I am wearing and a red and white striped t-shirt, as well as a black felt hat, typical of the Andean natives, with a colorful band circling the rounded top. Diane has a luminous smile that seems to stretch clear across the photo.
We took the train back to Cuzco that evening, and arrived to the Altiplano Holel exhausted but content. I didn’t once think of Miguel Ángel during the two days, except to acknowledge, with some surprise, that he didn’t make an appearance. However, after one more day in Cuzco, I began to think about him with renewed interest.
Sunday, November 14, 2010
Lord of the Earthquake
Because we were traveling during Semana Santa, or Holy Week, Cuzco was brimming with festivities. One surprising occurrence was the desfile for the Lord of the Earthquakes, a very ancient procesión that sat dearly in the hearts of the native people. I found it odd yet significant that the Black Christ statue, which was carried by solemn clergy, was preceded by a military band, and the mayor of Cuzco. Soldiers marched briskly at the end of the procession. The narrow sidewalks were crowded with human figures, straining to watch the parade, and the streets themselves were decorated with vibrant Easter scenes, spectacularly designed using flower petals and colored sawdust. So intense was this particular celebration that when I needed to cross the street, people elbowed me disapprovingly for my interruption. It wasn’t until later that I realized Cuzco was notorious for having frequent earthquakes. In fact, a month after I left the city, an enormous quake destroyed much of the downtown area.
As I watched the passion of Christ being enacted with such personal investment, I found myself thinking about how mystery contains an element of danger, created by the very act of not knowing what’s to come; intrigues, and sudden twists to events, like an unknown man coming towards you out of a blanket of fog, calling your name. What unexpected scenarios had yet to unfold, in this mountain city, bursting with the colorful native dress of the Peruvian indigenas, and the languid stroll of llamas carrying firewood down narrow callejones?
One morning Diane and I decided to take a tour of the Valle Sagrado,
a circular route around Cuzco that included several pre-Incan ruins and small villages. Fortunately, we had a native guide, who told us leyendas and histories of the Inca people that weren’t found in traditional textbooks. With animated gestures, short, stocky Dona Julia informed us that the ancient Inca lived with their prospective partner for a full year before getting married. During this trial period, the woman drank a special tea, which prevented her from getting pregnant. Another informative story about Inca traditions was their dependency upon quinoa, a grain which can be found in health food stores today. Quinoa is an excellent source of protein, our guide stated, and tradition held that after seeing how tall and strong the Inca were, the Spanish forbade them from growing the grain. As a result, their health greatly deteriorated. Though I found her stories captivating, I wasn’t convinced about the source of Dona Julia’s information.
True to the series of serendipitous meetings we’d had with Guajiro, the very minute we stepped out of the van in the tiny village of Pisac, we noticed Miguel Ángel crossing the street with a young girl whose luxurious black hair rippled in the brilliant Andean sun.
“Now this is definitely getting to be strange, Diane. I mean, we are forty minutes outside of Cuzco! “ She agreed, her light brown eyes widening in disbelief. And as we entered the Rincon de la Inca for our group luncheon, I began to remember, not without some trepidation, the numerous dreams that had been haunting my sleep….dreams about Miguel Ángel.
Every night I was plagued by surrealistic images rattling my psyche. In one dream Miguel Ángel appeared deformed, like a shrunken, dwarf-like creature, flanked by both parents. With tense faces, his mother and father were speaking but Miguel Angel acted as if they weren’t present. In another dream Winnie appeared and spoke to me. “This is my son, Corina, “ she stated solemnly as she gestured toward Miguel ÁngeI. I woke up, unable to fall asleep for hours.
Thus, the Mystery became a painful, rather incomprehensible burden, as well as a spiritual mission. How was I to convince Winnie’s son to return to the safety of his family? For it became more and more obvious that all was not well in the world of Miguel Ángel. For one thing, he seemed to incorporate the essence of his nickname, ubiquitously appearing in every corner of Cuzco and the surrounding area, shifting from one place to another like the restless wind that swept through the cobblestone streets. He was a drifter, someone who yearned for his center, his eje, to give him future direction. Then one afternoon Miguel Angel offered to take Diane and I to the great ruins on the edge of the city, Sacsayhuaman. We rode in a taxi, Miguel Ángel in front, and Diane and I sitting in the back. This time he wasn’t asking for any monetary remuneration for his services. Instead, he kept turning around, and talking to me, with great agitation, about the ring.
“Do you know the history of this ring? Did you know my mother took it from me, without my permission? She just smiled, and took it from my finger!”
His crystal blue eyes lit up, as he searched for an explanation. “Why has this ring come back to me now? Why did my brother send it with you? Why now, Corina?”
I looked at his anxious face, noting for the first time the hollowed cheeks and thin lines creasing his eyes
“I don’t know,” I replied, with some passion of my own. “Truly I don’t, but maybe it has something to do with your family wanting you to return.”
Miguel Angel paused for a moment, his eyes drifting.
“How much would you pay me for this ring, Corina?”
“What!” I exclaimed, just as the taxista swerved over a large bump in the road.
“Miguel Ángel, I don’t want to buy your ring. Why are you asking me this?”
Seeing my distress, he quickly changed the subject.
“Look—there are the stones!” We followed his gaze, and saw a row of immense boulders that stood like mammoth, prehistoric beings, waiting for our arrival.
Friday, November 12, 2010
I continue to publish the excerpts of my cuentito, without knowing if anyone is really reading it, let alone enjoying the story! The Andes and Miguel Angel move forward in narration.....
A mist began to hover in the air, blurring the stars as we quickly headed toward the centro. Diane wanted to have a bite to eat before we returned to our hotel, and I agreed. During my conversation with Rodrigo, I’d noticed that the ring was starting to work its way out of the envelope. Worried, I carefully removed the ring and examined it with interest. Etched with strange figures of animals and people, the thick silver band exuded a primitive yet appealing energy. After placing it on my index finger, and carefully folding the paper into my jean pocket, I followed Diane into the Casa Café, a restaurant she’d picked for our evening meal.
Because of Peter Jackson’s masterful rendition of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, there’s hardly a person alive who doesn’t relate to the magical quality of a ring which can save—or destroy-- the world. In 1986, though I’d read all of Tolkien’s work, the sensational act of delivering a ring to its rightful owner had not quite made an impact. In fact, it took an hour or two before I felt the effects of carrying a piece of unknown history on my finger.
Whereas I never would have used the word “precious” to describe the piece of jewelry, I do recall becoming rather fond of how it looked on my right hand. Something inside of me began to rumble, and here is where my confession enters into the forum. In plain words, I wanted to keep the ring.
“You know, Diane,” I started up as we paid our bill, “I wouldn’t mind having a ring like this.”
She looked at me strangely, then peered at my hand.
“Corinne,” she stated firmly, “y’all need to remember what Winnie said about Cuzco—you know, that quest for her son? “
I nodded vaguely, and we stepped into the drizzling fog, which had dampened Cuzco. Bending our heads while we maneuvered on the cobblestone street toward the hotel, Diana and I forgot about the ring until we spied a dark figure emerging from the silver mist, about 20 feet away.
“Corina! Corina!” shouted a low voice. We immediately halted.
“Who in God’s name is calling out my name!” I hissed. “This is really scary...Let’s get out of here!”
But the man continued toward us, and uttered with urgency, ”It’s me, Rodrigo! Mira, Corina, Miguel Ángel is over there!” He pointed toward our right, where a man stood about twenty feet away, waiting in silent expectation. The elusive wind had finally arrived.
First Encounter with Guajiro
He stepped toward us into the dancing light of a swinging farol, and I gasped. In my mind I had imagined some scruffy bohemian who wore ponchos and huaraches, but before me stood a Greek God: light-skinned, high cheekbones, with glistening black curls framing his profoundly blue eyes, Miguel Ángel possessed the faun-like beauty of his sister, Reyna, whom I had met in Lima. And he wasn’t wearing a poncho, but a knee-length, dark wool coat, which made the mystery as compelling as an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Caught up in our nocturnal liaison, I raised my arm with my right hand facing his eyes, and dramatically asked, “Do you remember this, Miguel Ángel?”
He stopped suddenly, and with a catch in my heart, I realized he was about to turn and leave. Then he saw the ring on my finger.
“Your mother sent it with me from Lima. My name’s Corinne, and this is Diane. Can we talk in the café over there?”
Miguel Ángel listened politely as I explained the purpose of my visit. What surprised me most about his reaction was a pronounced disinterest in talking about his family. He simply wanted to take the ring and leave. He didn’t even glance at the letter his mother sent.
“I can’t believe that he didn’t give me a message for his mother,” I complained to Diane once we got settled back into our quarters at the hotel. “What’s with this guy?”
“Maybe he’s depressed. Or maybe he needs time to think things through,” she suggested.
I considered Diane’s comment for a few seconds, and concluded, “Yes, but he doesn’t even know where to find us! He never asked where we were staying!”
My concern did not prove to be the least bit problematic. For the next five days we ran into Miguel Ángel everywhere we went. If I decided I needed a cappuccino pick-up, I would walk into a café and there he’d be sitting, reading a newspaper. Sometimes all we did was turn the corner and we’d see Miguel Ángel walking toward us from the other direction. Soon he began to be friendlier, saying a few things other than the standard “Buenos dias” or “Que tal”. With each succeeding encounter, Miguel Ángel lowered his defensive stance, until one afternoon he took us to an artesania store which a friend of his owned. At first I was happy because he appeared so anxious to show us the store. When I realized he was trying to get a commission from his friend for a sale, I felt differently. After all, I was a friend of the family. His scheming left me feeling as if he were taking advantage of me. But then, I had yet to glimpse the true nature of Miguel Ángel.
Saturday, November 6, 2010
Cuzco, City of the Incas
When you first fly into Cuzco, the red rooftops of the low houses engage you in visual delight. The semi-round tiles are a dusky red, and form cock-eyed patterns. Arriving by plane to Cuzco, with the mist still gently hanging in the gray morning sky, is like landing into a fairytale city.
After living in Quito, which is 9,000 feet high, I thought my body had adjusted to high altitudes. However, one can easily forget the magnitude of the Andes Mountains. In some mining towns in Peru, the workers’ blood actually turns blue, because of the dazzling height of the Andes. During my year in Quito, my period stopped coming for months at a time. Now, after landing in Cuzco, I had another shock. The altitude was at least 11,000 feet, and the effect was staggering. After Diane and I located a hotel, the proprietor insisted that we partake of some special tea in the small restaurant next door.
“It is made from the cocoa leaves, but don’t be concerned about it being like a drug. The Incas have used this tea for centuries, to help them adjust to such extreme heights.”
Feeling quite light-headed, we took his suggestion seriously. Afterward we returned to our rooms to unpack and rest. By then Diane had heard all about my quest to find Winnie’s son in Cuzco.
“I just can’t believe this story. Ya’ll are like some messenger out of a detective novel.” Diane was from Mississippi, and her southern accent drawled attractively. “When do we go to that hotel where Winnie thought her son might be staying?”
I was lying on my bed, staring at the ceiling. The last two days had been intense, and I just wanted to think things through a bit. Diane was sweet but younger and more energetic than me. “I say let’s rest some, then eat. After that I’ll be ready to look for Miguel Angel.” And then I quickly fell asleep.
Cuzco or Cusco?
Cuzco is as captivating as the travel books claim. Once the ancient capital of the Incas, the city retains several Incan structures, built with irregular blocks of stones that fit so tightly together one is urged to trace the thin lines where they conjoin. Earthquakes are frequent in the Andes, and when they occur in Cuzco, it is a known fact that the buildings which still possess Inca walls miraculously stand firm while the more modern structures collapse. Upon his discovery of the marvelous city, Francisco Pizarro is known to have written to the king about how remarkable Cusco’s architecture was. Today more than 300,000 people live in the city, which is now officially spelled Cusco, not Cuzco—though both are commonly used.
What was most remarkable to me about the city, however, was the food. Back in Quito the basic cuisine consisted of either ceviche or huge plates of rice with bits of meat and vegetables tossed in. Here in Cuzco the Europeans had left their mark, with meatier dishes and bakeries that sold scrumptious tarts, croissants, and pies topped with tasty whipped cream. Diane and I happily dined at a corner restaurant after our afternoon snooze, and then decided to look up the elusive Miguel Angel.
The first place we checked was the hotel address that Winnie had given to me, which was near the centro. The attendant at the desk stared at us for a short moment, repeating Miguel Angel’s name, until suddenly his eyes lit up.
“Ahora entiendo. Miguel Angel es Guajiro! Este chavo no ha estado aquí desde hace meses. Si quieren ustedes encontrar Guajiro, pues, deben irse al zocalo. A lo mejor esta alli, tocando su churango.” The man began to chortle bizarrely.
“What did he say?” asked Diane, who didn’t understand much Spanish.
“Well, he said that Miguel Angel hadn’t been here for months, and that he goes by this Quechua name, Guajiro, which means the wind.” I began to giggle myself, reflecting on how we were trying to catch the wind in Cuzco. “And then he told us to go the zocalo, because that is where Miguel hangs out, playing his churango.”
“What’s a churango?”
“It’s a small stringed instrument, like a tenor guitar, only the back is an armadillo shell.”
“Yes, really. Let’s go, Diane. Maybe we can catch the wind playing a concert in the zocalo.”
The Mystery Begins
I had no idea what Miguel Ángel looked like, and there wasn’t anyone playing music in the zocalo that afternoon.
“Let’s go to the pena Winnie was telling you about. You know, the one with the strange name,” suggested Diane.
“Good idea. Let’s see, it was called the Kamikaze. Who would have thought in the middle of the Andes there’d be a bar with a Japanese name for World War II suicide pilots!”
After inquiring about the Kamikaze’s location, we found ourselves climbing the steps of a building that looked like it should have been standing in the middle of the jungle. The bar appeared to be made from bamboo sticks, and sat on five-foot stilts. By the time we climbed two sets of stairs and got inside, I was already tired. Towards the back of a large room, some musicians were setting the stage with their instruments.
“Hey, maybe that’s him!” I exclaimed, pointing at one of the men with long, wavy hair. “Con permiso, pero quisiera saber si usted conoce a un músico quien se llama Miguel Ángel, de Lima. Su madre le mando una carta.” I held up the envelope to show the young man Winnie’s letter with the ring inside.
“Buenas tardes,” began the young man, reminding me of how I’d forgotten my manners.
“Buenas tardes,” I returned, a bit chagrined. “Bueno..yo”
The man quickly switched to English and extended his hand. “My name is Rodrigo. Nice to meet you. Sure, I know Miguel Angel. He’s not here at the moment, but I believe if you come later, like around 11 tonight, you may find him. Sometimes he plays during intermissions.”
“My name’s Corina, and this is Diana. Thanks so much, Rodrigo. Does he play every night?”
“Well, I am not sure about that. But come! My band is called El Tribu.”
We agreed to come the next day, and thanked Rodrigo, shaking his hand once more.
“Well, at least we know he’s still in Cuzco,” commented Diane. “and it seems he’s graduated. Instead of the zocalo, he’s playing in a bar! Hey, changing the subject, that Rodrigo seemed like he was pretty interested in you, Corina.”
I had noticed the same thing. Though Rodrigo was quite attractive and notably polite, I had no intention of starting a romance in Cuzco. Diane and I walked out into the cool, Andean dusk just as the stars snuck out, dressed in crystal splendor. Inhaling the crisp, mountain air infused with smoky smells of distant fires, I thought of Winnie and her urgent words. Though the Andean night reached out with seductive arms, only one thing was clear. I had to find Miguel Angel.
Tuesday, November 2, 2010
It Begins in Miraflores, a Colonia of Lima
I flew into Lima during the evening, which was tricky as there was an
11 p.m. curfew due to the tense political situation. Fortunately, my flight arrived before 9 p.m. After I reached the bed and breakfast, Winnie’s husband had to return to the airport to pick up another couple whose flight arrived around 10 p.m. As Winnie and I became somewhat acquainted over a cup of tea, I noticed her fidgeting while she continually glanced at her watch.
“What’s wrong, Winnie?” I inquired.
“My husband should have been here by now. I’m concerned that the flight may have been late and he may not be able to make it home before the 11 o’clock curfew.”
“What happens if he doesn’t?”
“The military police can shoot him,” she answered in a flat tone of voice. “And the others, too,” she added. Rising from her chair abruptly, she grabbed a large piece of white cloth on a table near the door.
“Where are you going, Winnie?” I asked in an alarmed voice. It appeared that she was headed toward her car.
“I am going to wave this white cloth out my car window and try to intercept my husband and our guests. If the military police see the white flag, they hopefully won’t shoot.”
“Oh, my,” I replied quietly, not knowing quite what to say. “Well, good luck. I hope that it works.”
Winnie’s plan to rescue her husband and the new guests did work, though the intensity of that evening left everyone involved exhausted. If I had imagined a peaceful vacation away from the turmoil of Colegio Americano politics, my first evening in Lima eliminated any such ideas. Then again, who wants peacefulness when Mystery is patiently awaiting the arrival of your young heart?
The Prodigal Son
After staying only one night, I became acquainted with Winnie’s unique family, particularly her children. Reyna was a flight attendant for Aero-Peru, and she happened to be at the house for a few days between international flights. Tall, fair-skinned, with dazzling curls framing her high-cheekbones, Reyna was a classic beauty who obviously favored the English side of the family. One of Winnie’s sons, Eduardo, dropped by vicariously to chat with the family. He owned a natural foods restaurant with his wife, Maria. Francisco, another of her sons, was away studying at a university in Argentina. However, it was Winnie’s eldest child, Miguel Angel, who most fascinated me. Although he wasn’t in Lima, the manner in which family conversations hovered furtively around his supposed disappearance was notable.
“He left his wife and children in Lima about a year ago,” Winnie informed me as we sipped our Earl Grey tea. “Before that, he left a woman and child in Spain.” She paused a moment, and looked out the window behind me. “He told us he was going to Cuzco, but I haven’t heard from him for almost a year. The last we knew he was playing in a musical group at a local pena. Do you know what a pena is, Corina?”
“I’ve been to a few of them in Ecuador. They play folk instruments and start rather late at night, don’t they? Sometimes there’s poetry, but I’ve only heard the music. Is Miguel Angel a good musician?”
“He’s maravilloso! Mi hijo is so talented, but Corina, I have a favor to ask of you.”
Then she handed me a thin, white envelope, and told me a very strange tale.
The History of the Silver Ring
I have always thought that my two weeks in Cuzco was like a Gothic tale gone Latino, with me playing a reluctant Catherine to Miguel Angel’s turbulent
Heathcliff. As I stood there, Winnie proceeded with her story about an antique silver band that was sealed inside the envelope. Apparently Miguel Angel had first purchased the ring at a flea market in Cuzco as a gift for his novia. According to Winnie, the ring had some special attraction, apart from the mysterious figures carved all around the band. In fact, when Miguel Angel began to wear the ring, having long forgotten about the novia, one day she simply took it from him.
“¿Por que me llevaste el anillo?” he asked her, a little indignantly.
“Porque me gusta,” she answered with a coaxing smile. And from that point on, the silver ring stayed on Winnie’s slim, white index finger.
That is until her other son decided to study at a Trappist monastery in Argentina.
“This was truly a strange experience for me,” Winnie continued. “I had always wanted one of my sons to become a priest, and was so proud of Francisco.” Her face was beaming as she described how her son came to study in Argentina. “So, when Francisco got ready to leave, I asked him what he would like as a present. And he said that he wanted the ring. This puzzled me, as I never considered my son to be very materialistic. However, I went to my bedroom and returned with the ruby ring, which is a family heirloom. Francisco looked at the ring and laughed. ‘No, Mami, not the ruby,” he said. ‘I want that ring!’ And then he pointed to the silver ring on my finger.” Winnie’s face became dreamy, as she drifted into some private place within. “I just don’t understand it. Miguel Angel asked his brother to give him back that ring for years, and he always refused.. Now, all of a sudden, Francisco has sent it to me, to be returned to his brother. And I don’t even know where he is!” She snapped back into the present, and grabbed my hands. “ I don’t know why, but this ring is important, Corinne. I put it in this envelope, sealed, but should it come open, you must please promise to put the ring on your own finger. And bring it back if you don’t find my son. But I pray that you do because I am worried sick!”
I stood there, looking at Winnie’s beautiful face—she had dark brown hair, with a reddish tint, and clear skin lightly sprinkled with freckles. But it was her eyes that held my attention. Winne’s preoccupation for her son was emanating straight from her heart into those lovely, sapphire eyes, pleading with me to take on this serious mission. In that moment, the Mystery, which had been waiting patiently since the moment I stepped foot in Lima, won me over: my path was set.