Venturing Out of Lima

If movies and books are a way to escape, or to travel, then how does it work when you find yourself actually travelling, actually escaping? This weekend was my first venture outside of the city, to Chosica, a neighborhood of Lima one hour away, where my compañera PUCP Lesly lives (a PUCP student matched with exchange students to help with the transition). We met up, had lunch with her mother and sister and received a short tour of the lovely (and notably sunny) town and then off we went, further into the hills, to San Pedro de Casta. Here we planned to hike to the mysterious site of Marcahuasi, where rocks shaped like human faces and llamas are dispersed among amphitheaters of towering stone walls that seem to be covered with dripping paint.

Most of the time I make sense of the world through the lens of the book I’m reading, music I’m listening to, or movie I recently watched. Naturally, then, it was the stories of Jorges Luis Borges and Juan Rulfo, the current authors I’m learning about in my Spanish literature class, that so inspired a strong feeling of deja vu to my weekend.

Borges and Rulfo are known for their dreamlike labyrinths that give time and space new meanings outside of the typical single direction timeline of our lives. These stories developed a deeper relation to my life as I brought the weight of memories along for the hike, across the highway, and into my dreams. For the first time in my life, I wondered if perhaps I will eventually be content in one place— I experienced the unfamiliar feeling that that not everything was new. Instead it felt as if I was in many places at once, like my present was here to remind me of my past. I found myself in some strange labyrinth of time, just like those that Borges creates in his short stories.

The faces and memories of my past floated in my head as I hiked up to Marcahuasi with four other gringos, (the Peruvian word for foreigners, especially Americans) passing the endless stream of hired burros and their handlers toting tourists tents and backpacks up, and then back down, each and every day.  The repetitiveness of the village life mirrored the circular thoughts in my mind. English, French, Spanish, and German tourists all hop out of a bus, rent tents, sleeping bags, burros, climb up to the top, eat food, make a bonfire, descend, and then hop on a bus that minutes before unloaded a new batch of tourists—and so the people in San Pedro obligingly start the process all over again. Tourism is a curse and a blessing all at once, I’m sure, as was evident from the piles of garbage and water bottles drifting in the wind at the top and sporadically littering the trail down, as well as the hundreds of soles passed from tourist to villager daily for food and accommodation.

The first night we heard the sound of a band drifting through the crisp starry night. We found ourselves following the notes through the town of rectangular mud houses, sleeping dogs, and grazing burros until a villager pointed us up a staircase to where an assembly of villagers and a few gringos sat in a circle around a brass band. Little children in warm hats and dresses played nearby or sat like a koala on their parent’s backs, wrapped in a striped blanket. The adults passed around a cup of wine, all of them dressed in a strange mix of traditional and modern clothes and that peculiar Peruvian hat, and slowly bounced to a familiar four-step dance. Gringos could be seen obligingly joining in, their foreign status painfully obvious but as always inevitable. It was a feriado, or holiday, this weekend, celebrating Santa Rosa, and throughout the two days in San Pedro de Casta our group would hear that same song drifting through the hills again and again, at times hilarious (as when we finished our hike full of happy adrenaline) and at other times somewhat creepy and haunting (as when we joked that this music would be the backdrop to a nightmare).

In the village and among the hills I saw strong similarities to Nepal. The characters that especially stick with me are the older women, the ancianos, with their amiable wrinkled faces and dark, hidden eyes, long hair pulled back into a braid, and clothes that seem to be part of them, worn and creased like they’ve never been taken off. Their presence can only be described as deliberate—always cooking, hunched sitting or squatting in their small kitchen space, only an arms length away from the fire or clay stove, a pot full of water boiling for rice. They peel potatoes deftly, without looking, reaching for onions in this container, a pinch of spice in that bag. In this place where they spend their days there is a heavy sense of circular time. These women, whether in Nepal or across the world in Peru, share the same routine—cooking for the endless mouths they are destined to feed with impossible patience. These women embody the word wisdom in every way.

While hiking I felt like I was a character in Into the Wild or The Loneliest Planet, searching for meaning among the great space of the outdoors, the soundtracks of these movies running through my head on repeat. I was also brought back to my summer in Glacier National Park, and with each new switchback in the trail felt like I was right back on my favorite hike, Siyeh Pass, singing off-key to keep the grizzly bears away. The people I hiked with in the past were ghosts at my side.

The circle of my Marcahuasi trip was completed with that same song floating up from the roofs of the village as we descended after a sleepless and cold night in thin rented sleeping bags. We hopped another bus and bumped through the dusty roads, used to the feeling of being a foot away from the precarious edge, to Chosica, where we again ran into Lesly. Another bus, another step down to Plaza Bolognesi, another whirlwind combi home along Avenida Brasil, passing the colonial architecture of the center of Lima and then houses and the Magdalena market, the buildings all covered with graffiti and restaurants signs advertising with the same menu. Another shower to rid me of the visible layer of dust that accumulated during the ride, and with that, sleep. Upon waking the dreams floating in my mind didn’t seem all that different from reality, where everything sometimes feels connected and impossibly intertwined in a web of repetitive time. Borges and Rulfo have certainly had their impact. The circle was completed when I closed the door behind me the next morning with my bag on my shoulder, a coin pouch in my pocket, and the familiarity of my morning route to the bus stop guiding my feet effortlessly.

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