Beneath Southern Skies Part VIII: De estar, or no estar?
I’ve been a traveler before, and doubtless I’ll be a traveler again. At this juncture in my South American walkabout, I’ve come to the realization that I’m not exactly traveling anymore—I’m living. Some time ago, living in India, a fellow wanderer told me that three months is a particularly significant marker in the wanderer’s almanac: when we have been three months in a place instinctively we begin to consider putting down roots or lifting our skirts to carry on. At three months, homesickness has either become unbearable or attached itself to one’s new homestead and the idea of leaving no longer flutters at the edges of our mind. Perhaps it has to do with the seasons still embedded somewhere in our ancient brain; three months is a quarter of a year, and if you belong to a place of seasons, it is a time of habitual change. Hailing from North America, I still feel the seasons strongly in every fiber and sinew of my body, though there is no bellwether of their coming and passing in the high Andes, only a persistent heat during the day and cold during the night interrupted only by the annual arrival of the rainy season.
I’ve been in Peru four months now, and foremost in my mind every day is a recycling evaluation of my stasis or my flight. I have routines now, in my work with Q’ente and my own rounds, I know Cusco’s every nook and cranny, and I run into people I know on the streets nearly every day (Cusco is unimaginably tiny, both geographically and socially). The familiarity is something of a refuge from the far cry this world is from my own, and knowing that I’ve worked long at developing it makes me hesitant to renounce it. But I am also someone who thrives on novelty, which keeps the fire of my inspiration kindled. And so my mind is never made up; or it is, one minute, and the next sways the other way.
I am reminded of my immeasurably wise Swiss grandmother and her Swiss orderliness on the weekends that I spend in the country house in Huaran when I am in the Sacred Valley, with its prim garden of roses and lilies and fruit trees whose seasons I can never quite grasp. The house is even a bit like a chalet, and the dramatic contours of the mountains certainly spectacular compared against any. It is Peru’s smells more than any other sense that bring me back to home; sometimes the air smells sharp and clean (away from Cusco of course), and I’m back by the great blue expanse of Lake Tahoe in the summertime. The smell of incense on a busy street brings me sharply back to the steep streets of the jungly Himalayas on which perches Dharamsala, where I lived a summer among the Dalai Lama’s monks in conviviality beneath the monsoons. The smell of rustic village latrines even makes me happily nostalgic for India!
And although I cannot realize now, there is a mine of smells and feels gathering in my brain that will someday make me wistful for Peru. Children, I think, will come to remind me of Peru, because they are a fairly significant presence in the demographic here (what with Latin America’s high birth rates, visibly evident) and because I have very personal relationships with 17 second-graders (from teaching English). I think that I spend more time involved in my relationships with each of these sunbeams than with other adults actually, and they figure frequently in my dreams and my thoughts. Textiles of course; and evening sun fading in dreamy colors down the mountains; and braids – which in pairs adorn every head of hair here; and the sound of flutes; and that classically Latin American architecture of bright white plaster and cool blues: stone cathedrals, porticos and balustrades, tiny, ancient and ornate balconies. The elegantly and orderly terraced hillsides of the Incas, sometimes still in use; tidy little shingled houses dotting the valley; the particularly moss-frosted cliffs that rise gently up from the fields and reign peacefully over the Sacred Valley. I only know the visions now, but years from now the memories of this place will have settled into the form of feelings when I can no longer picture it all. It will be a feeling of ancientness that presides even over the smoggy city jumble that is my barrio of Cusco, the same authority that has allowed it to endure the centuries etching it as fiercely in my mind’s eye and memory.