AN OPEN WINDOW: PERU
The bus ascends from the Sacred Valley, leaving the green river-waters of the Urubamba and the desert mountains of the red-rocked Andes behind. I look out the closed window and the bus takes a sharp turn; I feel my knuckles turn white as my hand grips the handle on the seat in front of me.
The bus has all the amenities of western culture—running water, fluorescent lights, overhead storage, polyester seats, air conditioning, and a DVD player. I feel the rumble of the tires beneath my feet as the bus rolls through the Third World, and periodically I can hear the hiss of the transmission when the driver lets out the clutch and changes gears. Vrummmmm sssss... vrummmmm sssss.... The noise is comforting to my ears, because it reminds me that I am behind the mirrored glass of the bus; I feel at ease in this little “mobile United States”, traveling through a foreign land of ancient rituals and tongues.
The bus smells of disinfectant and it makes me feel clean. With a smile I go rummaging through my backpack, looking for what is now my fifth bottle of hand sanitizer. I squirt some of the clear jelly onto my palms and rub it in and cup my hands to my nose and inhale deeply, letting the alcoholic fumes clear my sinuses.
The road ends for a moment at each turn around the mountain, only to reappear, and I strain to see around the head in front of me to see if maybe, maybe the road will end at this next turn, but it doesn’t—it keeps going on in its ascent. The young woman next to me doesn’t notice; she has her head in a sketchbook, the sway of the bus guiding her maniacal scribbling of brightly-colored lines.
“How can you draw with this bus on the brink of careening down the side of the mountain and finally exploding in a bloody fireball like cars in James Bond movies?” I finally ask her.
“The chaos adds to the creativity.”
The bus goes on. My knuckles are still white and I close my eyes and nod my head to take me away; I want to let go, sleep, but I can’t.
Then the road straightens; the bus follows through a blasted hill and is born into a golden Andean plateau. Fields of wheat sway in the wind, and I want to stretch my arm out the window, grab a handful of the grain and let it crumple in my hand and take a deep breath of the tangy aroma, letting the flakes slip through my fingers and float away with the breeze—but the window stays closed. In this infinite yellow sea a ruined clay house appears, so comfortable in the fields that it seems not man-made but born of the earth, as if it just sprouted up from the ground like a tree.
Snow-capped mountains surround the plateau—their divine presence watching over their children: the rivers and towns and fields and mines and ruins. I think of the mountains’ eternal quality—their infinite grandeur with the heavenly white glaciers shining in the late afternoon sun.
I feel the bus slow beneath my seat as it approaches a town I can’t pronounce the name of and I see the people of this land for the first time. Some stand watching my bus of gringos, others herd cattle and sheep and donkeys out of the road. Their eyes stare at the ground; straw hats hide their faces, and they each swing a branch back and forth in front of their steps, as if feeling the way home. I don’t know why they do it this way, but this pendulum-like motion hypnotizes me for just a moment, until the livestock clear the road and the bus goes on. I turn to catch one last glimpse but all I see is a fading silhouette of their figures set against the dust cloud kicked up from the bus as it rumbles down the dirt road.
The closed window is my viewing glass—a comfortable separation between the conveniences of my Western culture and their Third World. Through the glass I see the town. I see dirty faces, and dogs so skinny their ribcages cast striped shadows across their bodies in the fading sun. The buildings are of mud and straw and clay, and the white smoke of fires rises into the sky. On one corner sits a local woman in a top hat. She looks up and I think for a moment that our eyes meet, but she probably only sees her own wrinkled face, reflecting off the mirrored glass of the bus. I wonder if she is wondering, in her own way, as I am—wondering about the separation of humanity, of her and my fundamental differences, of the falsity of any idea of the unity of humankind.
Before this trip, I had believed in humanity—humanity as a universal ideal. I believed that race, religion, gender or other cultural barriers that work to divide us were false, and that we, as humans, were all brothers and sisters on the same earth.
But as an impoverished world surrounded me, as I saw the toothless grins and the worn feet and blank faces by the hundreds, as I walked around them with my North Face backpack and Gap Jeans, I realized that the differences among the peoples of our planet can be very real, and so the bus becomes something completely different—a caravan of Western culture with its own set of borders and authority and luxuries. Outside it, the woman spits coca-saturated saliva between her rough feet. She licks her lips. The bus rolls on.
I remember letting go in Europe a year before. Five months of seeing their treasures and I thought I could handle the poverty of South America. I remember playing that image of my cultured youth very well, even preaching how American society was juvenile compared to these nations of old. I thought I was a hardened traveler—rugged, enduring, tenacious, and ambitious. I skied the Swiss Alps, dropped acid in Paris, circumnavigated the Greek islands on a scooter, got chased by a bull in Spain, rioted in Sicily after a soccer match, and urinated off the London Bridge. In Europe, I found life, but in Peru I found fear—fear within myself. So I hold onto the bus-seat handlebar, and I don’t let go. The bus rolls on. The window stays closed.
This crank attitude of mine started to die the moment I stepped off of the airplane and into the city, the moment I saw miles of city blocks filled with crumbling buildings and little Peruvian kids, no older than eight, coming up to me trying to sell past-date gum for a few centimos. They came by the half-dozen, hands extended, patting my jacket. Dirt clogged the pores of their faces, and I swear I saw tears building in the corners of their eyes.
Photo by Jackie Cantwell
At first I did give them money to try and suppress my guilt. When I ran out of cash I gave them my leftover food. The kids smiled and thanked me, and I watched them stuff their faces and lick the box when they finished, waving as they left, happy to have just eaten someone’s leftovers. The food I couldn’t eat was their meal for the night. But as they kept coming at me with their dirty hands and faces I started to hate them, and I ignored them. They looked at me with their glazed eyes and cheerless faces and I wasn’t seeing kids on the street but a scam to get my money—people who needed help became just, to me, parasites. The window stayed closed.
The bus leaves the town in a cloud of dust. The young woman next to me stops drawing but keeps her eyes on the page. “We’re almost there.”
“How do you know?”
She doesn’t answer.
She closes her sketchbook with care and leans her head back against the headrest as the bus comes to a stop. Her dark eyes are framed by horn-rimmed glasses, white on the inside, but black on the outside, matching her hair.
I turn to her. I start, “Do you ever feel, like… like this pressure in your chest, like the world is coming down on you and you just can’t stop thinking so much, till you think you are losing your mind?”
“Hmmm. Sounds like you had one hell of a ride?”
“Yeah, you could say that.”
I follow her as we exit the bus and she waits for me in the dirt road, a concerned look on her face. “Well, to answer your question. Sometimes, yeah, I do. And there is nothing I can say to you make it better, you know. I think it’s just human nature to question. But look around you! Now is not the time to be thinking like that.”
“Yeah, I know, but it’s just, like, is there even one set of human nature? Because I think human natures could be different depending on the environment. I mean, I look at some of the people here, their poverty, and I just feel so different, so disconnected. And I’m ashamed because of it; because I just can’t let go and dive in to the heart of this place—the texture. You know?”
“Shut up or I’m not walking down to the bottom with you.”
I look around and see a painted blue sign with white letters reading “Moray” and my eyes move downwards, looking for where level ground is supposed to be, only to find layers of circular terraces dug hundreds of feet into the earth. At the very bottom I see the yellow, blue, and orange of unfamiliar crops.
Then my bus-mate is off and I follow without saying a word, though feeling comfortable in her presence. She looks back at me. “The Incans used these ruins to grow different types of crops; each layer is exposed to different amounts of sunlight and different temperatures—they were great experimenters, those Incans. The temperature gradient between the top layers and the bottom layers can be as much as 15 degrees Celsius. They bring the water from that glacier over there through a complex system of irrigation canals. Did you know that there are 400 different kinds of corn and 3,500 different types of potatoes here in Peru? No bull!”
“Hey, you should start leading tours. And how is it even possible to grow 3,500 different types of potatoes?”
Photo by Jackie Cantwell
She laughs, and I walk next to her, climbing down each ancient stone terrace, until I stand next to her at the bottom. She lies down on her back and I lie next to her and look up at the terraces. My racing thoughts calm, and for the first time on the trip I feel centered, spiritually and mentally. It’s quiet; only the sound of the wind blowing through the cornstalks reaches my ears. Just as I think I am going to fall asleep my companion gets up and gives me a gentle kick in the side. “Get up. I saw some people playing soccer on one of the other terraces, I want to go watch.”
I groan and climb back up the terraces with her. From a distance I can hear rapid Spanish and scattered cheering. After one last wall the makeshift playing field comes into sight and we sit at a comfortable distance to watch. The players are local, small in stature. They wear stained sweatpants and jeans and dirty shirts and sweaters, but their faces glow in the fading light as they chase the ball. During the game they joke and laugh in Spanish, and I hear also some scattered Quechua from the people on the sidelines. To my ears it sounds ancient: soothing and pure.
My companion shifts in her grassy seat; she looks at me. “Do you play soccer?”
“I played in high school.”
“Cool, I played too. Let’s join the game.”
“No, absolutely not.”
But she is gone—I want to cry out to tell her to stop, because I’m afraid. I don’t, because I’m ashamed that I’m afraid. She approaches four men on the sideline and engages them in Spanish. I think about running toward them, but I stay. I think and hope that the game is for a league and so they definitely won’t let two gringos in on it. And, I think, it’s probably men only, anyway. Because this is a male-dominated society; yeah, they definitely wouldn’t let a woman on the field. But she runs back over to me, smiling, takes off her glasses and puts her hair up. I panic.
“Oh crap,” I complain. “Listen, I’m really out of shape, and this altitude… it’s crazy… I feel out of breath already. Listen to me breathe! I think I’m wheezing. I would totally play but I think I’m going to go back onto the bus. Get some rest, you know?”
She’s ignoring this. “OK. We are good to go. I’m on this team and you’re on that team. Good luck, man.” She grabs my arm and drags me onto the field—the other players laugh and pass the ball around.
“Wait, are you fucking serious? Is this cool? I don’t think they are cool with this. Ow, let go of my arm.”
“Shut up already! All you do is complain about how different you feel when you never even give yourself a chance to change. How do you think you will feel if you don’t step onto the field? For Christ’s sake, grow a pair!”
I know she is right and I join the game. The first ball comes to me and I promptly shank it out of bounds and hang my head and curse this stupid situation. The Andean man playing behind me walks up and says something in Spanish I don’t understand, but he smiles and pats me on the back. The game goes on. The ball comes to me again in midfield; I make a move and beat past two guys. As I run by the sideline they chant Go gringo go! and Look that gringo go! They give me an endearing laugh after I play a ball across the goal. Every time I get the ball the cheers come, and they laugh at me, this foreign giant running among them. After a few minutes I am ready to have a heart attack from lack of oxygen at 12,000 feet and I leave the game, now not from fear, but from utter exhaustion. As I go, they come and shake my hand and wave goodbye. I wave back in thanks and sit with the men on the sideline.
My true opponent comes up a few minutes later and, gasping for breath, takes a seat. “You played well, man. Holy shit, my lungs are going to explode.”
“Yeah, mine still burn like hell too. C’mon, let’s walk, I think the bus is leaving soon.” Eventually I make my way back to the bus and sit on the curb. A few kids on beat-up bikes ride up and sit next to me. I brace myself for begging and dirty hands and sadness but this never comes. They simply sit and chat in Spanish, trying to engage me in conversation, but I don’t understand. So I take out my camera and snap a photo and show it to them. They laugh and fight and joke, over who they think looks the best. So, through a slew of hand-gestures and repetition, they turn to me to judge. I pick the chubby one. The other kids throw up their hands in outrage and cry Dios Mio! But the chubby kid crosses his arms, smiling and nodding his head.
I have to leave them behind and get back on the bus. From my seat I can see the kids on their bikes looking up with confused expressions at the mirrored bus-windows, as if waiting for something. I finally open my window and they wave. I wave back, and out of the corner of my eye I see my great enabler beside me stop drawing and shoot me a quick smile; I try to pretend that I don’t see it.
I feel the bus start beneath my feet, then lurch down the dirt road. A breeze cools my face. The last rays of sunlight disappear behind the Andes. Next to me, horn-rimmed glasses are removed, then a head rests on my shoulder. I soon fall asleep, to the sound of wind blowing past my still-open window.
Photo by Ryan Hechler
fiction poetry "fact" photography