Peru Revisited

I wrote a novel in 2007 based on a trip I took to Peru in 2002. The country had intrigued me; emerging from a revolution that had recently ended and that still showed traces in bombed-out buildings, the underlying vein of poverty that intruded despite the bright colours of the clothes and ponchos worn by locals, the daunting heights of the Andes and the threat of altitude sickness that lurked with every painful step along the rugged Inca trail, and the magnificent ruin that awaited us at the end of the road: Machu Picchu. There were unpleasant sights too: favelas that encroached on historic ruins, one civilization threatening another even in the 21st century, like the Inca had done with their predecessors, or the Spanish with the Inca later on; traffic chaos resulting from urban drift and from traffic signals that were rarely obeyed; pickpockets in the Plazas de Armas in the major cities. An interesting country in which to set a novel, and I did.

My novel languished for years, enduring several critical beta readers and many re-writes, biding its time to be born. And that time arrived when it was finally selected for publication in the fall of 2015. Wondering whether my image of the country still held true, I returned to Peru last month for some final fact-checking. I’m glad I did.

Gone were the green-uniformed money changers who hung about the streets of the capital, gone too were their counterparts, prostitutes looking for a gringo tourist, to relieve him of his stress and his newly exchanged Sol. Gone were the bombed-out buildings, replaced by a condo-construction frenzy to accommodate a burgeoning middle class. Even my former hotel was boarded up and slated for demolition to make way for a more modern building. New parks and stadiums had sprung up, and there were traffic policewomen (women were considered more honest than men) to supplement enforcement at road intersections. And yet there was still the “donkey belly sky” over Lima, the traffic was denser, and the politics looser, but the crowds walked with a more confident step as 75% of the Limenos (residents of Lima) were now entrepreneurs, and the poverty ridden class had shrunk from 75% to 25% . A mining boom and better relationships with developed nations were being attributed to the economic uptick that had begun in 2005, and, despite one-off slumps, showed no signs of abating.

In the Andes, a similar building boom was underway. Cusco had doubled in size with new construction climbing the walls of the valley of the former Inca capital. The smattering of shacks on either side of a railway line that had been the gateway to Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes, was now spreading out in all directions, around the swollen Urubamba River. Towns along the Sacred Valley were littered with similar works-in-progress: buildings with their second or third floors incomplete. Considering that the Inca took over a hundred years to complete some of their structures by quarrying large stones and interlocking them through feats of great strength and patience, this state of incompleteness in the modern Peru looked appropriate. At least, the modern Peruvians were extending existing dwellings and not stamping out the old in favour of the new  as their Inca and Spanish predecessors had done to assert that “Might was Right.”

And as for my novel, it will remain rooted in the Old Peru with only some details corrected in light of my recent fact-checking. Like the Inca story, it will be a part of the history that Peru needs to preserve as it rushes headlong into progress with other developing nations, as if grabbing for lost time. And yet the timelessness of its old story is the most endearing attraction and the mark of character of that country in a world that is moving towards homogeneity in this era of global sameness.

Looking Beyond

The waters are calm when looking over the ocean from the battlements of the Fort that guards the entrance of the harbour at Santiago de Cuba. Off to the right over the horizon lies Jamaica in the sun, and to the left is Haiti in its destruction, while down below, in 1898, the Spanish galleons had come out in single file, like innocent sheep, only to be sunk by American warships lying in wait outside the mouth of the harbour. This fort is a vantage point of history, recent and past, representing the beauty and horrors of life. I could not see any of this at street level. “Look beyond,” my wise teachers and mentors had told me, “and you will find vistas never seen before.” I was reminded of their words while sitting up there in those battlements.

I wrote the paragraph above while touring Santiago de Cuba with a group of Canadian writers recently. There were many such set pieces that I captured on paper in this land that seems to be frozen in time, reminding me of what life was like when I was growing up in a tropical island somewhere else in the world, where scarcities had been a fact of life, where the developed world was out there somewhere, a place impossible for us forgotten ones to get to. I remember climbing the giant Jam tree in the front yard of our family home, perching myself in its highest branches and looking out over the paddy fields, watching the planes fly overhead and wondering when it would be my turn to fly away.

Over the years, by a combination of looking beyond, being dissatisfied with the status quo, striving, and luck (isn’t luck the product of hard work?) I seemed to have swapped places with those fat•cat tourists who used to come to my island home and dole out money as if there was no end to the flow. In Cuba, this time around, it was my turn to dish out the pesos, while the locals looked on in anticipation. I wanted to tell them not to be fooled, that there was a finite end to this supply of money; that even in rich countries like Canada, bounty came from hard work, and that jobs could end with a small downslide of the stock market ticker. But what did they know about stock market tickers? All they knew was that they worked hard too, but did not have the money to show for it, so according to them, we must have some other unknown secret. It’s because of freedom and private enterprise, I wanted to say, but being a man following the Middle Way, I did not want to be a poster boy for Capitalism.

I did not know what to tell these islanders, and returned from my trip somewhat frustrated. In retrospect, I should have told them to go to a Fort•like place and look beyond, look to the sunshine and destruction in lands beyond, look at the world with all its possibilities, good and bad, and pick a spot to play, beyond one’s comfort zone. Perhaps that was the only way out beyond scarcity and insularity, the path towards growth, and towards finding breakthrough solutions beyond the “tried and true” that provide only marginal returns and keeps one like the unenlightened frog, forever circling in the slow•boiling cauldron.