Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Return

I lasted five weeks. I tried, I really did. I tried to be American again. To drive to the overstocked grocery store and pay $5 for a round trip on an organized train system. I enjoyed the blessings of fine international restaurant dining and the company of friends who understand my jokes. I used abundantly my cell phone that doesn’t cost a dollar a minute and drank all the clean tap water I could swallow. I eavesdropped on the conversations of strangers at every possibly opportunity, relishing in the fact that I could understand every word being said. I marveled at the ease of shopping, at not having to go to six different parts of town to purchase the components of one outfit. I threw out my eye drops and breathed [moderately] fresh air. I flipped through every last one of our 6 trillion cable channels and heated 12 different brands of diet microwavable gourmet meals. I [normally] showed up on time for meetings and nearly died of a pleasant shock every time everyone else would do the same.

But despite all my efforts, you will note that I write this blog from Lima, Peru. I came back. I am living in an apartment the size and smell of a gas station bathroom and am currently unemployed and relatively aimless. But life is good. Turns out I don’t mind walking a few miles with 50 pounds of groceries cutting off the blood circulation to my hands. And I actually enjoy a bus system that is 30% tact, 70% luck, and only costs 30 cents a trip. Microwavable meals are severely overrated in comparison to having friends come over and teach you how to cook. Also, I have learned that most conversations are not worth being overheard and that the occasional physical trauma of accidentally ingesting too much tap water in the shower does wonders in keeping me humble.

I’m not sure what’s to become of me. I don’t know what it means that I am equally incapable of fitting into the culture of my childhood and the culture of the country that I am beginning to call home. I don’t know how long I’ll stay here and I don’t know what I’ll do next. But if there’s one thing that I’ve learned in the last year it’s that there is a refreshing glory that can be found when the curtain of ambiguity and anxiety is pulled back to reveal the morning sun, and I intend to thrive in it.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

sometimes i forget

A day is comprised of 86,400 long, abrupt seconds. Each day nestles comfortably between yesterday and tomorrow, like a child sleeping soundly in the bed of his parents. Today knows exactly where it is meant to be. Today knows exactly how much potential it holds.

Anything can happen in a day. Lives are lost and lives are made. People find love in a day, and hearts are broken in a day. A day is enough time to travel half way around the world, and a day is enough time to come home. The certainty of yesterday is often the ambiguity of today and the insanity of tomorrow. Every day our hair gets a little bit longer, our brains a little more crowded, our skin a little rougher. For every minute that passes like a painfully slow eternity, there is another that’s gone before we’ve realized it has started.

My Swatch has garnered complaints from others for the loudness of its tick, but this sound of time reminds me that I’m alive. Each second is a moment I will never live again. It tells me every morning that this day will change my life; that there is no such thing as monotony, only complacency to the majestic beauty that each second, no matter how long or short it may seem, lays before me.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Jean Claude

Today I remembered Jean Claude.

He had wrapped his fingers around the coin I placed in his tiny palm like he feared I would take it back again if I thought too much about it. I smiled and he moved on, continuing to beg down the crowded aisle.

“Do you want something to eat?” I found myself asking after turning around and realizing he had gotten off the bus with me.


“What’s your name?”

“Jean Claude.”

“Ok, Jean Claude. Pleasure to meet you. My name is Alix.” He looked confused. I continued. “What would you like to eat?”

Still confused.

“Alright, how about Kentucky?” We were standing in front of a KFC.

His brow unfurrowed and the bud of a smile began to bloom. I took that as a yes.

He ordered 10 pieces of chicken, a large fry, mashed potatoes, and a salad. What he didn’t eat I made him promise to share with his family.

“My brother needs new shoes.” I knew this was coming. I tried not to listen to the silent story of jaded childhood he was telling behind the darkness of his deep, brown eyes. “And my sister needs pencils. My father has no job. My mother has no bread.” The pink flush peeking through the dirt on his cheeks made the color Red feel honored to be associated with such innocence and beauty.

“Do you have bus money to get home, Jean Claude?”


“Ok, here you go. Goodbye Jean Claude. It was nice to meet you.”

And I walked away. I had to walk away. I could not wardrobe and educate his siblings. I couldn’t ensure that his family always had food on the table, or a roof over their heads. I could only buy him dinner. And learn his name.

I remembered Jean Claude today. And tonight all of the kids who can’t afford costumes or food will come into the center of the city to trick-or-treat for the candy that they will sell on the streets tomorrow.

Happy Halloween.

Friday, October 19, 2007

An Epic Soundtrack for an Ordinary Day

From the moment my electronic music started pulsing into my ears this morning, I knew that today would be a day with a soundtrack.

I left the house in slow motion and crossed the street like the fate of the world rested on my ability to avoid a gruesome death by speeding heavy machinery. I bought coffee and held the warm cup in my hands as though it contained much more than just caffeine and sugar, but rather some mysterious and steaming elixir of life.

I tapped my foot and rocked my shoulders in rhythm as I stood by the side of the road, waiting for the oldest taxi driver I could find who would surely not have the time or energy to rob me. This ordinary game took on a new life as I let the music tell me which car to chose. Loud ominous thumping sounds= no. Happy, floating trance-inducing melody= this is the viejito for me.

Knowing that there was nowhere else in the world I was supposed to be and no task more important than that which lay before me, I asked the taxi driver to drop me off at the Peruvian National Archaeological Museum. Three thousand years of history to learn and only forty-six songs left on my electronica playlist!

I bounced my way casually through the Wari Empire and air-drummed through the tragic tale of Incan civilization. I met a Chimu king. The sparkle of his armor caught my eye from across the room and immediately the music began to pick up pace. I approached him, his presence overwhelming like a thick humidity. The music slowed for just long enough for him to tell me that all of the contents of this museum, the art and the pots and the jewelry and the statues, were remnants of mankind’s ceaseless attempt to capture life in something tangible, but that the greatest gift left by bygone generations would never be displayed behind glass as it was still alive today. Convinced whatever cleaning solution they used on his display case had rendered him a little nutty, and aware that the music would not allow me time to stay and chat about his centuries of wisdom, I nodded politely, began clapping my hands against my thighs, and moved on.

Later I met up with a friend. We were both listening to music. The left earpiece was removed. Eyes met and smiles appeared. Electrónica? Electrónica. Deep dish? Deep dish! Friendships are cemented in moments like this. You grin and you gaze, immobilized by the shock and the joy for just long enough for the cement to dry, and before you even remember to blink you’ve attached another human being to your soul. We each replaced the left earpiece, aware that words were no longer necessary as we retreated together into a world that no one else but us could hear. And then, side-by-side, we tapped out hands into the air, bounced a little with every step, and danced our way into the setting sun.

If only everyday would have a song for my heartbeat to follow. If only everyday could be so epic. Then again, maybe it is.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Metaphor Party

It has taken three weeks for the humor of it to truly sink in. The Chinese woman I live with calls me Harry. At the beginning she would invent a new first syllable every time and pair it with an “ee” at the end. As the weeks passed, she lost sight of her creative ambition and settled on Harry.

I like getting lost. In elementary school I took a field trip to the National Gallery of Art. While the rest of the kids picked their noses, complained of sore feet, and made preliminary negotiations for lunch box trades, I stood with my head tipped backwards at far as it would stretch, gazing up at the largest painting I had yet seen in my short existence. Across the white canvas was streaked a black line. A black line. For the next 10 years I would site this work as the reason for my skepticism of modern art. I think being lost is like that painting. When I’m lost, I make turns with a rejuvenating disregard of destination. I marvel at the unfamiliarity of the street signs and take each step with the pride of a 15th century explorer. My soul gets a chance to stretch out a little, the known world expanding in size by the minute. Most people would not consider “getting lost” to be a legitimate hobby. I now understand how the artist of that black splotch must feel—so many people are missing out on so much misunderstood beauty.

The weather forecast for Lima always says the same thing: sixties and cloudy today and tomorrow, seventies and sunny starting two days from now. Nice weather is always two days away.

I’m not sure what it means that I enjoy the anonymity of being called the wrong name. Or that I’d rather be lost than found. Or that I plan my outfits for seventy degree days under the assumption that they will actually arrive on schedule. Or that I insist on assigning a deeper meaning to even the most mundane details of life.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Chocolate Death

I am lying in bed awaiting death. The dragon in the painting above me is laughing. It starts as a light chuckle but escalates quickly to an intimidating guffaw when it sees my limbs start to shake. I find his purple hue nauseating as I trace his spine with my gaze, over and over again, until the curves of his tail become the glow I see against the black backdrop of my eyelids.

I had been so hungry, scouring my room for anything edible. Too cold and lazy to go downstairs to heat water for soup, I was left with the only other option my quest produced: the chocolate. So seductive! That stupid wrapper, caramel oozing out of the glimmering brown shell. I held the small package in my hands, feeling the candy through the plastic, lusting after sugary bliss. But he had given it to me. What if he had done something to it? He could have poisoned it, squirting a few drops of a lethal fiery liquid with a tiny needle through the packaging and the chocolate and into the caramel core. Over two decades of listening to Halloween candy nightmares has allowed my imagination to run (perhaps excessively) wild. This chocolate would not be spared my skepticism.

I had accepted the chocolate not because I wanted it, but because my hand had involuntarily extended to take the gift. He had popped out of a taxi, run up to me, reminded me of his number and his availability, and then scurried off again as quickly as he had appeared. It was only after his departure that I became aware of the chocolate in my hands, which I promptly hid in my purse, hoping that this would finally be the last proof of is existence that he would ever leave me with.

“Is it just coincidence, or perhaps fate, that has brought us together again?” My heart quickly grabbed hold of my rib cage to keep itself balanced, nearly knocked out of place in shock. Turning my head slightly to the left, I saw exactly what I was dreading: Lui, panting a little after having run across the street to catch up with me, staring into my eyes, now gracefully protruding with equal parts dismay and disgust. I moaned. He continued, unabated. “You know I have this friend who met his wife at the grocery store. They just kept running into each other. Not that I’m saying we’ll get married. But you never know.” Despite my repeated attempts to tell him to leave me alone, and his agreeing that this would be the best idea if I was truly uninterested, he continued. I wanted to yell, to be brutally mean and horrible and tell him that he was making me afraid of walking alone, but I couldn’t find the anger on-switch in my brain (hidden, no doubt, behind the filing cabinet I just added for information on International Human Rights Law—it’s quite a sizable entity). If only I had screamed. If only I had ripped the business card he had given me in half, right there in front of him. Then maybe he wouldn’t have told the taxi to stop the next time he would see me, handing me the chocolate that would cause me to agonize over the possibility of death.

So now I lay here in bed, waiting. The wrapper crumpled on my bedside table. The dragon glaring. The TV playing the closing credits to the movie I was watching to distract me in my last moments on earth. I’m shivering, but I always shiver. I ask my heart how it’s doing, and it rolls its eyes. My lungs grin and shake their heads. My fingers wave a healthy hello, and my stomach emits a satisfied rumble.

I’ve survived. This time.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

A Day in the Life of Me (Now in Technicolor!)

Somehow over the course of my life I have developed the notion that to be thorough is to be boring; better to keep people interested by leaving carefully placed holes in every good story. I therefore give out details of my life like fifty-dollar bills—with an attitude of generosity but rarely.

It is with this introduction in mind that I will now attempt to present to you the blog I have entitled “A Day in the Life of Me (Now In Technicolor!).” I am giving out more details than I normally care to give (though storing away many in my acorn tree for winter), understanding that I may bore you, but as I so rarely find time to update this blog I figure you can take a paragraph a day and be satisfied for a while.

I live in a very colorful house with the Asian wife of a famous Peruvian painter and Argos. Argos once attacked me (don’t let those innocent glazed eyes fool you! he’s vicious!) and stole a sandwich right out of my hand, nearly severing two of my fingers in the process. As a result our relationship has been a little tense ever since. But men don’t take hints so he still follows me around the house and whines outside my bedroom door when I close it behind me. My heart is cold.

That blasted invention called the alarm clock pries me brutally out of my slumber at precisely 7:52am every morning from Monday to Friday. I gather my consciousness enough to hit the snooze button, check to make sure I don’t have frostbite, and then go back to sleep. It is horrendously cold in my room at 7:52am. It is horrendously cold in my room at all hours of the day. I sleep with my sweatpants tucked into two pairs of socks and with four shirts and a hood over my head (picture not available), and I still wake up shivering in the night. I relate my morning ritual of finding the motivation to get out of bed to an Eskimo standing by the hole he has dug to go ice fishing and wondering whether he should jump in. The reasonable response to this dilemma would be to step away from the hole before insanity grants you the urge to jump, but luckily I am not sane, and so every morning around 8:19am I finally get out of bed.

My office is literally next door. This is good in that I can afford to leave the house at 8:59 and still get to work on time, but bad because I’m afraid that our neighborhood watchyman (this is the Peruvian adaptation of “watchman,” being the security guard that has a station at the entrance to the neighborhood) reports to my coworkers all of my social comings and goings. On one occasion I didn’t come home at night because I had stayed at a friend’s house, and the next day the watchyman told me how worried he had been. I ordered him a pizza to say that I was sorry, and secretly hoped that I was buying his loyalty.

In the office I do boring things. I read about international human rights law and the Peruvian juvenile justice system and make calls to branches of government bureaucracy that never seem to be able to offer any useful information. I often leave the office, mostly to do interviews with the parents of kids who have had problems with the law or meet with organizations that might be able to contribute a shovel full of dirt to the mountain of statistical information that I am attempting to build. Nine times out of ten the person I am supposed to meet does not show up. This is life.

Work ends at 5pm. I leave at 5:02pm, so that people won’t think I am in a hurry to get out. After work I normally hang out with friends. Now, I don’t know what your impression is of South America, but just to make sure we’re on the same page, I’m living in Lima. This is not the jungle. People wear pants*. When I say I am hanging out with friends, I don’t mean that they are teaching me to play the panpipe or that we are dancing in circles around fires waving branches and painting our faces. We hang out in parks talking, watch movies in living rooms, take pictures of graffiti and skateboards, walk to the beach, or window shop at the mall built into the cliffs. There will be no future National Geographic articles on the peculiar and unexplored habits of my friends, but I enjoy them tremendously nonetheless.

I crawl into bed at night with the TV normally on a dubbed episode of the Simpsons, shivering until the very last minute when my body finally surrenders to sleep.

*I honestly read in a Canadian magazine the other day some snide comment about Peruvians being so primitive that they had only just started to wear pants, and it obviously irked me in a way that cannot be fully expressed in words. If you would like to get the non-verbal explanation for how I felt upon reading such derogatory balderdash, I would suggest that you go stick your hand in a freezer for 10 minutes, and then immediately place it on a lit stovetop. The scream that ensues should adequately sum up my rage. Actually, I don’t suggest you do that. But you can imagine.