May 1st, Lima
Look Here: Flowers
There’s a Scotia Bank on the Plaza del Armas of Miraflores in Lima. But there’s a Starbucks too. And a KFC, a Burger King, a McDonald’s. And a fast-food chain which I think is Peruvian or otherwise South American. A spacious park, neatly cultivated with frequent flowerbeds and towering palms trees, lies in the center of the Plaza. Ferrell cats abound, and the odd homeless dog saunters by. The cats come in all colours and sizes, though most are dirty and emaciated. There are state workers constantly maintaining the park. A patrolman just asked me to sit properly on the bench, and said something more about my cigarette though I didn’t understand what. I finished it and put the butt in the garbage can to avoid any confrontation. A homeless man limped up to the guard and asked him the time before falling asleep on the bench next to me under suspicious watch. The beautiful park is locked up at night.
There’s a stench in the air. It’s acrid and viscous and pervasive in its subtlety. It’s draped, like the thick fog, on every molecule of air. I noticed it immediately upon waking up this morning in my hostel (right after being awoken by the incessant, violent mac-AW-ing of a bird outside my window). The fog, the stench, the filtered, early morning sunlight diffused and scattered by the impregnated air: it’s easy to imagine being inside an enormous, fixed volume container in which a mixture of gases has been prepared—with a dash of sulphur to irritate the smelling sense of everyone inside. The park workers sweeping the avenues and footpaths, and the ones on ladders polishing the lamps, are all wearing face masks.
A middle-aged man wearing baggy but clean clothes stopped beside the homeless man’s bench and leaned on the fence behind.
“Hai!” he shouted. The homeless man and I looked over to him in unison. There was a large white cat, seemingly well fed and tended after, just on the other side of the waist-high iron fence, and was stalking a mangy, emaciated, mottled cat whose ribs and hip bones showed through the contours of loosely hung skin. At first the white cat–the stalker, the bully, the menace–paid the man no heed, slinking closer and closer to the smaller, mangy cat which looked on as though indifferent, like being victimized was routine. But the man was persistent. And the white cat eventually ceded. It gave up on its morning blood-sport. The homeless man applauded and jabbered. The mangy cat’s saviour ambled on. And the white cat curled up beside the fence and still sleeps behind me, peacefully. The Scotia Bank is closed because it’s May 1st—international day of the labourer.
The Dying Birds I
The seabirds go to the edge of the beach to die. They’re easy to spot, conspicuously standing by themselves, slow to move or react to my presence. Continually onto the beach before them, waves roll in.
I came across a dying bird on my morning walk along the beach. Even though I was 20 or 30 feet away from it, walking in a direction that wouldn’t bring me any closer, it tried as best it could to escape me. Flapping its wings erratically, with a definite lethargy, its feet scrambling underneath its precariously supported body, it wasn’t able to take flight. The bird’s flying days were over.
What is the survival instinct? Some other instinct brought this bird to a place, a purposeful, specific place in recognition of its impending death—its death instinct. As though with courage and dignity, through a ritual that confronts death and looks at it squarely, without flinching, this bird was preparing to die. And yet it still reacted with animal defensiveness at my approach. If it was acting under the awareness of death, why was it still trying to escape me, to preserve its life and the short, tortured time that remained? What would it matter if I did pose a threat? What if it was my intention to end the bird’s life a few hours before, as the bird sensed, its life was to end anyway? The preservation of life, it seems, the tenacity with which animal life can cling to the world of the living, can coexist with the awareness of death, with the confronting of death. As though there are rules, for birds, in dying as there are in living.
Maybe the birds’ habit of dying alone, away from the flock, isn’t about confronting death or accepting it. Maybe, in the weakened, vulnerable state it was in, it would be picked on, tormented by the younger, virile members of its flock. Maybe its instinct to protect itself, and the life that it was now desperately, hopelessly clinging to, compelled it to solitude. There was no awareness of death, just an awareness of danger and an instinct to preserve life. Perhaps it was dying dejected, abandoned, his community turning on him for no reason other than to make more room for the living. Is there a more powerful instinct in the animal kingdom than the one that leads to the perpetuation of life, real or imagined, destitute or blessed?
Turkey vultures, which were constantly seen high in the sky, scanning the shoreline for the debris of the newly dead, were perched on rocks and tree stumps behind the dying bird. Waiting patiently. Conviction and faith were on their side; they belonged, after all, to the world of the living.
The Ocean Scares the Shit out of Me
There’s only one road that leads out of this small, budding beach-side community I find myself in. The terrain is mostly sand—dessert. From April to December it doesn’t rain. With a rare, late-summer downpour, the brown hills, cascading over top of each other and extending from the ocean as far as the eye can see—eventually growing into the Andes—are spotted with green cacti and shrubs, and brilliant, small flowers of fuchsia and gold and white. The road itself, cutting through the rocky sand, serves its function, but barely. In the wet season it turns into a mud-slide, the inhabitants in the first low-lying hills stranded. It’s a jarring ride during the dry season. As a Westerner, I can’t help being surprised by the bumps every time I’m driven down the road; the handles inside the vehicles are well used.
I was walking back up the road, up a sharp incline, after a late afternoon dip. The ocean scares the shit out of me with its sheer magnitude of volume and force. I’d never been swimming in the ocean before. And I had approached it timorously, wading some twenty feet out from the shore before plunging in. It was far too shallow to swim unencumbered. My knees scraping on the sand, potentially surprising a buried sting ray equipped with a hard, long, barb at the tip of its whip-like tail, was only heightening my larger, more abstract fear of the ocean itself, a reservoir of size and power. My knees suddenly scraped against rock, then my torso—I had accidentally swam atop a reef that wasn’t more than a foot under water. At the same time, a wave crashed down on me and tossed me a few feet forward, turning my body at will. I spluttered and stood up, wincing at seeing the fine lacerations I incurred on my left hand, my knees and ankles. I was bleeding—superficial wounds but bleeding nonetheless. Couldn’t sharks smell a drop of blood in 1000 gallons of water, their blood lust engaged by the faintest scent of the red serum? I scrambled, forcing myself to breathe calmly, taking perspective of my situation and even resigning myself to a battle til death, if necessary. I scrambled back to the beach, back into my element of land and gravity. If there were locals looking on, howling, it was well-deserved.
I was walking up the hill back to my hut of bamboo, rock and plaster, when the earthquake struck. I was thrown to the ground, landing ten feet from where I had been walking with a wounded ego only a moment before. The brick house beside me crumbled to the ground. On my hands and knees, safe from the falling debris of the houses beside me, the ground continued to shake violently, I could hear a growing roar of cascading sand and rock on all sides of me, as though the ocean had invaded the dry gulleys and valleys. I was thrown a few times a foot or two in the air, each time landing on all fours again.
The quake couldn’t have lasted more than 30 seconds, but the constant, violent gyrations of the very earth seemed to defy time and all of my senses. I was reminded of playing on a trampoline as a kid, but this time locked into a game that involved cosmic upheaval, making my existence seem paltry and inisginifcant—but a game of caprice and frivolity nonetheless. And then it stopped as quickly as it started. Sand and rocks could still be heard sliding down the hills, but all else was deathly quiet. I imagined a distant, powerful roar in my ears, the rush of having witnessed and survived such a show of force and power. I picked myself up off the ground. That distant roar was not imagined. It was getting louder. I looked back behind me to the ocean and a wall of water, not more than a kilometer offshore and stretched in either direction as far as I could see, was distinctly visible: it cast a shadow on the water in front of it. A tsunami was about to engulf the peaceful beach town.
I started running up the hill to get to Mari and Chito back at the hut. They were just opening up the bamboo gate to drive their car out. In the back of their red jeep were at least five kids. Chito, with his back to me, jumped into the driver’s seat, ready for a quick escape. Mari saw me and her eyes, already wide with terror, opened even more and her mouth hung open in a silent scream. She resolutely closed the jeep door and yelled something to Chito. Instantly I understood.
Mari is such a kind, thoughtful, considerate creature. Though childless, she certainly does not lack a nurturing and selfless capacity usually associated with the maternal. She wasn’t going to leave me to fend for myself, a gringo, a foreigner to the land and its violent temperament. Chito got out of the car and was yelling his protests. And I did the same.
“Mari! Get back in the car!” I yelled. As I was yelling I was imagining what the next few hours would entail, if I was lucky enough to survive. I would keep running away from the ocean, looking for higher ground. Maybe I’d come across a road, maybe somebody had room in their car for me. From there, if I was lucky, maybe I’d find myself in a survivor’s camp with people broken away from their home, their land, their work and love and peace, but more importantly banding together to survive as human beings. As a gringo I might be an easy target for ostracizing—if the instinct to survive was to predominate above all other considerations, I could easily be singled out as conspicuous. I’d have to prove myself valuable to others’ survival. Being ostracized under these conditions could mean death. Maybe Mari was imagining the same scenario in the half second that elapsed while I was yelling.
Something occurred to me: I was going to have to trust people. I had come to this remote area on the northern coast of Peru for solitude, to live as ascetically as possible, as much as my pervasive personal neuroses and addictions would allow, like a hermit, reading and writing and thinking and breathing in isolation. Living in a metropolis I was accustomed to isolation, to self-sufficiency, being disconnected from people. But of a different sort: water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink. But here, in Peru, as a foreigner, an outsider, a misfit, I had no choice but to hope people would see me, and accept me, as one of their own: a fellow sufferer in need. In Toronto I’m constantly aware of suffering the dehumanizing and isolating affects of man-made life: school, work, living—I’m forced to fend for myself, to constantly prioritize jumping through the hoops society has set before me, the sanctioned way to ensure basic needs like food and a roof. But to prioritize the hoops over the dictates of my emotional intelligence is to neglect my relationships; relationships with people, friends, lovers, strangers, but also with the profound unknowns, the universe, my own creativity, my perception of immortality and of my own mortality. Being forced to rely on people, a rarity, was an absurd silver lining I was aware of. I’d like to think Mari was following the same train of thought as me. Either way she got back into the car.
No, not really. At least not the earthquake and tsunami part.
On the Seashore
Big. Enormous. Huge.
Vast. Deep. Wide. High. Fat.
Subtle. Intricate. Mysterious.
Inhuman power. Superhuman power. Cosmic power.
Invisible. Streaming by. Streaming on.
What is matter? Does that matter?
Human nature. Human thoughts. Evolving?
Conditions. Eroding. Conditional erosion. Conditioning.
The illusion of sameness.
And then running from the dive-bombing birds.
Dying Birds II: A Mask of Resolve
The gulls that stand on the seashore to die, often have their backs turned towards the sea. No matter how close they are to dying, as long as they have the strength to turn their heads, they eye me cautiously as I pass by, and even move, pathetically, spasmodically, to flee. Some cling to the sheer incline that rises from the beach. With their beaks pressed into the sandy rock facade, they have their backs turned to the ocean.
Is this a survival tactic? Turning their backs to the ocean ensures one direction, at least, is free of approaching dangers, always imminent. With their beaks pressed into the cliff face, their backs to the ocean and elevated off the ground, they’re even more protected.
On the sunset beach walk yesterday, I witnessed a heart-wrenching scene I’ve seen once before during my stay. A young, boundless dog was tormenting a bird in its last hours of life. Unable to evade the dog, fly away or fight back, the bird was forced to spend its diminishing reserve of energy on squawking and flailing its decrepit wings. To the dog it was just a game. He never actually bit the bird, just tormented it. He’d leave off for a bit, only to return to have more fun.
There were two children with the dog who seemed little inclined to intervene on the bird’s behalf. A middle-aged man, perhaps a father of one of the kids, walked resolutely up to the bird, after the dog had been distracted by the children again, and he grabbed the bird by one of its wings, firmly. As the bird tried to contort its body away from the man, the wing was stretched to its full breadth. The man was not violent or overly forceful. But he didn’t hesitate in the least, his grasp was firm, his actions sure and his face a mask of resolve. He dangled the bird from its one wing until he could get a hold of the second wing. With both wings stretched out, the bird somewhat relaxing at the complete vulnerability this man put it in, the man carried the bird up the steep embankment, up high enough that it was away from the children, away from the dog.
The man brought the dying bird some final moments of peace.
Is tragedy a conception that resides solely in man’s imagination?
This morning on my beach walk I found a dead sting ray, partially buried beneath the sands. It was smallish, spanning maybe 8 inches wing tip to wing tip. When I found it, it was lying on its dorsal side. I could see from its cloaca a tail emerging. I gently tugged on the tail: a miniature, fully formed ray emerged, its wings furled under its body, its breathing holes beside the eyes fully opened. The dead infant ray was impossibly soft to the touch.
Dying Birds III: Scared to Die Alone
Pelicans go to the seashore to die, and so do the gulls, but not the vultures. I’ve found their carcasses on the beach as well, but how or when they died I don’t know.
All 3 of the birds sit on the cliff, Bird City, Avianopolis. The gulls and pelicans don’t seem to begrudge the vultures their presence.
Sometimes a gull or pelican can be seen dying at the base of Avianopolis, or partially up the cliff face, the other birds perched in multitudes up above. Sad birds, I can’t help thinking. Just go to the seashore.
The Man from the Sea
He has strings of seashells attached to his ankles. They drag behind him as he traverses the shore of the bay at night looking for something in the midnight sand. His hair is long, thick, big and matted. At first glance he appears dread-locked, but his hair is just clumped from disregard. Strands and trinkets of things living and dead from the sea, small and subtle, assert themselves humbly in between the clumps. He’s tallish and gangly, even emaciated. But spry and lively. He can stand at the edge of the waters, still, for hours and any restless night-wanderers would look right through him. But with a jump and a burst of seething energy he’s nimble and agile again. His legs seem too long.
What little he wears—a ragged, mottled loincloth perpetually in the dark—is overshadowed by his hair which covers his shoulders and hangs like a cloak, concealing his body in shades of black.
He carries a staff: straight, simple, thick. He wears a wristband: wide, stiff, brown and iridescent in the moonlight. What is he looking for?
What is he looking for?
He whispers in my ear: SOULS. SOULS, SOULS, SOULS, SOULS, YOU HEAR?!?
The shells dragging behind him sound a dry rattle, unless the lapping water reaches them. Then they hiss. And his hair, when he’s moving, sounds a swoosh. Rattle. Hiss. Swoosh.
But what is he really looking for?
What I’ve seen, alive and dead, every day, on the seashore:
eels. sea urchins. octopus. sea turtles. crabs. snails. pelicans. gulls. vultures. scissor-tail birds. sea horses. thin tubular fish. flat, skinny fish. dogs.
The snails let me know when the tide is going out, at least the myriad embedded just below the surface on the beach where the lapping ripples stretch. The snails higher up parachute down the sloping beach to get closer to the water. Usually their fleshy protrusion is fanned out to pick up edible particulates the waves bring to the shore. But when they want to lower their positions in sync with the tide, they extend their protrusion, everting themselves, and use their fanned foot to catch the last layer of water receding towards the ocean. Before the next wave crashes, they catch hold of the sand again and bury themselves.
The Crayfish and the Scorpion
A local fisherman gave me a few crayfish this morning on my beach walk. I’d read that fried crayfish were a local delicacy. I had helped the fisherman hoist his small bamboo raft up onto the shore, out of reach of the encroaching tide.
When I got back from my walk I found a scorpion trapped in the bathroom sink. I had to trap the trapped scorpion in order to free it. The scorpion was small, maybe 3 inches head to stinger. I lay a jar, horizontally, in the sink, waited for it to climb in, then righted the jar. Just for fun, I threw a crayfish in with it. I wanted to see who would win. The scorpion obviously had its venom—injected through a needle at the top of a poised, muscular, agile whip. But the crayfish had an exoskeleton covering every inch. The crayfish’ thorax and abdomen were, roughly speaking, the same length as the scorpion’s.
The crayfish curled its tail under its body and raised its sizable claws, pushing the scorpion against the side of the jar, pinning it. The scorpion had first raised its bulbous, venom-filled stinger immediately behind its head, curling its tail over itself. But when the crayfish’ claw pushed him, the scorpion let loose a flurry of stabs covering the crayfish’ claws and head. The crayfish raised his claws higher, dragging the scorpion’s body up the side of the jar. From that vantage point the scorpion landed its next stab right between the crayfish’ eyes, finding the Achilles’ heel, sinking into the exoskeleton. But did the scorpion have any venom left? The stinger got stuck where it had broken through, and when the crayfish lowered its claws slightly—poisoned?–the scorpion’s body pivoted and turned 180 degrees before falling directly into the fervently snapping claws of the crayfish. Its body was severed in half, roughly speaking. The crayfish shuddered and lowered its claws to the floor of the jar and hasn’t moved since this morning. The scorpion is still stuck between its eyes.
No, not really. Not the crayfish anyway. There was a scorpion in the sink. I did have to trap the trapped scorpion in order to free it.
It’s sad to leave. Not attached to the place, the physical. But to the lessons shown, everywhere, by example. Just looking out the bamboo-framed window onto the endless blue expanse. The reminder of cosmic grandeur through the dried palm fronds overlapping the roof.
Take me home. I’m almost there.
What the vastness of man’s construct (society) tells me about myself: I’m small. I’m insignificant. I’m expendable. I’m not worth very much, and whatever I am worth can be found in countless other men. If I grovel, if I debase my integrity, my independent, innate perception of ideals, I can climb in worth. But only at the expense of other men. My valuables—wealth and position—must, directly or indirectly, be taken from other men. There are simply not enough valuables to go around.
What the vastness of the ocean tells me: I am infinitesimally small, a meager occurrence in space and time. But I have a secured position: I am part of creation. Whatever can explain all of creation resides, in some form, to some degree, within me. I am not apart from creation. My position within it is secured. Every man is created, is the same in this regard, but every man’s consciousness of creation is their own. It is, if not unique, then private. That other men have the same part in the profound, in the inexplicable, is reassuring for it is the antidote to feelings of loneliness that spring from being a meager occurrence in the vastness of the universe. From that knowledge, love is born, the need to commune with the limitless peering out of others. From recognition of sameness springs hope. Sameness does not make me expendable but cements my life next to every other man’s.
The ocean makes me think: I have a home.
Society tells me: mortgage your life and you’ll get a house.
My Roommate, the Gecko:
Mari and Chito’s Haven:
Chito’s Cactus Garden: