The twenty-second day of the year is a Sunday, and in mid morning I make pecan pancakes for my kitchen-mates Sharon, 74, and Karolayn, 20, who at this point takes no persuading for pancakes. Her sister Katherine has been away visiting Venezuela, maybe for the last time for years, as their passports are about to run out and it’s very hard to get new ones. So Karolayn, a shy young woman who really just wants to listen to KPop and watch anime, has been acting as manager at Soul Guest House, dealing with fifteen older-than-her, often-difficult expats.
She is also teaching English full time at a much less professional school than mine, where they haven’t paid their teachers in over a month and are being investigated by the government. Worst, she deals with anti-Venezuelan sentiments whenever people hear her talk. Needless to say, she is very lonely without her sister. It’s been a hard month, and as a result she’s hanging out more with Sharon and I. A few days ago I found her crying at the kitchen table at lunchtime and had to try to console her for a good while. I convinced her not to quit her job that day, but also to apply for one at my school. My main program is just to feed her good home-cooked food as much as I can. Otherwise a french fry and ice cream dinner is a real possibility.
I spend my early afternoon with lesson planning, which this month is really just lesson revising as I’ve taught all these classes before. Although if I feel inspired, I have the time now to create substantially better lessons. Today I worked on a unit in Advanced 1 called Vocabulary of History and Warfare. I’ve taught this class the past five months, so for one day a month I get to be a history teacher, something which in another life perhaps I am.
Unfortunately the vocabulary in the included curriculum is very focused on the Warfare part, with words like “siege” and “troops” and “overthrow” which aren’t typically useful for an English learner. And rather than dig directly into the rich stories scattered throughout in history, the material in the book focuses on historical films and the question of how accurate they are. This is not unimportant, as I think most people gain their lasting impressions of history from movies and tv — the experience and imagery imprints powerfully on us.
But the problem in my mind isn’t just that people are getting inaccurate ideas of about history, but that they aren’t into history. At least they don’t think they are (the vaguely historical films that are perennially popular speak to the contrary). My goal is to get my students intrigued about history by asking questions, trying to find the way it is applicable to their lives. This is harder than talking about movies. But if we’re intrigued by something, we might just start looking into it on our own. It is doubly unfortunate that the films the book covers are not particularly relevant to Peruvians. Braveheart (medieval Scotland), Gone with the Wind (civil war-era US), and Spartacus (ancient Rome). The films fall flat because, as a rule, they haven’t seen them. But through expanded discussion, I have been looking to find what connections there may be.
From Gone with the Wind I ask them what they know about the American Civil War and what it was about (they know very little, though many have heard of Abraham Lincoln). Has Perú ever had a civil war? (It has had many. They say yes but can’t give many details. What they can talk about a little is the War of the Pacific, in the 1880’s with Chile.) How did slavery end in Perú? On this last one, they have very confused ideas of how and when this took place. They general consensus is that it was the Spanish who had the slaves, and it ended when the country gained independence.
Recently, this has transitioned into the Peruvian War of Independence. I read a book in November and December about the Great Liberator Simon Bolivar, who has a truly epic, fascinating life story that all of us should know. The book I borrowed from Clint and Lili’s library is an excellent biography entitled simply Bolivar, written in English by the Peruvian-American Marie Arana. Bolivar and his army of Gran Colombia liberated Perú from the Spanish, along a river of revolt down the Andes that freed what is now Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia, colony by colony. His vision was to unite all of them as a Latin Confederation, but for the country’s first years he remained in Perú as the President/Dictator. I don’t mean that last word as a slight — he actually was given both titles by the Peruvian congress. But Bolivar is not beloved here, compared to the two previous South American countries I traveled through, and of course, Venezuela, where he is from and idolized. Although he does get a (non-major) street in most every city in Perú, there are very few statues in his honor, and few parks with his name.
You see, everything about Peruvian history is complicated. It could be said that Bolivar was the first President, but depending on the count he was preceded by six to nine short-lived Presidents before the Spanish were defeated. Even his claim to Liberator is disputed. Another army got here first. The Army of the Andes (Argentina/Chile) led by General Jose de San Martin was able to take part of the Peruvian coast from Spain, most importantly Lima. But the bulk of the Spanish army retreated to the highlands and San Martin lacked the resources to pursue them while still maintaining control of the coast. The land-owning class of Peruvian criollos, which had revolted in most of Latin America, was fiercely Royalist and unsupportive at best. This, the Vice-Royalty of Perú, was Spain’s prize possession in South America, and they weren’t going to give it up without a fight. So San Martin asked Bolivar to come help him liberate the vast majority of the country.
After the two liberators met for a council in southern Ecuador, San Martin abruptly left the continent and retired from the military and politics. No one knows whether it was because of disagreements between them or to cede the stage for Bolivar. Either way, they seemed to agree that the continent was only large enough for one Liberator. San Martin went into exile, never to return to South America, leaving Bolivar and his army to lead the fight with the Spanish, which they finally defeated decisively a year and a half later at Ayacucho. In sum, San Martin liberated a small part of the coast, and Bolivar the remaining entire country, but for some reason, San Martin is the one the Peruvians edify. This is probably because he wasn’t involved in the messy process of actually governing and forming the fledgling state.
Though San Martin declared the end of the slave trade, it was Bolivar who began the actual emancipation. But this was short-lived, like everything he did here, short of independence from Spain. When Bolivar left a couple years later to return to an unsettled Gran Colombia, Peru seceded from the Confederation of the Andes and promptly invaded Ecuador, a rebellion which Bolivar had to come back and defeat. He would never set foot on Peruvian soil again, and its next President-Dictator fully re-established slavery, which would continue for another twenty years in independent Perú.
Bolivar’s story is high drama until its tragic end. He dies of tuberculosis a poor man at age forty-seven; his Gran Colombia broken up, exiled from his home country of Venezuela, the continent in chaos. His last months were spent outside the city of Santa Marta on the Caribbean coast, hoping to get well enough to go into exile to Europe.
The past few months I’ve been spending more and more of the lesson in a discussion of Peruvian history, and less about whether American films are accurate . Today I made the break and planned a different lesson altogether. We are going to have an opening discussion where they ask each other questions; do a short reading about Bolivar in Perú and then talk about it. The only vocabulary component will be words in the reading they don’t know.
Back here in the present, in mid-afternoon Clint comes over and we sit in the courtyard under threatening skies to work through songs for an hour. We have a gig in five days, and this is just the second time we’ve played together. But he is a natural rhythm player and is thrilled to just be making music, which had slipped almost entirely out of his life. He is working hard to come up with parts for every song, taking notes, while also learning how to play the cajon, a wooden box drum, without breaking his hands.
Then Emily comes down from her room to join us, and we start to find a dynamic of something like a band. She and I have been practicing five or six days a week for a couple weeks now, and have found some momentum. We have good harmonies on four of my songs, to the point that when I play them without her, they feel a little empty. And she’s killing it on lead on several cover songs, most notably Me & Bobby McGee. We’re doing a couple songs in Spanish, which feels like a proper show of respect for a show in this Spanish-speaking country.
One called Me Gustas Tu by Manu Chao is basically a list of dozens of things that he likes, in no apparent order. For example in the first verse he declares that he likes la moto, correr, la lluvia, volver, marihuana, Colombiana, la montaña, and la noche. The motorcycle, running, the rain, coming back, (obviously) marijuana, Colombian, the mountain, and the night, respectively. It may seem a little banal, but there’s a great and catchy chorus in Spanish and French that we sing together: Que voy hacer je ne sais pas/ que voy hacer je ne sais plus/ que voy hacer je suis perdu/ que hora son me corazon… and it’s a fun song to play. The thing is that Emily can never totally remember all the things and their order. She gets to naming random things that she likes, looks at me and we both start giggling.
I feel honored and encouraged that these two have bought in and are learning my music. They are both committed to putting on a good show and willing to come practice, which is fun just in itself. Clint has been saying that it’s musical therapy and I would agree. I have rediscovered the magic of being able to make sounds, being inside songs and words and melodies, finding the life — enough that you can hang out with friends there.
Near the end of our practice, it starts to rain in big fat desert raindrops, so we huddle under the patio umbrella in the other courtyard and play our last couple songs. Rainy season has finally settled in here, which means that almost every afternoon there is some precipitation, but it usually doesn’t amount to much. Generally the pattern is hot and sun in the morning, cloudy by midday, light showers in late afternoon, and clear again by night. I’ve only witnessed one substantial rain thus far. One good part of this season is that up on the high mountains above the city, the rain is snow, and volcanos always look better when they’re snow-capped.
Last night I walked down to the Cercado to talk with Javier, the chef and owner of Chaqchao, the cafe/bar/pizza restaurant where we were supposedly playing in a few days, to confirm that it was really happening. That’s kind of how things have to be done in this country. You go talk to the person, in person. At the appointed hour I waited a long time in the pizza restaurant downstairs, and then he appeared, a very tall man for Perú, about my age, with long hair tied in a ponytail. I note his height and he says that’s why people call him The Last Inca. He has an air of dynamic confidence, has spent time in the states and speaks English well.
We walk up to the second floor to see the location where music happens, an open-air roofed terrace. We search around the storage area, where he digs up three beat up supposedly-working mics and a couple PA speakers, and assures me there will be a sound guy. In addition to the rumored pay in pizza, our compensation will be one hundred soles, a little less than thirty dollars, as well as a drink for each of the musicians. I would have been fine with the pizza and beer, and walk home feeling lucky.
At the end of this twenty-second night of the year, a bunch of us gather out in the back courtyard on blankets to view the total eclipse of a Super Wolf Blood moon. Sharon and Emily and Margaret — a cool new housemate from Georgia who has spent the last couple years in Mozambique — and Hannah and Helena, two Austrian young women. It was an overcast night, so there were times when the moon would vividly appear from behind the clouds, and though it was mostly obscured, there was something charged about the night all around.
I’d watched a full lunar eclipse before in the states, and it was a much faster process from that angle. Here it took several hours for the moon to slowly disappear. This was followed by an interminably long time with just a tiny amount of moon, sandwiched around a brief period of no moon, during which we lost most of our moonwatchers. Helena and I persisted until more than half the moon come back, but at about one-thirty I finally decided to call it a night and woke up the next morning to teach class very tired.
The twenty-sixth day of the year was the day of the show. I woke up with a lot of nervous energy, and tried to put that to use and get some things done. By 1 pm I have already finished and published a blog post about the mountains of Colombia, gone food shopping, cooked a good breakfast, graded a number of exams, re-strung my guitar, run through some songs, made a potato salad for Jack’s pot luck barbecue that evening, and cleaned my room. Nervous energy can be incredible fuel if used correctly.
Clint and Emily and I have been practicing as a group for six straight days, and found some real camaraderie. Music brings out good things in them, heart and attention and I like playing with them both. The last two afternoons we went up to busk at the Plaza Yanahuara to get some practice playing in public, and the responses from passersby were very positive. Some people even hung around, Peruanos dancing a bit, clapping after songs, taking videos. It was encouraging. The set is tight now and all that’s left to do is play it.
The three of us, along with Clint’s wife Lili, set out for the venue in a light rain at five thirty. The idea was that we’d all hang out at Jack’s barbecue, but it got started late and nothing was ready in time, so I feed them a potato soup I made. Lili, a kind woman from Wisconsin, is competing with Ms. Sharon for the role of our biggest fan, a low bar as we don’t really have any others. Despite Clint and Emily both being natural musicians, he hasn’t played a show in twelve and a half years while she has never had a public gig, and they both seem a little nervous, which rubs off on me.
At Chaqchao we are on time for the six o’clock sound check, but the sound guy, who is also a busboy at the restaurant, is not. He’s busy and disinterested and says we’ll do it at 8, which is when the show is supposed to start. It’s really important to us to do a sound check, as Emily and I have never sung together with microphones. I namedrop his boss but he doesn’t seem overly concerned, and we finally compromise on seven o’clock.
Clint and Lili and I go upstairs to find that nothing at all is set up, and play cards distractedly on the couches covering what will be the stage. Emily goes down the street to get something to eat. A little after seven fifteen Jose the sound guy comes up and slowly puts together the aging PA. I am sure that it won’t work, but miraculously it does. Emily is nervous enough just doing the sound check that she’s not singing with her whole voice. It’s a terrible thing, but being nervous makes your throat close up a little bit, a self-perpetuating cycle. After a few abortive attempts, where she really can’t sing, we try one of my songs which is a playful call and response, and this somehow works and she relaxes enough to start singing.
By the time the show starts, a little after eight, I am looking out at the audience, a picture of my life in Arequipa. Lots of my teacher colleagues, my bosses, most of my housemates from Soul, spread out amidst a crowd split between Peruvians and European travelers (mainly French). Every bit of the upstairs is full with humans, and they have to close off the café area to any more people. I play the first three songs solo, songs that no one in the room had heard before. I am grateful for this opportunity, but don’t feel comfortable up there; can’t hear my own guitar at all, and feeling like I was in a fishbowl. Playing music for a crowd is such a singular activity and different than anything else I do. But I soldier on. I feel sloppy and uncertain, and wonder whether people are disappointed by the show.
Clint comes in on the fourth song and it is good to have reinforcements. Having someone else onstage grounds me and forces me to focus on the music. By the sixth song the two of us are locked in and it is getting better. For the last song in the first set, Emily joins us for the first time to help me sing a song called Watching Movies on TV but should probably be called No Bears up in the Hills. It’s perhaps my best song, and we like to sing it together. In fact this was the one that had calmed her down in the sound check.
When she starts to sing her first line she realizes that she hadn’t turned her mic on, so no sound comes out. I laugh and start it over, but it’s the kind of song where you can get away with funny stuff. And then we are singing and our voices are mingled and by that time I am tired of worrying if the show is any good and just play; simultaneously realizing that it actually is kinda good. Me playing guitar and singing and Emily singing along and Clint keeping good time on the cajon was something to see.
We take a little break, and then come back to play another set. By now I’d already realized we could do this, and coming back was just gravy. Our second set is three of my songs that Emily sings on, and then the last seven are covers. Our first is With a Little Help from my Friends, and then Home by Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, which is a good duet for us. I don’t think I’ve mentioned that Emily is an excellent whistler. This song starts out with an iconic whistled melody over guitar. You may think you don’t know it, but if I whistled that part for five seconds, you’d go “oh, that song.” She laid down several whistle solos during the show, which I think is pretty damn cool.
Next is Me Gustas Tu, our first song in Spanish, and the crowd knew the song as soon as I start strumming the chords. Maybe it shouldn’t have been surprising, but it is very well received by an audience of mostly Spanish speakers (we are a little surprised) and the crowd sings along to the chorus. Emily sings lead on Me & Bobby McGee and does justice to the spirit of Janis Joplin, gets a huge round of applause after. Then we do Friend of the Devil which is probably our best harmony, a song I’ve played forever, and we are rolling. After Chan Chan, a Buena Vista Social Club song that Emily sings alone and Clint near-permanently damages his hands banging away on the cajon, we close it out with Hey Jude with all the expats and many of the Peruvians and travelers singing along. Maybe we do a little too much yelling at the end and extend the “na na na na-na-na-na” part a little too long, but who can blame us?
There were certainly some rough edges to our performance, but all in all we had a blast, put on a good show, and played music like we meant it. Javier was thrilled by the full house, his busiest Saturday night in months, and paid us a surprise one hundred and fifty soles, in addition to the promised drinks and a pizza which us musicians happily devoured after the crowd was mostly gone. He also asked me to come back and play another gig there next month. I happily accepted. Many of us went to a bar in town where people bought me more beers, and there was a lot of awkward dancing in very crowded rooms. The night ended up in the small kitchen at Soul, with Karem and Katherine back from Venezuela, a young teacher from Colorado named Colton and I, and we talked and drank rum until 3 am, which is completely appropriate and typical behavior after playing a show.
The twenty seventh day of the year, I was awoken by the sound of Karem’s voice outside my courtyard window. One of the things we’d talked about the night before was joining a river cleanup day initiated by the Venezuelan community. It was meant as a gesture of saying gracias to Arequipa for taking them in. It sounded perfect — any excuse to go down to the Rio Chili, perhaps my favorite spot in the city. I also owed Arequipa my own thank you, and the fact that Karem was asking me to go back to the river with her was heartening. But I had mostly written it off as drunken talk — a great idea that would be a victim of the late night. And now it was 9 am and here she was, asking “are we going to the river?” I guess we are. I told her I would meet her in the other courtyard ready to go in twenty minutes; got up in a daze, dressed and made a pot of tea.
When I found her in the kitchen, she said she needed to go home first to change, so we walked up to her street that was conveniently across from the way to Chilina, my favorite river spot where we’d gone a few weeks before. Her family was away for the day, and when we got to their apartment she asked if we should have some breakfast before setting out — an easy sell for me.
We started making arepas, a requisite for any meal with a Venezuelan, and she played a song on her phone called Cancion del Elegido that she said was her favorite. Song of the chosen. The singer had this high beautiful soprano voice that reminded me of Joan Baez, sounding very much of the 60s, that misty analog production with warm cinematic strings and poignant guitar. I asked who it was, and she said Soledad Bravo, a famous singer from Venezuela. What a name. Karem confessed that one of her worst habits was playing the same song over and over, which drives her family crazy. When it was done she played it again and it was worth hearing a second time.
Somewhere in the second listen I started picking up bits of the words, different than most songs you hear. All the lyrics I could make out were on this biblical scale; philosophical but also a little bit whimsical, in a way that reminded me of the world of The Little Prince. I had to ask what the song was about, and she was embarrassed to admit that it was about Che Guevara, and written by Silvio Rodriguez, a Cuban folk singer. Anything smacking of leftist — let alone these overtly socialist icons — is incredibly unpopular and taboo among Venezuelans abroad. But she said that though she doesn’t like these men, she still likes the song. It was her guilty pleasure to secretly play this song over and over, which I realized she probably doesn’t do when her family is home.
Next she played Silvio Rodriguez’s version, and I liked it right away, maybe even better. This hypnotizing classical guitar picking, an earnest, earthy voice, pleading to you, singing from the heart and rising up to the heavens. Like a Leonard Cohen but with more technically impressive singing. And now the words came across as even more mystical, painting a vision of un animal de galaxia, la Vía Láctea, el cañon del futuro. She played it again and then a live version by Silvio and then went back to the first version. I teased her that she was going to ruin the song, but really didn’t mind a bit. If you were going to live inside a song, this was a good one.
We were cooking the arepas now, and in another pan, a big mess of eggs and chorizo and cheese. She left me in charge and went to take a shower. I took a moment to take stock of where I was in the world, with this lovely girl who just talking to was an excitement, in her family’s tiny apartment kitchen, hung over from the night before, basking a bit in the glories of playing a show, now alone and cooking breakfast. The world felt possible.
She wasn’t there to choose another version of the song, and it finally went to something else, another song by Silvio that was good but not quite as, and I decided this wasn’t right, that only Cancion del Elegido would be played at this moment in time. I went to her phone and played it again and when she came out it was still playing and the food had gotten a little cold, despite my best efforts.
We took it slow but eventually rallied our forces, gathering many plastic grocery bags from her house to fill with trash, and walked just up the street to that one road with high walls covered with flowering vines, that takes a sharp turn and passes under the Chilina bridge. This turns to a dirt road, and we are suddenly in the country, walking past farms, and it occurs to me that it is a beautiful day.
Strangely, when we arrive at the main natural area by the river, there is no one else there for the river cleanup, though we are quite late in arriving, and there is plenty of litter still to be had. No one is cleaning, and no Venezolanos at all, but many Peruanos hanging out with their families in various states of undress, swimming and playing and lounging in the sun. We find a little spot to sit down and reassess, tired from the walk but mostly the late night. Before long we are lying down on the softly enveloping green grass. An hour drifts by in quiet talking and resting with the sound of the current.
At some point I bring myself to a sitting position and announce that I’m going to clean. I don’t even have to stand up yet — you don’t have to reach very far to find some trash. I start filling up a bag with plastic bits and bottles and chip bags, and soon I have had to crawl a bit to get to a wider swath, and now she is up and cleaning too, not to be outdone. Representing the entirety of the Venezuelan Immigrant Refugee population in Perú, Karem Estefania.
We are on our knees reaching down into puddles and pools, and the Peruvians are giving us considering glances, trying to make sense of this behavior. Some of them approve and bring us their trash rather than, I assume, throwing it on the ground. Others just watch, perplexed. Bit by bit, focusing on an area and picking it clean, we fill up bags and bags, and the ground is healed, pristine again. It becomes immensely satisfying and we get lost in the practice and are searching out more and more trash. It has probably been no more than an hour and a half, and we find ourselves having restored the whole area around the pools and riverside, now on the flat ground halfway up the hill, picking up all the litter there.
The day has turned overcast and looks like rain, and all the swimmers are getting their things together and leaving. We are full of good energies, and I tell her about a story from the book “The Alchemist” where the boy is in Morocco and working as an assistant at a shop. He is given the task of polishing and cleaning every lamp in the place. He is resistant at first but the owner tells him that when he polishes the lamps, he is really polishing his own soul. I tell her this is what it feels like we’re doing. She is pleased by this concept and agrees, laughing and going for some more bits of trash — “I need to clean my soul more!”
I don’t tell her that I heard this story read aloud in a little shack house in a Zapatista village in Chiapas seventeen years before, read in rotation with a french woman and a german man, taking turns at night for entertainment for two weeks while we worked as human rights observers. Or that it’s stuck with me ever since, that I think about it almost every time I wash dishes. It may have something to do with me becoming a person who actually enjoys doing dishes. There are too many things to explain, too many stories to tell.
And then we look around and somehow in this whole area a hundred feet long and fifty feet wide, there is no visible trash except for our filled bags tied up, and everyone else has left. A little pattering rain is starting to come down. There is some more trash up river, but we’d have to scramble to even get there. We are feeling satisfied, and the only question left is whether we are really going to swim like we said we were. Every time I’ve been down to this river spot, I’ve considered swimming, but it never quite felt right. That water sure is cold, coming down from snowmelt up on the altiplano above, and enough to dissuade me on every previous occasion.
But in this spiritually charged, open hearted moment there is no way around it but to swim. We pick out a boulder above the biggest pool, and I get down to my boxers and she is just going to wear her clothes in. Down we dip into ice, total reset of consciousness by the mountain water, little drops of rain rippling the pool in between our splashes. She gasps and squeals and quickly scrambles up onto the rock, giggling. I climb out slowly and make my way to sit, shivering and smiling. We did it and are pumped and hi-five each other.
But she’s not done. She gets back in, and lowers herself so that she’s lying on her back, reclining her full body underwater, then staying submerged. I am impressed. Now her upper body breaks the surface and she has a mile-wide smile, pure joy written across her face. She leans back on her arms, and then to my further amazement she submerges again and stays under a long time, long enough for the waters to still so I can see her lying on the stones at the bottom, holding her nose. I am slightly momentarily worried — she looks so much like a dead girl — but then I am struck by the impulse to take a picture of this perfect moment, and selfishly do. And she comes up again and is laughing and I am laughing back and we are very happy and I realize that this is the best day I can remember for a long time.
Postscript: It turns out that the Venezolano community did in fact do a cleanup. Theirs was just above the Puente Grau bridge, a place that not many people use for river access, but much more visible to the city. Walking across the bridge a couple days later, it was such a pleasure to look out and just see river and trees and plants and rocks, not human trash. And the cleaners had left a mark — a large peace sign of river stones. As an unreformed hippie, I liked this message, but the Peruvians apparently didn’t, and it was dismantled within a few days. So it goes.