Last week, one of my colleagues claimed I looked “tanned” (impossible) while another remarked I looked very relaxed (true). But this “tan” is really my physical being having settled into the pace of my native land during our two-week vacation.
Just about everything experienced during the time we spent in Peru was in sheer contrast to my everyday life. Let’s start with the weather: we left a silent and frigid Midwest February wrapped in wool and fleece and landed in an 80-degree night of shorts and hustling taxi drivers. Just like summer, Latin America is made of noise, energy and exuberance. Peru is like the swarthy and wild boyfriend who is the opposite of every boy you’ve ever dated; his songs are beautiful and his sense of adventure makes you feel awake and alive, so you fall hard.
Something magical happens to my cells when I return to my country of birth. Time slows down and corners soften. I breathe more slowly, I sleep and wake at my body’s (not my alarm’s) bequest, I make plans but don’t worry if they fail to happen. Schedules in Peru are never firm, nor is the clock, and this becomes a gift to my overly-scheduled and rigorous life. In the United States, everything works: businesses are open for your convenience, traffic lights are respected, and fruit is available year-round. In Peru, it is entirely possible that a business says it will open at a given time but it doesn’t actually, no one really pays attention to traffic lights or rules of the road (driver to me: “don’t use turn signals because it lets people know where you are going and they will never let you by!”) and fruit appears only when it is in season, otherwise you will pay lots of money for something that doesn’t taste good. And oh my goodness, how good ripe fruit is. How amazing the slightly imperfectly shaped fruit is – the bananas are sweet before they turn black, the papaya is firm and juicy, not mushy, the avocados creamy every time. I ate so many granadillas that I could have probably become a bird, and every single one was sweet and ripe and also a little dented. Turns out imperfection tastes good.
Then there’s the food – oh, the food. Peruvian food has firmly established itself in the world’s gastronomy, and I’m glad about that. But for me, Peruvian food is the stuff my childhood is made of. The food is real, tasty, and bewitching. If eating was a sport, my family and I have returned to the U.S. Olympic champions, having eaten our way through three regions of my native land: the coastal fusion of the Spanish and Japanese, the many potatoes, quinoa and gourds of the Andes’ Native Peruvian heritage and the fruits of the Amazon. The only thing we did not try was cuy (the guinea pig which is the staple of so many Andean families), and only out of respect for Louie, our beloved Christmas Cuy who will be four this year. (One of the girls wasn’t too worried about offending Louie; she really wanted a taste. But the prospect of purchasing a cuy-on-a stick by the roadside in Pisac seemed a little too adventurous even for this Peruvian native mama).
While this was not my daughters’ first visit to Peru, it was certainly the first time they were old enough to take more of the culture in. Children are amazing – put them anywhere and they adapt. As we traveled through Lima, Cuzco and the Sacred Valley, the girls quickly became comfortable with their surroundings. It was wonderful to watch as they ran in Ollantaytambo’s original alleyways, skipping over Inca aqueducts and saying hello to local kids, perfectly comfortable in a landscape very different from where they are growing up. The unfinished buildings, not-so-new-cars, old paint on the walls, Peruvians dressed in their local garb and people making a living in resourceful ways – all of these were things I wanted them to experience. When we visited an orphanage in Lima, they felt sympathy but not pity, interacting with children. They asked lots of curious questions and befriended a few kids, hoping that they would somehow be included in the shenanigans of carnival, a time of year when Peruvian children run about hiding water balloons and pelting eachother. Near the base of Machu Picchu, a stray puppy decided to play with them and earned their hearts – they would have liked to bring him along with us.
My grandparents’ are gone, and so are their homes which housed my memories of Christmas and summer and meals and the scent of jasmine blossoms. Their bodies are under green grass and behind marble tombstones, which we visited as a family. Children are incredibly brave around death, asking questions and wanting to touch the cold marble. I was buoyed by my girls’ bravery, and managed to climb up the wooden ladder to touch my grandmother’s stone. Each time I go, I think I will manage better – and yet, I always swallow a sob when I see her name on that stone. Her house, where we spent so many summers, has been long sold and has a tall concrete wall shielding it from the street. When we were kids, this wall was a parapet, which was perfect for hiding and pelting other kids with water balloons during February carnaval. My paternal grandfather’s house has fared no better: its location is right around the corner from my parents’ current apartment, but in its place stands a large, modern and beautiful building. So my memories of his house are even less concrete–the cuculi songs (turtledoves), marble floors, wall colors, the pool where we were not supposed to swim after we ate (but we did anyway) and the lucuma ice cream we used to steal and sneak past the vigilant maid.
It is an odd thing, to see my parents be the generation on top, back in Lima after thirty years abroad. For my father, Peru has become a comfortable space, and he has settled into his crossword puzzles, calls to the mechanic regarding the Karmann Ghia he is rebuilding, and planning his meals and social visits. But my mother still craves life and adventure and love, and she is not ready to sit and watch television while someone cooks her meals. She misses the freedom and self-reliance the U.S. gave her, and is still searching for balance.
For me, each visit to Peru reveals a new layer of my roots in this land, but one thing never seems to change: I find deep peace in all of Peru’s imperfection. There is a sigh of relief in the disorganized and noisy life that is Lima. Perhaps my brief childhood there was enough to imprint me so that when I return, a large part of me feels at home. Last time I visited, years ago, I was preoccupied with a crumbling relationship and out of touch with my life. The visit swirled around me, and I watched it as if it were a movie playing before me. This time, I was fully present and at peace with my life and all its changes. I was really there.
Being happy and settled in my life also allowed me to connect with others in Peru. When my life was complicated and filled with self-concerns, there was no room for others. But this time, happily married, healthy, and calm, there was indeed room. I felt my relatives’ lives deeply – their joys, their challenges, new children and grandchildren, disease, joy. As we visited Cuzco and the sacred valley, I felt connected to strangers working their way through their lives just as I was. Our tour guide, an Andean man, spent three days with us teaching us about our country and shared details of his own family and dreams of showing people the Quechua connection between agriculture and livelihood. We may have a guinea pig in a fancy cage while he and his family raised about 50 at a time, but at the end of the day we cared about the same things: our children, our work, and the health of our planet.
Often when we find ourselves melancholic or sad, we assume something is wrong with our lives. After this trip, I believe being able to feel deep emotions for others is a gift which creates connection. Feeling for your aging parents or sick cousins, longing for children at the orphanage, or wishing joy for a stranger on the street can mean your own life is at peace enough for you to have room to do so. So often we run away from things that make us sad or uncomfortable, but perhaps it is time for us to look at these opportunities as a gift to connect with our loved ones and even strangers. What made this trip magical was not just the warmth, the food, the views, or the sounds, but the people my heart felt so open to. The people who gave me a different perspective of want and need. The man at the square in Ollantaytambo who told my girls, “it is so good to see little sisters love eachother!” The woman at the Sacred Valley Andean craft market in a tiny town of dusty streets who looked me in the eye and said, “I am happy to work, I like to come here every day and interact with people. My life is happy.”
Something about Peru always calls me back. Each time I visit I think, I could stay here, and part of me always does. But the physical part of me returns to the job and the chauffeuring and the grocery shopping and the cooking and the laundry of my life in the Midwest. But I always come back with more gratitude for what I have in my small house with my beloved family. Thanks to Peru, its noise and messy streets and street vendors and smiles, I come back with more love for my imperfect and beautiful life, and all the loose ends of my life scattered all over the world come together again.