Friday, January 31, 2014

Stone, sun, snow: a white city

Arequipa is called la ciudad blanca - the white city. The nickname comes primarily from the white sillar from which many of the colonial buildings were constructed. Sillar looks to my prairie eyes like limestone, but is in fact a volcanic rock.

Arequipa is located some distance north of the Atacama Desert, the driest desert in the world, which extends up from Chile into southern Peru. Flying into the city, one is reminded of photographs of the lunar surface. Although Arequipa sits at 2300 m above sea level, it is located in the valley of the Rio Chili, and is dwarfed by the surrounding mountains. Directly north of the city looms Chachani.

Slightly to the east of Chachani is the volcanic cone of El Misti.

And further east again, often looking small or invisible in the dusty haze, is the long range of Picchu Picchu.

In the summer there is enough rain to keep the sky blue and put snow on the mountains. In the desiccated winter, the valley fills with dust and the mountains sit bare. The sky is a dull ivory over the white city. To the south and west of Arequipa lie smaller mountains and a seemingly interminable wasteland. However, the sea is only a little over 100 kilometres away along a twisting steep highway.

Located between altiplano and ocean, Arequipa has been a crossroads since at least the twelfth century AD. The colonial city of Villa de la Asunción de Nuestra Señora del Valle Hermoso de Arequipa ("The City of the Ascension of Our Lady of the Beautiful Valley of Arequipa") was founded in 1540. Unlike some other cities in Peru, including both Cusco and Lima, Arequipa was not a major centre before conquest. It lay on the southwestern reaches of the empire, and was not a seat of power or contested ground in the war between the Inca and the Spanish. From the time of the colonial city's inception, therefore, it grew into a predominantly Spanish oasis of ranchers, churches, and cloisters, including the famous Monasterio de Santa Catalina, the "city within a city" where the daughters of wealthy Spanish families both here and in the homeland would be sent to live out their days in luxurious piety. Before the days of highway and air travel, the city must have seemed a remote oasis indeed - high in the southern desert, removed from yet serving to link together the sierra and the costa.

Given the city's historic blend of isolation and urbanity, it is no wonder that the Arequipans see themselves as a people apart ... and are often considered by other Peruvians to be dour, fussy, eurocentric, petty intellectual snobs. The Spanish presence and the city's history are thus the secondary reason given for the moniker "the white city."

When I look at old Arequipa - the clothing, the architecture, the cuisine, the environment - it seems rarefied and captivating. There is something in the sunbleached stone, the fine embroidery, the breathtaking mountains, the desert plants and ancient irrigation canals and wooden flutes, that calls me. Shopping malls and Starbucks and concrete and minivans threaten the city's beauty now. But then, the old Arequipa I imagine has probably never truly existed. Many Arequipans lament the modern growth of the city not only because it diminishes its antique beauty, but because it has in their view triggered an influx of poor indigenous people from the highlands.

It is true that this migration has contributed to the growth of shantytowns. Poor people, be they children selling candy through car windows or old men trying to get you to pay 20 cents to be weighed on their battered old scale, appear in increasing numbers despite (or because of) the city's economic growth. And people living in poverty, especially in the city, are certainly associated with socioeconomic ills. Here they are also far more likely to be indigenous than the wealthy are. But rather than see this as an infrastructural problem in need of a remedy, many upper class Peruvians seem to see the indigenous poor as almost a separate species, and an inherently uneducated and impoverished one.

Not a day passes here wherein I am not taken aback at some petty racism, some unthinking disregard for another because they are not of the right colour or class. I can't count the number of times I've been conspiratorially told "they can't be taught," or "they don't have any interest in bettering themselves," or "they're just different from us". And of course it triggers my own prejudice, and engages my own privilege. I find myself quietly condemning those of Spanish descent, so jealously guarding their advantage, while doubtless romanticizing or exoticizing those whose blood is more indigenous, because I think I'm just so damned international and enlightened. And then I try to check my jackass gringa and look past stereotypes, without inadvertently condoning or contributing to racism and classism.

I hope it's getting better and that, with the passage of time and the impressive political awareness and drive of lower class Peruvians, someday the only whiteness Arequipans yearn for is that of the dazzling sillar. And really, the whiteness isn't even the nicest part. Arequipa is transformed in cloud and in twilight. Once the sun is behind the mountains and the whole valley is a smudge of pastels and dust, I am reminded of Paul Simon's words*:
Rainbows in the high desert air
Mountain passes slipping into stone
Hearts and bones

All of these people have this place in their hearts and in their bones. May they find a way to preserve and cherish all that is good about it, without shutting one another out.

*Yes, I know he totally appropriated El Condor Pasa. I recognize the potential irony of including him in this post. Hearts and Bones is still a really pretty song.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

When we were fearless

I happened upon an article recently, by way of a friend and fellow mother, that talked about the trauma adolescence wreaks upon parents. This was of course just the thing for my already frazzled parenting-a-preteen nerves, and so I seized upon it. The part that really grabbed me, though, wasn't actually about the woes of parenting teens at all. It read as follows, and the fact that it caught my eye seems to me to be a perfect example of how, when we're working through an issue, we find applicability and resonance everywhere:

From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that adolescents might be more disposed toward risk. Human beings need incentives to leave the family nest. Leaving home is dangerous.

Leaving home is dangerous. Leaving home is dangerous. And yet when I did it the first time, heading off to Brazil at the age of 17 and having never been apart from my parents for more than a week or two, I felt no fear. It was utterly exhilarating. I felt bold and adventurous and competent and special and almost superhuman. Of course I wasn't so much flying the nest as I was hopping halfway across the world into another nest, and I proceeded to cry and mope and stay out all night and aggravate my exchange parents and bemoan imaginary hardships, because that's what teenagers do best. But I went and I wasn't scared.

Fear, and its grey boring old relation, worry, have never figured much into my travels or really how I approach life. As a child I tended to be afraid of imaginary things, like ghosts or body snatchers or demons or having blood drawn by a competent professional in a sterile environment or walking into my own room and flipping on the light, only to discover my own self lying there in the bed and looking back at me. You know, wholesome normal childhood fears like we all have. I did not fear violence or abandonment, nor was I worried about hunger or cold. The only reason to go anywhere else, to move on, that I have ever known is pure wanderlust. It has never been want or necessity. So why should I have been afraid to fly halfway across the world? I was a young, smart, outgoing, able bodied white girl of means. I was too green and privileged for fear to occur to me.

Privilege isn't all of it, though. What I was doing was my personal version of what people do in that heady overblown phase of late adolescence, when we're old enough and brave enough to dare and too young to have second thoughts. We go out into the world and we take it on. I wasn't starting a family, or even getting my own apartment. I certainly wasn't going to war, which plenty of kids that age have done and continue to do, and for which some of my peers shockingly yearned. The magnificent Dar Williams wrote a song entitled "Teenagers, Kick Our Butts," in which she said, "Find your voice, do what it takes/Make sure you make lots of mistakes/And find the future that redeems/Give us hell, give us dreams". Not high art, perhaps, but there is something to the idea that the very moment we become adults is the moment to act, to jump onto whatever wave is propelling us into maturity and ride it for all it's worth before sense sets in.

So maybe what causes adolescence to be so fraught with emotion and so fearless is the mix of newly minted cognitive and physical maturity with blissful ignorance. And if youthful ignorance is bliss, then the fear and worry that come with age and knowledge should be no surprise.

You might be asking what any of this has to do with Peru.

In the normal course of these things, I have traded youth for knowledge and fearlessness for experience. But while age is a cliched marker for courage, ignorance, and enthusiasm, I think we tend to discount the ways in which those things interrelate regardless of age. Fear and knowledge, or the lack of either or both of them, connect in different ways for us depending on who we are. There are those of us who start out fearful of the unknown, and there are those of us to whom fear only occurs as knowledge dawns. I fall squarely into the latter group, and it is here that Peru comes in. When I first moved to Peru, the move did not seem dangerous or risky. I knew very little about the country. Had I known more, I would have feared more (more on that later). I also knew very little about my children. I realize that sounds odd, but they were after all very small and their needs and worlds were correspondingly so. I knew only - not little, exactly, but - a very particular version of myself which was not coincidentally interlaced with my knowledge of my children. What I did know was that I trusted my husband to be both good at his job and working for a good company (well founded trust, as comes as no surprise to anyone). And I continued to be bright, outgoing, able, white, and comfortably off, if somewhat less young. What, again, was there to fear?

I had an excellent, if somewhat cloistered, 14 months in Peru. I made a few friends, and I stay in touch with a few of them. They are fantastic people. I tended the children and to a lesser extent the home. I ate in safe and fashionable restaurants and shopped and donated a respectable bit of time and money to charity. I hosted guests and prepped for the LSAT. I became reasonably knowledgeable about tourism in Peru, but learned embarrassingly little about the country's history or current political environment. I knew the basics of the Spanish conquest, but nothing of the country's road to independence. I knew that there had been economic turmoil and widespread deprivation in the 1980s, but I didn't know how the country had overcome this. I knew there had been terrorist activity in the past, most infamously by the Shining Path, but I didn't know why or how it had abated. There was a federal election in 2006 and I knew who the candidates were but could not have told you how many administrative regions existed in Peru, let alone how the election was playing out in them. For someone with degrees in international relations and history, and a minor in "Hispanic studies", I was woefully uninformed and disinterested.

Eight years have passed nearly to the day since we first came to Arequipa. I have left home, again, and this time it feels like taking a risk. I know so much more now than I did then. I know what it is to live in Peru, in Arequipa. I know a little more about Peru's history and political climate, and while this is not cause for fear it does make me less blithe in the face of 2.5 years here. I now know my children's fears and hopes. I know more about their personalities, their strengths and their weaknesses. I know how and why to concern myself with their future. And I know more about myself. I am a professional now, and I've invested time and money and a great deal of myself into so becoming. I know that if I don't work at keeping current, the transition back to working in Canada may be rough. It behooves me to worry a little, to allow in a bit of fear.

When we were fearless, we were full of potential, but lacked perspective. We were daring, but often oblivious. As I have gained perspective and knowledge, and some fear in the bargain, I've seen areas of potential I didn't before. In the words of Dar Williams again, this time in The Pointless Yet Poignant Crisis of a Co-Ed, "I am older now, I know the rise and gradual fall of a daily victory." I'm now in a better position to make the most out of the time in Arequipa, for me and for the family. I think that I'm in a better position to seek out useful work. I hope that losing a bit of my fearlessness will not cause me to retreat, but instead to become a more thoughtful and effective person. I may not be fearless anymore, but in learning to identify risks, I can recognize the ones worth taking.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Going Home

I have long enjoyed the idea of being semi-nomadic. Certainly, we both love to travel and we get itchy feet when we're in one place for too long. We take some pride in our love of moving around, living in new and different places, not getting tied down to one location. In the twenty years since I graduated from high school I have lived in 14 houses and apartments in 8 towns and cities - not counting the university summers I spent abroad. The longest I've lived in one house as an adult was 4 years. Apart from the house we bought in MacGregor - and only lived in for a few months - we've also always rented. So it's easy to consider ourselves nomads.

And yet, when I think about it, I have not moved around nearly as much as some and certainly not much at all in my early life.