Speaking of Peru

After 4 months teaching English in Manizales, Colombia, and a few more weeks seeing Equador, including Quito and Guayaquil, we ended up in Lima, Peru. It was winter in South America and being almost a thousand miles off the equator, Lima had a slightly snippy season. Another thing about Lima made it chilly (- but not yet Chile). An atmospheric quirk brings the cold Humbolt current up the Pacific Ocean from Antartica, just about non-stop. At a point in Peru, the Humbolt Current hits a southerly current bearing down from the Equator plus some hot desert winds from northern Peru. This creates an almost perpetual fog for most of 300 days a year. That place, where the major fogbank hovers, is Lima, the major city in Peru.

There is a local joke about why Lima resides in a perpetual fog bank. Apparently the conqueror Pizzaro had flashed his muskets and cannons and subdued the local Indians. The Indians had little use for wars and mostly fished the Pacific and farmed the countryside. Pizzaro was standing in one of the pensive poses he used for statues, all bejangled with armor and thinking about where they should build the imperial city of Lima. Why not ask the local Indians? They live here, they would know the best spot. So they asked a few of the tribal leaders where the best spot to build a city would be. The Indian leaders confabed for a moment and then, holding back laughter, both pointed to the same spot. Pizzaro had not been around all year, thought it was a nice piece of land, so and ordered the city of Lima built in that spot. The Indian laborers were laughing insanely as they carried out Pizzaro’s wish, and they were always pleased to laughter again, for all their lived, when they passed the cloud of Lima where all the fancy Spanish doings, balls and ceremonies, were going on within the cloud shroud.

We visited the local Centro-Americano school there, and I was asked to give a few classes. Someone said I should go see the Embassy about giving lectures in the major cities. As it turned out, they did want to send someone around to show the branches they cared about them, and so it looked like I was it. They gave me a South American Honorary Doctorate so it looked like I knew something, and left it to me to come up with the topics. The level of English I would speak was 4, which meant simple sentences and about 1000 words and lots of gestures and acting out what I was talking about. A podium was a hinderance to this kind of walkaround speaking, so I usually jumped down from the podium and walked up close to the first rows. Especially when there is no sound system, one does better to get as close to the action as possible.

Sometimes you have to fumble through your past to dredge up a connection for the present. Since the needed to come up with press releases for these two-night visits to major Peruvian cities, I had to think of topics people would like. One was “The History of the English Language.” Now little did they know that that was the only “C” I ever got in graduate school. The tombs of dreary middle English poems and sermons had had a sleep inducing effect on me, I guess. But then no one here knew that I was hardly an expert. Dr. Hon was the way they put it in the newspaper. The other subject was one I knew a little about from talking with my friend Dale at the UCLA film school. I showed them about how to tell a story with close-up and panning and tilting and cutting with understood inference, like seeing a lion from afar and then instantly cutting to his snarling mug. This sort of movie apparently terrified aborigines who had never seen film, but most of the audience would know that this was a visual language, so I called the second talk “Cinema: The Existential Language.” I have no idea what that title meant, but it sounded good in the press release.

So off we went across Peru, Brenda and I riding in nice train coaches now and being met by the Mayor or a town of a few million people and going out to dinner with he and his wife and staying at the grandest hotel in town. The Mayor and his wife would show us the newspaper press release and I was amazed to be the very guy in the picture (, who would be talking about his “C” subject and his Existential Language).

This is definitely the way to travel. We were in Cuzco, an ancient Inca city, and I was told that I was the first American since Robert Kennedy to speak in that auditorium. That fresh in my halo, we took a side trip down to Machu Picchu and stayed in a small 12 room hotel right in the ruins on the Andes ridge. We climbed the terraced mountains and traveled all the surrounding trails by which fresh fish had – centuries ago — been brought by runners from the Pacific. Their Inca rulers had resided in this city hidden from viewers below by the angle of the slope up, and by the cleverness of the ancient architects. The stones fit perfectly together in a way the historians could not account for with the crude tools they had then. Many believed they had been helped by alien wanderers from the skies. They even had the world UFO convention in Machu Picchu one year. Obviously travelogs talk about this, but I should too. Most of the water had to be carried to a high point in Machu Picchu, so that it served various functions as it flowed downward through channels. Highest was for drinking and cooking, and then the animals could drink it at another level. Then the same water was used for washing clothes and further down, to water the crops. It was probably repeated 1000 times across the ancient world, but here in Machu Picchu you could see the simple utility of their city planning.

At night, when all the tourists had gone home, we wandered back into the well-preserved ruins, in the Sierra light at evening. Llamas occasionally frisked in and out of stone doorways. And somewhere back in the city, a dishwasher off for the evening sat playing an Indian flute.

It was an addictive way of life, but the truth was we were almost broke and anything we earned here would last about a day in the States, so the attractiveness of all this was actually becoming a trap.

Back in Lima, I tried to establish contact with David Ward, who had behaved more responsibly than I, got his PhD, and was now the head of the English Department in a small college in Oklahoma. Before we left he said that if he got the job then perhaps we could find one for me. It was time to start seeking our way out of South America. In 1971, this was not as easy as dialing up on a cell phone. In fact, there were no public lines to the States except in Peru’s Ministry of Communication (or some such). To make a call to the States to find out if I could get a job with Ward at the small college, I had first to buy some “telephone stamps.” Then I had to give the “telephone stamps” (pretty things with South American birds on them) to a sort of teller in a window behind bars, and tell them where to call in the States. Then I had to go and sit on an ornate wooden bench that might have been used as a church pew – and I sat for hours. They’d call and it was busy and they would give me my stamps back and then I would give them their stamps back and have them make another call and after a few more hours they said the person was not in. Getting one call through took me three days of stamps and sitting on a hard pew just to get a long distance call through. The world is better now. With all its sins, it is better.

The call went through and David Ward had my job, but I would have to come from Peru to Oklahoma and meet his boss. That meant risking most of the money we had on that plane fare, and leaving Brenda in Lima for several days while I tried to get this only Stateside job that it looked like I could get from here.

Before I left, we did move around Lima, and noted the better eating places (which would not be rife with paramecium, for a change) and observed other peculiarities of the city. Here’s one for the road: At Guzman Blanco plaza, three major highways converged on the world’s fastest roundabout — with the cars going 60 mph. At Guzman Blanco, the two and three-story buildings of Lima were thus on pie-shaped blocks, each coming to a point at the roundabout. To follow one road by foot, the pedestrian would have to cross three major highways at these intersections, just to continue in the same direction. Merely walking there was death-defying, and people waited parts of an hour for traffic to clear enough to cross each highway. So… given this constant, fast-moving traffic, where the buildings’ narrowest points came right up to the roundabout, where would you imagine the Peruvians built their National Institute for the Blind?

Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

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