9) Ayacucho, from Under the Influence of Altitude

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July 10th 2010
Published: July 14th 2010
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Spiffy Plaza de Armas...
For the longest time I have looked forward to seeing Ayacucho. A classic university town, it has shed its notorious reputation as the intellectual birthplace for the Shining Path. Nowadays, the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) has left Ayacucho behind and has taken to the jungle for the economic pursuits of drug trafficking. In its wake is a vibrant and energetic city reborn yet still eschewed by the foreign masses. From Lima it is a long ride. From Huancavelica it is a shorter one, but completely hideous. Coming north from Cusco is a twenty-plus hour affair, which brings into question why anyone would take the risk of long-distance bus travel in Peru.
Rosalinda and I have dragged our belongings to our room two blocks from the Plaza de Armas. The sun’s rays are waning. We are shattered following the ride from Huancavelica. I grab the key from the receptionist and glance at the defeated look on her face. I can only imagine what is going through Rosalinda’s mind: Two weeks with this guy? What am I doing here? What was I thinking? For most of the last few hours, we haven’t spoken to each other, not out of consternation rather there has
Central StatueCentral StatueCentral Statue

In the Plaza de Armas...
been very little to say. I need a little bit of reassurance that her travel bubble has not burst with me. “Rosalinda, are you OK?”
Uh huh. “Are you sure?” I addressed her bluntly having slightly bent down to look her straight in the yes.
“Sí.” she reassured me. She squeezed my hand and struggles to produce a faint, but sincere smile.
“You’ll feel better in a while. In this order: shower, nap, dinner. Those three things will totally turn around your disposition.”
Soft yellow light of incandescent street lamps accentuates Ayacucho’s hidden reputation as a colonial treasure. Pedestrians pound wide promenades full of nocturnal activity, yet without stress. It is a young town. Students have been relieved of their academic obligations for the day and huddle together in cafés and restaurants with HD TV screens. Markets heave with shoppers. I am aware that Ayacucho’s sublime central womb of clean arcades and stately churches is only ten percent of the city. I will most likely not foray into where most of the populace lives. It reminds me of Querétaro, Mexico, a sparkling center of twenty or so square blocks encased by frightful, intimidating, and collapsing urban sprawl.
While in
Plaza de ArmasPlaza de ArmasPlaza de Armas

View from breakfast table...
the shower, I assigned Rosalinda a map of the gridded street around the Plaza de Armas. At a far corner two blocks away I wanted to find a place recommended to me, Magia Negra. Shoes on, shaven, and in a new set of clothes, we walked up Jirón Arequipa to the main square. For the next twenty minutes, the two blocks eluded us. She had not memorized the street name and her sense of direction was, well, that of a herd of wildebeest. No closer to a cold refreshing bottle of brewed happy or my well deserved dinner, I escorted her to the side of the road near one of countless mobile phone shops.
“Where are we?”
“Well, it has to be right here because-“
“You didn’t answer my question. Where are we?” I should have laid off her a bit. I was being far too impolite. Families scooted by as did a police foot patrol. Rosalinda tried to recover, “We need to get the entrance of the main square called El Portal de Los Incas and then-“
I abruptly shut her off. “Rosalinda,” I repeated myself deliberately and placed a pause between each word of my question. I was
Balcony on Plaza de ArmasBalcony on Plaza de ArmasBalcony on Plaza de Armas

I would have taken more photos of Ayacucho, but the bacteria got in the way...
getting hungry and losing my patience. “do…you…know…where…we…are?”
“It is OK to admit you don’t know. We can simply ask.”
“OK.” I tapped the shoulder of a businessman with a cell phone affixed to his belt by the hip. He made a phone call and pointed us four blocks away on the opposite side of the square. We weren’t even close.
We made it to the nightspot with little trouble passing travel agencies advertising flights from Ayacuho to Cusco…for $230. It looks like we’ll be on another bus ride from hell. A block away, I prodded Rosalinda for an answer already intimately familiar to me. “Why can’t you” you plural, Latin American folks, “simply say ‘I don’t know?’ Is it all that hard?”
The fact is it’s true. Ask anyone south of the Río Grande for directions and they are incapable of saying they do not know. They have to save face. To save their fragile egos from embarrassment, most will send others in a general direction far from themselves so there will no chance for a second encounter after becoming even more hopelessly lost. They will often say, “I am sure it’s in that area. Just ask and they’ll know where to send you.” But you’ll never here, “Sorry, señor, I do not know.”
Rosalinda hemmed and hawed. She looked up to a church tower. She did not answer. “You just cannot admit it, can you? Three simple words…I…don’t…know. Try it.”

She ignored me. I dropped the topic. We entered a portal draped in velvet curtains to keep the night chill out. We sat down and the waiter answered in the positive when I asked if the drinks were chilled and not at room temperature. Open black umbrellas were suspended upside down from the ceiling, greatly dimming the power of the lights. He then indicated that the menu was full of brick oven pizzas. A cold bottle of happy arrived. “I think we’ll be here for a while,” I said to Rosalinda. This is where our recovery begins.” We felt better, even refreshed and were deserving of a hot meal. Conversations flowed as did tunes of Bossa Nova and jazz. Magia Negra is a student hangout as well as for other intellectuals. Not surprisingly, the owner has hung typical lefty placards. One espouses Bob Marley’s connection and approval of cannabis. Nearby is the mandatory Che Guevara t-shirt. It curiously does not glorify the only thing the man was good at…murdering people. A framed psychedelic peace symbol rests below. The dilemma with establishments like Magia Negra is that they are so intrinsically appealing and universally interesting. A poster above the refrigerator is of the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. Not soon after I inquired about its origin, Juan Carlos spoke of his affinity for Green Day. Though out of my age bracket, I tended to agree. The handsome college grad took care of us. Conversation ebbed and flowed. He poked and prodded into my background until he hit a sweet spot, South American and American literature. He reads voraciously. Comments went back and forth between trying to understand what in the world Jorge Luis Borges was trying to say in “The Garden of Forking Paths” to whether that had anything to do with the Guatemalan Miguel Ángel Asturias. I could hardly keep up and I doubt I made much sense. Juan Carlos’ excitement was palpable. His attention was interrupted only when a beautiful young woman walked through the entrance, whom he would undress with his eyes before asking me about my take on Hemmingway. Next to me Rosalinda kept quiet. While at university in Juliaca, she did her best to avoid the Romantic period of the 1800’s or surrealists of the last century. She felt out of place. I put my hand on her right shoulder, leaned over, and whispered to her, “Don’t worry, I haven’t talked about this stuff in years. I am only pretending to know half of what is being discussed.”
She cracked a smile and we moved the topic of conversation to relationships, right in her wheelhouse and for me a language more foreign than Hebrew. The hours lingered on and other bar staff joined as fewer customers needed attention. As the only woman, the men peppered her with questions, some of them direct and uncomfortable even for me. Nevertheless she held her own and for a country where machismo is deeply ingrained Rosalinda was taken as an equal. I observed her comfort and confidence level grow. New to chatting with unfamiliar folks in a dark, dim, and smoky lounge, she was doing well enough. Her head was above water all the time. We crossed the Plaza de Armas back to the hotel. Some of the lamps were lit; some have been extinguished for a long time. Near midnight, few horns honked. Quiet was settling in for a handful of hours. A few homeless men were asleep on the benches. “Do you feel better? Did you have a good time?”
“Sí. I am not used to it. Peruvians do not go out like that.”
“Wait until we get to Cusco.”

Much to my disappointment, I have not been able to soak in as much of Ayacucho as I planned several months ago. Currently my lower intestinal tract is the setting of something between the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the some of the scenes in “300”. Rosalinda has looked after me. Without asking, she has left and brought back medicine to combat everything from my digestive eruptions to an earache.
I groaned while clenching my abdomen. A guttural rumble emanating from my bowels resonated throughout the room. “What was that?” she asked in shock.
“I think the Spartans and the Persians are having a go at it.” I examined the contents of the plastic bag. “Whoa! Look at all this stuff! You must have cleared out have the pharmacy. I already have antibiotics,” Ciproflox specifically. It has saved me on many a trip. I made a run for the toilet.
“I have some pain killers, something for a fever, and-“
“I don’t have a fever.”
“Por si acaso…” Just in case.
During the afternoon, we watched the semifinal between Uruguay and the Dutch. At times, my internal bursts and discharges drowned out the sound of the vuvuzelas.


15th July 2010

Your version: "During the afternoon, we watched the semifinal between Uruguay and the Dutch. At times, my internal bursts and discharges drowned out the sound of the vuvuzelas." My version: My uncontrollable sobs of fear, frustration and exhaustion culminated in the simple villagers ancient practice of tying me to a tree by the broad brook that floods in heavy downpours near the contaminated copper processing plant’s slurry pools serviced by the overloaded rubble trucks with questionable brakes resulting in a series of remonstrations in broken Spanish and some fragments of Dutch which "drowned out the sound of the vuvuzelas" and in that moment they say I broke free and spent several weeks in the alpine forests. But World Cup? Boy, THAT was great! See the difference? Little more imaginative? Seems very real for the armchair traveler though. Just try’in to help.
15th July 2010

much healthiness
glad to hear you are keeping healthy. Your blog has been helping while away the nunerous hrs spent caring for my mum in hospital.

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