It has been an absolutely fabulous month here in Peru, largely thanks to the great people I have met and traveled with. We are going out for a goodbye dinner in an hour and then tomorrow morning I will board a plane for Buenos Aires. I am really looking forward to getting to know BA, everyone tells me it is amazing. See you in Argentina…
Maybe it was all the dust emanating from the northern Peruvian desert. Or the physical ugliness of the city of Chiclayo. Or the maddening lack of detail at some of the museums. Or just the viewing of one too many decapitated heads, mummified remains, Moche vessels, or gold head dresses. Whatever the cause, somewhere between the fabulous remains and ruins of Sipan and Sican, I began to suffer archeological overload.
I realize that It is time to change my themes and country. Which falls at a really good time, as I happen to have a plane ticket to Buenos Aires leaving on Tuesday.
– Why, in a city of this size are there so many banks? They are everywhere, and they are usually crazy busy with people and long lines. Is there really THAT much banking that people need to do? Or is it just that the internet isn’t caught on enough here for people to take care of most of that online?
– There are a LOT of cake and pastry shops here as well
– Like several other colonial cities I have been to that are laid out on a grid (Merida, Campeche, etc), there is a strange game of traffic chicken that takes place at every intersection. All the cars honk as they approch the intersection and none seem to have the right of way. To say nothing of the pedestrians scrambling to avoid being hit.
This place reminds me a LOT of Campeche in Mexico. The style of a lot of the architecture is strikingly similar, the buildings are likewise painted colorfully, and the general sense is of a never extremely wealthy city.
My friend Christian asked me for a little help writing an “Artist’s Statement” in English for inclusion in a ceramics exhibition in Korea in which he is a participant. Christian and I have the same feeling about the utter ridiculousness of artists’ statements. The idea that one needs a guide to formal work like ceramics or sculpture, as if there is some code to decipher, is a little silly. But then again, it is often how the art world operates. If the narrative is compelling, so goes the art. Oftentimes without this compelling narrative, no notice will be taken of the work on its own. The intersection of these things is fascinating.
Christian and I started playing a little game, assigning all kinds of meaning to the work that was never part of his intent. And then we hit on an extraordinary idea. What would the art world denizens be expecting of a Peruvian ceramics artist? What would the committee putting together the expo want or need for their interest to be piqued? It was pretty obvious (and unfortunate), but we both agreed that they would want something “authentic”, “Peruvian”, and above all “native”. This is sadly the way much of the art world needs to interact with objects from other cultures. It is pretty insulting, actually. The idea being that authenticity must flow from some quasi colonial/imperial idea of original culture. If Christian were to say that his influences were Bauhaus architects of the 1920s, it would probably be met with much less interest than saying he was trying to recover pre-Spanish (and pre-Inca) images of earth mother and earth father. As a Peruvian artist, it is much more “authentic” to repair the destruction of colonialism than it would be to express yourself as a citizen of the world where influences come from everywhere. This is an insulting trap for artists the world over.
In today’s world, this search for the “authentic” and “native” is more than a little silly. With modern communications and media being what they are, everything is a jumble of everything. While it might soothe some remote aesthete to believe they can find unadulterated purity, it is a fantasy. And this fantasy is not limited to art consumers. In my own travels I have been confronted time and again with the platonic ideal of the authentic smashing up against the real and messy mix of cultures that is the modern world. I think back to one of my favorite stories, told to me by my friend Marites. When she and her husband were traveling for the first time in India, they were invited by relatives of an Indian family they knew in Berkeley to come for a visit. The village was a bit off the beaten track, and my friends were quite tired when they finally arrived, happy to be welcomed into a home in the midst of all the chaos of Indian culture. As they settled in, the mother of the household offered them chai. My friend took it with great pleasure and care, and noticing the aroma and flavor and surroundings, said,
“This is all so wonderful, thank you for welcoming us into your home. This chai is delicious. Where do you get your spices? Where does the tea come from?”
Visions of the misty tea plantations of Darjeeling surely dancing in my friend’s head, the woman responded,
“Oh! It is Lipton tea. I always buy a huge box when I visit my son in Berkeley. From Costco, it is such a good price!”
My friend was crestfallen, but laughing as well. I love this story because it so well illustrates how our romantic notions of things so often take the place of what is actually in front of us. That we find it so difficult to see what is real and potentially beautiful without a special narrative. The best part of traveling (for me anyway) is not in having one’s romantic notions fulfilled (which does happen sometimes), but in discovering things one never knew about, mundane or awful or wonderful, that teach something about a culture. I am not bothered at all by the complex contradictions of a culture, I revel in them. Or more accurately, I revel in the lessons they impart, because oftentimes these experiences are not terribly pleasant.
It is the same with the expectations that the world places upon us for reasons having nothing to do with our personalities. It is of course true that we are made up of the many threads of our environment, including the place of our birth and circumstances of our cultures. But this is not all we are, and in an increasingly interconnected world, for both good and ill, we are a jumble, all of us. Instead of needing to put people into boxes for the ease of categorization and identification, perhaps we could try standing back a bit and just looking, without referring to the artist’s statement. We might be surprised and delighted by what we find.
It is way too early I am sure to be making sweeping generalizations about the Peruvian psyche. And yet, the two great Spanish colonial cultures I have been exposed to for any length of time (Mexico and here) seem to have been marked in very different ways from each other. Through my 5 months in Mexico and exposure to books (such as El laberinto de la soledad) as well as interactions with the people, I got a sense of just how still present and marked Mexican culture is by the Spanish Conquest. It is not some remote past atrocity, but a living, breathing, ongoing thread in the culture. It seems to pit different parts of the Mexican psyche against itself, as well as between groups in current society. Although I have only been in Peru a few weeks, my sense of their relationship to their past colonial history is very different. I get the idea from the sites I have visited and the discussions with people that live here that Spanish rule was almost just the next in a line of succession after the Incas. Peruvians seem to be much more comfortable than Mexicans with the various parts of their past, and accepting of the idea that they are as much a product of colonialism as they are previous cultures. They seem to find a way (through their museums, archaeology sites, culture of food, etc) to present without sentimentalism their past stretching back thousands of years, and to integrate it in their current identity. These are of course my superficial first impressions, and perhaps they will change, but it is striking.
Joaquin, Ricardo, Christian and I went strolling in El Centro yesterday, and saw a number of interesting things. We stopped by the bar that invented the Pisco Sour (to have a Pisco Sour, ‘natch), visited a number of old city houses (that are now museums, including one with a fascinating Tola exhibit), and wandered through the older streets of Lima admiring the architectural details that are signatures of Lima (such as tied wrought iron work and enclosed balconies).
We also stopped by the fascinating Iglesia de Santa Rosa, where she lived and practced her very odd forms of worship and self sacrifice. Today we would say this woman was disturbed, a masochist and probably schizophrenic in great need of help. Back then, they thought she was pious and sainted her. Thousands of people come every year to worship and leave wishes in the well at the site. It is fascinating to me how context changes the interpretations of things. The same actions that seem the mark of insanity in one culture are venerated in another.
– There is an absolutely crazy number of restaurants serving pizza. Was this brought here by demand of gringo tourists, or do the Peruvians just love individual Hawaiian style pizzas that much?
– What is the origin and function of those (bowler type) hats that Andean women wear, and why do they look a few sizes too small? Is it just a fashion?
– Chicha, which was a sacred drink among the Inca and has been mentioned repeatedly everywhere we go, is incredibly difficult to find. No restaurant seems to serve it (although last night we finally found one that served a blanco version. To be honest, it was served warm and smelled a bit of apples, cheese and feet. Which come to think of it, may be the reason it isn’t so widely available.)
– Why is trout so popular here?
Juliette and I took a trip yesterday morning out on Lake Titicaca to visit a group of small islands belonging to a people called Los Uros. They are a pre Inca people that live on islands made entirely of reeds that grow in the lake. They originally moved to these islands as a defensive measure, and have been living on them for hundreds of years. The owner of the boat we rented took us to his family island that he shares with his mother, wife, daughter and two sons. He explined to us how his island was built about 15 years ago by pulling clumps of reeds together and then filling in with more reeds. As they rot from the bottom, they need to replace the top layer every 15 to 30 days depending on the weather. We also visited the largest island in the center of these which serves as a kind of commercial center for the group with small shops selling goods imported from the mainland. The Uros get items they can’t produce themselves (like fruits and vegetables) by trading textiles they make or fish they capture with the mainland.
Juliette and I were quite proud of how we handled ourselves getting off the train. With no hotel pre-booked, we step out of the station only to be accosted by numerous tour operators. One of them asked if we needed a hotel or taxi, so we told her we needed a taxi to our hotel (that we quickly picked from our guide book). She said it would be one dollar, and then flagged down a taxi and hopped into it with us. At this point we were a bit confused. She seemed to have no relation to the taxi guy, but assured us the ride would only be a dollar. Being the seasoned travelers that Juliette and I are, we reasoned that she was probably going to try (as they often do in India) to secure a commission from the hotel for bringing us there, even though we had already picked it ourselves. Moving at great speed as we approached the hotel, I took my bags and left Juliette to handle the operator while I bolted into the hotel to negotiate a room. I managed to get us a 20 percent cash discount on the room, Juliette was able to dispose of the tour operator, and no one got hurt.
Tomorrow we will head off to explore the island of Taquile on Lake Titicaca.