La Merced

Basilica and Convent of Nuestra Señora de la Merced in Lima, Peru

In the historic center of Lima, Peru, on the Jirón de la Union, sits one of the oldest churches in South America. When I visited Peru five years ago, I would have the taxi driver let me off at the south end of the Jirón so that I could pass by the elaborate Churrigueresque façade of La Merced and wander in. When I dropped in at these old churches I frequently found myself attending Holy Mass as I was gaping at the gorgeous decorations. I always stayed to the end, out of respect for the religious orders which built such splendid edifices to worship God.

I do believe that the Spanish kings only got a fraction of the gold that was mined in the New World, and that the lion’s share went to the Church and is visibly on display.

Interior of La Merced

As I have said on other occasions, I visited Peru because of the Incas, but what really caught my eye were the old Catholic churches, some dating back almost 500 years. La Merced was built around 1535 by the Mercedarians, short for the Royal, Celestial, and Military Order of Our Lady of Mercy and the Redemption of Captives. In fact, if I were to visit Peru again—as I hope to—I would skip Machu Picchu and spend more time viewing the Catholic churches and their related ecclesiastical art.

 

 

An Incredible Richness

Altar in the Archbishop’s Palace in Lima, Peru

It was not until I visited Peru five years ago that I realized that the Inca were not the only game in town. In fact, I found the old Catholic churches with their ornate ornamentation was equally interesting. After all, the Inca had no written language and left no books until the Spanish taught them how to write. And yet the Catholic church in Peru was incredibly powerful. A visit to the great old churches of Lima led me to think that the Church in Peru was the recipient of as much gold and silver as the King of Spain.

In the south of Peru was San Luis Potosí, where there was an entire mountain of silver called to this day the Cerro Rico, the “Rich Hill.” The silver was sent to Lima, from where it was transshipped to Panama, where the conquistadores marched it across the isthmus to Colón, where it was loaded onto Spanish treasure ships and sent to Spain.

Altar at Lima’s Cathedral

Of course, much of these Peruvian riches never made it to Spain, thanks to the ravages of pirates and storms at sea. Whatever was given to the church, however, went into the churches of Lima and the rest of the Hispano-America. I cannot count the number of times I would walk into a church and be struck by all the gold used in the altars and in gilding the statues and frames of the paintings on display. Look, for instance, at the picture below of the Company of Jesus Church in Quito, Ecuador:

PICQuitoCompanyOfJesus

The Main Altar of the Company of Jesus (Jesuit) Church in Quito, Ecuador

It was nice to see the Inca ruins, but the remnants of a once-triumphal Catholicism were far more impressive. Granted that the Inca were perhaps the world’s greatest stonemasons, but the Spanish civilization is far richer.

Portrait of a Sucker

Scene in the Crafts Market, Otavalo, Ecuador

There is nothing quite like the crafts market of a Latin American city like Chichicastenano, Guatemala; Otavalo, Ecuador; or Cusco, Peru. One wonders down narrow ways awash with color and aglitter with native ingenuity. There are times when I felt bad for not buying far more handicrafts than I could reasonably be expected to carry—especially the textiles. What I do buy is usually small enough to fit into the single bag with which I travel.

I remember the first time I felt this way. I was in San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico. It was December 1979, and I was fascinated by the Highland Maya textiles. It was then that a little Chamula girl, no older than eight or nine, sold me a little doll in native costume that she had made herself (or so she said). As she was describing it in her Highland Mayan dialect of which I knew not a single word, and stroking it as if it were something rare and magical, my heart melted and I bought the doll. I still have it on one of my bookshelves, resting against the Latin American literature section.

At some point, I’ll take a picture of it so that you can all see what I sucker I am. I suppose it is better than being heartless.

The Joys of Pre-Columbian Art

Moche Portrait Vessels at Lima’s Museo Larco

Not everyone is an aficionado of primitive art—particularly the Pre-Columbian art of the Americas. Children are not taught in schools about the early civilizations of the Americas. On the contrary, I suspect most kids think that, since the ancient civilizations fell so quickly to the conquistadores,  they didn’t have anything to offer to us.

Even one of my literary heroes, Aldous Huxley, came a cropper in his 1934 travel classic, Beyond the Mexique Bay: “Frankly, try how I may, I cannot very much like primitive people. They make me feel uncomfortable. ‘La bêtise n’est pas mon fort.’”

I strongly suspect that among Europeans of some eighty years ago, that was a common opinion. After all, the Olmecs, Maya, Aztecs, Moche, and Inca do not in any way resemble the ancient Greeks and Romans—except that the Inca, like the Romans, were also great road-builders. They didn’t have much of a literature that has survived the Spanish conquest, except perhaps for the Maya Popol Vuh of the 16th century. As for philosophy, drama, novels, poetry… you can pretty much forget about it.

There was a period of tens of thousands of years during which the peoples of the Americas were isolated from any possible contact with European civilization. In consequence, they developed along different lines. Again and again in his book on Guatemala and Mexico, Huxley shows himself to be unwilling to consider that the Maya are very different. Not inferior, just different.

The Moche figures in the above photograph are all highly individualized. They remind me of the terra-cotta Chinese warriors discovered in Xian: Each of the 8,000 soldiers was different from all the others.

Totonac Figure from Mexico

Take the Totonac figure from the State of Veracruz in Mexico. This is a typical subject for Totonac art. Do we know what it means? The sloping forehead (does it show a deliberately deformed skull such as many Maya subjects?), the humorous expression: It is as if the distant past were laughing at us. And, in a way, it is. Many Pre-Columbian figures of animals from Mexico are downright hilarious. I don’t remember that type of humor from Greece or Rome, and certainly nothing similar from the Christian era.

Look at the Diego Rivera mural below, depicting a scene from El Tajin, the ancient ceremonial center of the Totonacs:

Scene from Diego Rivera Mural of El Tajin, Ancient Totonac Center

Let’s face it. We don’t quite understand what is going on here. We probably never will. I myself have been to El Tajin and saw Totonac youths rotating around elevated poles as voladores. Was there any convincing explanation of what was going on here? No, of course not. What intrigues me about this period is that the subjects are incredibly fascinating, but it is all a great mystery. Like life in general.

 

In Dubious Terrain

Volcanic Steam Vents Near Þingvellir Iceland

It is almost five years since I last set foot in Iceland. Curiously, most of the vacations I have had since then have been in earthquake and volcanic zones. It is almost as if being in highly dubious terrain has become a metaphor for my life. All those Icelandic steam vents, all those fumaroles—they are a handy symbol for the curve balls that life can throw at you. I am reminded of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, in which Pilgrim must walk a straight and narrow path from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, which is Heaven.

My first memory of Iceland, going back to my first visit in 2001, was of all the steam vents on the Reykjanes Peninsula between Keflavík Airport and Reykjavík. Then, too, there were those fields of geysers where one had to stay on the path if one didn’t want to fall through the crust and end up boiled to death within seconds.

The Volcano Sabancaya in Eruption Near Arequipa, Peru

In my seventy-third year on this earth, I find I must walk on the straight and narrow path lest I fall by the wayside. Living with Martine was a pleasant distraction—one I would gladly suffer again—but on my own, there are more things that can happen to me. I am determined to take good care of myself, insomuch as that is possible.

As you read these little squibs of mine, I should not be surprised if you could tell that something is wrong before I can inform you of the details.

In the meantime, I continue to plan for my vacation later this year in Guatemala, another land of earthquakes and volcanoes.

 

Costa, Sierra y Selva II

Physical Map of Ecuador

Physical Map of Ecuador

This is a kind of continuation of a blog I wrote a couple of years ago about Peru. In so many ways, Ecuador is a continuation of Peru—in terms of physical geography. Even a cursory glance at the above map shows that there are three distinctive zones vertically dividing the country:

  • Costa. This is the Pacific coast. While in Peru, much of the coast is a rainless desert, much of the Ecuadorian equivalent is a mangrove forest (I suspect perhaps mangrove swamp is a more appropriate term.). Guayaquil, the country’s largest city, is on the coast.
  • Sierra. The brown and purple zone occupying the center are the mountains and volcanoes of the Andes. This is where my brother and I will travel. The altitude ranges from 8,000 to 15,000 feet. The capital, Quito, is in this zone.
  • Selva. The pale green zone to the right of the Andes consists of jungle and a number of tributaries feeding the Amazon. Thanks the the mosquito population and the prevalence of Zika, I have no intention of seeing the Oriente region, as it is frequently called.

When I was in Peru, I spent a good part of the trip along or near the coast—especially since I fell in love with the raffish charms of Lima and the beauty of Arequipa and its volcanoes.

 

Pining for the Andes

There Is No Place Like the Andes

There Is No Place Quite Like the Andes

In less than a month’s time, my brother Dan and I will be landing in Quito, Ecuador. After a few days in the capital, we will rent a car and take to the Pan-American Highway north to Otavalo and south to Cuenca. The photo above is from my 2014 trip to Peru and taken in the town of Chivay, near Colca Canyon.

Unlike most of my solo trips, I am not planning all accommodations in advance. For one thing, we will have a car. For another, Dan always thinks I am the opposite of spontaneous. That’s all right with me, because there are compensations being with my brother. Anyhow, he will leave after two weeks, and I have a whole week to be unspontaneous in my own inimitable way.

I see Ecuador as being very similar to Peru, except not quite as high up and therefore not quite so cold. At Chivay and Patapampa, I was close to 15,000 feet (4,600 meters). When I got out of the van, I felt like pitching forward and planting my face on the rocky ground. Fortunately, our guide Luis grabbed me by the shoulder and urged me to remain vertical.

Currently, I am reading Cañar: A Year in the Highlands of Ecuador by Judy Blankenship. Tomorrow, at the L.A. Central Library, I will be looking for an Ecuadoran novel called Huasipungo by Jorge Icaza Coronel. As the departure day approaches, I get more excited.

 

A Thin Place

Religious Festival in Chivay

Religious Festival in Chivay, Peru

I was reading an article about a small town in Israel on the BBC News website when I came across an interesting term:

Throughout it all, though, Tzfat has remained a “thin place”.

This Celtic term, invented to describe a place where the distance between Heaven and Earth is compressed, neatly captures a subtle quality that a few places possess. Heaven and Earth, the Celts believed, are often closer than we think. But in thin places, you can feel the divine.

Thin places are often relaxing, but not always. They might be enjoyable, or they might not. What they always possess, though, is the capacity to transform, to strip away the layers of falseness and striving that define so much of our lives, and to reveal something deeper, something more essential.

My most recent encounter with a “thin place” was Colca Canyon high in the Andes. From an elevation of 15,000 feet (4,500 meters) at Patapampa, we dropped down by stages to the town of Chivay, where a religious procession was taking place. My head was buzzing from the high altitude, but I felt that I was in a sacred place, within view of the Apus of the Andes with their snow-covered peaks.

The View Across Colca Canyon Beyond Chivay

The View Across Colca Canyon Beyond Chivay

Chivay was inhabited by a mix of Collaguas and Cabanas in their colorful costumes. While I was wildly snapping pictures, I felt I was not only living in a different layer of reality from the indigenous locals, but I was privileged to see a religious ceremonial that just happened to be taking place when we arrived in the main square. The mountain peoples of Peru have not always been accepting of foreign visitors. Fortunately, I was not part of a large busload of tourists, and I was the only person from my party viewing the procession.

Throughout my stay in Chivay and nearby Corporaque, I felt I was in a thin place. Overhead huge condors rode the thermals, and I was as close as I ever hope to be to the heavens.

 

 

 

Gentleman, Vocative

My Guide at the Archbishop’s Palace in Lima

My Guide at the Archbishop’s Palace in Lima

She was as cute as a button. On a whim, I had decided to take a tour of the Archbishop’s Palace at Lima’s Plaza de Armas, conveniently next door to the massive cathedral. Apparently, I was the only tourist who had wandered in at that hour (about eleven a.m.), and I had a guide all to myself. By this time during my trip, I had come to appreciate the beauty of Peruvian women; and my guide was, I felt, a real looker.

But wait, Jim! This young lady was probably a postulant—that is to say, a future nun. Her clothing had a definite clerical look to it. For all that, she might already have made her vows and belonged to one of the orders that didn’t wear more conservative garb.

She kept addressing me in the vocative case as “Gentleman” as in: “Gentleman, this statue dates back to the Sixteenth Century.”

She knew every feature of that vast archiepiscopal palace, and kept addressing me as Gentleman.

In that most Catholic of countries, I couldn’t be anything other than the Gentleman I was thought to be. I enjoyed every minute of that tour and hope I conveyed my appreciation to the young lady for a very pleasant visit.

 

I Have This Thing About Volcanoes

The Volcano Sabancaya in Eruption, seen from Colca Canyon

The Peruvian Volcano Sabancaya in Eruption, seen from Colca Canyon

I can tell you the day and time when it first started. It was at 6:00:41 am PST on February 9, 1971, when the earth started shaking. I held on to my mattress for dear life, even as it was sliding onto the bedroom floor from the massive jolts. The noise was deafening with all those structures shaking, and all the kitchen cabinets being emptied onto the floor. I had just lived through the Sylmar Quake in which 58 people lost their lives.

It was then that I realized we as a species were not exactly in control. Man inhabited a thin crust which was criss-crossed by earthquake faults and floating atop oceans of magma waiting to break out at points along the globe and cover our puny undertakings with layers of lava and ash. And there I was, right on the famed Ring of Fire, in a state with hundreds of faults and not a few volcanoes.

Since then, I have been to Iceland to see Hekla and Eyjafjallajökull, which at various points in history—the latter in 2010—caused havoc worldwide. And now, even as I write, it is Bárðarbunga which continues spewing lava after several weeks.

In September, I saw two volcanoes in Peru’s State of Arequipa spewing ash: Sabancaya and Ubinas. Both are highly active and may continue erupting for some time.

Our lives on this earth are incredibly fragile. I am most impressed by earthquakes and volcanoes, but there are other terrestrial and atmospheric events that can cut our short lives even shorter. That’s not even to mention microscopic bacteria and viruses, slips and falls, tree branches crashing down on our heads, automobile accidents, or any number of causes. Life is magnificent even when it is at its most destructive. Enjoy it while you can!