Lima Is Hidden

Lima Is Hidden


Virginia Woolf once wrote, “no one perhaps has ever felt passionately towards a lead pencil,” and, while I’ve never felt that for a lead pencil, I’ve felt this passion and admiration toward Lima.1 This is a city that I protect with my entire existence, this city by the ocean. As fog, I’ve spread across lands, past oceans, and deserts, both sand, and ice. Nothing compares to my obligation to the city on the cliff. Even during the hottest months of the year, when I rarely appear, I still yearn for my city by the sea.

Lima is a city, a city on a cliff. The clouds and I drift through the colonial buildings; as we soar closer to the heart of the town, we glance down and observe the streets. Old ladies selling bananas on the sidewalk, children running alongside the cars—the city is full of noise. The buildings are made of cement; the sand and wind have given the walls a beige tint. Nothing stays white here for long. The glass buildings, once blue, are now green from the rays of the sun. I, the fog, sit at the edge of the skyscrapers, waiting for midday to descend on the city.

I drift from house to house, gazing into each window. Families sit at round tables, eating purple onions and tiny orange potatoes; children read books, play with dolls, but as I look into each of these people’s lives, they are anxious. A young woman looks out from her window and confesses to me, “Lima is not a paradise. I live in this city, this city on a cliff, so high we walk alongside the clouds. It is a gray and foggy city. It never rains. The birds are not built for rain, neither the buildings nor the people. We are built for sand. Our sand isn’t red like in American films, it is beige and cold to the touch, but if you dip your hands into the dunes, you will feel the warmth of the earth. Snakes and lizards, both big and small, crawl into the dunes to stay warm during the night. Right as the breeze from the ocean begins to cool the city and puts its people to sleep,” she closes her blinds and leaves me be, yet it is true I never travel alongside the water-carrying clouds. Foreigners often complain, “I miss the rain!” they plead, “Why won’t you give me some rain?” Lima does not need rain, it has water from the Pacific, and the young woman is right. The city would not survive if it were to rain; the water would flood the homes, and overflow the sewers and sink the parks. The city is not built for rain.

The mist, the clouds, and I, the fog, travel inland toward the dunes outside of Lima, where the ocean meets the desert. A little boy waves at us and calls me to his side; he whispers, “Beware of the crabs, they are not friendly, their shells are colorful like the wings of parrots, their temper is that of snakes, and they live in the caves by the ocean.”  I smile and nod and whisper back, “Only the bravest of mists goes into the caves. I am too fearful of the crabs and their temper.” He smiles and tells me another secret, “When the tide climbs high, jellyfish lay their eggs on the walls of the caves. Later, when the tide falls, the walls are orange and gooey.” He runs off and heads home. With the help of the wind, we shift the pattern of the sand to hide his tracks. I am worried for him. Often strange foreign men follow little children into their homes. I must not let it happen again.

The current carries us toward the sandy coast on the outskirts of the city, where sand dunes slowly transform into mountains. On the side of these mountains of sand, towns and villages are built; they mimic the ayllus used by the Incas. Children gather on the coastline, playing in the sand and caves, while the fishermen pull food from the sea. “Girls, don’t go in the ocean!” They warn, “the mermaids are out, and they stole our fish!” The fishermen laugh and chuckle at one another as they carefully weave a net. Their pants are rolled up to their thighs, the drops of water on their skin shine like pearls from the sea. The net leaps from their hand and spreads its wings to be embraced by the cold, gentle waves. After all, the sun is still rising, and the tide is very low. The little girls run on the rocks of the beach. I follow them; they run on their heels, their toes are tiny, and they don’t want to trip. The faster they run, the more the wind weaves into their hair. The girls stop and reach their hands up into the clouds, “The tides are low,” they yell; “Follow us,” they whisper. We follow them to the white rock. The white rock is home to seagulls and penguins and stained from the fecal matter left by the birds, yet it doesn’t smell. The penguins are long gone; the birds only visit; for they dislike the masses of tourists that fester their peace. The moss that follows the crabs is yet to grow; all that is left is the mark the birds left behind. The cove next to the white rock is the golden beach. “When the sun is out, the sand shines like gold, the tiny metals are not valuable because if they were, the Americans would have taken it by now, at least that’s what my father says,” remarks one of the little girls. Nothing valuable lies hidden in the sand, yet they grab handfuls and rub the sand on their limbs. The little girls shine in the light.

At the top of the cliff, there is a cross made of lights. It shines through the thickest of fogs and watches the people sleep. I gaze toward a window hanging from the side of the cliff; a schoolgirl playing her violin tells me, “My grandmother goes to church, but she goes to the medicine doctor more. She believes in spirits and ghosts more than the Spanish God. When Noah’s ark sailed away, everyone who couldn’t get on the ark died, ‘But the Incas?’ I asked. ‘They were on a tall mountain; that’s why we survived,” that’s what the religion teacher said. He is Peruvian like me but brown like my father, a mountain man. The Incan man teaches the Spanish God to Peruvian children.” The schoolgirl pauses, and when she makes up her mind, she states, “He is not real, like the mermaids in the sea, both are untrue, unreal, lies told by the Spaniards.” She continues to play her violin. A row of green and yellow parakeets line up on the electrical wires outside of her window to listen to her play. The parakeets close their eyes and listen to the melodies that flow through the air.

The first time I spoke to a Spaniard, I did not understand him. As we tried to have a conversation, he said, “You don’t speak properly.” “What is improper?” I ask. “You are not speaking proper Spanish,” he replies. “I am not Spanish,” I say. “Obviously,” he quietly mutters. I’ve been traveling for very long, and I am annoyed by this Spanish cloud. I question him,  “Since, I don’t speak proper Spanish, what language am I speaking? How can you understand me if I do not speak with proper Spanish?” I ask; he is silent for a while and then asks me, “What language do you speak if not my own?” I don’t have an answer, for he is correct. The rhythm that I hear Peruvian sisters say, “I love you,” is different, and the tones and pitches of vowels we both understand and use are changed. We share words, but we perform them differently. “I speak your language how I please,” I tell the Spanish cloud, and I hurry back to the mist, wind, and clouds, and we laugh at the Spaniard’s funny accent. We haven’t seen the Spanish since.

The Spanish no longer hold the land captive. They are long gone. All that is left of them are the rotting colonial buildings scattered throughout the city. Not even the homeless roam inside them; people who tried to make use of the space for offices, stores, or homes eventually got sick. People started dying of cancer. No one could figure out why. Scientists, doctors, and sociologists blamed the Peruvian diet for having too much rice, too much lime, too much oil, or too much fish. However, once they began to rebuild the swimming pool left by the Spaniards, they found a frosty white powder that resembled snow: asbestos.Those who occupied colonial homes quickly vacated them; most were boarded up; others remain with yellow and orange caution tape alarming people to not enter or go near the sick buildings. Only tourists decide to enter, and when they do, they often wonder why they are not protected or reconstructed. Government officials just yell: “Go to Spain!” While they lay untouched only by time and fog, the sickly decaying structures haunt the city, and the disease that seeps from their pores scares Lima’s inhabitants.

The people that invaded in the past were venomous. Like snakes, they rattled their swords, loaded their guns, and carried poison on their skin. The Spaniards slithered out from the sea near the Caribbean Islands; those who met them first were the Tainos. Their society is a matriarchy known for their sharp wooden swords they used during battles. The Spaniards returned the kindness of the Tainos by poisoning the women and children with syphilis and elders and men with smallpox. The diseases seeped into the land and up into the air. The winds were poisoned with a foreign toxin that spread; the north wind and south wind carried it throughout the land, and it infected the people. The Chasquis, the Ayllus, the Inca: They were now the infected people. Newborns began to die, strong and healthy people fell ill, and families began to fall apart. Medicines that had long been sacred and reliable, no longer useful to fight the toxins, were abandoned. By the time the Spaniards arrived, what was left of life was wilted by endless graves and endless sorrow. The messengers, the families, the Inca—they were now the conquered people.

That is when the fog began to surround the people, shift the sand, and conceal any mark of civilization. While the Spanish are gone, their ruins remain. The fog drifts through and around them, erasing their existence slowly chipping away at the sickly structures, hoping to dissolve them into the sand. However, as the fog and wind whisk through the structure, hoping to bring it down, foreign investors tour the buildings. As I gaze into the window of the remodeled colonial homes, I see furniture, but no family, a home unlived. It is a showroom to display products to the Peruvian consumer. The Peruvians walk in and sit on the chairs and leave; they don’t want to stay too long in this house of poison.

A schoolboy, no older than five, sat on the cliff and told me about his school day, “We no longer learn Spanish; we learn Castellano. It’s what we call Spanish now, Castellano.” The boy remarks; I gently ask him, “Is it any different?” He shrugs and says, “It’s the same, just a different name.” He pauses and looks at me. “I am learning English,” he mumbles. The waves crash against the rocks. The sand rolls down the cliffs, and the wind sings in the air. A cloud arrives, dark in complexion: a rain cloud. The cloud drifts above the waves and waits for me to greet them. The cloud speaks first, “A storm is coming.” “From where?” the wind asks, “the north,” the dark cloud replies. “You must learn how to speak the English tongue.” For a second, the wind stops, the mist crumbles, and I get frightened. “Why?” I ask. The dark cloud replies, “They are coming, a storm is coming.” The wind, mist, and I gather by the cliff and murmur of who might arrive. The wind sends the dark cloud up north, for Lima is not built for rain; the people are not built for rain. I, the fog, alongside the wind and mist, travel down the cliff onto the rocky beach.

As I wait to travel inland, the sea, I see workers traveling up the cliff. The climb up the rocks and sand dune is slow. At the top of the cliff, on the side of a wall, lay a home hidden between the rocks. “You almost missed dinner,” yells an elder. The carbon is burning, the sweet potato and pig cooks in the earth. The fog stays at bay, watching them dig the dirt and carbon away, careful not to burn their hands; their meal is pulled from the ground. It smells warm and salty. A plate is given to the elder of the home; he sits by the fire, and says, “Come here, Fog, I’ve something to share with you.” Once I arrive near their porch, they whisper to me, “Look how the bright cross looms in the distance, the moon still shines across the desert, the breeze shivers my skin, and you, the fog, hide our homes, and the melodic tempo of the waves puts me to sleep.” I want to offer my thanks, but before I speak, they’ve already drifted off into a quiet slumber.

I glide across the cold Pacific ocean, and before I disappear into the sky, I marvel at the city of Lima as it lay quiet in the night. I chant to the sea, hoping she will hear my call, “Let them rest, let them sleep, let them know peace and ease while they live. Ocean, while you soothe their dreams and make their nightmares ripple away, I shall protect their homes while they rest and ensure their sanctuary.” I am fearful of the Spaniards, they will never return, but others like them will come and hurt these people once again. The fog around me spreads its wings and grows taller than the cliffs. Its walls thicken and become impenetrable, slowly the fog echoes the shape of a wave. The wave looms taller than the cross and dims its light. The fog soars up the cliff and engulfs the city, hugging every street and every building. Lima is hidden in me. Lima is hidden in the fog.

  1. Virginia Woolf, “Street Haunting,” The Death of the Moth and Other Essays (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974), 20-36.
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