Tag Archives: Latinoamerica

Run

I

Yeah, that’s what most people say: why? I get it: it’s painful, uncomfortable, boring, etc. But don’t get me wrong, I loathe a 3k jaunt around suburbia as much as the next couch potato! The only difference I can see between that and a treadmill (and I sure hate treadmills!) is that you’ve got the weather instead of your favourite tv show. So, no. I don’t run as a means to an end.

I run because it’s the most stripped down embodiment of human capacity. That, and it gets me outside, and into a wilderness so disconnected from our urban realities that it’s almost unrecognizable sometimes. Any other outdoor endeavour (as rad as it may be) requires a fairly substantial amount of technology, resources, and gear.

Running is one of a small handful of sports that doesn’t discriminate between black and white, rich and poor, hot and cold, high mountain and steamy jungle. We can run everywhere. And we do. Kenyans and Ethiopians stormed the competitive marathon scene in the late 80s – but their running was only new to the West – they’d been at it forever. Buddhist monks in Japan run 1,000 marathons in 1,000 days as a meditative practice, the Tarahumara of Mexico’s copper canyons run hundreds of miles at a stretch to communicate, to play, and to simply hang out with friends and family. People still run their prey to exhaustion in the Kalahari desert… the list, I’m sure, goes on.

In 2010 I was in Chile. I was spending a lot of time hiking in the mountains of Southern Patagonia. Covering a lot of distance in a day, I realized if I traveled with less I could go faster, which meant I could also go further. It was liberating to trade my hiking pack for a small backpack and jog off into the never-ending mountains, finding that rhythm that is so natural. I’d return in a few hours, elated, hungry, and full of beautiful sounds and sights. This is when I (not so accidentally) learned about the “ultramarathon” – technically any run longer than the 42.2km marathon. I was intrigued. Here were men and women running distances of 100-200km at once. It seemed bizarre, given how the marathon has been canonized in our culture as the pinnacle of human capability and endurance. But 42.2km is both an arbitrary number, and, as it turns out, a wild underestimation of most humans’ abilities. Watching top ultrarunners is like watching any other mammal at an easy trot – it looks pretty natural! They’re also usually in the forest or on a mountain (rather than a track or road.) So, I was hooked…on the idea.

This past year I’ve put in all sorts of miles: fast, slow, long, short, painful, fun, horrific. The track for speed, the road for tempo, the trails for technique. 50km weeks, 150km weeks, 30 minute runs, 6 hour runs, rain, sun, ski-hill repetitions, 38 degrees, driving rain and wind. The more the miles went by, the more I felt totally natural.

Since this past summer’s training and a handful of ultradistance events, my mindset – my consciousness – as it relates to running and my own capabilities, has shifted hugely.

Like writing, running has become more than a means to an end (getting in your workout). It has become a continuous line, a long view, a lense through which I experience life and landscapes, as well as my own body and consciousness.

II

Since moving to Cusco, a city at 3500m above sea level, running has become a more efficient form of both exploring my surroundings, and staying sane. Living where I do, a mere 10 minute uphill slog from the countryside, I can huff and puff my way through small farm fields, wooded areas, up the spines of towering mountains, through the sculpted rock outcroppings and amongst the innumerable (and practically unacknowledged) ruins that dot everything. Some mornings, as the mist rises to reveal green peaks dusted with snow, I float up the ancient Inca road behind my house, Qapaq ñan. All I can hear is my laboured breathing and the odd barking dog. All I can feel is my aching body being dragged up these stone steps. It’s cold but I’m wearing running shorts, a t-shirt, thin gloves and a handheld water bottle. I arrive at work in the morning having been massaged by my surroundings, psychoanalized by the llamas and the tiny Quechua women who heard them, by the sweeping ridgeline of burnt orange-brown rocks and the creeping green of the rainy season.

I am lucky to have a friend and running partner (a former neighbour) who is both an incredibly strong athlete, and someone who motivates me to get up early to run before work. We’ve done some long running adventures on weekends that brought us over mountain passes, past alpine lakes (and yes, herds of alpacas). We once found ourselves wasted tired after three hours of narrow, steep, and rocky trails that wind and snake the impossible canyons and valleys outside Cusco, in the cold and pouring rain, and three valleys over from where we thought we were. Limping to the nearest road, we piled into a taxi that brought us (at no cost!!) the last 8k or so through a chaotic urban jungle and into Cusco. Sadly, he’ll be leaving with his family for Patagonia at the beginning of February, but it’s been a fun ride!

The altitude means that I go a lot slower than I’m used to, and distances feel roughly double what they are. It’s also pretty hard to go for an “easy” run, but bit by bit, as I soak into the whitewashed adobe houses of the San Blas neighbourhood with its impossibly narrow alleyways, its cobbled streets, my lungs are adjusting. And there are new projects on the horizon!

Now that I’ve done some exploring, I’ll be starting in on another training program with my coach Laura (@lauraperryultra), in preparation for some high altitude ultras over the next year, and some fun personal projects! In the end, it’s all quite natural.

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A new job

(The photos don’t actually correspond to the trip in the piece below. We visited the above town, Cancha Cancha, the previous week.)

 

The chickens have been awake for some time. The faceless dogs that harassed me from half a kilometre up the steep side of a green, chacra-dotted mountain as I tore down running toward the river below (that runs among avocado trees and broad banana leaves) they’ve yet to be stirred from their cloudy sleep. Between roosters and our beeping cell phones, we creek into the day, the dirt of the morning and the creamy mist that evaporates imperceptibly with the rising sun. We’re cold enough to perk up, and when we hear them call from the other side of the adobe wall, we rush the last things into our knapsacks and race down to the waiting truck. Senovio holds the heavy wooden swinging door of the truck open and shakes my hand as I climb up the ladder into the back of the vehicle. We settle in – I am standing, Alison is sitting, and Nohemi leans against the wooden side, half asleep. The engine rumbles to life in the sleeping and dampened valley, disappearing into the milky air. At 5:30am the ink of the night has gone and as we labour up along the knife-edge snake of road past those faceless (and still sleeping) dogs, we find the crack that didn’t exist.

There is one other man in the back of the fruit truck with us. He is draped over a sack of potatoes, beside the bag of bread and the browning mangos. And he is persistent in his questions, slurred and tired. His eyes are red and only split open by the still morning that blows into the moving truck and reminds us of the speed of time. Trees turn to bushes, bushes to alpine flowers and prickly cacti and lichen, and we’re on top of the flowing ocean of white that crashes between the green and black peaks, splashing up their sides to leave tired and bright glaciers to gleam in the morning sun.

If you look closely as we head over the pass at 4500m, down between the black spires stabbing out through white clouds, that have already forgotten all the sounds of last night’s river as they kiss the earth, lick it, and float up into a disappearing cerulean blue – if you look down to the rock-studded green you see U-shaped dots, alpacas, eating as they do forever in their thick and cloudy coats. I watch the 13 or 14-year old boy open the turquoise door of the truck, moving the dense wood of the ladder, all its grains polished down by everything that has come before. He jumps into the back with a limberness of which I am envious (up here in the thin air) and rifles manfully through the bags to get bleary-eyed shepherds their breakfast of little white buns burned stale by the cold mountain.

The llamas and sheep graze on tufts of grass. The old leather-skinned drunk man has opened his eyes and jumps off the truck, steadying himself before he goes. He lands without a teeter, grabs his bread and thermos of tea to stand with the other men, watching his herd down in the valley where the clouds are now only a memory.

After almost forgetting to pay the driver, we take off our extra morning layers, stuff them in our bags, and head up the remnants of an ancient Inca road, slowly wheezing our way over a pass to the edge of a patchy bluff. There we look down over the crisscrossing paths – the same ones that split a hundred million square miles into ten times as many unique shapes. In the green and rocky cradle below are the small stone houses of villagers whose black shepherd dogs have come to life with the blazing Andean sun. We pick our way down to where we’ll meet with some 20 women, from young and vibrant to old and slow, even deformed.

(On the streets of Cusco there are women dressed in long woolen leggings and black shoes, a few thick and colourfully trimmed skirts, wool sweaters and oddly shaped hats with fabric draped overtop – or a sort of Andea felt tophat. They are then wrapped in colourful blankets. In my experience they don’t smile very much – they ask tourists for photos. These may have been their true outfits, but they have been forced into selling their history, their story, into commodifying their experience, making money off of the fetishization of traditional, of the poor, of the foreign.)

They are the shadows of the beaming women we find in Pitukiska, in the Mapacho River Valley. As they watch from their stone walled, dirt-floored homes in the nape and crook of the bending mountains, they can see us coming. We arrive and are offered coca tea and boiled potatoes and a fried egg by the strong and quiet women already there, their babies bound in rainbows to their backs. Slowly the remaining women trickle down the sides of the mountains, some between the black rocks and dogs, others with a whole herd of sheep.

As we talk about the next few months, the change in personnel (my replacing Alison) and the rainy season, Nohemi translates from Spanish to Quechua and vice versa. We smile and try to understand each other. The women sit in the shade of the once cold stone walls, the little squat toilet and the shushing river in the background, and we sit in the hot sun. We shake hands and say tupananchis kama (see you later) as the women drift back into earth’s harsh rocks.

There is nothing perfect about this. There is nothing easy about it – except for maybe a smile – that’s not so hard. Ordering textiles from indigenous women – buying or not buying them…(you finish this sentence)… women who live with domestic and sexual violence, intergeneration trauma, discrimination and neglect from the outside world and their governments, women who work from a tragically young age, who live in abject poverty; women who are not deemed important enough to receive schooling, who are tied to their stone homes by their babies and their God. Much like indigenous women in my own country. Much like indigenous women just about everywhere. I smile and I brace myself for the next two years.

The rocks and the llamas – even the faceless dogs – watch us, confused. They watch us as we wend our breathless way up and over the pass again and into hours of the blazing sun. They won’t see us again until the rains are over, until the frosts are back, and I suspect they won’t much care.

Literature, song, struggle

 

When the [whites] came to Africa, they had the Bible, and we had the land. They said ¨Let us pray.¨ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land. Archbishop Desmond Tutu

 

Sometimes everything seems to happen at once. When I moved into my house on La Conquista about a month ago, I didn’t imagine that a book I found on the shelf in my furnished room would be the beginning of a whole series of little discoveries and events, or that it would be linked to the struggle of indigenous land rights and government sponsored terrorism.

I found many excellent books on my shelf, among them some traditional Andean legends, ¨Un Mundo Para Julius¨ by renowned Peruvian novelist Alfredo Bryce Echenique, a volume with two of my favourite collections of short stories by one of my favourite authors of all time, Argentine writer Julio Cortazar…the list goes on. But one book caught my attention. Canto General, by 1971 nobel laureate Pablo Neruda.

You see, some time shortly after the death of Colombian novelist Gabriel García Marquez in April, I read a quote of his that went something like this: ¨Pablo Neruda is the most gifted poet of our century, in any language.¨ Now, I don’t usually like that sort of objective statement about such a subjective matter, but coming from Marquez it was enough to pique my interest. So when I saw Canto General sitting there I picked it up and began to read.

It has been referred to as the ¨Latin American Bible.¨ Indeed, it is the story of the whole continent from a sort of misty primordial imagined land, through the Inca Empire, the bloody conquest by the Spaniards, the haciendas and the European aristocracy, the independence movements, all the way through to revolutions and communist uprisings into the 1950s. The work is bathed in the blood of its subjects, and it makes one thing clear: despite the multitude of vastly different cultures and languages that exist on this massive continent, Latin America shares a common history, a common suffering, a common thread of blood. And Neruda did not even live to see the coups, the dictatorships, the disappeared people of the 1970s-1990s. Alas! Variations on a theme.

Shortly after starting to read Canto General I was in the bouldering gym down by the university on Avenida La Cultura and a song came up. I liked the song. So when I got back home I looked up part of the lyrics that I could remember: ¨Tú no puedes comprar el viento, tú no puedes comprar el sol…tú no puedes comprar mi alegría, tú no puedes comprar mis dolores…¨ (You can’t buy the wind, you can’t buy the sun…you can’t buy my happiness, you can’t buy my pain…). I found it. It’s called ¨Latinoamerica,¨ and is the work of a Puerto Rican rapper named Calle 13.

While it would be unfair to compare Canto General to ¨Latinoamerica¨ in terms of artistic merit, the song has the same aim of uniting disparate people and realizing that despite the differences and the rich fabric of so many distinct cultures, Latin Americans share a common history of oppression, violence, and corporate domination, both at the hands of foreigners, and of their very own people. (I have included my very rough translation of the first verse and the chorus so that you can see what it’s all about.)

So ideas of a united Latin America, an oppressed continent, a proud and resilient people held down by invaders – whether they be the Spanish Conquistadores or Canadian mining companies – all these ideas were floating around in my head last week while I walked down past the Fine Arts Museum in the middle of the tourist district. The doors were open, and the exhibit seemed to be free – an anomaly in these parts. So I went inside to check out the photo exhibit. Here is a translation of what is posted just inside the door, above the first photo:

It is obvious that tourism as it is in Peru, is not and will never be our yellow brick road to development. Instead it serves to broaden the gap between rich and poor, and exacerbate the differences between peoples and individuals. Neither Cusco nor Peru will ever be the tourist-filled El Dorado that the government and its acolytes would have us believe…[Tourism] deepens both our dependence and our underdevelopment.

These are strong words coming from a museum in downtown Cusco, one of South America’s most touristy cities. They represent an uncommon and unothodox point of view. As I browsed the photos and read the captions and quotes I could see quite clearly that these were the words of a passionate – indeed, a jaded and angry – man. Other captions spoke of the consumerism of modern ritual, the emptiness of the apparent religious syncretism, the decadence of local custom etc. To Cesar Vivanco, the photographer, the people of Peru – and particularly the Andean people of this region – are an oppressed nation, still very much under an imperial power.

The next day my roommate and I went to the documentary shown in the same room, directed by the same man, Mr. Vivanco. To be fair, it was not a documentary but a narrated slideshow with music, and I found the narration to be flippant and sarcastic. In an effort to make a forceful critique of the current state of affairs, it appears that Mr. Vivanco’s bitterness got the best of him. The audience laughed at the jokes, but I’m not entirely sure that everyone was clear on where those jokes were coming from. Vivanco’s thesis is basically this: we know hardly anything about the pre colonial era in this region, but we can be sure that there was no heaven, no hell, no miracles, no saints, and no evil demons. These human constructs came with the conquistadors and the diseases.

In my last post I mentioned how some workers explained syncretism to me. Vivanco was adamant that no such thing exists. According to him, syncretism implies an equality of values, a give and a take, and that what exists here is a sort of forceful imposition of one belief  system over another. And obviously some of the old values and customs will seep through, but the base values of human as sinner, land as object of exploitation – these core values are not native at all, but foreign and Christian. And worst of all, they have led to the rampant consumption of what was, the fetishization (dare I say prostitution) of the past. But it has also engendered a complete disconnection from that history.

Just beside where the chairs were set up to view the screen there was a quote from Chief Seattle to President Pierce, from 1855, an apparent response to the latter’s ¨request¨ to buy the Chief’s land. From my research into the issue, I’m not sure these words were ever spoken – and if they were, by whom – , but they are indicative of a pervasive difference of perception between ¨conqueror¨ and ¨conquered¨ in general (those words themselves are highly charged and indicative of a certain worldview of course) and they brought back Calle 13’s words, almost verbatim:

How can you buy or sell the sky – the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. Yet we do not own the freshness of the air or the sparkle of the water. How can you buy them from us? …Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing, and every humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people…We know that the white man does not understand our ways. One portion of land is the same to him as the next, for he is a stranger who comes in the night and takes from the land whatever he needs.

According to Vivanco, Peru has traded one oppressor for another, one destructive influence for another, and it continues to be submissive and self-deprecating. His words and ideas are strong, perhaps too strong for my liking. But as my cousin suggested to me, it is perhaps necessary for this opinion to exist in a sea of unquestioning tourism and consumerism, as it serves to balance the viewpoint.

The next night, on my way home from my Portuguese class, I came across a demonstration that the previous night’s presenter had spoken to us about. I am relatively ill-informed on the issue, but the background is this: because of a free trade deal reached between Peru and the United States in 2008, the Peruvian government changed some laws so as to allow oil exploration and development on indigenous lands in the Amazon, in this case a place called Bagua. For reasons every human being can understand, the people were not happy about this, so they took to the streets. After 65 days of peaceful civil disobedience on their part, the Alan García government declared a state of emergency and sent in the army to sort out the issue. In two days of violence, 31 people were killed, the majority (surprisingly) were police. The trial that was launched just days ago in Peru, is only putting indigenous people on trial for crimes. Not one politician, not one policeman, not one soldier has even been suggested as being in the wrong. And this was the reason for the protest. ¨We are all Peruvians¨ they said, ¨We are all from Bagua.¨ ¨We are shedding our own blood.¨

Peruvian against Peruvian, the blood of a brother, at the bidding of a foreign economic interest. And this is the problem that Vivanco was trying to outline; the Bagua protesters are the proud and courageous people that Calle 13 raps about; this is the ¨white man’s¨ vision against the indigenous vision spoken (or not spoken) about by Chief Seattle; this is all part of the at once triumphant and at once tragic and bloody tapestry that Neruda weaves in Canto General. The reality continues to be far too complicated (for a blog post). There are millions of factors both external and internal, historical and contemporaneous, real and fictitious, remembered and forgotten, that put the political and cultural history of this region’s collective consciousness well beyond my personal understanding. But I hope that I can continue to learn more and understand better the place where I am, and the people with whom I am sharing. Las venas abiertas de latinoamerica (Open Veins of Latin America) by Eduardo Galeano is an obvious next step for me.

Below is a rough translation of the first verse and chorus of Latinoamerica, as well as the music video to listen to.

Until next time.

Latinoamerica

I am,

I’m what they left behind,

I’m the whole shadow of what they robbed blind,

A hidden people on the summit, my skin’s made of leather

so I can deal with any kinda weather .

I’m a factory of smoke production,

I’m the peasant labour for your consumption.

A cold face in the middle of summer,

love in the time of cholera, brother.

The sun that is born and the days’ death,

and the very best sun sets.

I am development’s incarnation,

the dry mouth of political argumentation.

The most beautiful faces I’ve ever seen

I’m a photograph of someone they disappeared.

I’m the blood in your veins,

I’m the piece of land that’s worth all this pain.

I’m a basket of beans,

I’m Maradona scoring twice against England for keeps.

I’m what my flag takes for granted,

my cordillera is the spine of our planet,

I’m everything I learned from my father

who rejects his homeland and rejects his own mother.

I am Latin America,

a legless people that keeps on walking.

 

You can’t buy the wind.

You can’t buy the sun.

You can’t buy the rain.

You can’t buy the warmth.

You can’t buy the clouds.

You can’t buy the colours.

You can’t buy my happiness.

You can’t buy my pain.