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Archive for the month “November, 2013”

The Intangible Zone

Zona Intangible1 High on a dusty hill outside Lima, a sign rippled in the wind: “Zona Intangible,” it said. In-tan-gi-blé, in Spanish, but the literal meaning is the same: untouchable. The Untouchable Zone. For a minute, I thought it might mean there were dangerous chemicals buried there, or live electrical wires, or something else it would be very dangerous to touch.

But no: what the sign meant was: don’t try to build your house here.

Just a few hundred yards downhill, we watched a few family groups hacking level spaces in the soft sand. One family had some pre-nailed walls stacked nearby: their future one-room home, at the ready.  Another young couple let their two-year-old son take a turn with the shovel.

This is the uphill edge of Manchay, a sprawling community of about 100,000 people on the outskirts of Lima. It is one of many asentamientos humanos, human settlements, that have sprung up around Peru’s capital city, where one out of every three of the country’s 30 million people now live.

On a first visit to Manchay, it is very hard to imagine why anyone would want to live in this place. Most of the roads are unpaved, churning up constant clouds of dust, which coats everything, including the occasional brave flower garden or struggling tree.

And yet: there is another kind of Zona Intangible here.

Manchay was founded by people whose driving desire was to live in peace. Most of them came from a landscape that could not have been more different from this one: the green valleys of the Andes, glittering with glacier-fed streams that watered their fields and pastures. They came from families that had lived in those valleys for hundreds of years. They spoke Quechua or Aymara, not Spanish. Their food, clothing, music, art and traditions bore little resemblance to the coastal, urban culture of Lima. And yet they came, by the thousands, to this bone-dry moonscape, because their mountain world had become a battle zone. In the 1980s, the people of the Andes found themselves caught in the crossfire of violent guerrilla warfare between terrorist groups—most notoriously the MRTA and the Shining Path, who had decided to make the Andean provinces their stronghold—and Peru’s military, who mistakenly assumed the local farmers were all terrorist sympathizers.  According to the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 69,280 people, most of them Quechua-speaking civilians, died violently during the conflict.

Those who made it to Manchay considered themselves lucky to be alive. They built houses, by hand, from whatever materials they could find. They persuaded water trucks to climb up from Lima. Gradually, they opened and filled churches, schools, markets, small businesses, a health clinic operating out of a school bus.

They paid a high price to live in this Zona Intangible of peace and safety and hope for the future, and they value these intangibles in a way most of us have never had to.

What this meant for us as visitors was this: once we began to meet and talk to the people of Manchay, we began to see this new, hand-made city with different eyes. The human need for peace may not be something you can hold in your hand, but through the dust and noise and lively commerce of a brand-new city like Manchay, it is palpable. It is visible. And it gave us hope.

Radio lovers: The Restless Nest will be back on (91.3 fm in the Seattle area), starting November 26, on Tuesdays at 7:45 a.m. Podcasts available.




IMG_0745 “I’m doing this for Mom,” I thought, half-dreaming, as our bus climbed up and up through the scarves of fog that swirled around Machu Picchu.

Doing this for Mom. Why would I think that? It’s not like her heart’s desire was to visit Peru and see the Inca citadels. But the thought persisted, until my eyes were welling. It’s the altitude, I thought. It’s the 4:00 a.m. bolt out of bed. I need more coffee. I need—

I need to share this with my mom. And I can’t.

And yet, as the day progressed, I felt like I did.

I have a necklace my Great-uncle Carl bought for my mother in Peru. It’s a simple string of alternating wooden and silver beads. I remember how perfect it looked against her tanned skin and dark hair. I imagine that Carl, or perhaps his elegant wife Ruth, enjoyed buying it, fifty or so years ago, at some lovely shop in Lima. They were nearing the end, then, of two decades here; decades in which they helped launch Peru’s thriving fishmeal industry, raised four children and became leaders in the ex-pat community. To me, as a little girl, their lives sounded unimaginably exotic. I remember Carl instructing us to say YA-ma, not LA-ma; I remember the strange words—Machu Picchu, Cuzco, Inca—rolling off his tongue.

When Carl gave my mom that necklace, she had never been east of her home state, Montana, south of San Francisco, north of Vancouver, west of Westport. But she loved to daydream about the trips she would make, someday: someday when we were grown up. And she did make many trips: to the east coast, to England, Europe, Turkey. I was lucky enough to make a few of them with her.

If Alzheimer’s disease hadn’t cut short her travel years, would she have made it to Peru? Who knows? But I do know this: part of what made her, and me, yearn for adventure were Uncle Carl’s stories. He had a way of making travel sound like the most exciting scavenger hunt ever. He never spoke about the hardship of it. And yet how difficult it must have been, back in his day, to travel around Peru.

How dramatically his adopted country has changed.

Rus and I climbed the trails of Machu Picchu with visitors from every corner of the planet and of every age: dainty French women, hearty American seniors, stylish Chileans and Brazilians, sunscreened Scandinavians, hat-and-glove-wearing Japanese, all of us decked out in the latest practical travel wear. (I have pictures of my Uncle Carl and his brother, my grandfather, wearing jackets and ties at Machu Picchu.)

Mom would have fit right in: another healthy senior, gamely trudging the steep Inca steps. She didn’t get to do that. She had the pleasure of knowing Uncle Carl, of hearing his stories, but she didn’t get to do what I’m doing: finally visiting the places whose strange names he introduced us to a half-century ago.

This week, I’ll be visiting another place in Peru, one Carl never saw, even though it bears his name. The Policlinico Carlos Hedreen is a ten-year-old health center serving the thousands of people who live in Manchay, one of Lima’s fastest growing “asentamientos humanos,” young settlements full of families who moved in and began building new homes by hand in the 1980s, when the fighting between the Shining Path guerillas and the government made life in their Andean villages untenable.

The clinic was named in Carl’s honor by the donors who built it, who included his widow, his children and many of their friends who grew up in Lima and knew him. I’m looking forward to telling this part of Uncle Carl’s story.

I know Mom would have been fascinated.


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