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.