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Archive for the tag “Lima”

Zona Intangible

Diggers little boy  Outside Lima, Peru, on the steep, sandy hills at the upper perimeters of the newest handmade settlements, there are signs everywhere that say, “Zona Intangible.” (“In-tan-hee-bley,” in Spanish.) They are billboard-sized, meant to be read from a distance. What they mean is: Don’t build your house here. Zona Intangible1This zone is not to be touched. It is too unstable. Too high. The roads will never reach it. Water, sewers, electric lights—no way. None of those tangibles will be available to you, up here in the intangible zone, so don’t build here. Just don’t do it. And yet people do. Every day, another young couple, dreaming of having their own tangible home, takes a shovel and a hammer and four pre-made walls and heads up the hill to find an unclaimed spot.

Zona Intangible. If your mind naturally bends toward metaphor, it’s hard not to see a dozen different storylines in those signs. One: the people who travel up these hills with their shovels are people who own very little that is tangible. All they bring to the Zona are their most powerful, but intangible, possessions: their love for each other, their stamina, their faith. Their belief in a better future.

If, like me, you’re a visitor, a foreigner from a place where most of us have way too many tangibles, it is tempting to romanticize such bare-bones simplicity. To long to somehow find such a Zona Intangible. But we can’t do it. Not by the same steep path.

Our ways into our own intangible zones are at once more readily accessible and less so. Prayer. Meditation. Imagination. All intangible, all free, and all so undervalued in our tangible-centric world as to cause visible, physical discomfort when you bring them up in polite company. We want our children to major in the STEM subjects, because we want them to have tangibly rewarding futures. We converse freely about the tangible challenges of our daily lives—traffic, the high cost of everything, the miseries of bureaucracies like health insurance and taxes—because that is where we comfortably, communally dwell: in the safely tangible world.

Lima has become an increasingly glamorous tourist destination. The top restaurant in Latin America is not in Rio or Buenos Aires; it’s in Lima. In fact, three of the top five restaurants are in Lima, which is the third largest city in the hemisphere, after Mexico City and São Paulo. Lima is also known for its luxury LarcoMar shopping mall, carved out of a cliff above the Pacific Ocean, offering an endless parade of tangible treats and upscale people-watching.

Sometimes I wish I were content to stay, always, in the safely tangible world. But the Zona Intangible beckons. I want to know: what is it like to have such faith in God that you can walk up that hill with a shovel and build your own house and make a life? What is it like to walk down to mass every Sunday morning and get down on your knees and give thanks for your four walls and dirt floor? And how dare any observer call that misguided or ignorant, when in fact it requires a daily dose of courage so strong few of us could stomach it?

Our Kickstarter page for our film, Zona Intangible, is now live. Here’s the link. Whether or not you are able to donate, please help us spread the word! 

HBBfinalcoverOn November 1 at 3pm, I’ll be reading from Her Beautiful Brain at Elliott Bay Books with fellow She Writes Press author Nina McKissock, author of the luminous 51NYhLAG7FL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_From Sun to Sun: a Hospice Nurse Reflects on the Art of Dying

Brain Museum

ImageJust when I thought I was done writing about the brain, there I was in Lima, Peru, standing face to face with an actual brain floating in a glass globe.

I was in a small museum called “The Brain Museum.” Although I have visited many other quirky, out-of-the-way sites in Peru in the past month, I truly did not intend to visit this one. I was quite sure my Peru agenda had nothing to do with Alzheimer’s disease, my mom, her brain or brains in general.

My husband and I have been in Peru working on a documentary film project that has to do with a clinic named after my great-uncle, who lived here for 25 years. But we’re also doing a few days of filming for a global health fellowship program affiliated with the University of Washington. And that’s how I found myself face to face with a floating brain, the focal point of an assemblage sculpture called “Custodia, Estudio 1,” created by artist Jose Luis Herrera Gianino.

A custodia—or “monstrance” in English—is a glass container on a stand that is used in some Catholic churches to display the communion host, or wafer, representing the bread Jesus broke and shared with his disciples at the Last Supper. “This is my body, broken for you,” Jesus said. “Take, eat, in remembrance of me.”

In earlier eras, a custodia was sometimes used to display relics: bits of the bone, hair or clothing of saints.

Here, floating in front of me, was the most intimate relic imaginable of one anonymous human being, whose body was long ago broken but whose brain had been preserved—symmetrical, intact, rippling with all the hills and valleys which were once rich with memories and feelings and insights.

And here, surrounding me, were walls lined with preserved slices of hundreds of brains, most of them afflicted with frightening diseases: Cystisercosis (tapeworms), Huntington’s, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s.

There were other relics, too: brains that grew the wrong way, or too much, or not enough.

The Brain Museum was the archive of Dr. Oscar Trelles Montes, founder of Peru’s National Institute of Neurological Sciences. His patients came from all over the country to see him, because he was the only doctor in Peru who knew anything at all about their strange and distressing symptoms. He persuaded many of them to donate their brains to research after death.

I have participated in Alzheimer’s research. I have seen PET scans, MRI scans and many other images of the human brain. But certainly, I had never stood in a room lined with neatly sliced and preserved brains. And certainly I had never stared down a brain afloat in a glass globe, mounted on a bronze stand.

In an artist’s statement on his London gallery’s website, Herrera cites truth and faith as two of his abiding themes. The truth is that we are beings who reside in bodies; beings whose faith, attributes, loves and hates are all filed, mysteriously and invisibly, in the pink folds of a soft, three-pound organ called the brain.

And if one of my own abiding themes, inspired by my mother’s Alzheimer’s disease, has been to wonder whether we are still ourselves when our brains are damaged or changed, then how presumptuous of me to think that this theme would not follow me everywhere I go. How dismissive to think that in a rapidly developing country like Peru, brain research would not also be a priority. In fact, Peru’s neuroscientists have a particularly fertile area to explore: the neurogenetics of a population with pre-European roots that date back thousands of years.

Once again, I was humbled by all I didn’t know: about the brain, about science, about the world and this corner of it. And every time this happens to me—this experience of being humbled, surprised, enlightened, all in one instant—I understand all over again: this is the very best reason to travel.

Give yourself the New Year’s gift of writing memoir. Register now for my non-credit (all about inspiration, not about stress) Intro to Memoir Writing class at Seattle Central Community College. Six Monday nights. Starts January 6, 2014. 

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:45 a.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts available.

photo taken in Ayacucho, Peru, by the Restless Critic, aka Rustin Thompson.

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