Senses of the Street
To get places in Cuzco I walk. Through my shoes my feet feel the roundedness of old cobblestones or the flatness of stones shaped like bricks. They feel the smoothness of cement and the softness of asphalt. Sidewalks are not broken by tree-roots into jagged planes like at home, but are smooth, broken only by square, open holes for utilities with no cover to protect the unwary pedestrian. Your feet have to see and sense.
The sidewalks are capricious though. They flirt, seducing sometimes with broadness that tempts you into an almost Texas-like gait. Other times they dip their eyes and shrink into a size no larger than a curb. At times like that you almost have to walk sideways, and if too many of you are trying to occupy the same tenuous space you get forced into the street and play tag with cars and busses, with their incessant rattles, growls, and bleating horns.
While at home if you walk, you feel the splendid gringo isolation. So few people walk that there is both a camaraderie of those beyond the hermetic temple of cars and the separated, expansive, concrete space of the self. Here the sidewalks are filled with people. Walking is normal. You know people are there. Not only can you see them, individuals, clumps, and crowds, but you feel them as they bump your shoulders and press sometimes against your sides. They have sound. Bits and pieces of conversations beat against you in a stream of disconnected, displaced consciousness that still feels connected and alive. It is as if every person on the street trails sound, slowly dissipating in knots of meaning behind him or her. We pass through each others sound wakes, sometimes oblivious and sometimes with a quick bump of comprehension.
Then there are the sales people, much more intrusive than the telemarketers or panhandlers at home. “Postcards mister” accompanied by the flap of a small, cardboard portfolio snapping open. “Shoe shine sir. Your shoes are dirty, I will dust them.” And the beggars, hands out, displaying interrupted limbs and broken bodies with pained eyes that look as if the came down from a church’s wall, an icon made life. “Please a little help.” “Mister shoe shine. No? Well maybe later. My name is Carlos. Later then Mister”. . . “You promised me yesterday mister. I shine your shoes.” “I wasn’t here yesterday.” “You promised mister. I shine. I do a good job. You see.” “Postcard mister”. “You need a doll for your wife. See a beautiful doll. Hand made.” “Please mister buy a watercolor.” “Sweaters mister” “Gloves? Look baby alpaca.”
You either ignore them, walking with an imperious stare of disengagement. I am not here with you. I do not see you. I will not interact with you. Or you talk. “No gracias.” Simple and terse. Or you play and joke, but the goal is still to pass by, money intact. In any case you are caught in a baroque world where you have to define a role at every step, where each one challenges and changes your sense of self only to fold into a new definition with the next step. There as many folds here as there are on the gold leaf altars of seventeenth century churches. The self is a labyrinth. But not a private one. It is always challenged and on display.
Sound is everywhere. Rare is the pastoral silence adored and codified into law by gringos. Everywhere there is sound. Young men whistle loud individual chirps that make the caw of a crow seem sedate. These are their calls, marking space and calling friends. “Let’s go and hang out.” Radios blast, pulsing dislocated bits of music or news. Cars honk at every corner while deciding if they have to stop for the light or stop sign, or just continue onward while warning any and all, “I am here. Beware”. Saws wrench the ear with a harsh whine as they tear wood or flagstone. Hammers thud into adobe, or crack against a nail piercing wood. Water splatters in softer but percussive waves as a boy comes out of a building and splashes the waste from his bucket onto the street.
Policemen keep a metal whistle in the lips as they signal traffic with their arms and the throaty sound of the bead vibrating just past their lips.
As you walk past an old church, down the long outer wall of its nave, well before you round the corner to encounter its glorious facade, the pungent smell of urine surrounds you in sharpness. You pass someone with rich, earthy perfume filled with must. A popcorn vendor tantalizes with the unmistakable scent of corn bursting from heat and oil. Eucalyptus reaches out in a menthol steam as another vendor pours glass after glass of a hot elixir. Meat roasting on a spit throws out an enticing charred smell. Pungent exhaust informs of a bus’s passing.
Time is different. It is tangible, not so much in the weighty ticking of the clock’s morality, like at home, but in the sense that although people can race down the street, suddenly you find yourself behind people slowly sauntering. Or a bench opens up and you sit as the city passes by. Time is a something you can give and as a result time is woven in strands, like a rope you knot marking your interactions with people. There is the simple, terse knot of I don’t know you and I do not care. There is the elaborate, almost Celtic, knot of loop after loop that says I enjoy you and your presence. This sensuality has yet to fade into a background where the errand is greater than the process.
Originally published in a longer version here.
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