“One curiosity of being a foreigner everywhere is that one finds oneself discerning Edens where the locals see only Purgatory.” Pico Iyer
A warm, masculine voice came out from the street. I looked at Fidrygalka. We stood still, motionless, in the middle of a spacious room of a wooden house, where we were taken by a man half an hour earlier. The shadows of our silhouettes, pictured on the opposite wall and framed by the window shutter would look interestingly in the most banal scenery, let alone in a natural, dark amphitheater of the Amazon jungle, where a dozen families cut out some trees and set up a small settlement.
Someone approached the door of the house and once again greeted us in a soft voice. It couldn’t have been the host, because he had already said goodbye and went off to a nearby town. We were about to shrug off that unexpected visitor but he did not give us time to think it over and unceremoniously came inside the house.
– Welcome to San Pedro de Pinchanaz! My name is Panchito. I came here to greet you. Jose said that some gringos had come and I should see if they need anything. You need nothing? Only water? Surely, there is portable wáter here and you can take a bath in it if you want, but it is better to bathe in the river, over there, behind the house. I’m so glad you came here! How long are you going to stay? Just a day? Oh, too bad, I thought you would stay longer because I wanted to go fishing with you tomorrow. So maybe next time when you come back? You do not know when? And not that way? But there is no other way. You have to come back that way, otherwise you will get lost. But you do not know when? In two years? No problem, it could be in two years. I suppose I still be there, and the fish will be there, too, unless the river dries up. It is not raining as much as it used to, even now, when it should rain more, cause we have the rainy season now.
What do I do for a living? Well, actually, nothing too special. I have a garden, I grow some vegetables and coffee and sell it in Villa Rica. I have some sheep and fish in the river and that’s all. Stay a little with us. You’ll get to Pucallpa anyway, if not in a week, than in two. The road is nasty, lots of stones, mud and streams to be crossed. Sometimes people from the town come and say that the road would be paved in a few years, but they haven’t started it yet. For nearly twenty years they say the same nonsense, but it’s just bulshit. And how is “thank you” in Polish? So I dziekuje (thank you) once more that you came here.
It’s hard to say why we decided to stay only one night there. On the day of our departure, Panchito and his colleagues offered us two huge coconuts and wished a good journey. Then we moved on, along the road known as the Carretera Marginal de la Selva, or Ruta Nacional PE-5. Two weeks earlier, when Fidrygalka and I were sitting in Lima over a cup of coffee and the map, wondering whether it would be a good idea to take the road to Pucallpa instead of cycling along the west Pacific coast, we both were full of doubts and hesitation. Especially, when we heard those bloodcurdling stories told by one Polish man, who lived in Peru for nearly ten years.
According to that man (who literally fell in love with the country of the Inca Empire descendants and now works there as a fully-fledged tour-guide), we must be well prepared for some attempts of robbery, aggression, felonious acts of extorting money (for so-called “protection”), and generally lack of hospitality and undisguised animosity towards gringos. The road we were about to take is (according to our super guide) unsafe, insecure, unlawfully, very wild and immensely wet.
And how did it look like in reality? Apart from just one encounter in the jungle with a few stoned Indians, who behaved quite aggressively the people we met were very hospitable. We spent time with people who quite frankly enjoyed being able to accommodate us, who devoted their time for us, who used to offer fruits and shelter; people for whom, like for us, those meetings were unique, valuable and important.
And although in almost every village they warned us not to trust any strangers, and God forbid, not to cycle at night – even when we got stuck in the jungle after dark we felt safe there. But how one could believe in all those warnings when nothing like that happened?
When I was returning to the tent after a swim in the river, where among chirping insects and flashlight we were bathing with the whole family; when I was falling asleep on the floor of the house council, to which the limping gentleman for almost an hour was looking for the key – I could not help feeling a sort of complementarity. As if a part of me had already been there for a long time, somewhere in the Amazon jungle, which, after all, didn’t appeal to me before. And as if that part I left among those people, quite consciously, among tangled looks, rounded up words, those invisible marks left somewhere in the air.
And yes, I’ll pass away, you will pass away, and maybe only some elementary particles will remain. But now I am, I am still here. And there is that strange desire with me, that longing for something which perhaps does not exist, but what drives and pushes me somewhere.
“Movements makes richest sense when set within a frame of stillness.” Pico Iyer
Carlos Velasquez Rios came up to us when we were about to leave the village. A tall, slim man, dressed in dark trousers and a starched blue shirt was walking nearby for about fifteen minutes. – How glad I am that you came to visit our country and my village. I’m really proud. I wish I had seen you yesterday, I would have invited you to my house for dinner. Ah, you arrived just before midnight, then indeed I already fell asleep, and today I didn’t get up early, my head hurts a little. I drank a few beers with my friends. You are from Poland? Ooo, you have very good football players. Lato, Boniek and now Lewandowski. I still remember when we lost with you at the World Cup, in 1982, five to one. It was a huge failure, we almost had national mourning in the country. Never again Peru participated at the World Cup. Maybe now we will qualify and will meet up in Russia, who knows.
Fidrygałka (my newborn cycling companion) and I look at the man, his increasingly sweaty forehead, his wrinkled hands, his half-closed eyes, we take a picture for which Carlos asked himself, and exchange phone numbers. – My number is 959630313. I have a few allotments, but I have no money. You could plant something there or even build a hotel. There is the beach and lots of sunshine, tourists like it. Yes, a hotel near the sea, that would be great! But I have no money… And you, wouldn’t you like to invest? You are not interested in it? Why? So, maybe you know someone who could be? Then give them my phone number. I’d like to work, I’m a descendant of the Inca. Did you hear of the Inca? Well, you know what I mean. I am not afraid of hard work and I am a good man. I follow three principles in life: do not envy, do not steal and believe in God. That’s enough, no more you need to be happy, well, maybe yet a little money and you could have paradise here. Could you give me ten dollars, eh?
The question, quite unexpectedly interwoven in the Spanish logorrhea first crept into my eyes, then fixed itself on the growing, dark and sweaty stain visible on the man’s shirt, and finally melted under the scorching sun, so at first it seemed to me that I misheard something. I looked at the man amazed. – Give me ten dollars, eh? Straight from my eyes the question reached my ears. The scorching sun shut our mouths. We said goodbye and moved to Lima.
That night we slept nearby a closed stadium. Just like in Bolivia, some football pitches in the Peruvian villages look as if someone had put them accidentally in the landscape. Immensely clean, neat, with green, trimmed grass stand in stark contrast to the gray structures. What is the point of building something which later you can not use, I do not know, but surely it must be some deeper meaning in it, which is far difficult to grasp.
It is also very hard to understand why this beautiful country is so dirty. I totally disagree with an argument that this is a part of the Peruvian “nature”, so it has to be as it is. Of course, I do not want to persuade anyone, neither explain anything. I am a guest here and I have to adjust. I just want to point out that any shit will always remain shit, whether it is “natural” or not, and from my point of view – any shit looks ugly and smells.
Perhaps it is a matter of “national character”. Some people drink, others litter. As Antoni Kępiński, a Polish psychiatrist, wrote: “Is there something as a national character? This question has no clear answer. From a biological point of view, the existence of national character is possible. The environmental conditions are arranged in such a way that certain traits are beneficial and others detrimental. People endowed with favorable traits are more likely to survive and leave offspring than those who do not have these features.
In addition to innate qualities, the acquired characteristics also play role in the formation of any hypothetical national character. They are conditioned by so- called social inheritance, it means by models of behavior prevailing in a given environment.”
It is not so easy to get rid of your own habits, either innate or acquired. But isn’t it easier to do so during a trip? Maybe that physical distance and some kind of suspension between our ego and that new reality allows us to behave more naturally, because we are less involved in some behavioral patterns and roles (though perhaps it just an illusion). As if suddenly we possessed greater autonomy, greater awareness of what we do, what we need and what we look for. And it does not matter whether we find anything. Maybe it is true to say that any journey is more specified and determined by what is impossible to understand, to see and to experience. Maybe the lack and the absence of something constitutes its beauty and its true meaning.
And there is not need to be ashamed of when we do not succeed, as Zofia Król was talking about Zbigniew Herbert, a Polish poet, in one of the Polish radio broadcasts: “One always travels alone with the world. (…) Because this is a kind of compulsion, which simply makes us to leave one place where I am and to go elsewhere. It is hard to say why and what for. Herbert just needed a new contact, I suspect, he needed a new sense, new awareness. It seems to me that this is not a positive desire; the point is not that I want to travel. It’s about the fact that I can not stand that lack of freshness of seeing and I try to see something new. It is always an effort of senses, particularly of the eye. There are moments when Herbert writes with regret and shame that he did not succeed, that his eyes were slipping blankly on the rocks, and his passion for details was nothing but futile. In those moments we see him as a weak, poor man who goes somewhere and looks for something, but who can not find anything.”
Perhaps that weakness pushes us into the world. Maybe it is just a fear from leading a sort of “normal” life. Whatever we choose, let it be our own choice. “Human life is nothing but an imperfect garden,” writes Tzvetan Todorov. Wherever we are, we should take care of it to be flourished.
“In becoming human, man had acquired, together with his straight legs and striding walk, a migratory ‘drive’ or instinct to walk long distances through the seasons; that this ‘drive’ was inseparable from his central nervous system; and that, when warped in conditions of settlement, it found outlets in violence, greed, status-seeking or a mania for the new.’ Bruce Chatwin
When I visited Peru three years ago, I was almost certain that I won’t come to this country any more. And well… Life writes its own scenarios.
The border in Desaguadero. Lots of noise, screams, cries, dust and piles of manure, covered with a riot of colors and variety of flavors, ranging from a pleasant smell of coca leaves, and ending with a shitty aroma of pigskins and salcipapa – pieces of sausages and chips floating in mayonnaise. Lots of people swarming in all directions on a fairly wide street, but not spacious enough to give even a substitute of intimacy. Pushed or pulled carts filled with bags, cans, plastic chairs, mattresses, cardboard boxes hiding any civilization junk, for which someone chases all day, thinking naively that those illusory items of luxury could miraculously transform their lives.
The border. Lopsided lines hiding the nation, that “imaginary community”, that strange thing, considered by majority of people as “substantial, real, homogeneous, easily distinguishable, deeply rooted in the history of social beings, capable of collective action.” I never understood the purpose and reasonableness of boundaries, similarly as I never got the imperative to submit to certain conventions and cultivation of national traditions only because I was born in one place and not in the other. “The real place of birth is that in which for the first time someone looks wisely at themselves. My first homeland were books.” Memoirs of Hadrian
So, there is literature again. Even on the road it is difficult to get away from it. Or maybe more – words on the road appeal to me even more. As if the movement, newly met people and beautiful, changing landscapes added to that imaginary reality a substantial tissue which blends into fictional stories and seamlessly becomes a part of them to the extent that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish whether I read the words and look at the surrounded world, or I see the words and try to read the world. As if literature became a journey, and the journey – good literature. Does it sound naive? “Literature teaches us to want something “different”, to go beyond the circle of everyday habits, beyond the rituals set either by conventions of community life, or simply by the needs of the body, which makes us eat, sleep, and so on.” Ryszard Koziołek
Similiar contents may be found in the works of professor Sławek, a Polish literatus, who writes about “the validation of emotions, about finding that sphere of life which defies any rational perception”, of experiencing something which Piotr Paziński (a Polish writer) called “a metaphysical brainwave”: “Sometimes we experience the moments of incredible energetic revelations or points where we are really astonished by the world and we try to discern in our amazement, sometimes for many years. There might be just a few seconds of extraordinary tension, which, however, could transmit into all of our work or life.”
Is it not the reason why we go out of the house? To live out of the periphery of life to which we are accustomed to? Is it not the reason why we leave what we know, including the most dearest parts of our lives? Travel in order to be amazed by the world, trying to remain in this wonder for as long as possible, as in a fairy-tale reality.
The journey teaches us not to overlook the world, not let our attention escape and disappear in the process of destroying passing of time. While traveling I may realize those ineffable remains which form my existence. Surely, not only journeys give us a sense of meaning. But they prove, however, “that everything is worthy of attention and that everything deserves naming: a single person, an animal, a thing, and everything what happens to them. No other discourse is interested in a single existence, especially that irrelevant in history.” R. Koziołek
Traveling as a kind of reading, and at the same time as a self-writing book. Traveling as a poem, as a verbal gesture, referring to the emotions that are usually beyond comprehension, beyond sense, and perhaps even beyond existence. After all I still do not know why I do what I do. Why I am here. I do not know. I’m just going and it’s fine. I try not to think why. I try to be there. Try to want less. Though still I want too much. “Sometimes the majority of the things we do turn into a chaotic striving for something which is not entirely clear whether it exists or not”. T. Jansson