That Latin America

Allan Fajardo

“In Latin America, the marvellous is around every corner, in the disorder, in the picturesque quality of our cities… in our nature… and also in our history.” – Alejo Carpentier

I’m on my third trip to Peru and this time I’ve finally been able to get away from my work and find time to walk through the streets of both Lima and Piura. Today is Sunday and by divine grace I’ve been given some free time, so there was nothing better to do than take a taxi and lose myself in the heart of Piura.

Piura is the capital of the province of the same name in Peru’s north, a sixteen hour bus ride from Lima. I’ve always flown from Lima, avoiding the long trip overland, although I must admit that one of these days I’d like to experience a Peruvian bus trip.

As tends to happen on business trips, this week has been extremely exhausting and stressful, so this Sunday has come to me like rain in the dry season. After my morning coffee and a few slices of toast, I walked out into the street to be hit by a 34-degree heat and a dream-inducing sun.

I’m staying on the outskirts of the city, close to the town of Catacaos, a rather picturesque little town that reminds me of Valle de Ángeles in my native Honduras. Piura is an urban chaos, a city that has grown at a frantic pace, like so many cities in Latin America. The traffic and disorder on the roads are ceaseless and the deafening blasts of the car horns compose a kind of macabre symphony.

One thing I enjoy when I travel is talking to taxi drivers. I find they are the perfect point of reference for really getting to know a city. After I board a tiny yellow taxi and we exchange a few words about the heat, the taxi driver asks me where I’m from. “Honduras,” I told him, “but I live in Canada.” The poor man had no idea where Honduras was, and thought that Canada was a state in the United States, and thus I found myself delivering a crash course in geography. Then the humble and friendly driver asked me how long the plane flight is to Canada. When I told him that it was almost nine hours he frowned and said: “I wouldn’t shut myself up in a plane that long even if I was crazy.” This remark made me laugh, and we went on talking.

While we drove along the two-lane highway that runs from Catacaos to Piura, the taxi driver said to me: “There used to be nothing here; all this land was for growing rice, and now, just look how houses are going up everywhere.” Peru has one of the highest rates of economic growth in Latin America with 6%, while the province of Piura has a rate of 13%, making it the top province in terms of growth. This economic bonanza has brought numerous foreign investors to the country, apparently seeking to take advantage of the boom that the Peruvian economy is enjoying, and to exploit the wealth of natural resources that the country possesses.

Flights from Lima to Piura are always packed, and finding a hotel room is far from easy. The city has an air of the gold fever that besieged the United States in the mid-nineteenth century.  Everybody wants to get their little piece of the action, and so investors come from China, the United States and Canada, to mention a few, to find an opening in the South American country. And without meaning to, I have become a part of that “cast”; my work often sickens me, and I ask myself: “What the hell am I doing working for one of so many powerful corporations that only seek to multiply their millions?”

The taxi left me in the Plaza de Armas. I got out of the cab after saying farewell to the friendly driver who had been so appalled by the thought of being shut up in a plane for nine hours.

The Plaza de Armas is the nerve centre of Piura and the meeting point for the inhabitants of the city, which has a population of almost two million.

This was my first Sunday in Piura and I found a different city, less traffic-ridden and more serene, reminding me a lot of Sundays in Tegucigalpa.

I got lost in the narrow streets and took the opportunity to take some pictures; pictures of old buildings that look like they’re going to be pulled down to be replaced by new constructions. I took pictures of the little streets, of the Plaza de Armas, and of some graffiti written on a wall of a centuries-old house that read: “poetry will never die, just as forgotten loves will never die.”

The northern heat grew heavier and it seemed that I was one of the few people who dared to be out under the merciless sun. After having lived three winters in Canada, I’ve learned to value every ray of sun. But the streets were resting from the daily commotion of the vendors who seek to get hold of a few soles to survive, selling the most unimaginable items or offering the latest lotion with the power to remove even the scars on your soul. As I walked around I couldn’t help but think of Honduras, of how similar all Latin American towns are and that although the distances between them are huge, they all have the same look – sometimes weary, sometimes filled with hope.

From Mexico to Tierra del Fuego, we share the same reality, we have the same problems, and although the New York Times assures us that the Latin American economy is on the right track, only we know that we are just as broke as always, that we’re still clinging to the hope that a better future is around the corner while we bend over backwards to keep from having to go to bed with an empty stomach.

The faces of the people have always caught my attention, especially the faces of the old people; that sad gaze and the deeply drawn furrows on their foreheads, and I’ve always wanted to take pictures of those faces that sweep past me on the streets, but I feel too embarrassed to aim my lens and immortalize them in a photograph. I don’t know; I feel I would be abusing their human autonomy and I feel ashamed to ask: “May I take your picture?” My camera had to be restrained from shooting to capture the face of an old woman who asked me for a sol. She was lying on the sidewalk, her face leathery from the hard sun and her outreached hand straining under the merciless weight of gravity. I gave her the coin she asked for. I wanted to ask her permission to take a picture of her, but then I asked myself: “what for?” Perhaps that humble old woman might think that my camera would snatch away her soul, of perhaps that the hypothetical photo would serve to bring an end to the humiliation of having to beg for money to eat? I don’t know, and I don’t want to know.

I went on walking, thinking about life, thinking about how lucky I am to have what I have, and thinking, what can I do to change the Latin America that brought me into this world?

I went on and on, until my legs began to feel the fatigue. I sat down on a bench in the Plaza de Armas and felt that wonderful sensation that I might be in Antigua, Guatemala, or La Paz, Bolivia, or in some little central square in Guanajuato, Mexico. I drew the conclusion that in spite of the harshness of our Latin America, we are all equal, we are of the same ancestry and we still bear the same age-old features.

The minutes flew by like grains caught up in the wind of an afternoon that was gradually dying, while two lovebirds sat nearby devouring each other’s mouths with kisses. At that moment, a boy of about fifteen came up to where I was sitting to offer me his services to shine my shoes; once more I turned to see that gaze lost on an empty horizon where hope is no more than a vague glimmer of the impossible.

I declined politely, and the youth walked away with his wooden box containing the polish, the shoeshine brushes, a worn out rag and a bucket of dirty water. He crossed the street and disappeared into the solitude of that lonesome and sultry Sunday.

Translated by Martin Boyd

Allan Fajardo was born in a small town on the coast of Honduras. He lived for several years in Tegucigalpa, capital of Honduras, and in Spain before coming to Toronto. He has worked in the field of community support, specifically for immigrants and political refugees. He currently works as an interpreter and translator while also dedicating his time to literature. To see more of his writings (in Spanish), visit his blog, Apuntes de Vicerin.

3 thoughts on “That Latin America

  1. Beautiful snapshot of a small Latin American city. Made me think of my Sundays in Taxco. Thank you Allan for sharing this.

  2. This is a lovely travelogue piece, I’d like to see more like this on the Forum. I was wondering, are the pictures included with the post the ones taken by the author in Piura on the trip described here?

  3. Hi Laura and Brian,
    Thanks for your comments. It is a story similar to that of numerous Latin American cities.
    Laura, I wanted to let you know that the pictures in the article were taken during one of my trips to Piura. It’s impossible not to want to capture those moments in time on camera.
    Thanks, Allan.

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