Sunday, November 11, 2012

Iquitos, Peru: Back to School (Part Two)

To read the full story about teaching school around Iquitos, please turn to the following link:


We walked down through the pale yellow dust settled thin on the cement block sidewalk between low white washed particle board buildings with bare tin roofs, mostly windowless places, open holes without glass or screens, sometimes a sheet of cotton to keep out lazy bugs and casual glances of passers by. The sun was high and the day was heating up quickly, the verdant lowlands spreading to the horizon from where we stood, all of life around contained in one panoramic shot of water and green, the whole of a lifetime of little to do but live.

Nature is mindless to a degree I find impossible to comprehend, as if it has to be something more than a force without will, that Nature is something real and true rather than empty flux of coming and going. But there is nothing. Nature is idiocy. Man and creatures make of it as they can, and some men can't make too much of it because their inability to understand the complexities of other men drives them away from the frustrations of incomprehension. I know this feeling well now when my Spanish fails me and I just want to go away and be alone with my own thoughts, not desperately searching for a word I just don't have, a word I just don't get, and a greater meaning that eludes me entirely, a painful silence descending as I search and try to find some way to express myself, and then I give up and go away and consult my dictionary and wish I could remember all that I should. There is too much. The language is too big for me to take it in all at once in its entirety. I want to go away and sit alone and drink coffee and write my own words as I understand and feel comfortable using. I don't care if others don't understand me. I know. I can be alone. I know that kind of man, having seen him in the forest many a time as I was fishing or running with my dog chasing birds to shoot down dead from the sky, my dinner a trout or a grouse wrapped in tin foil and cooked on a pine wood campfire, my dog eating a snake, sniffing at berries and looking up at me in wonder, wondering why I was making such a pointless offer. The man would come down the trail on horseback, absorbed in nature, in nothing at all but a self-contained hum of breath and heartbeat, aware of birds and beasts who are not at all his concern, his attention focused on guiding his horse down a path, keeping his place in the saddle, avoiding branches, wiping away sweat from his face, pausing sometimes for water. Ever day I would meet that man in one of his hundred variations. Meeting him he might grunt, might say “Howdy,” and might not even look at my dog and me as he rode past. If he were jumped by a mountain lion as he rode under a high limb and died before he hit the ground, fangs biting through his neck and killing him almost instantly, it might be weeks till someone passing by noticed the man's horse starving on some small and tidy ranch overgrown out front with weeds, no smoke in the chimney, a banging shutter, a quiet that shouts out, “Death lives here alone.” 

There are no words, and there is no will. There is no life to share with others in passing, just the endless round of coming and going. Life is simple, the needs from nature being few, the life of men too difficult for those who cannot grasp the man of words who talks and talks and talks and makes sounds that might have meaning but that exceed ones ability to comprehend. There is little one must actually know: the edible and inedible, the poisonous and the medicinal; there is the breeding season and the hatching times; the hot and the cold, wet and the dry; there is birth and death. One might skin and sew and mend, one might plant and cut and store; others might make and one might make a different thing to trade; but there is little one must know, and it seldom includes the periodic table or the organic chemistry of sedimentary rock. One knows the forest and the river, the sky and soil. One has a hundred simple chores a day to do; and then there is family and neighbours to placate or murder. Life is simple. If the sugar cane is pressed and the chickens are fed and the rice is laid out to dry under the sun on the hardpack, then the kids in the village can go to the school house because the stranger is there and will keep the kids busy for a few hours while the adults do the heavy work of the daylight hours. This requires very few words. Without words, one can live ones life in peace without the intrusion of others disrupting the tranquility of rhythmic flow of time unending. One can float in the small currents of sensation, shifting when ones butt is sore, stretch when ones legs are cramped, burp and fart and eat and drink and snarl when another comes too close and disrupts the gentle wind blowing through ones hair. Later perhaps, the boat will come with a palate of Inca Cola. Or maybe not. For now the children are in the care of the lady from beyond. One can allow ones mind to empty of the concerns of the day till there is nothing left but the soothing rhythms of mending, weaving, breathing, and other small automatics of living. The mind of kaif, the mind at one with nature. There are no words. 

The village has a school house, a big empty room with little of interest to the mind beyond a few picnic tables lined up together to seat children as they learn not much of anything at all of a day in class. The regular teachers have been on strike for a year or so demanding that they get paid, and seemingly so far that has not happened. Paula comes to the village and sets up her bag of stuff on the table where the kids sit patiently waiting for whatever she will bring out for them to use to create-- this day, crayon pictures on scrap paper. We call it art class. The girls are good, while the boys would rather be doings something masculine, would rather be running around and pushing each other. But they sit and behave like children in a classroom, preparing for life in a 19th century factory or an early Modern office. If ever they leave the village at all they will probably land first at Belen where they will find themselves cramped in hard quarters and will have to find their ways in a world of words. Paula gives a lesson in French. Educating the village children.

I draw no conclusions. I am only here to observe.  Comme ci, comme ça.
I see children in the morning. I wonder then if Bishop Berkley is right that they exist only as projections of the Mind of God, manifest by divine Will, existing when I turn my head only because of the continuous Will of the Lord. When I turn my head, really, the children cease to exist? If there is no Word, then where are the children? They cannot be real. I am the universe alone.

I know the universe better than the children of the village. I know the universe is coming to their place in the jungle and that the oilmen are on the march, that the huge black drums in the selva will pound the people into the fine yellow dust of the stripped-off land if such is the Will of Oil. But boys will be boys and girls will be girls, and life will continue regardless of will.

Then it's my turn to teach, to perform, to do my magic in bringing some light from the Modern to the children of the selva. Paula passes out sheets of scrap paper to each child and the lads, and I demonstrate step by step how to make a two piece paper aeroplane that my grandfather showed my how to make when I was a boy and he was as old then as I am now, he having learned as a boy what I show the children this day in the jungle. We fold over papers and tear off one end to use later as tails and continue to fold till we have an aeroplane body and the insert tail so our paper machines can fly across the broad room and then outside as we take a break from this creation. When too many planes land on the rooftops, one clever boy ties a string his to his and uses it like a kite. He keeps his plane all day. Perhaps in time he will come to oppress the masses with his brilliance, knowing how to attach himself to the words of the Modernist game. 
I show the girls a card trick, “Pick a card, any card, and I will tell you what you've picked without having looked.” The girls are highly impressed at my abilities in card magic, but there's a point to make here, and I show them how to do what I have done. And more, I tell them that they can use this trick on boys, to show the boys forever that a girl always knows what a boy is thinking, though the reverse is never true. This receives no laughter or knowing nods. I am the magic flier, and I know many tricks. 
Strange, and too strange, and so strange it's highly disturbing to us, one of the lads withdraws from us and goes outside and falls into a narcoleptic fit from which he will not rise even from the blows and kicks of his friend who relies on him for life in a foreign nation where he doesn't know the language. We drag the lad to his feet, and he stumbles wildly and collapse again in the dust where he sleeps. Over and over his friend drags him up and hauls him to the next stop across the village as the children drift away from the short day that has been class time in the jungle. “What's the matter with you?” one lad says in desperation as the other lays on the ground asleep. “None of us got any sleep last night. You can't be that tired.” These words are lost on the sleeper withdrawn from the world suddenly. He continues to lay alone in the dirt. We stand over him and wonder. Again his friend hauls him up and drags him further, this time up a hill and into the forest where we go to rest and sit with children who have followed us from the school house, down a jungle path and for me under a rail that causes me some pain in my leg as I try to bend and navigate to the other side. I find myself held by the hands, a boy on one side, a girl on the other, holding my hands to steady me and lead me down the path to safety. The other staggers wildly and collapses again, falling heavy onto a wooden plank under a grass shelter where a woman crushes cane and shows off for a couple of creepy tourist girls who pose for photos and bray in German about the charm of such a life of simplicity. Bacher, fleisher, wasser, feuer. Paula knows and wisely ignores them. The American lad leans over to me and quietly asks, he not knowing a word of German, what it is about these women that makes them so immediately and vividly creepy. I open my mouth to speak, but I know too many words and have too much to say, so I say, “I don't know.” The lad says there is something about the women that is wrong from the start. But for me they have disappeared, and in their place are the children who have come from nowhere to fill my vision and my mind and my life.

I don't have any kids, and over the course of my life I can't recall any of my friends having kids till long after my divorce my wife had one child with the husband who shot his head in the garage for Christmas and died. 
Here in the world outside the heart of Modernity I see children everywhere I look and I am captured by the sight. The babies smile at me as if I am some friend they're happy to see. None of them seems to be out to shoot me as I walk down the boulevard to the military compound where I will stay for a while to do some light work in a war zone that has left the civilian population on the edge of starvation. None of these babies is trying to kill me. None of the children are trying to murder me. Nor are their parents who see the look of wonder on my face and mistake me for some man who is happy to see their babies smiling. I am indeed a man happy to see such happy babies, but my happiness is polluted with a rage against my own life and times and the ugly, murderous Freak Show that has wiped out babies for generations. The children won't let go of my hands as they lead me along behind Paula and the American lad, the other having been left behind in his solitude asleep in the blazing heat and burning sun that he refuses to move away from. Children hold my hands as we walk, and I have no words to describe how filled with joy I am that such things can walk in the world and do no harm.

The kids held onto me all the day as we walked around the village and through the jungle, as we left the lad asleep in the baking sun, as we saw giant iguanas crashing through the jungle below our perch at a resort's posh gazebo. The kids followed us into the village when we went to eat, they too shy to take any food from us. We'll be forgotten soon, and the kids will grow up in the village and marry and settle in to adult lives and will probably not learn a great deal about the greater world in which men like me have a place of sometimes honor and sometimes horror. As the drums of Modernity pound a pace the children might flee deeper into the jungle to escape the sacrifice of their virgin lives. Or they might become like me, wanderers in search of a home away from the madness of a world without babies.

There are no words....

 A gentle reminder that my book, An Occasional Walker, is available at the link here:

And here are some reviews and comments on said book:

No comments: