A Refugee in Cajamarca

Saturday February 8, 1986, Cajamarca, Peru

I am about to share a pre-Lenten dinner with six strangers. They have welcomed me into their quarters, have set a place for me at their table. I’ve spent all day trying to reach them, trying to reach this very place.

This morning I was in Chiclayo, looking for passage to Cajamarca by this afternoon. The only available bus fare would take me seventy miles down the coast, but not the last one hundred thirty miles into the mountains. I bought the fare, with the hope of furthering my trip later.

It is the Saturday ahead of Mardi Gras. And while Brazil convulses to the shockwaves emanating from Rio de Janeiro, Peru looks to the epicenter of Carnival in Cajamarca. Here, Carnival seems to revolve around food and history and culture, rather than around Brazil’s obsession with mostly, if not entirely, carnal pursuits.

I had planned on getting to Cajamarca by this afternoon, but had not anticipated the hordes coming to this otherwise-quiet mountain city. Pacasmayo, the last stop on the coast before the run-up into the mountains, had become congested with buses and trucks and cars, all bulging with Carnival-goers. They jockeyed like salmon – cutting, bumping, snapping – making the furious and frenzied push to the headwaters, to Cajamarca.

I panicked for a few moments upon leaving the bus and descending into the agitated procession of pilgrims. We were, every one of us, headed to the very same place, and I had not anticipated this. I moved through the crowd, listening for some signal that dozens of buses would miraculously arrive to carry these hundreds of people to Cajamarca.

I hesitated, not sure how to find a driver in all the chaos and shouting. But I found César, a limeño, further along than I in arranging a ride to Cajamarca. He looked to be my age, eighteen, maybe older. He was speaking with another man, pointing east, toward Cajamarca. César no longer carried the worried face of the crowd. I pushed my way to him. To César. I explained I was looking for a ride to Cajamarca. He said he might have a ride to Chilete, seventy miles into the mountains, over halfway to Cajamarca, in the right direction at least.

I could walk the last sixty miles from Chilete to Cajamarca by Monday night, and witness the festivities on Tuesday. César told me to wait, that he would be right back. I nodded, aware that he might be ditching me, telling me to close my eyes and count to fifty, while he runs off, snickering.

He moved through the crowd. I went up on my tiptoes to watch him. He spoke with the same man, the one who had pointed east. This time the man was leaning against a small white pickup truck, smoking, narrowing his eyes on César. They both looked into the crowd. César pointed at me. I remained still, and hoped.

I watched César push his way back into the crowd. Then I lost him. A moment later, he stood in front of me, and told me I was very lucky today. I breathed. I had a ride to Chilete at least. I followed César back to the pickup truck, and he introduced me to the driver, Joaquín. I thanked Joaquín and told him I was very much obliged to him for the lift. César touched Joaquín on the arm, and told him, as though they were having a private conversation, that I was not yet aware of the cost. Joaquín considered me for a moment, looking up and down at my untucked shirt and faded tan pants, cocking his head slightly to get a look at my backpack. He eyed my tattered leather huaraches.

He didn’t hide what he was doing, weighing the contents of my wallet by the surrogates of clothing and possessions. We both understood the balance of supply and demand was weighted in his favor, and I looked away for a moment, to feign some disinterest. But I knew my chance of a ride was slipping away in the crowd. Joaquín knew this as well. I hoped the sight of my dusty feet and scuffed huaraches would tip the balance. But everyone had dusty feet there. And nearly everyone wore tire-tread sandals, scuffed. He asked 80,000 soles, and said I would need to ride in the back with baggage and several other passengers. I told him I thought this was fair, and said I didn’t mind riding in the back.

Settled. Passage for less than five dollars. I handed my backpack up to another passenger and climbed in. César climbed in as well and sat nearly across from me, both of us on opposite wood-plank benches. I tucked my knees up to my chest and pushed my feet under a large bale of scratchy blankets. Other passengers had tucked their feet under bags of rice, and one woman at my side hugged a giant canvas bag of loose cotton or wool or some other batting.

Joaquín didn’t bother to inspect the final arrangement of baggage and bodies in the back of his truck. He took one final, long drag on his cigarette, flicked the butt under the truck, crossed himself while looking up into a cloudless blue sky, and jumped in the cab. We lurched forward into the river of vehicles and took our place in the queue heading inland, into the mountains.

César leaned against the cab, holding the front of the truck bed. After a few minutes, he looked over at me. I was the middle passenger of five on my side. I smiled and nodded, trying to convey gracias, muchas gracias.

During the two-hour ride to Chilete, none of the passengers spoke to each other. For a long time I thought César and I were the only ones known to each other, though we didn’t speak either. I would have had to have shouted to him, and I didn’t want to confirm to the other passengers that I couldn’t speak Spanish so well, that I was a foreigner. Though I suspected they already knew – by my huaraches.

I closed my eyes, folded my arms around my knees, and let my head rest, suspended between my kneecaps. The woman seated next to me leaned into my ribs. I thought I smelled goats. I heard someone shouting from the roadside, and I sat up slowly. For a long time I attempted to match who belonged to who in the back of the truck. I couldn’t tell. Then about an hour into the drive, a young boy, maybe ten years old, reached across the sacks of grain and touched the woman seated next to me on the arm. She looked up slowly, at me. I used my chin to point toward the boy. He removed the cap from a half-full two-liter plastic bottle of water, and handed her the bottle. She took a quick drink and handed the bottle back to him, and immediately closed her eyes and leaned her head into the canvas bag. Perhaps this was her son. She looked to be about forty years old.

I was thirsty too. And though I knew the boy would likely offer me the water if I asked, I didn’t know how many other mouths had drunk from it today, nor the provenance of the water itself.

We arrived in Chilete a little before one o’clock in the afternoon. Joaquín pulled into the small plaza de armas, and the passengers – most of whom had become lethargic from too much sun and dust and diesel exhaust – raised their heads, squinted in the bright mountain sunlight, and slowly crawled out of the truck bed. I stretched my legs and unrolled my back as I stood, and helped hand down the bags and cargo. The woman who had been dozing at my side for the last two hours, swung the large canvas bag onto her head, balanced it, and walked away and around a corner. I thought the boy would follow her, but he stayed to help unload the bags of rice onto the sidewalk. As soon as the truck bed was empty, Joaquín jumped into the cab and started the engine. The boy got in the cab and sat close to Joaquín. I watched them drive away. I had missed that one, missed the connection. I wondered if the boy even knew the woman with whom he had shared his water. That they might not have known each other only magnified the boy’s kindness, his heart.

The plaza in Chilete was clean, completely swept, and mostly quiet, save for a handful of food vendors calling out their wares: cigarillos, gaseosas, plátanos, choclo y queso. César looked longingly on one of the food carts, steam rising from one side. Then he glanced back at me and waved me toward him. He said the rides to Cajamarca would be on the other side of the plaza.

Among the handful of cars and minibuses was a large school bus, white and red, empty except for the driver. While César approached one of the minibus drivers, I wandered over to inspect the school bus, to speak with the driver. I stood at the open doorway and asked him if he knew of anyone going to Cajamarca. He pointed to the three or four cars parked along the plaza. I asked him where he was going. Cajamarca. I brightened, but he explained he was not able to take more passengers. I looked into the empty bus and then back at him. He shook his head and said this was a private bus. Then he raised his hand and motioned for me to wait. He descended the steps and called to a group of young men, maybe two dozen, college age, who had been resting in the plaza. One of the men, older and shorter than the rest, stood and approached us.

The man, it turned out, was the coach of the soccer team resting in the shade. As the bus driver went back to the bus, he gave me a single, quick nod as passed me. The coach approached me and asked if I was going to Cajamarca. Yes. He asked if I would like to ride with a winning soccer team. Yes. I told him it would be an honor, and that I had one friend that would also be honored to ride with the winning team.

Two hours later and after a mile of elevation gain straight up into the heart of the northern Andes Mountains, César and I arrived on the outskirts of Cajamarca. As our bus drove into the city, I noticed a growing line of people on the roadside, waving, howling. Some carried and beat large steel drums, the salvaged ends of former fifty-five-gallon steel barrels. Some beat smaller drums, crafted from pieces of twelve-or-so-inch-diameter PVC water pipe, animal skins stretched taut over one end. Real drums. Many Cajamarcans walked with our bus and banged out a chaotic rhythm on the metal hull. I thought the windows would break from the noise. César plugged his ears and stood to watch a girl running with a basin of water in her arms.

I finally asked the coach what tournament this team had just won. Our bus now resonated, and the coach had to shout over the fusillade of one hundred palms pounding against the sides. He put his hand on my shoulder and drew me closer so I would hear. He said I would not have grasped the significance of the team’s win if he had told me in Chilete, but that now I would understand.

I understood. Over the noise and celebration, he told me this team had just qualified for a larger tournament, elsewhere in South America. The Copa Libertadores. I congratulated him. He said he would stop in the city center and then take the team to the university.

As the bus came to a stop at the plaza, I shook the hand of each futbolista. I couldn’t tell if the crowds had gathered for Carnival or to simply welcome the victors home. I felt as though I were riding a Carnival tidal wave passing over all of South America, but was also buoyed by another wave that flooded only the streets of Cajamarca. I thanked the coach for the honor of arriving this way in his city.

Had I arrived in Cajamarca by another means, even at the same moment, I wouldn’t have detected this wave, this champions’ reception. I would have confounded it with the madness of Carnival.

I thanked the bus driver for facilitating the victory ride. César and I exited the bus to claps on the back, shouts of congratulations, blessings of hope for continued victories. A young girl, dressed in a red skirt and white blouse, ran at the team with a basin of water, swung it in a long arc over her head, and baptized us into Carnival.

César and I moved further away from the crowd. I dropped my backpack and dried my face with my sleeve. He told me to be careful during Carnival – that the water-throwing and the joking and the games become excessive, almost dangerous. Peligroso.

He asked me where I was staying, and said he could help me with directions. He said he had been to Cajamarca to visit his aunt and uncle and cousins, and knew the city like his own neighborhood in Lima. I looked around the plaza, and felt more sharply what I had worried about since this morning: there would be no rooms in Cajamarca. César was quiet, and he watched me watch the Carnival-goers. So many of them. I told him I had not arranged for a place to stay, but that I would look for a room, that I appreciated his help in Pacasmayo this morning. He looked down the street running out of the plaza, full of people and drums. He looked behind himself at the crowd thronging the soccer team. He looked at me for a moment, as though to ask if I saw how many people were in Cajamarca on this Saturday ahead of Mardi Gras. He said the hotels and hostels would be full. Many people would spend the night outside. I had no place to stay.

César told me to wait in the plaza, told me to wait for him to return. He said he would go ask his aunt if I could stay in her home, even for one night, or until I found other accommodations. He apologized that he couldn’t speak for her, that he couldn’t state definitively right then that I could come with him. I considered spending the night outside, maybe on the outskirts of the city, or in a cave. I had heard of caves in the area.

Perhaps César saw my hesitation, saw I didn’t want to impose on his family or on him any longer; he had already helped me so much, to come so far, to find a ride out of crowded Pacasmayo this morning. Perhaps he saw this, because he spread his hand on my chest, over my heart, and gently pleaded with me to wait, to not leave the plaza until he had returned. Espérate. Espérate hasta que vuelva.

I told him I would stay in the plaza, right at that bench until he returned. While I had doubted him in Pacasmayo, now, as I stood in the plaza, I knew I had only doubted myself.

He said the round-trip would take him a little less than an hour on foot. I watched him navigate the people and benches and then around the circular fountain at the very center of the plaza. He turned around briefly near the fountain and then made his way toward another paved pathway radiating from the center. When he looked back for a moment, I didn’t move or wave. I stood stone still. I wanted him to trust me. He disappeared into a hundred other people and was gone.

Thirty-five minutes. I stood and began to pace a little. Not for worry or concern, but to simply stretch my legs.

Forty minutes. I looked toward the center, toward the fountain. I thought César would come from there. I considered buying something to eat. I had not eaten since leaving Chiclayo in the dark this morning. The sun would be down soon, and I wondered how much longer the street vendors would be about. A couple shops had just pulled down the clattering rolled doors over their entryways. A hunched woman, brightly arrayed in the more traditional dress of the countryside, carried a large, steaming steel bucket. She advertised choclo y queso, the satisfyingly large corn-on-the-cob accompanied by a generous chunk of goat’s cheese. My stomach growled. But she was walking away from me, and I didn’t want to leave my post. César would be back soon.

Forty-five minutes. César came into sight. I only noticed him because his pace was hurried, not like the other hundreds of people sauntering about the plaza. He quickened when he saw me, and apologized again, this time for taking so long. He immediately said he might know of another place I could stay. Then, he regretfully described the scene at his aunt’s home: eighteen relatives, and some he did not even know. And, he added, his aunt’s home was not large.

I thanked him for checking with his aunt, and told him I would be fine, that he had already bothered with so much already. But he insisted I let him try once more to find a place to rest my head. He also handed me a grapefruit-sized butcher-paper package. Heavy and warm. I knew this to be a consolation gift from his aunt’s kitchen. I thanked him, and asked him to pass my gratitude on to his aunt and family. He said he had not yet eaten, but he knew the food to be excellent, that he had enjoyed this same meal before.

The early-evening sky turned to a darker blue, and more people filled the plaza. The sun had just dropped into the high valley leading out of the city and back to the coast. I told César I appreciated his help and his aunt’s care for my wellbeing so far from her kitchen, and that I would need to start for the outskirts of the city. He asked me to wait one more time, only fifteen minutes. I agreed, and he made his way across the street and into another smaller gated plaza at the foot of a beige stone church. He slipped through a side door of the church.

Lights came on around the plaza and in the streets. I put the package of warm food in the top of my pack, and put on my jacket. And waited again. More lights in the plaza. The sun had gone down in earnest; night had fallen on Cajamarca.

When César returned, he asked me if I was Catholic. I thought the question strange, out of context. I told him I was not Catholic, but Mormon. Soy Mormón. He frowned and told me I could not tell this to the priest, that this was my only chance at finding a place to stay. His aunt knew the priest, and she had sent a message with César asking the priest if he could shelter me in the church. César had delivered the message, and the priest had offered a meeting. César led me back to the church, part of a larger complex of buildings attached to a sixteenth century monastery. La Iglesia de San Francisco. As we entered, the stones around the doorway radiated the latent heat of the day’s sun. I felt confident I would have a place to stay. César reminded me to be careful if the priest asked me about my own faith. I wasn’t worried. My own faith told me the priest wouldn’t send me away.

The priest was younger than I had expected. For some reason I had in my mind a Grey Friar, in pale robes, an ancient Franciscan, befitting the monastery. In front of me was a younger priest, dressed in a black shirt and slacks, white collar. He invited me to sit. César stood just outside the office door – ready to intervene if I began to jeopardize my welcome.

The priest asked me if I was okay if he spoke Spanish. Yes. Slowly is better. He spoke softly and shifted slowly in his seat, as though he were quieting a wild animal. Reverent, dignified, deliberate.

He told me I could stay in the monastery with several college students, but that he needed to determine that I was safe, that I would not endanger them. I nodded. I thought here he might ask me the single qualifying question César had warned me about: was I Catholic? He didn’t. Instead, he asked me if I was a good man. Yes. I think so. I try to do right. Then he asked me if I had prayed to have a place to rest tonight, a refugio. He said refugio, and I at once understood that what I had wanted was not simply a place to rest or sleep, but a place to feel safe, a place to feel sure that I would have what I needed. The day had left me tired, strewn out, worn. Not from too much sun or wind or noise or diesel exhaust. But from simply not knowing if I might get stranded along the way, if I might arrive somewhere and not have a place to stay. A refugio. This insecurity had gnawed at me since I left Chiclayo long before sunrise this morning. It had quietly worried me at each turn throughout the day. I had hoped I would have a place to rest tonight, but I could not remember praying.

I told this to the priest, that I had not prayed, but had only hoped. He smiled and said that was as good start, a good beginning. He admonished me to pray for what I needed, and to also hope.

He thanked César for bringing me, for delivering me into his care. I thanked César too, and asked him to thank his aunt for the food, for her sensitivity. With that, César left for his own family, and the priest walked me down a long, stone hallway and up a flight of stone stairs, worn in the middle from four hundred years of footfalls, into the monastery. He introduced me to six college students who had made an apartment in a cavernous room there.

Now, the priest has just left, and I am standing in this upper room. The students ask me if I have eaten or if I will join them for dinner. They have just prepared a simple meal over a kerosene stove: a pot of boiled potatoes and a plate of goat’s cheese. I ask them if it would not be a problem to join them. They insist.

I pull the heavy and still-warm paper package from my backpack and set it on the long wooden table. There are no electric lights in this part of the monastery. The students light more candles, and fix them to long-established wax mounds near one end of the table. They find another bowl and spoon, and place a simple setting in front of me. I open the paper package. César’s aunt has been merciful and generous. I find two chicken thighs, greasy, rich, the broiled skin still intact, buttressed by well over a pound of seasoned yellow rice. I ask for a knife, and carefully cut the meat off the bones. I put the meat and bones and rice next to the potatoes and cheese. One of the students prays over our meal, over our sacrament. Here, in Cajamarca, I am given more than a place to stay; I am given a refugio. Tonight I am a refugee.

 

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