I have a tendency to ask people what they think of the places they visit. I like to ask myself what I think of cities I visit. We tend to keep it brief – we like it or we don’t like it. It’s interesting or it’s not interesting. It beautiful or it’s not beautiful.
We got robbed in Cajamarca, Peru. It was two days before my sister’s wedding on New Year’s Eve a few years ago. It was at her home where we were staying. Where we were playing cards when we heard the dog barking furiously outside. The men were masked and strong and demanded money by the tips of their machetes. Physical shocks of fear, as real and debilitating as a punch in the gut, rushed through my body and continued after the robbers left and through the rest of the night. Sleep was as distant as the sun I prayed to come up because the nightmare was real for as long as it was dark. They would come back, I was convinced. I shivered in my bed, my dad standing watch at the window. It wasn’t until the first peak of light made its way through the window that my adrenaline subsided. But never again could I sleep in that house.
I still shudder when I hear dogs bark loudly at night.
What is it to know a city? Is it to know its history? Does it happen when you visit every street in the city or go inside every building? Is it a certain amount of time spent there? Is it who we are with or is it when we are alone?
During a trip to Puerto Rico a couple of years ago Mike and I took a jog one morning. We didn’t want to stray too far from where we were staying so we opted to run laps around the nearby hotel/casino. It was morning and the thermal blanket of the Puerto Rican sun was already in full effect. The hotel workers and cab drivers sitting around playing dominos looked at us like we were crazy. Hell, the lizards scattering across the sidewalk to get into shade, were very likely questioning our intelligence. I didn’t make it long. I’ve never done well in the heat and after three laps it felt like a dentist had suctioned out all liquid from my mouth and I was inside an oven. Mike and I found some shade and I collapsed into the lukewarm grass. Not a minute later a hotel worker, in a long sleeve shirt and pants, walked over and gave me his unopened bottle of water. He must have thought we were crazy for running in that heat without water but it didn’t matter. A man I didn’t know in a place I didn’t know reached out and I still think about it to this day.
A dreadful moment. An transcendent moment. But neither can define those places.
Made it south by the sea. I had a five hour drive today. I am sitting in a restaurant by the sea with jazz music waiting for my fish and chips. My phone is almost out of battery. Will write more when I get back to the airbnb. That was the email I received this summer from my dad who was traveling around Europe. I saved it and re-read it from time to time. I’m not exactly sure why. I wonder if it’s the amount of beauty in the brevity. A still moment hanging there without judgment – like a picture infused with mystery and expanse.
I think about all of the places I’ve visited and the words I’ve used to describe them and the memories and feelings that have stuck with me from those places – and still I wonder can we ever really know a city? Will our descriptions always fall short? Or are our descriptions simply describing us – an amalgam of our tastes and fears during that time of our life?
Maybe simple, physical descriptions are all that we have to know a place, and the rest, well that’s on us.