Hopping on the Lima Metropolitan’s main trunk in downtown Lima I headed south.
I didn’t know exactly where I was going.
All I had to go on was my memory of a few general maps and the solemn nod of a station attendant whom I asked if I could get to Barranco this way.
But as we approached Bulevar station, something told me this was it.
I followed a couple starry-eyed, bohemian-looking Peruvians and foreigners, off the platform and down a deserted cobblestone promenade, flanked by restaurants and bars with shuttered windows and stacks of chairs; the dinner shift wouldn’t start for several hours yet.
The first thing I noticed was a faded banner hanging lazily over the path.
“Cardboard Barranco – Martín Adán 1908-1985”
The banner cited an address, which I found just a few paces ahead. Adán’s former residence is today an international bar & grill. No placard, no museum, no sign of Adán anywhere but this lonely banner.
I’d never heard of Martín Adán (a.k.a. Rafael de la Fuente Benavides) until I started researching Allen Ginsberg’s propitious trip to Peru.
But with descriptions like “kaleidoscopic,” “sweeping,” and “flashes”, I knew this obscure South American poet deserved a closer look.
By 1960, when Ginsberg and Adán met outside Desamparados Station in downtown Lima, Adán was already a withering alcoholic, in and out of hospitals and psych wards, littering bars and street corners with poems scrawled on napkins and scraps of paper, which cultural curator and bookstore owner Juan Mejía Baca devotedly gathered and published on Adán’s behalf.
But in 1928 at just 20 years of age, Adán published his first major work—The Cardboard House—a poignant, colorful, almost stream of consciousness novel that presaged the jazzy bop style of Kerouac and Ginsberg, over 20 years before the Beat Generation came to be.
I devoured the book cover to cover on a three-hour flight from Panama to Lima. In it Adán details several summers (and a few winters) of his childhood spent in Barranco—a seaside retreat popular with posh Limeños in the 1920s. Opening with whimsical, childlike descriptions of breezy esplanades, exotic foreigners, and ingénue ex-girlfriends, the book takes a bittersweet, borderline nihilist turn after the death of the narrator’s best friend Ramón. The Cardboard House oozes the raw teenage sensitivity but with the poetic imagery and presence of mind of a skilled and aged poet.
By the time the plane hit the tarmac in Lima, I couldn’t wait to see Barranco for myself.
Today Barranco is still a semi-posh, semi-bohemian district by the sea,
where artists, backpackers, and writers mingle in cheery ceviche shacks and sumptuous cafes along charming, rustic streets.
I started my tour in Barranco Park and the Plaza de Armas.
Opening up at the end of the Bulevar, Barranco’s main square had a light and floral air, totally unlike the nationalistic Plaza de Armas or the seedy Plaza San Martín in downtown Lima. Blissed-out folks strolled casually with ice creams and coffees in hand, enjoying the mild autumn weather. A bare-breasted, alabaster muse hunched over a turned off fountain in the middle of the square. A handsome, earnest-looking young artist pushed glasses high up the bridge of his nose and hurried across the sidewalk with a canvas under his arm.
In the shadow of Santísima Cruz Church was a book fair, where local novelists and poets promoted their latest works: the 1st ever Independent Book Fair of Barranco.
A perfect way to celebrate Adán’s literary legacy!
One of the many long, black tables caught my eye—Moscó Puspús—covered in a colorful menagerie of stickers, postcards and booklets. I thumbed through a few beautiful flip books – one of a woman swimming underwater, another of mountain scenery, another of placid landscapes. I skimmed a few copies of Mundo Cruel—a full-color zine that mashed up poetry, evocative imagery and social critique in protest of consumerism and the police state.
I love this pinko commie counterculture shit.
I bought two of everything for just 25 soles (about USD 8.00), prompting appreciative smiles from the comrades operating the booth. I walked away electrified by my find, a veritable treasure trove of modern Beat spirit.
A booming voice caught my ear near the exit of the tent.
A young woman was reciting poetry, her own, from a large sheet of wrinkled paper like an origami’d scroll.
- Through forceful, shattering bellows, poet Fio Loba described the killing of an innocent civilian at the hands of the police.
- With gentle somber murmurs, she told of her nocturnal encounter with a majestic condor in a tiny Andean village.
My ears flailed, grabbing at the melodious Spanish words like rushing, relentless waves. I failed to grasp them all, but managed to catch the gist. Mystical, lucid images resonated with flawless, forceful diction. The poetry jam ended to jovial applause, followed by a brief, sonorous hum—the not-so-distant whisper of the sea.
Next I wandered out of the main park, past the Municipality building and toward another, diminutive, multi-leveled park.
In the middle, tourists crowded and jostled for space along a short, narrow wooden bridge: the Bridge of Sighs, so named for the countless romances that took place there as depicted in popular Peruvian novels and songs. Legend has it if you cross the bridge holding your breath for the first time, your wish will come true.
Just before the bridge, a cement staircase led to a paved and painted ravine below, the Bajada de los Baños, meandering under the bridge and out to the sea.
A gorgeous mural covered a wall by the stairs: a young boy removing a heart-shaped section of his gentle Andean face like a puzzle piece, revealing a beautiful turquoise and gold bird in a sea of stars.
Underneath our many masks, we all long to be free.
Below the boy’s arm, a verse in tiny lettering. I moved in for a closer look.
My first love was 12 years old and had black finger nails.”
A line from The Cardboard House.
In the book, Adán’s prudish first love dumps him, barely a teenager, for being a socialist, promising to throw herself at the first honest Christian she finds, even if he’s younger than 12. Later in the book, the author’s best friend Ramon steals his fourth love Catita then dies, leaving the two bewildered by destiny’s cruelty.
Staring at the mural, a well of sympathy burrowed deep inside me.
Despite so many fruitless attempts, we can’t help but see romantic love as a key to the freedom we long for.
But it’s not.
I hurried back up the stairs and crossed the Bridge of Sighs. Alone, disenchanted, with no sighs left to spend, I snapped a few photos, breathed normally, and was done with it.
I was greeted on the other side by a strange chimera—The Ermita Church. Like an ecclesiastic sphinx, its body was a crumbling ruin in adobe and wood, its face a cheerful little chapel in bright lemon and merengue. Anglers and tourists have come here for ages to pray for success. A wake of buzzards presided over the roof, waiting to devour the sins and impurities of imploring believers, carrion feast of intercession.
Away from the crowd, I wandered the church’s neglected garden, cataloguing its curiosities.
- “One light, faith, one district,” etched in an ancient stone;
- Graffiti spliff and simple exhortation: “Smoke”;
- Creepy statue of a boy spying from atop the wall of a private garden.
Romance wasn’t the key to freedom. Neither was religion. The curious mural and the dilapidated church—along with millennia of human history and my 33 years on this planet—were testaments to that fact.
And still I longed to break free.
So I ambled downward and backward, into the ravine and toward the eternal, whispering sea.
Past rustic hillside houses in pastel pink and orange, I reached the Mirador, a round cul-de-sac where sightseers gathered to watch the Pacific Ocean, endless. Squeezing between the crowd by the railing, I gazed at endless waves, white lines, blue pools, rancid green and somber grey on the ugly, rocky beach several feet below.
A tender voice behind me interrupted my contemplation: a father explaining to his tiny daughter the significance of the site.
“See that jetty over there? That’s Chorrillos.”
“Tell me a story, Daddy.”
“There was a battle with Chile there many years ago. The Chileans were superior, stronger, and many Peruvian soldiers died. If you dig deep enough on the beach, you’ll uncover the bones of many brave men.”
The simplicity and frankness of his story overwhelmed me. These days we rarely speak to children so honestly about war and death, preferring to blindfold them with fairy tales and euphemisms. This matter-of-fact father just dove in, headlong.
If romance and religion were illusory paths to freedom, war and politics were a total dead end. Those avaricious presidents and ambitious generals had blasphemed, polluting these eternal shores with their petty skirmishes? For the soldiers, the result was still amenable. After all, what better place to meet one’s maker than on these Pacific shores, blood licked and lapped by glittering waves ad perpetuam?
The Mirador provided no path to the sea, so I retraced my steps, crossed the Bridge of Sighs again with quicker, more frantic paces, and rushed down the Bajada a los Baños. The path wound around rocky cliffs and a covered bridge over the coastal highway, ending at a narrow, stony beach.
I sat on a boulder and contemplated the vast horizon, from Chorrillos to Miraflores, waiting for eternity to speak.
A single seagull alighted on the shore in front of me, squawking persistently, perhaps expecting food. Realizing I had none, he dove suddenly into the water and emerged with an inky black urchin in his beak, soared triumphantly toward the sky. Then he let the urchin crash to the ground, dove, picked it up, dropped it once more, picked it up, and so on, again and again, hurling the urchin against the smooth rocks, each time failing to expose its succulent innards, repeating the process again and again as he disappeared past the horizon.
I marveled at the seagull’s persistence.
I remembered a passage from The Cardboard House, a letter to the author’s fourth love Catita, beautifully describing his joyful acceptance of impotence in the face of inexorable time:
“My life is a hole dug with the hands of a truant child in the sands of a beach—a malignant and tiny hotel that distorts the reflections of gentlemen who scold truant children, the image of respectable gentlemen who come to the beach and infest the sea air—so clean, so brilliant—with their horrible office odors. Such is my life, Catita—a little puddle on the beach—so now you see why I cannot be sad. The high tide undoes me, but another truant child digs me again at the other end of the beach, and I cease to exist for a few days, during which time I learn, always anew, the joy of not existing and the joy of resuscitating. And I am the truant child who digs his life in the sands of the beach. And I know the insanity of setting life up against destiny, because destiny is nothing but the desire we feel alternately to die and to resuscitate. For me the horror of death is nothing but the certainty of never being able to resuscitate again, that eternal boredom of being dead… There is no happiness greater than being a little hole full of seawater on the beach, a hole destroyed by the high tide, a little hole full of seawater where a paper boat floats.”
In a flash, I knew what I had to do.
I ripped a page from my journal, puzzled over it, realizing I’d forgotten how to make an origami boat: irrefutable evidence that I’d become more like those “respectable gentlemen” with their “horrible office odors” than I wanted to admit.
But I was repentant and determined to release my inner truant child.
I hastily tried to fold a paper boat from the entire sheet of paper, failed, then tried again. Failed again, tried again. At last I conjured up the semblance of a sail-less boat. Desperate, I ran to the sand and dug a whole with my bare hands, marveled as clear seawater filled the tiny pit from the unseen depths. No sooner had my creation taken float than a giant wave came crashing down, filled the pool and soaked the boat.
Shouldn’t I abandon these existential shenanigans? I looked a fool, a grown man shredding and tossing paper on an ugly South American beach. Then I remembered the seagull guiltily. Was I too lazy to smash urchins repeatedly against the rocky shores of my own eternity?
No. Futility was no excuse for laziness.
I recovered the soggy prototype and returned to my rocky perch. After a little contemplation, I created a smaller boat with a wider hull from the scraps of the first piece of paper. I selected a few tiny lightweight pebbles and placed them inside, hoping this would prevent the gusty wind from blowing the boat away.
I was digging another hole when a pair of young boys ran over, deeply concerned.
“Señor, what are you looking for?
I pondered the profundity of their question for a moment, then decided to spare them the details.
“No, I’m not looking for anything. I just want to float this boat and take a picture.”
One boy pointed to a wider section of the beach a few meters away.
“Ohh. Well we already made a bunch of puddles over there!”
Nearly 100-years after Martin Adan wrote The Cardboard Box, truant children (and odiferous office gentlemen) still wandered these infinite shores, digging transient puddles in time.
I pulled out my camera and hit record. The boys watched expectantly.
Miraculously, the boat floated! Then quickly pulled over at the far edge of the tiny pool.
“Señor, watch out!”
The boys disappeared with a shout as another violent wave roared up the beach, destroying the hole, soaking the boat and nearly drenching my boots.
A perfect depiction of my bleak, office gentleman’s life.
Satisfied, I gathered my things, tossed two soggy paper boats into a nearby trash bin, climbed back up the Bajada de los Baños beaming, and dove into Restaurante Javier to celebrate my tiny victory over chilcanos, ceviche, and pisco sours.
Licking salty lips, I reflected on today’s accomplishment.
- I followed my inspiration.
- I did the work.
- I let Destiny destroy it.
- Repeat, ad nauseum.
The paper boat I’d so lovingly crafted was baptized in brine, the hole I’d so hastily dug was filled and smoothed within seconds. But my soul was satisfied, whole, safe from “their” dirty hands. I realized that no matter what my destiny had in store, nothing could take away my peace of mind.
As I scrambled pisco-drunk up the Bajada de los Baños, apace with the rhythmic echoes of eternity,
I knew it was enough.