Wednesday, February 20, 2013

God lives here

Leaving Ecuador and entering Peru, especially after having traveled around Colombia first, feels like a kick in the nuts. I’ll illustrate this for the female readers out there, who should feel lucky for never having to fear an attack on their precious scrotum, by saying it’s somewhat similar to a bad case of PMS. I’m obviously speculating, as I am clueless to what it feels like when my non-existent ovaries ovulate.  In any case, everyone knows pain, pain is universal, and pain is what you feel when you enter Peru. Not right after you cross the border, but some 60 miles in, when the mountains yield to the supremacy of the desert. There’s about 620 miles of dunes separating Piura, in the Northwest tip of the country, from Lima, the Capital city.

610 miles of sand between Piura and Lima.
The desert fascinates me, I’m sure I’ve said it before. I had an interesting conversation with a police officer yesterday. I stopped at a gas station in the middle of nowhere, woke him up from his pre-lunch nap and fell victim to the now too common interrogation –where do you come from, where are you going, are you not scared of traveling alone, etc –. We ended up talking about the desert, its great magnetism, simultaneously inhospitable and beautiful. Hostile and inviting at the same time. A land that kills but gives its victims a peaceful death. A place of extremes, and because extremes seduce me, (especially when their counterparts are also at hand), while in the desert I’m a truly happy man. This is when the sassy reader wonders ‘where does the kick in the nuts/ovaries fit in this scenario of happiness?’. Well, the harsh blow to the nose of my soul is not inflicted by the desert, it’s given by the communities that populate it.
The Pan-American Highway takes pleasure in going across dozens of towns before reaching the Capital. “Towns” is a shameful euphemism I must use to be politically correct in describing what I’d really say are garbage dumps with people living on them. I’d never seen such insalubrious places as the ones I’ve driven through these past two days. I know I’m not the fairest judge of crappy towns since I was lucky enough to be born in the First World, and the most repulsive city in Spain is a decadent vacation town called Benidorm. But, I have enough common sense to know that certain places should not be inhabited by people.

Trash is King in these towns. It floods the streets and road verges. When I approach one of these towns, a horrible smell of decomposition always succeeds in making its way into my nostrils, even with the helmet’s face-shield shut down. The stench comes not only from the ever-present garbage, but also from the factory chimneys that border these villages.
Houses are mostly made of sun-dried bricks and they’re in a perpetual state of mid-construction. The windows have no glass panes, so I’m sure the perfume of death is an extra tenant in all places of residence. ‘Residences’ is a generous term to designate these terrible constructions where whole families live. They’re indecent holes where people don’t live but survive.  They survive in a world of waste and refuse, in the middle of an insufferable stench that is only lessened by the desert’s sand and wind, sometimes.

Topping the surrealness of it all is the constant presence of “God” in the walls, roads, and even some mountain hillsides that say “Christ is my guide”, “God is my savior”, “The Lord is my Sheppard”, “God lives here”… There’s some villages that were christened “City of God”, or something like it, by some Mayor of old who made it legitimate by planting a huge billboard at the goat-trail-turned-Main-street at the entrance of town. This omnipresence of the Christian divinity has made me think about certain aspects of religion, and the places our pal Jesus of Nazareth chooses to take his well-deserved time off.

I’ve traveled around, and after two years of working for a catholic news channel I’ve come to the conclusion that the presence of God is inversely proportional to the growth of a devoted parishioner’s bank account. This is a generalization, I know, and as such it’s quite limited but not necessarily less true. Putting it simply: The less money you have, the greater need to have God in your life. It’s not exactly a matter of money, but a consequence from the lack of it. Lower purchasing power means lower quality of health, food and happiness. The lesser the possibility of happiness, the greater need for hope. And the thing about hope is, that when there’s nothing else to sustain it, it can only feed itself from that which is supposed to be there no matter what: God.

God also promises life after death. Yes, this life sucks beyond measure, but eternity in heaven will be a whole different story. The Bible says something like “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”. In other words: “Don’t worry too much about life on Earth. Even if it’s terrible, and you’re hungry and live in a dump, heaven has wonderful things in store for you”. Let’s assume Jesus did walk the Earth and actually preached about “Blessed are those who…”, I highly doubt it was his intention to oppress the poor. My idea of Jesus is that he focused more on teaching about humility and not about keeping people content in their misery. This is my idea, the Church tends to interpret the Bible differently.

Centuries of oppression have turned Jesus’ lesson on humility into a way of manipulating the poor and especially those in the Third World, getting them to use religion as a refuge to accept their conditions in the hopes of something better to come. I don’t think of Jesus as a weak and meek guy. I think he ‘turned the other cheek’ only in a metaphorical way. Over 2,000 years after his death I honestly think that if he got up today (for reals this time), he would run to his beautiful – and somewhat loose - Mother’s side.

The issue in these times and in these places is not a matter of believing or not believing in God. It’s about needing or not needing God. Atheism is a First World privilege, an asset of the well-off classes. The faith in Science and Medicine is only practical if you can afford health insurance and the necessary education to understand the theories of a crazy genius like Stephen Hawkins. But when you inhabit one of  “God’s Cities” religion is not an option, it’s a necessity. The eternal paradox of the believer: ‘God is loving and almighty but there’s a reason why he seems to abandon us and doesn’t help us with our misfortunes. This is why we need Him, and our faith in Him has to grow everyday’.
Only the rational and educated man doubts.

Tomas Ericsson in "Winter Light".
Ingmar Bergman, the great filmmaker, was a master in expressing religious uncertainty and the agnostic man’s loneliness. He spent his last years transitioning from wanting to be a believer, to standing pretty firm in his faith. This came after long periods of deep thought and, it seems that the certainty of the end being close attracted him to the idea of God as something more patent, more possible. Even so, his concept of God was not as vital as it is for those who truly need God to live a life that is unbearable otherwise.

There’s no room for doubt in these sun-dried brick houses, because the seed of doubt can’t be planted where there isn’t time for deep thought. And how can you loose yourself in deep thought when you have to worry about stretching breakfast so you can go straight to dinner and not send the kids to bed on an empty stomach. I saw one of these kids when I stopped at a red light. He was holding his mother’s hand. As an observer I was ashamed of my very presence there. Me, with my First World problems, passing through the land that God forgot, even though it bears his name. The money Don Solaris spends in gas everyday would feed one of these families for a week. Don Solaris wonders where he’s going to eat tonight and where he can find a Laundromat to drop off his clothes to be washed. That family can afford one meal a day, if any, and hangs their clothes to dry in the open air with the putrid fumes coming out of the chemical plant. Don Solaris is disgusted with the overflowing garbage, and those kids are just kids, pretending to be sailors in a sea of trash. Don Solaris can afford to be a hardened, sarcastic atheist. Them, not so much.

I speed up in my Roro (there’s still some 250 miles of desert before I reach Lima), and I left that mother and her child behind. I distanced myself from such poverty, and the sadness of a town called “Valley of God”. I would say I was distancing myself from God as well if I wasn’t so utterly convinced that God, without a doubt, does not live there.

"Valley of God welcomes you". Just that...enjoy.

In the back, right by the smoke coming from the burning trash, a cross

My God, why have you forsaken me?

Leaving the Valley of God behind.

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