I’ve been watching the cats for a while, lying in the grooves of a corrugated iron roof I can see from my third-story window in Huanchaco, Peru. Lounging about in the late afternoon sun, I can count three of them in various states of feline elongation. Like the many street dogs that wander amongst the fishermen and the jewellery vendors, they are free denizens of this tiny town by the sea. By the sea and yet in the desert. I’ve never seen anything like it.
From my window I see the coast curving away to the left and out of the reach of my squint-wrinkled eyes. Unfinished brick buildings peter out halfway along and from that point, right from the water’s pebbled edge, a hill of sand and rock climbs steeply into the haze. It’s a horizon of weak watercolours, three washed-out tones of blue, yellow and grey. A simple palette for a landscape mirrored in the lifestyle.
Life does seem simple here, but that doesn’t mean sleepy. Car horns toot incessantly, waves crash and construction inches forward somewhere, although you couldn’t guess which barely-begun site was the recipient. Beaten and bruised buses rumble along the main road with a driver’s assistant hustling from the doorway, whistling and calling to locals and tourists for anyone wanting a Mad Max-style trip to Trujillo. The horns beep and boop-boop in coded conversation, Morse-like outbursts for merging, for approaching an intersection, for attracting attention or for overtaking. It’s a good thing considering there is barely a notion of separate lanes and even less of one for indicating. Any safety measure is welcome because although the taxi drivers wear seatbelts, they have usually been removed from the passenger seats. It’s hard to get your head around a cultural difference when you’re worried it might be vaulting through the windscreen at any moment.
Despite this noise and chaos, the pace of life feels slow and it’s a rhythm that seduces. The weather is virtually unchanging, every day revealed as a sunny mid-20s after the bookends of haze and cloud are licked away by a gentle sea breeze. Enormous pelicans patrol low amongst the waves before dipping swiftly to steal their catch from the sea, while the uncaught regularly launch themselves out of the water in shiny eruptions of silver, either a flight of fear or fancy, I don’t know. Fishermen paddle out to drop their lines aboard handmade reed catamarans, which at all other times stand upright along the beach in twos or threes like ancient sentinels, stoic neighbours to the street vendors positioned nearby. It all feels easy and calm, life just ambling along.
I do wonder about how false my impression might be, how reductive and ignorant. The picture appears idyllic but there must be drama and conflict around the edges. There are humans here, after all. Many of the bodegas have iron bars separating customer from goods, a hint at a threat of crime that you don’t feel as a tourist by the beach. What seems simple and enticing to me might be a struggle from week to week, scrounging for the soles to pay for the drinking water you can’t get from the taps or for the electricity flowing along a chaos of cables like a tragedy waiting to happen.
That’s travelling, I suppose, forming an impression of a place based on a brief encounter, just like we do with people. Just like I did when I met Barry downstairs. You’ve met a Barry too, I’m sure. Barry possesses a voice of such chainsaw potency that if he was buried underground he could whisper for help. He uses that voice to great effect, dominating conversations with his expertise on all things and the assumption that you probably need help to spell your own name. In his 50s, he is tall and wiry with the white-grey hair of a former reddish head and the sunburnt nose to confirm the suspicion. I spoke with him for five minutes and have been doing my utmost to avoid him ever since, which is not so easy. The walk past his apartment to the beach is a daily nightmare because he leaves his door open, a classic move to trap passersby that requires my constant vigilance to evade. His cavity-drilling drawl does have a silver lining though: you can geolocate him with ease and plan your crab-crawling dash under the windowsill. It’s not graceful, but survival is all that matters.
I wonder about him though, about why a single middle-aged man comes to Huanchaco for weeks at a time or where his need to educate every one he meets comes from. I’m curious about his story, but can’t face enduring that conversation to hear it. I might be missing out, but that’s quite alright.
I’ll stay ignorant about Barry; I’m satisfied with what I gleaned from him in that initial encounter. If I’m ignorant about Huanchaco after staying here for a week, if there is a dark side to the repetitive perfection of the weather or having the waves to yourself because the locals can’t swim, that’s ok too. There’s a line from the Walkmen song While I Shovel The Snow that goes: there’s no life like the slow life, and listening to that song on Christmas Eve, as I looked out the window while fireworks exploded all over the town at midnight, it had never had so much resonance. Ignorance is Huanchaco.