From Robotic bees to Ayacucho

A Quechuan story I read on the way to Peru tells me that my body is made up of the organs of animals. Not in a Dr Moreau kind of way, more in a mysterious, metaphysical one. It’s a very different understanding of the self from the one Europeans have often espoused – where animal and human are defined inherently by opposition to each other, and where the individual is separate and bounded. Whether the Quechuan story is literal or metaphorical (or whether Quechuan cultures make that distinction at all), I don’t know, but I can’t help feeling that the interconnectedness suggested by the story does its work on me a little as I hurtle across the atlantic within the armoury of a very man made plane.

Strangely, somewhere over Brazil I think, I read in the newspaper that scientists have managed to manufacture a robotic bee they hope wll one day be capable of pollinating crops. It’s a dystopian vision, but I also find myself thinking how strange it is to read this piece against the background of the Quechuan story where animals contributed their hides (and testicles) to make us human. Perhaps we are trying, in our confused way, to return the favour? Still, I can’t help finding the robotic bees spooky, just as I still find it spooky that in fourteen hours I will land in Peru and have the complex task of reconfiguring all the animal parts of me into one jetlagged human so that I can deliver workshops, speak at events, and pollinate metaphors in Ayacucho and Arequipa.

I have the feeling of arriving in Peru through several portals. I come via a night in Manchester airport hotel, a connecting flight to Amsterdam, on to Lima and then another night in Lima airport before a smaller plane up into the Andes. I am in airport world forever, with its curiously flattening brand of humanity. Flying doesn’t allow the kind of transitions that can make the travel itself rewarding. You have to climb through a wormhole made of multinational corporations, through airports constructed of Starbucks and Prada, every place in the world the same consumerist vision, before they let you feel that you have arrived anywhere tangibly different or tangibly real.

The feeling of deferred arrival is reinforced when, after queuing for ages for immigration controls in Lima, and finally getting to the front of the queue, the airport suddenly instigates an evacuation simulation, and the whole hallfull of us new arrivals is ushered outside under the Lima sky to wait in an in-between land of concrete and floodlights that is neither Peru nor anywhere. I haven’t yet set foot in Peru, and I am being evacuated from it already.

It’s odd how, in these situations of miniature exile, we gravitate toward other people’s humanity. Standing on the asphalt, sudden conversations spring up. I find myself giggling about it all in a group of four women. We are from Chile, Argentina, Germany and Wales, and we are suddenly a little more whole together. The Chilean woman, a very cheerful astrologist, tells me that there was a significant quake in Chile yesterday, and that’s why they’re running the simulation. As she says this, beneath my feet, the ground feels even more tenuous.

When they let us back in we have to go through the process of queuing again, and even when I’m finally through passport control and into Lima’s competently bland airport hotel, I find myself floundering in abstraction and weightlessless. I wake at 4am local time and go to the hotel gym and pound my feet against the treadmill. Ground ground ground, says the rhythm of my feet, but I can’t feel that it’s there, and by quarter past eleven I am up up up in the air again, high above the Andes staring down on the deep clefts of valleys, the empty scars left by dried rivers, the red earth, and the upended contours of geological seams. The Andes are a tawny and unsteadying pelt below us, with sudden bursts of green wherever there is water. Above it all we fly through a sky of vertical cloud banks and rainbows, dizzy with light.

The announcement that we are coming into land comes quickly and unfeasibly, not a single flat place within view. But there it is, momentarily, the sudden runway, and here it is, Ayacucho’s tiny airport, utterly real and unabstracted, and there is my bag, and here is someone who knows my name, and look, here, here the ground of Ayacucho.

With its beautiful square, its bustling markets, its stalls of local crafts and ice cream made by hand, its women in dignified wide brimmed black hats and embroidered skirts, its shoe shiners, and its endless pan piping sounds as tonight fourty Andean bands take over the auditorium of the main square, Ayacucho is so vibrant that I am lightheaded. The air here is thin. We are so high that when I flick open the cap of my bottle of shampoo, its contents explode with the contrast between its lowland air pressure and the ethereal air of this extraordinary place. Imagine what the altitude does to your body then. I’m told to drink water and Mate de Coco (a potent tea that’s legal here, but which can apparently make you fail a drugs test) to help with the altitude sickness.

Tomorrow I am to run a creative writing workshop in Spanish for local young people. Originally, we’d thought that 20 would be a good number of students for the workshop, but around a hundred want to come, including local school children, and I agree to this, in a moment of crazed abandon.

After a brief, airy, unsatisfying sleep amid the sounds of panpipes and bustle, I wake dizzied by the altitude and exhaustion, with a churning stomach and a churning mind, and wonder what on earth will I do? A creative writing workshop, in Spanish, for a hundred people, with altitude sickness and jetlag and an upset stomach. What on earth was I thinking.

In the hall, the young people and children sit in rows going back and back, waiting for me to speak. I have just met their teacher and given him a Welsh writing slate as a gift. He’s a Quechuan speaker, as are some of these students.

I start by telling them why it is that I speak in such a strange way. I am doubly foreign. Not only do I speak Spanish with a heavy Welsh accent, but I also speak a foreign kind of Spanish. I am not even English, they discover. All strangeness.

They don’t seem to care. They throw themselves en masse into playing all the oral creative games I’ve brought to start us off, games that emphasise the primacy of the spoken word, before we’ll turn to the written one. It feels important to emphasise the value of spoken literatures here, as well as written ones, before we all put pen to paper, as I know there’ll be a rich seam of spoken forms in the Andes, as well as what is on paper.

At the end of the workshop, after we have done several prompts that aim to encourage freedom in improvisation and collaboration, many of them accept my invitation to take to the microphone, with an urgency to read and be heard that I have rarely seen. As they begin, I see why. Through their metaphors and stories they have opened a new portal, nothing like the passport controlled one I have just been processed through. They offer me a lens to their complex, extraordinary, painful and illuminating worldview. Their pieces are full of joy and magic and metaphysical excitement, full of pain and sadness and hope, and above all, full of a fearlessness toward feeling. One young girl’s improvised piece has me fighting back tears, rooted to the spot as it speaks of generational trauma and moves sure footedly toward its metaphorical transformation. These young people may be too young to remember personally the worst violence this region suffered as it was caught in the crossfire of guerilla warfare and government crackdowns, and yet it percolates metaphorically and surreally into their imaginative worlds, with a powerful force which has me suddenly stilled. At the end of the workshop, more come, to read to me privately. They promise me they’ll keep writing, and they must.

On the way here, I had read a rather beautiful statment in an article on the weather in the airline’s complimentary newspaper. A typical raindrop, it said, is a coalescence of 10,000 cloud droplets. In this hall, we hundred or so people, with our own 10,000 metaphors and stories, seem to coalesce into something whole as we all applaud together at the end of the workshop. And perhaps together, for these moments, we are like the human beings in the Quechuan story, who, rather than the passported and separated individuals of airport world, can be a human wholeness made of many.

Alys Conran is Creative Wales Hay Festival International Fellow 2019/20, travelling to each Hay Festival edition. Her novels, Dignity and Pigeon, are out now. Find out more about Hay Forum Ayacucho and Hay Festival Arequipa here.