Writing Across the Landscape

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

September 3, 2015 
The following is from Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Writing Across the Landscape, a memoir of travel writing and poetry. Ferlinghetti is a poet, playwright, publisher, and activist; he co-founded City Lights Bookstore and established the Beat movement, or as he explained, "wide-open" poetry.
(January-February 1960)

We fly from San Francisco to Santiago, my wife Kirby and I, meeting Allen (Ginsberg) and changing planes in Panama, in the middle of the night, seeing nothing but bus-station-type Panama airport. My body transited this Canal some 15 years ago on a U.S. Navy troop transport headed for the Occupation of Japan. . . . As navigator, went ashore to Navy Hydrographic Office to get charts, hit swinging door bars on way back to ship, barely made it aboard before ship left Canal. . . . Now we sit in dim waiting room while they juice up the plane. . . . Allen and I cram into a phone-booth-size “photomat” and take pictures of ourselves, mugging it up. . . .

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It’s our first trip abroad as poets—an international literary conference, arranged by Fernando Alegría, Chilean poet and professor at UC Berkeley. It’s to be the first big comprehensive meeting of writers from all Latin American countries. And it turns out half of the writers––the most important in their countries––cannot enter the U.S. for political reasons. Let’s not have any of them dirty foreign influences. While we’re keeping things homogenous (like Borden’s Milk), Latin America is striving to homogenize itself enough to communicate across its own continent, exchange ideas, books, etc. . . . It will be the 21st century before they’re at all ready for a United States of Latin America.

The Conference is at the University of Concepción. First night, Allen makes great wild speech in Spanish—reads Whalen, Lamantia, Snyder, with translations by Luis Oyarzún. There is a sense of literary excitement in the cross-fertilizations going on. Zendejas interrupts solemn speech to demand one minute of silence for the death of Alfonso Reyes. Granted. All stand in silence. Five minutes later rises and interrupts again—now demands two minutes of silence. Five minutes later, he demands three.

One day at the Conference, the local Communist Party organizes a tour of writers to go to the minehead at Lota, an undersea coal mine. We arrive just as the miners are coming up from their 12-hour shifts. They come to the surface in little elevator cages, like animal cages in a zoo. The miners’ faces are illegible in the coal dust which coats their bodies, white eyes staring out of black masks. The pay is said to be a dollar a day. They walk undersea for a mile or so to get to the minehead. . . . Naturally the press has been invited by the CP to get our reactions. They thrust mikes in our faces and demand what we think of it. Back at the University they give us a questionnaire. The questions are like such: What do you consider the most important literature of South America? (My answer: The faces of the miners at Lota.) What do you see as the future of South America? (The faces of the miners at Lota.) Whom do you consider the greatest poets in Chile? (The faces of the miners at Lota.) There were twenty questions like that. Same answer for all—published in a big paper in Santiago.

The impression I have is that a great fat omnivorous crab named United States of America is sitting on top of the Pan-American hemisphere, sucking the marrow from its soft underside. The Coca-Colonization of the world. . .

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La Paz, Bolivia—January 27

Native Indian woman in the crumbled Church of San Francisco––kneeling, with baby on back in sling, praying out loud to the white images of god at the altar––but it was not just a prayer, it was a loud plaint, a wail in a high girl’s voice, a child’s voice wailing her Let Me Out! Save me from this! Help me to escape from this incomprehensible black mute helpless desperate situation of life! God, god, god! What am I doing here?

La Paz—Miserable, mud-covered dung-hole of humanity at the top of the world, with one fine tree-lined Prado cut through the sink-hole city of decaying Indian beggars, con-men, and German fascists. . . .

Bolivia—4 million inhabitants, of which 3 1/2 million are a slave population—Indians ruled over by 500,000 whites of European extraction. The Indian women wear soft brown derbies with high crowns uncreased; the men wear felt hats and shoes made of old rubber tires.

The Indians may be converted by the Methodist & Catholic missionaries but they really still worship the Earth God. I saw the old god of the earth in the profile of a hillside—buried in the crater/mountain of La Paz, he was face-up—a huge flat outcropping of rock for a nose, green grass on his cheeks and chin, his eye a grim tree.

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January 30––Ship & train ride La Paz-Cuzco: riding on electric train thru the Andes.

After dark—Inca raindrops hit the train window shaped like balsa boats, glowed silver against the outside night, and the window became a cloth of silver, a silver mesh.

3 Jesuit padres on the train, all very young, just ordained, in brand new uniforms—new shoes, new cassocks, new linen—2 played cards, drank whiskey poured from wood flask statue of Inca idol, smoked American cigarettes—3rd one did not smoke, play or drink. They were on their way to study for 6 months at Cuzco—had just been at Arequipa where great earthquake just devastated city. How came they to be looking so elegant coming from Arequipa? A copy of a manual of “Christian Perfection” one of them carried was not opened during the trip. They read the “Reader’s Digest” Spanish edition. From Lake Titicaca to Cuzco through a great wild valley, becoming more & more fertile as we descended from 12,000 feet, streams becoming rivers, mud huts becoming adobe houses with red tile roofs inside of adobe walls, the towns growing into bigger towns, all adobe, all tiled. . . . So into Cuzco as night fell, and in the dark roaring of the train a sudden jolting as we ran into great rocks fallen from hillsides onto the tracks. All stopped. The tracks cleared finally, and we went on again, rocking.

Someone had bought a baby fox from an Indian at one of the stops, and he got loose in the car, and no one could get him from under a seat. He bit all hands extended. Finally he was pulled out in a towel.


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January 30

In Cuzco the Cathedral bells sound like a great forge at six in the morning. Two separate kinds of infernal clanking, shaking the city awake. . . . The Spaniards put so many churches in Cuzco in order to baffle the Incas into servitude.

I don’t stay in the best hotels but I’m a faithful user of their men’s rooms. Swastika on men’s room wall in best hotel in Cuzco. . . .

The cocks crow all night. It must be the end of the world.

*     *     *     *

A short tide to Machu Picchu

Cuzco, ancient Inca capital in the Andes, to Machu Picchu, lost Inca city the Spaniards never found. It took a certain Hiram Bingham from Yale University to discover it around 1915 (and he absconded with a booty of artifacts).

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Now in a one-car electric train bus, zigzag up the heights above Cuzco, shuttling backward and forward on forked tracks without turning, Cuzco down below made of tile roofs and adobe and mud, filling the plain, with cemeteries like great blooming ruined gardens. . . . Wind away north over the highlands, turning and turning between small hills and ridges at 12,000 feet. . . . Thirty passengers, mostly Americans and German Argentinians. . . . High up, in a great green pasture with sheep and llamas, a shepherd Indian running . . . what’s his hurry, up here by himself with his mute animals and eternity. . . . One American with camera and sportcoat says to wife, “They have more than 200 varieties of potatoes up here.” Adobe farms, mud roads, Inca ruins on hillsides, caves with crosses in them, mud fields trampled by mud-colored cows, herds of sheep on stoney hills further on, the shepherd boys same color as sheep, clay brown. . . . “Very scenic,” says American tea-lady in bird’s-nest hat. . . . Fields of maize, streams filling little winding valleys snaking over horizons . . . Indians in sarapes at one-room stations do not wave back at tourist traincar. . . . Trucks with Indians jammed into open back, standing, climbing the dirt roads in the grey mist morning . . . springtime here, February, thatched huts in patches of yellow flower, cows eating trampled red flowers. . . . Rows of poplar and eucalyptus, moss under them by the tracks. . . . Now we zoom through a eucalyptus forest, and on, through another settlement, where brown man with boy at station waves stick, black dog barks, springs away between trees, chases train barking, little boy peeing in rutted trainside road, as we hurtle on. . . . “Lots of potatoes ’round here,” American says. . . . Stop now at country station, with Indians clustered with bundles, baskets, bags of straw, sarapes wound around, babies hung on backs, men in Western felt hats, women in huge high-crowned white panamas with 5-inch-wide black ribbons, long black braids hanging down behind. . . . “ACCIÓN POPULAR” painted in white on adobe wall . . . pigs in street puddles, burros with milkcans tied on them, driven down mud streambeds. . . . Now a great alta-plain of maize with higher Andes peaks ringing it, tops hid in cotton clouds. . . . “Lots of animals ’round here,” says American. . . . The plain filling up with grazing cows, horses, shoats, burros, forlorn bedraggled chickens. “Must be a chicken farm ’round here.” Inca terraces on lost far mountainsides. . . . Dogs keep chasing the train. . . . We pass a field full of Indians working. German girl in tweed suit in seat behind says the towns here all organized along lines of ancient Inca socialist system, with new chiefs and magistrates etc. elected every January by farmers’ conclaves. Also says anyone who wants to get married here must live with each other for one year before marriage. Has her arm around younger girl she’s traveling with. Now winding through narrow precipitous valley, like the Feather River Canyon, Northern California, following roaring mountain stream. . . . Words in cut in red earth of high hillside: “VIVA—” (the last part obliterated). . . . Great cliffs hang out over train, 1000 feet above it, in narrow passes, with tracks and stream squeezed in between. The stream’s become a rushing torrent, the Urubamba River, plunging toward the Amazon. . . . Woman with silvergrey hair and hat with flowers in seat ahead reveals herself as being from Berkeley. . . . At mountain stationstop everybody gets out and walks around adobe station, Berkeley woman exclaiming, “Oh, this train is only one car!” But another “train” now pulls up behind––an old bus with regular wheels replaced by train wheels, filled with a whole tribe of Indians in red sarapes and guitars being transported to Machu Picchu for a festival to be put on for the President of Mexico who’s coming tomorrow. . . . The mayor of Urubamba is along, to make a welcome speech in Quechua. Also a regular freight car groans up on the tracks behind, loaded with llamas. . . . Whistle snorts, and we’re off again through widening gorges, by sacred river of the Incas. . . . We overtake handcar on tracks, being pushed by seven Indians, all grinds to a stop while handcar is lifted off, then on again, below Inca farm terraces, steppes climbing higher and higher, and an old Inca fort at a riverbend, an abandoned Inca suspension bridge between high cliffs beyond it, broken ropes hanging from it, a Bridge of San Luis Rey with no paths leading to it. The river now grown dark brown, roaring, growing larger all the time, falling into monster rapids, fed by churning streams the color of green tea, rushing out of every ravine. . . . Now another mountain-stop, all out again, by ruined Inca fort, and a band of Mongolian-looking Indians all in identical red sarapes, the men in round black felt plate-like fringed hats, carrying very long bamboo flutes, the women in the same red color, with shawls and baskets of yellow pears, all waiting together at the tracks in a still group, with llamas hobbled in the background and dogs barking, and practically everyone from the tour car taking their pictures with German cameras, the Indians standing very still for it, except for one wild one in the back playing his long flute, wailing, an Inca beat poet. . . . Several Americans throw coins at him, and at the whole group, so that they’ll stand for more pictures. . . . The tour guide, a fat moustached cat in Western suit and safari-type pith helmet, explaining the whole scene in pig-English. . . . “Don’t eat them pears without washing them,” Texas voice says. All board car again, we rush on, along the chocolate-colored river. Man in back asks someone, “Ever been in the States?”. . . River boils higher, washing over tracks ahead. “It’ll be hot water by the time it gits where it’s goin’,” same voice says. Says another: “We’re going to have a meeting every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, from now on, everybody in the Agricultural Products Division—we got offices in São Paolo, Rio, Lima, Mexico City. It’s a big organization. My wife and me were born in Sacramento but now everybody lives in Los Angeles. Dow International undergone tremendous development down here in last year. Some think it’s too big, they’ll get lost in it, but people I know very happy . . .” Train passes cave with smiling face made of painted rock staring out of it. . . . Later, there’s picture writing on rocks, like weird Morris Graves symbols. . . . “You seen the Madison,” Texas voice says, “where it comes out of Yellowstone, well, it ain’t as wild as this. Señor and I were planning a canoe trip out here but we’ve given it up” . . . “This is trip of a lifetime,” old lady says, other old lady nodding Yes. . . . Through rock tunnel now and out into field of blue cypress. The river still rising. Straw hut with one side open has three white forms on crosses hung in it, human ghosts in a grotto. “Did I hear you say you was in the aviation business?” Answer is lost in screeching to another stop. “I got to wash my fruit somewhere,” Texas says. We’re stopped in a great gorge, with monster cliffs hung over. I get out and walk along the track, looking up. Man of Distinction with silver hair and camera walking along behind me says, “Pretty wild here, isn’t it?” German girl comes along in a minute, tells me, “Here they sell a medicine for sadness. I told man there please I want some. He says he not want to give me any. He says ‘You would not be cured because you do not believe.’” I go over and see. Bent beat Indian smiles in my eyes, hands me some. It’s not yagé. The old bus on train wheels pulls up behind us again, with more Indians jammed into it and hanging on all over the outside, and one of them inside is playing an old broken tune on a tin-sounding guitar. . . . We plunge on again now, the high precipices swaying in sky over the train, the wild river now plunging into deep jungle, with huge matted banana trees and jungle vines, monkeys among the big leaves, the river rushing faster and faster through it, the train whistling and howling as it bowls along, rushing water washing its wheels. “You kin almost see the cannibals,” man in front says. A cross on a rock where someone must have drowned floats by. . . . Fog on lost peaks 2000 feet above us, the train still blowing and rocking onward, stops screeching again now, to let another handcar with Indians get off track. I see small grey butterfly with one great white perfectly round spot on each wing, flying alone across the river. . . . Now we come to a hydroelectric plant and a big mine with derricks. . . . We zoom on through its clearing and on through jungle, the river flooding over the tracks, waves crashing thirty feet high over boulders, whole islands inundated, trees floating in it, roots thrown up like wild tousled heads. . . . An enormous waterfall looms up, leaps down towards us as we zoom under. A great boulder the size of a house is falling through it. I look up through the dome skylight, see it falling, straight down. Berkeley woman in seat ahead in the act of adjusting her hat as I raise camera and with a click arrest boulder in air, just as it is about to hit.

We careen to the stop for Machu Picchu, and tumble into big old bus with wooden seats and a driver in a cowboy hat, with several crucifixes swinging from the rear view mirror, as if he needed them for guidance, and we start up steep grade, up and up, then winding around and around for hours, and everybody silent, hanging on. Finally we lurch to a stop where it seems there’s nowhere to go but into the sky, and we’re here, Machu Picchu laid out in the late sun, and all in a strange silence. There’s no inn or other sign of tourist development, though a government hotel is rumored. “Civilization” hasn’t reached here yet.

I think of Neruda’s “On the Heights of Machu Picchu.” Here and now, nothing but the great tumbled ruins stretched out before us, with one huge jagged peak towering over it all, smaller ragged peaks ranged around, and we stand like dumb wanderers looking down at the spent ruins. We creep among the roofless temples and homes, doorways agape, gullies that once were streets, warehouses fallen flat. Whole fallen city laid out, silent in late sun. . . . Hidden door of the Andes at thirteen thousand feet, seacoast far below. . . . . The sunset reddens. . . .

Some Indians go by dancing, playing their flutes and beating drums.



From WRITING ACROSS THE LANDSCAPE, Edited by Giada Diano and Matthew Gleeson. Reprinted by arrangement with Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc., forthcoming from W. W. Norton and Company, Inc.  Copyright © 2015 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

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