Last night before falling asleep, I could feel the presence of Satya Sai Baba near me and a thought kept pulsing through my being"write about Callao, write about Callao". Its interesting because I have not been back to Callao, the port city next to Lima in Peru and the hometown of my father for many years. It is a place of memories, some hard, some soft and all valuable.
My abuela or Grandmother lived on the street of Arica, between Loreto and Ancash right in the middle of what was called on the street "Ruggia" My grandparents were simple immigrants from the mountains and coast of Peru. They came to make it in the big capital and ended up in Callao. A city of fishermen and people working in the port, one of the biggest in Peru.
I first came to Callao in my north american mothers arms as a baby and then again as an impresionable 15 year old teenager. I spoke no spanish and was the only white person for at least ten blocks. The first day as I stood in the doorway of Abuelita's house and watched people gather on the corner joking and dancing to salsa, a group of people walked up to me and a big burly guy pulled out a handgun and placed it to my head, to see what I would do. I called out "abuela, abuela" and my grandmother stuck her head out of the house and said"hey, what are you guys doing with my grandson?" and they laughed and put away the gun and said, "welcome to the barrio white boy". I laughed nervously, afraid and excited at the same time. I had been growing up in India and in hippie communes in Northern California and had never been around guns or such hard poverty as in Ruggia, Callao.
As the days went by, I was befriended by the neighbor drug dealer and his family, they made sure everyone knew that the obviously foreign white kid with long hair was actually a Malasquez and part Peruvian. I quickly learnt all the spanish that I have been trying to forget for years now and grew an attitude of a tough guy, me who has only been in two fights in my life. My neighbor Tonio would drill me in how to protect myself if someone would pull a knife on me, I was to take off my jacket or shirt and wrap it around my hand and use it to trap the knife as it was thrust at me. I quickly learned that the heroes in the barrio were not the ones who woke up and went to work every day in an honest way but the ones who came back from the rich parts of the city, carrying stolen purses, wallets that had been picked out of unsuspecting pockets and the big guys were the bank robbers, like loca dinamita, the lady who went with her boyfriend to rob a bank carrying sticks of dynamite or the Elegantes, the good looking guys who dressed up in suits and charmed their way to into residences and upscale shops and then robbed the places blind.
Gone were the days of worshiping Pachamama or remembering the ancestors, it was time to get paid. It was like no one cared about honest work and the morality was to take care of your needs first. Everyone needs nice shoes, pockets full of cash to pay for the party and the hotel to take the honey to. This was my education, this was my high school. The codes of honor were clear, you could steal from others but not your own friends. I remember trying cocaine and then wanting to experiment with base cocaine and no one would sell it to me, not even the hard base heads who were like ghosts in the night, all you could see in the darkness were the glowing tips of their drug laden cigarets and the sweet sickly smell of the base cocaine burning. They would smoke for hours and hours and then head out into the world and come back with money, food or stolen cloths, shoes, whatever they could sell or trade for more base or Pasta as they call it in Ruggia. They would not sell it to me because they did not want me to become like them. As much money as I offered them in my drunken state and need to get high, they refused to get me stoned and pushed my back to my grandmothers doorstep and knocked on the door and when it opened they threw me in, drunken atitude and all. This code or sense of honor could be found everyday in the barrio, from pooling lemons and corn to make a fresh ceviche to helping someone out if they were sick, even in the midst of not having, there was always enough to go around. This has helped me through my life to keep an open hand towards those who need help.
I grew up as a young child in Varanasi India and death was a constant, I would go down to the burning ghat's and watch dead bodies being burned ceremoniously. It was a daily part of life and normal, full of beauty and respect. What I saw in Callao as a youth was the violent taking of life and this affected my soul so much. From shoot outs in the middle of the street to beatings and knife fights, violence was a staple of everyday life and to survive I started to lie to seem stronger then I was, I created an alter ego, a tough boy, a lier, a charmer, a survivor.
25 years later as I write this, I am not proud of the things that I have done in my life or of the pain and hurt that I have caused my family and loved ones. I also realize that circumstance and environment can program us to react a certain way and that deprograming or re learning is certainly possible and that the language of loving truth can replace the gutter spanish and the survivor instinct can be replaced by the desire to serve. As I near my 40th year on this earth, I am filled with yearning to help the young people of Callao and I pray to Bhagavan Sri Satya Sai Baba that on my next trip to Peru, I can have enough love to go back to the Barrio and share the story of my transformation into who I am now and with God's loving grace, create a shelter or place of safety where the youth can come and be themselves, without having to be tough, carry a gun, or to be anything else then the pure love that they are.
Thank you Swami for helping me to write these experiences down. The Heart of the Ghetto is laughter.