Plaza Memories

By KJ Kresin

When I was growing up my family and I went to Peru every two years to spend a couple months with my mom’s family. Her father lived in Lima but was born in Arequipa, which meant we would stay there for a few weeks at a time. When we weren’t relaxing or exploring with our extended family, my mom would take charge and take us to some hidden gems around the town. One night, while staying in Arequipa a 6.3 earthquake struck the town at two in the morning. When the sun came up, my first thought was, “how do I get out of this earthquake ridden town?” My mom however, without hesitation took me to La Plaza de Armas in the middle of the city.

Despite my young mind trying to comprehend what had happened only 7 hours ago, we arrived at the public square just in time to watch the military do their daily march. They would march from one side of the plaza to the other in order to hoist the flag of Peru. A marching band followed them and the solders took each step and turn with microsecond precision. Once the flag was up, they turned around and marched back to whereever they came from.

Once the morning crowds cleared after the march, the plaza took a more familiar aesthetic. Local elders flocked to the plaza with chess games in hand. Children of all ages followed the lead of the elders and brought their Ludo boards. My mom and I found a bench near the center fountain and settled down. Before my mom could take her book out of her bag, one of the many local shoe-shiners came up to greet her. As they delved into conversation, my mind started to wander. I looked away from my mom and while I was staring into oblivion I saw some kids my age I had played with a couple days ago. I saw immediately that they were playing Ludo. Despite me not having my game pieces with me, I skipped across the plaza along the paths and met up with them. As a kid one of my favorite elements of the plaza was that it didn’t matter if I had my game pieces with me. Every kid not only carried around the Ludo game board, but also spare pieces. While adults used money to purchase things, kids used Ludo pieces as currency, exchanging for other pieces, candy, or stickers. After tiring my brain out from strategizing moves in Ludo I met up with my mom again. By that time she was reading alone. We walked around the square, as the paths led us from one side of the square, back to the other. We saw artists drawing away under the sun, and children sprinting from one side to the other swerving seamlessly through the adults. Elders gathered to compare stories of how their day was, and how their families were doing.

After a couple hours at the plaza we headed back home to eat and get ready to head back out in a couple hours. Only as we were leaving did I see the destruction of the buildings surrounding the plaza. The earthquake from the night before had left some structures almost unrecognizable. Not only was I shocked as to how bad the damage from the earthquake was, but also I was more surprised that I had forgotten completely about it. The plaza was a whole different world that cradled so many people from the reality of the destruction.

Later that day when we went back to the plaza, night time was creeping it’s way into the evening. Most of the elders had already gone home, and the plaza was filled with children and young adults. While the children were still running around with balls, inflatable animals, and jump ropes, the teenagers were immersed in each other. Due to the strict cultural expectations of young adults, most of them are not allowed to go on formal dates until they are ready to marry. The plaza was the perfect place for young lovers to go and hold hands without the invasion of parents. I saw more genuine hugs and kisses in the plaza than I have at weddings. Once the sun had set, more vendors with ice cream carts, inflatable balloons, and gum spread across the plaza.

As the children and lovers dispersed, the plaza became nearly empty, aside from the people who had nowhere else to go. Families who moved to Arequipa for a better life and work opportunities would have no other option than to call the plaza their home for the night.

The plaza was surrounded with historic buildings that were crammed full of restaurants and cafes. One restaurant my family really enjoyed was a local Peruvian eatery that sat right on the edge of the plaza. Two stories above the ground I would look down and my eyes would dart directly to the center fountain. Cradled by bushes and fresh cut grass, the cement and flowing water on the fountain really stood out. From above you could see maintenance workers watering the low trimmed hedges and grass. They would turn the hoses on full blast, set them on the ground, and then walk away. After several minutes of constant running water, surrounding the fountain, the pathways would be flooded. Huge palm trees stood taller than anything else in the plaza, and in the summer, people would gather around what little shade they gave off to try and stay cool.

After leaving the city I called my home for a few weeks, my family and I flew back to Oregon. I was so desperate to find something even remotely similar to the social experiences I had at the plaza, I started hunting for one in Salem. While driving around I would start to pay attention and hope to spot a plaza hidden in the creases of the city. With no luck, it dawned on me that my friends here in Oregon would never be able to experience the same whimsy that La Plaza De Armas brought into my life. Not only did people talk to each other, people connected with each other seamlessly throughout these public spaces, which is something that can never be taught, only learned through experience. An experience that will always be close to my heart.

Photo credit: "Alex & Lisa // South America." : Cusco, Arequipa & Colca Canyon. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 May 2015.