When I think about Chachapoyas now, the first thing I think about are bed bugs.
One morning in November, I woke up with three itchy red welts on my the inner thigh of my right leg. Odd, I thought. Two days later I woke up with several bites on my left shoulder. I was quickly transformed into a scratching dervish, my left hand locked to my right thigh, my right hand locked to my right shoulder. It could have been a yoga pose. The Itchy Guru. What could be causing this? I asked myself. I already knew, of course, but was banking hard on the principles of relativism I had been indoctrinated with in college. There is no objective reality, only privileged narratives, and these aren’t bed bug bites, I’m just allergic to my laundry detergent.
A few days after, when bites appeared on my back, stomach, and ass—have these creatures no sense of decency?—I did a brief internet search to confirm what I already knew. Chachapoyas, in addition to giving me unparalleled adventures, immersion in slow, beautiful, Spanish, and diverse, interesting friends, had given me bed bugs.
Chachapoyas is a large town (pop. 30,000) in northern Peru. I lived there for three months while working as an English teacher. Its name is derived from the Chachapoyan people who ruled the region for close to a thousand years before the Incans conquered them in the late 15th century. What is striking about the archaeology of Peru is the sheer number of pre-Incan peoples, such as the Chachapoyans, who proliferated throughout the country. As the millenia passed and condemned each to the dust, we are fortunate that so many left behind grand monuments to their cultures. In the south, the Norte Chico left Caral in their passing, as the Nazcas in their turn gave us their monumental lines. In the north, the Chimu ruins of Túcume remain close to the Moche tombs of Sipán. Further inland, hidden in the Peruvian Andes, the Chachapoyans left behind arguably the greatest testament of all, Kuelap.
Kuelap was the Chachapoyan capital. It rests on an expansive, natural terrace situated 10,000 feet above sea level. The site’s lofty inaccessibility makes its size all the more incredible. The colored limestone walls form a ring 2,000 feet in circumference, and they rise as high as 60. Within the walls one finds the remnants of over 400 cylindrical buildings which once served as dwellings, livestock pens, ossuaries, and shrines.
The name Chachpoya is Incan and signifies “Person of the Clouds,” a name which I found fit as I walked among the tumbled ruins of the citadel one drizzly afternoon in October. Within, bromeliads and climbing vines were reclaiming Kuelap one hand-carved stone at a time; without, the green-capped Andes stretched across all lines of sight in an endless, repeating array. I felt humbled, and blessed to be centered within such noble human ingenuity, and at the same time, such sublime, natural beauty.
After waking on the fifth, frustrating morning of the infestation with five new bites, I was over the beauty. I did what any other intelligent, capable man faced with same situation would do. I got drunk and cried uncontrollably in the shower. I was afraid to wear clothes. I was afraid to lie down on my bed, or sit on my recliner, or put on my shoes. I was slowly becoming unglued, convinced that invisible insects were crawling all over my body and possessions day and night.
It was shocking how quickly I forgot the town’s former virtues. I began to hate Chachapoyas. I hated the lack of pest control options. I hated the useless advice or indifference my friends offered. At the height of my anxious, sleepless agony, I hated Kuelap and the region’s other splendors for tricking me into taking the job in Chachapoyas in the first place.
With no other option, I decided to move. The bed bugs followed me to a new apartment in Chachapoyas, and to two hostels thereafter. I wasn’t fully rid of them until I returned to America. Fuck you, Chachapoyas, I thought as the Lima-bound bus took my bite-riddled body away from its confines.
It’s a real shame when a good place goes bad. A good place going bad is something like having a good song ruined by an awful relationship. You listen to a song, Hey Jude for instance, thousands of times throughout your life. You love this song. This song has formed an essential part of your life’s background music. It also happens to be playing on your iPod when you walk in on your fiancé having sex with your best friend. In an instant the pleasant associations cultivated over decades are replaced by shit. You can’t listen to it again.
In the same vein, I can’t go back to Chachapoyas again. Even if I was there physically, I wouldn’t be there mentally in the same way I had been before. As much as it bothers me to think that something as small as a bed bug can loom larger in my imagination than a stone fortress, it does.
Even now, writing this, I feel those six, spindly legs crawling over every memory.