Outside Lima, Peru, on the steep, sandy hills at the upper perimeters of the newest handmade settlements, there are signs everywhere that say, “Zona Intangible.” (“In-tan-hee-bley,” in Spanish.) They are billboard-sized, meant to be read from a distance. What they mean is: Don’t build your house here. This zone is not to be touched. It is too unstable. Too high. The roads will never reach it. Water, sewers, electric lights—no way. None of those tangibles will be available to you, up here in the intangible zone, so don’t build here. Just don’t do it. And yet people do. Every day, another young couple, dreaming of having their own tangible home, takes a shovel and a hammer and four pre-made walls and heads up the hill to find an unclaimed spot.
Zona Intangible. If your mind naturally bends toward metaphor, it’s hard not to see a dozen different storylines in those signs. One: the people who travel up these hills with their shovels are people who own very little that is tangible. All they bring to the Zona are their most powerful, but intangible, possessions: their love for each other, their stamina, their faith. Their belief in a better future.
If, like me, you’re a visitor, a foreigner from a place where most of us have way too many tangibles, it is tempting to romanticize such bare-bones simplicity. To long to somehow find such a Zona Intangible. But we can’t do it. Not by the same steep path.
Our ways into our own intangible zones are at once more readily accessible and less so. Prayer. Meditation. Imagination. All intangible, all free, and all so undervalued in our tangible-centric world as to cause visible, physical discomfort when you bring them up in polite company. We want our children to major in the STEM subjects, because we want them to have tangibly rewarding futures. We converse freely about the tangible challenges of our daily lives—traffic, the high cost of everything, the miseries of bureaucracies like health insurance and taxes—because that is where we comfortably, communally dwell: in the safely tangible world.
Lima has become an increasingly glamorous tourist destination. The top restaurant in Latin America is not in Rio or Buenos Aires; it’s in Lima. In fact, three of the top five restaurants are in Lima, which is the third largest city in the hemisphere, after Mexico City and São Paulo. Lima is also known for its luxury LarcoMar shopping mall, carved out of a cliff above the Pacific Ocean, offering an endless parade of tangible treats and upscale people-watching.
Sometimes I wish I were content to stay, always, in the safely tangible world. But the Zona Intangible beckons. I want to know: what is it like to have such faith in God that you can walk up that hill with a shovel and build your own house and make a life? What is it like to walk down to mass every Sunday morning and get down on your knees and give thanks for your four walls and dirt floor? And how dare any observer call that misguided or ignorant, when in fact it requires a daily dose of courage so strong few of us could stomach it?
On November 1 at 3pm, I’ll be reading from Her Beautiful Brain at Elliott Bay Books with fellow She Writes Press author Nina McKissock, author of the luminous From Sun to Sun: a Hospice Nurse Reflects on the Art of Dying.