“Michael Jackson está muerto! Ay dios mío!” the swarthy, deep-voiced announcer for the local gringo radio station cried (yes, literally cried). Then, after a moment of silence penetrated only by soft whimpers, he sighed what I translated to be “this one’s for you, Señor Jackson” and began to play “Beat It.” I imagined a middle-aged Peruvian man stroking a sequin glove, sobbing over a radio switchboard in Lima.
The news spread rapidly across our bottle green turismo bus as it rocketed past fields of smoldering sugar cane. A few giggles escaped from the back. Someone from our dig group cajolingly wondered, how did he die? Another botched plastic surgery, perhaps? In America, we commonly made fun of Michael Jackson. I don’t think any of us gringos realized that June 25, 2009 – the day the King of Pop died – would become a day of mourning in Huanchaco, a small fishing village and surfer hot spot on the north coast of Peru.
The truth was, although I didn’t realize it until later, that something in me (let’s face it, the American in me) needed to hear “Beat It,” “Thriller” and “Billy Jean” on the streets of this foreign land. Most days I woke up in our dimly-lit Huanchaco hostel, glanced from my bed (if you can call a slab of leather and a few goose feathers a mattress) to the toilet (where my avocados and rice revolted the night before) and wondered: what the hell was I thinking, signing up for an archaeological excavation in Peru? For God’s sake, I don’t do dirt.
Three weeks into my trip, archaeology and I were not friends. We were more like ex-lovers after a brutal breakup. I thought I knew you. How could you be so cruel? I relentlessly blamed cinema, and my immature, naïve self, for painting a glamorous and sexy picture of the stiffness and grime that is digging up dead people, their pottery and their llamas. Somewhere between the tap water-induced E. coli poisoning and failing miserably at Spanish – I unknowingly asked for soup (sopa) instead of soap (jabón) for fifteen days – I began to crack like the 5,000-year-old floor we found buried beneath the primeval ashes.
At night, I dug myself into Huanchaco’s rocky sand near a stack of reed fishing boats and questioned if I was one of those ugly Americans, unable to properly survive in her host country. Was it the scorpions, the dirt and the vomit that made me so miserable? Or was it my attitude? As I looked at the half moon’s reflection on the ocean waves, I knew I was drowning. And in a bizarre and rather humorous way, Michael Jackson pulled me from the dark water.
On the day of his death, as my dig group exited the bus in Huanchaco’s center, we were greeted by a pushcart-toting tamale vendor badly hitting the high notes in Just Beat it, Beat it! (By the end of the day, I had heard that song an astounding twenty-seven times – with “Thriller” coming in a close second – and was ready to beat “Beat It” clear out of my head.) The tamale man, a five-foot, near-eighty-year-old gentleman dressed in brown linen, shook his hips with each thump of the music. Just Beat it! Shake. Beat it! Shake.
Surely this, I thought, is the most absurd display of idolization I will see all day. Wrong. Fishermen who understood two words of English belted out the lyrics to “Thriller” with more accuracy than I could. How did they know “it’s close to midnight”, but couldn’t count one, two, three? Don’t even get me started on how well they moonwalked. (I can’t even moonwalk, and I’m American!) The Jackson tributes continued well into the night, as the King of Pop’s ballads, instead of a contemporary mix of Spanish love songs and hip hop, echoed from three-story rooftop balconies. I too made a switch: trading sitting alone on the gloomy beach –which looking back was not so dark after all – for pulling up some sidewalk with fellow excavators as we grooved to “Beat It” beneath the starry, Peruvian sky.
It’s too simple to say that the twenty-four hour exposure to Michael’s upbeat tunes led me to exchange my thin American skin for a hand-knitted llama sweater. Huanchaco and I still had our differences (and God knows archaeology and I will never be friends again), but there was something about the day the King of Pop died that calmed me. Perhaps it was that, hours after the radio announcement, two natives sauntered up to me in the street; a boy who had doused me with a super-soaker water gun only days earlier and a woman who had chased me out of her courtyard (because of course, as an American, I was undoubtedly infested with the swine flu) now asked if I had known Michael Jackson. My lips moved to form the words “no,” but I quickly stopped them. Instead, I slowly and powerfully replied “sí, sí” and watched their faces mix with awe, envy and a touch of sadness. Subsequently, the boy refrained from squirting me, and the woman never again accused me of polluting her country with la gripa.
The rest of the trip was a blur of broken pottery, ceviche and trekking craggy mountains. But whenever I felt down, I thought of those two townspeople, the moonwalking fishermen and the tamale man’s high notes. Soon, I’d be humming “Beat It.” It’s been almost a year since the King of Pop died, and that song still pulls the corners of my mouth into a strange smile.
Here’s to you, Señor Jackson.