Bits and Pieces of Peru – October 2010

by Amy

I’m on a plane on my way to Peru and am purposely making sure my handwriting as I write this is poor so that others on the crowded plane can’t read what I’m writing. And I’m also reading Jonothan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals and he’s talking about shame and it calls to mind two ideas: the first that I can’t seem to understand is if shame is cultural or not. Can I more easily experience shame in front of an American? And the second idea being that it’s a little absurd to be writing anything because it pales in the shadow of his brilliance. But I’m a person too so I’ll write and endure the shame of the words through the comfort of that fact that almost everyone around me can only speak or read Portuguese. Which is, by the way, a beautiful language.

I arrive in Lima at 1am having very little idea where I am going and hoping some kind taxi driver will recognize the name of the hostel I thought I was meant to be headed for. I found one. He knew the name. He drove me and played Shaggy the whole way with the windows rolled down, singing along with the sounds but not knowing the actual English words he was imitating. It was cold. I got to the hostel. It was now creeping toward 2am. I hadn’t slept in 30 hours. My friend was nowhere to be seen and the place looked locked up, closed and condemned. After being left on the street with my giant pack and several pounds on the ancient door later, a sleepy Peruvian man answered. Panic subsided temporarily. There was no trace of my friend in his logbook, my phone didn’t work in Peru and I felt a little stranded. I was then led through a pitch black corridor to a single desktop where a computer circa 1988 lived and where a young Peruvian boy who was rocking out to American Youtube videos that were taking 20 years to buffer was asked to relinquish his chair so that I could try to make some sense of my situation. Gmail opened. Yes, I’m at the right hostel. No, my friend hasn’t checked in. Yes, the hostel is full and I can’t stay there. No, there’s not another one nearby. Yes, the walk at 2am for an American girl alone is dangerous. All this transmitted through my broken Spanish and his non-existent English and a lot of gesturing. A lot of gesturing. I should have been a mime. At some point during my late night game of charades my friend responds to the email I sent upon sitting down. No body, just a subject line, “Where are you.” No question mark because I can’t find it on the Spanish keyboard. Anyway. He got the point. He came and collected me and took me to the hostel he was sent to upon learning the one we had booked was full. I was asleep in five minutes. I was awake in five hours. Cold shower (I am told Peruvians don’t “believe in” hot showers). Back to the airport. I’d spent 16 hours in the Sao Paulo airport the day before while reading Foer’s account of caged farm animals in America. This didn’t help my anxiety during my tenure there. Probably also didn’t help anyone paying attention to the security camera who was attempting to give me the benefit of the doubt and not deem me a paranoid schizophrenic as I paced and inspected the same three restaurant menus for hours. I ate seven granola bars. Anyway. The airport is not my favorite place.

Cusco comes soon enough. It’s all worth it. It’s breathtaking and as I write this I am being served coca leaf tea and am looking out over the town’s main square. I am watching children play a game of ball I’ve never heard of. A woman is doing laundry. The smell of burning is strong and comforting like fall and campfires. I can’t tell what’s being burned. But I can feel a shared sense of humanity. And it’s precious.

I woke up on the second day of our stay in Cusco after 10 hours of coma like sleep. I did the math last night and realized I’d slept about seven hours out of the last 60. I feel more human. It’s a gorgeous day here. As I write this I’m on the terrace having breakfast and am told it’s always a beautiful day here. My traveling companion has been in deep conversation with a 50 year old American man and I discover upon entering the terrace that at age 45 he gave up his home refurnishing business in Boston to travel and write. I salivate. I want that life, I think. I wonder if it would make me happy or if just the idea of it makes me happy. But today it doesn’t matter. The traveler has told us about two ruins within walking distance of the city and a market where we can have the best Peruvian lunch in Cusco. The bees are relentless as I sip coffee and wait for Michael to shower so we can set out. I’m told in Spanish that they’re friendly. Okay. Yesterday was spent wandering the city. At one point, we were consumed with following a little boy who was walking the streets alone with a box on his head and laughing and unabashedly bumping into strangers without apology. We followed him blindly through the city until a Peruvian woman very unexpectedly grabbed my arm and told me in Spanish that we should turn around. We’re in a bad neighborhood, I’m told. I lose sight of the boy and am free to take in our surroundings a bit more. Michael doesn’t understand what she’s said, but I do. And I realize she may have a point. We turn around and continue exploring. We find a church and a secret (to us anyway) passageway up to the bell tower. I talk about litigation in America and how we would never be able to do this there (we could have easily fallen to our deaths). We sit in the bell tower and have a perfect view of the sun setting over the Andes. Later in the evening we meet our guide for the trek, which will start, we’re told, at 4:30am the day after tomorrow. It will be my birthday that morning. I’ll be 28 and I decide it will be a good opportunity for reflection. Still so young but not that young. As I recently told a friend, if you can’t do some decent self-reflection in near solitude in the Andes on your way to another world on your birthday, you’re fucked.

This morning I was standing at the foot of a melting glacier called Salkantay Mountain. I stood there at 5am with my new family looking at what we’re told is called by the locals the Savage Beast. It’s never been climbed. We watch and hear avalanches on its surface. We’re told we’re gong to spend the next six hours climbing past it. We begin. On a trek that has so far been quite chatty, this climb is silent. You can hear only breathing, the wind and an occasional avalanche in the background. Among the languages previously spoken, prior to our being silenced by the Beast, are Hebrew, French, Spanish, English, Portuguese and Dutch. There are fifteen of us. And though we’ve only spent the last 36 hours together, we’ve become intimate. We wake together, we brush our teeth together side by side in the grass, we pass flasks of whiskey, we struggle together and sleep together. It almost seems absurd that I ever lived without these people.