Well, don't go to the airport because they won't let you leave. Of course, they wouldn't though. No country would have. But there were other countries, surely, that I'd rather have been stuck in. Still...it seemed like the logical choice at the time. Get to the airport a mere hour (if that) before your international flight is scheduled for takeoff and futilely attempt to check in. It couldn't hurt. And it's not like I had anything to lose by trying. It's not like I had a lot of options left either. There were no more than a few bucks in my pocket at this hour; perhaps enough to get a potato and a strip of meat on the street. But not a hotel, certainly. Not even a cab! But there I was; denied at the ticket counter. Denied despite the fact that I'd heard from some civil servant or innkeeper way back in Cuzco that, under certain circumstances, they would indeed allow me to fly so long as I had my driver's license...some form of picture ID. Denied and denied again no matter how much I tried to plea with the ticket agent...in my very communicable, although for these more dire purposes, still very loose grasp on Spanish.
I would have begged. I would have gotten down on my dirty knees right there in the airport if they would have then still been able to see my face from their lofty counter. I suppose, I could have backed up a bit. But even then. It wouldn't have done any good. Rules are rules. And laws are laws...especially when it comes to international ones.
This particular ticket agent (a nice girl), thankfully, must have been able to sense my distress and so prompted her manager from somewhere behind the scene to come out and further assist me. And he was a really nice guy too. Just the same, though, he didn't speak hardly a lick of English. And with my poor Spanish, I was probably only enabling him to believe that he could discuss such technical matters with me very quickly. That is; his words came out and were strung together in such a rapid succession that, subconsciously, I leaned way over the counter just to get my one good ear that much closer to his mouth as he was speaking them. And I suppose that by doing this; I was able to understand a lot. At least key things such as the words 'embassy' and 'tomorrow'. For, it was already late into the afternoon and the American Embassy here in Lima was, undoubtedly, already closed for the day. And I was able to pick up, through this string of Spanish warnings and instructions, that after tomorrow; the embassy would be closed for some sort of 4-day weekend. And I believe that I also picked up something to the effect of; if I wasn't able to obtain a temporary passport by then, I would be forced, by the airlines own rules, to buy a brand-new ticket. And that...well, I certainly didn't want to entertain the possibility of that just now. Or ever.
So...with nothing much left to hope for, I thanked the man for all his advice and took the escalator upstairs to the small section of airport where unticketed passengers were still allowed. And it just felt so weird not to be leaving! There was that ever-present and automated voice over the PA. And there were all the people with their carry-on bags and such. And there was me. Me with my backpack that had not been checked for now obvious reasons. And there was me not leaving.
In the high stress survival mode though, and thankfully so, decisions come quickly and without even much thinking. And I was certain that up here, in front of some cafe somewhere, there must be internet access of some sort. And there it was! All the way across the busy, tiled corridor; I was able to spot a windowed room full of old desktops that could be rented, hopefully, in 15 minute or half-hour segments. And I would write. Yes, surely, I would. I would write an email of the of utmost pertinency and emergence. And that email, I would address to my girlfriend back home with whom I'd left a jar full of money. Again, it seemed the only logical thing left to do. But, since I was about to spend the last few Peruvian soles I presently possessed in my pocket, I had no idea how the fuck I'd ever be able to follow up on such a prayer. But again; I had no other options.
“Hello. Is it possible to use the computer for only 15 minutes, please?”
And that was all the money I had.
Unburdening myself of my heavy pack then, I slid it on the floor alongside my very briefly rented computer terminal. Yahoo. Boom, boom, boom. Keys clacking. Email. Yeah, yeah. Fucking open already. And bam. There it was. My personal inbox with an always unexpectedly 'not many' emails there waiting. Not even one from my parents. Not even a 'hey, how you doin'?' But what the fuck. Whatever. I had bigger things to worry about. Much bigger.
There was, albeit, one there waiting from my girlfriend back home. The subject line read something like: 'We Need to Talk'. And I was afraid to even open it. But what the hell could it have been about? I hadn't even been dating this girl very long and I couldn't imagine what sort of seriousness it was that could have thrown a wedge between us already. Besides...when I left for Peru things had been fine. Unless, that is, she was acting a certain way to delude me into believing this. She may not have wanted to cause a stir right before I embarked since I had been sick with the flu and may have even second-guessed this whole trip had the word 'nonrefundable' not been involved. But what could she be so pissed or, at the very least, so concerned about? Well...only one way to know for sure.
It read...actually, I'm not even going to quote it. But to summarize; it stated something to the affect of her not wanting to be in this relationship anymore...that she didn't want to go into details while I was so far away because she knew that I was probably already under enough stress...but, ultimately, that she wanted me to pick up my dog and my belongings from her place just as soon as I got back to Portland and that that would mark the end of us.
And I've got to say; I was heartbroken...even right there in the airport. Even before I'd had time to sit down and let it sink in. I hadn't known her that long, it's true. We'd only been dating a couple of months maybe. But we really clicked. At least, I felt like we did. And one of the last things she told me in the darkness and in her bed just before I left was that she wanted me to come back and never leave her again...to stay with her forever. And I told her I loved her then and she said she did back! It felt really good and everything just seemed so consummated that, in truth, I really didn't want to leave. But again; nonrefundable.
And I've got to say; I was heartbroken...even right there in the airport. Even before I'd had time to sit down and let it sink in. I hadn't known her that long, it's true. We'd only been dating a couple of months maybe. But we really clicked. At least, I felt like we did. And one of the last things she told me in the darkness and in her bed just before I left was that she wanted me to come back and never leave her again...to stay with her forever. And I told her I loved her then and she said she did back! It felt really good and everything just seemed so consummated that, in truth, I really didn't want to leave. But again; nonrefundable.
She'd been with me when I'd bought the tickets though. And I'd asked her beforehand if the trip would bother her. And not even a month this time. Just two weeks. Two, measly weeks before I had to start working full time again. One last hurrah for me, as it were, while I still had a little bit of money saved. And then... Then this girl and I, perhaps a year from now, could plan a nice vacation together...somewhere a little more romantic than Peru might be nice. Two, measly weeks and I'd emailed her everyday. Hell, we'd been texting up until I'd had my phone stolen. So what could she be freaking out about?! I wanted nothing more just then than to get back home to her and sit down to talk...to show her that I was fine despite all her worrying and tell her to please reconsider because I just really liked her and it had been such a long time since I'd really felt that way about anyone. Such a long time since I'd clicked with someone in such a way. But before I could actually do that; I needed to get back there!
Oh, Jesus. What the fuck have I done?
I could just freak the fuck out right here. I could so easily. But it wouldn't do me any good. It wouldn't help me get back to my...girlfriend? It sounded weird to say even in my head. Not to mention, she probably wouldn't be very fond of such a label. But that's just one of the quirks I liked about her. Why now?!
Okay, okay. You're still able to communicate and now is the time. The keys are right in front of you. Just say something nice. Something tender. And by all means; try not to relay any of that panic. That had to be at least part of this sudden change in her...affection. She'd stressed herself out worrying about me. On her end, the many predicaments of this trip must have seemed ten times worse than they actually were. So I'd had some stuff stolen. So I'd really been hanging by a thread there for a little bit. But that had been almost 2 weeks ago. I'd been doing alright ever since...ever since she'd helped me out by dipping into that jar of money the first time. She'd wanted me to come back right then and there though...and I hadn't listened to her.
Hi. I'm really sorry. If I'd known this was going to happen (between us, I mean); I wouldn't have come. I really hope that we can talk when I get back. I really love you and I'm sure that we can straighten all this out. Until then, though, I do sort of need your help one more time. I did make it back to Lima and to the airport in the nick of time but...(I know, there's always a 'but'); they're not going to let me fly without a passport. A cop told me that they would in an emergency such as this but, obviously, he'd been misinformed. So could you please, please, please send what's left in the jar. Hopefully, it's like a couple hundred bucks or something? I think the guy at the ticket counter told me that a replacement passport would cost like a hundred but...it was all in Spanish and all really fast so I really have no way to be sure. I also don't exactly have enough cash to use the internet again so I am sort of sending this with a prayer. So whenever you get this (preferably as soon as you get this), could you send it? I guess I'll just keep checking Western Union every so often. Don't worry though. Everything is going to be fine. Hopefully I can get out of here tomorrow and even be able to see you in like another 48 hours, okay? That's not too bad, is it? Please, hang on until then. Please. Thank you and I miss you terribly. I'll see you soon.
And that was it. Last chance saloon. I couldn't even score a fucking beer anymore. All I could do was wait and...find a Western Union?
It didn't take me very long, though, to determine that there wasn't one located within the airport. And normally I wouldn't have been so disappointed but... It's just the the streets of Lima were just so... Well, they easily gave one the acute impression of being in a post-apocalyptic movie. Especially with all the riots that had been going on lately. But hey, it's not like I had much of a choice if I ever wanted to get out of this godforsaken hellhole. And I could say that with a clear conscience. Oh, yes I could. Because Peru had done something to me. Something negative. It had stolen my shit...twice! And it's not like I'd gotten drunk one night and vulnerably passed out in an alley or anything. It's not like I hadn't learned that lesson once upon a time. Yet, here this country left me just the same; destitute. And even after I'd tried to give it a 2nd chance! So, fuck Peru. It was a hellhole. A cesspool. A land of the damned that I still somehow had to conquer. Quickly! And so, back I went. Back out into the dirty heat and smog. Back out into the incessant car horns and traffic.
The air was also hot when I arrived in Cuzco. And it also smelled of exhaust. The atmosphere was much thinner up here at just over 11,000 feet, however, and a sweeping wind would carry all this fuming, chemical fetor away with it periodically. So basically, the back of my throat didn't burn quite as much as it had every time I sucked in a breath back in Lima...but the environment was comparable. We are still talking about the same country, of course, and the same lack of any and all laws pertaining to environmental protection. Most of the autos I saw were dirty old beaters too. And I thought how there might not have been a catalytic converter in one thousand miles. Maybe further.
As I stepped off the bus, a warm and sandy breeze washed over me with stingy, little grains of granite pecking me in the face. It was one of those situations where a bandana would have actually come in handy but I never carried one while traveling not wanting to look too passé. Call me vain. Whatever. But the breeze also brought with it a vigor as did the clear, blue sky overhead and the vast landscape of barren rocks surrounding this town on all sides.
The bus ride had been a long one, though, and I was ready just to check into my hotel and relax for a bit...at least long enough to take a shower and regain my bearings. I'd read that that bus ride (specifically the one from Lima to Cuzco) often caused people to experience both motion and altitude sickness as it, from the capitol, did cross over several different mountain ranges. I hadn't been afraid of this aspect however. In fact, I thought it would be a lot more fun than just taking the short flight. It was also a lot less expensive to go by land but, for now, we'll consider that beside the point. But what really wore me out about this particular bus ride was something that I hadn't been expecting at all; and that's just how abysmally boring it all had been. I'd been expecting more...I don't know...more livestock on-board. Or more livestock out the windows. Or anything out the windows at all! But, as it was, by the time we got out of Lima yesterday, the sun was already setting. And then, by the time we made it to any actual mountains where the view may have been breathtaking (for all I knew); it was pitch-black outside every window. I couldn't even see any stars. Also...the glass had been perfectly sealed as this was a completely airtight and air-conditioned bus. And technically, much to my disappointment, there was also no drinking allowed...and certainly no smoking. And, if I didn't know any better, it was almost exactly like being in a Greyhound bus back home except this one was a 2-tier sort of deal where each and every window had been tinted darker than a movie star's limo. No. Scratch that. It was worse than a Greyhound in the sense of being boring. Because, at least on that line there were plenty of weirdos to watch and even have to deal with sometimes; a form of entertainment, if you will. But on this bus, Cruz Del Sur, all the passengers had been nice and quiet and respectful and nobody so much as picked their nose without getting up and going to the bathroom first. Chicken and rice and Inca Cola was served promptly at eight. And then a long stream of the most random movies was shown all night long and throughout some of the early morning. Seriously random. The Bridges of Madison County? In Spanish. But hey. I'd never seen it before. And I guess, when trapped on a bus for that long (a near 20 hours), one can do a lot worse than Meryl Streep. But then they showed something with Steve Martin and, I believe, Queen Latifah. And I can't even remember what the hell played after that. I couldn't sleep though. I wasn't a bit tired. Probably, in part, because the highway and all of its switchbacks and mountain passes kept the bus rocking just enough to make me woozy. Lightly woozy. But just woozy enough to not want to sneak any shots from the pint bottle of Peruvian liquor I had in my satchel. Rather, I just sat there watching movies until it got light out again. And at least by that time, out the windows, I could actually see something.
A kid in his early twenties approached me at the depot as I picked up my backpack from all the luggage lined up now just outside the bus.
“Ah. Right this way, please. I am here to take you to your hotel.”
“Excellent,” and I followed him to his tiny, little Ford across the windy dirt road.
I hadn't wanted to do it this way. I hadn't wanted to buy the complete tour package. Or any tour package come to think of it. I somehow believed myself to be above all that by now. I needed to believe that I could conduct my own way through countries as I was, without a doubt, a pretty seasoned traveler. But back in Lima, well... Things hadn't gone quite the way I'd expected them to after landing and walking out onto the arrivals platform. No, they had not. And part of this had to do with the riots. I swear. Every fucking time I fly somewhere. It's always just my luck. And, as luck had it on this occasion, nationwide riots had broken out perhaps 48 hours before takeoff. After the first 24 hours, the shit had become world news. Don't travel to Peru, they said. The BBC and everything. Allegedly, the government was attempting to seize some Indian land up closer to the Amazon (over want of oil, of course) and there had been a skirmish. Some 22 Indians wound up dead at the hands of the military while, on the other side, 7 soldiers were actually killed by (and get this) spears! Those Indians, in their revolt, didn't even have any guns! It was difficult to imagine. But the whole country was pissed and had taken either one side or the other. And in a land like Peru where (unlike the US) the natives still existed; they were infused by blood relation in such a tight demographic net that the majority of the sympathy ran with these natives and the anger, in a very short time, became widespread.
Out on the arrivals platform, I began talking to a cabbie. He seemed like a nice guy and appreciated that I could speak a little Spanish. And it wasn't that I trusted him exactly. But I was looking for a hotel for the night...preferably something close the bus station. And this, I believed strategically, would only save me from having to deal with another cabbie in the morning. So I accepted his ride and told him how much I was willing to pay...which wasn't much. And despite his ongoing suggestions of taking me to the prettier and safer suburb of Miraflores; I insisted that he drive me close to the bus station or nowhere at all.
Once we were driving through Lima under the cover of night, I quickly began to realize just how fucked up this city was after all. Poverty stricken people were everywhere and they did not seem subdued. At certain stoplights, they'd walk right up to my window and stare at me like thirsty ghosts. Old people, sometimes. But others were more vital and appeared very capable of doing some violence. The driver told me to look straight ahead. He said that these were dangerous times. More dangerous than normal, if I could believe that. And suddenly I became extremely relieved to have taken this cab rather than wandering the streets outside the airport simply seeking the closest inn.
We were stuck at a stoplight perpendicular to the entrance of an alleyway. And through this alley there was fire. And there were mobs in the street.
Jesus, there was nothing around even worth looting. These demonstrators truly were in this to make themselves and their statement known. Still...I didn't have many doubts that they would have robbed my white ass. I'm sure they would have even taken some pleasure in beating me up and stealing my luggage...which is crazy since, if I only knew one thing about these riots; it's that they had absolutely nothing to do with me. But the mob mentality is crazy and senseless...or so I've been told.
When we started moving again, I talked to the driver a bit. I asked him the obvious questions like; we're these people going to kill me? And he said 'no' and that, despite how it looked back there, the police did have the situation pretty much under control.
At one point several miles down the road, we stopped in a much nicer looking section of town; the 5-storied architecture and stone streets reminding me of Paris even. The driver pulled the cab up alongside a curb and told me to stay in the car. From there, under the streetlights; I watched him cross the road, walk up the front steps of a building, and ring a buzzer. I could hear him talking into a speaker even through the rolled up windows of the car but I could not, however, make out what he was saying.
Hostages. They loved to play the hostage game down here in South America. Or again...at least from what I'd heard. This was my first time ever setting foot on the continent and I'll say it was making one hell of a first impression. Obviously, this cabbie was going to sell me to someone who had the means to hold me until an even higher ransom was reached.
“They're all full,” is what he said, though, as he sat back down and started the engine.
From experience, I knew that he'd probably get some sort of small commission from just about any hotel he brought me to. And obviously, unless his price for the kidnappers waiting therein was too high, the place really was full. Aside from that, though, the place was also much too nice for me. Meaning: it was (I could tell just by the outside) more than I was wanting to spend on a room for the night. More than I was willing to pay, that is, before seeing the mobs and firebombs in the street. But now I might actually be willing to concede a bit if just for one night. And one night was all it would be. Then the bus station. And then I'd be rid of this crazy, intimidating city. Just to be on a bus for almost a full day, I thought, might allow the unlawful demonstrations time to cool down a little...or escalate. I had no idea. But I was here now and I knew that there was no way I was going home without at least seeing Machu Picchu so... If Peru did actually think I was going to scare so easily; it had another thing coming. It's a mission when I travel. A mission at all costs.
After driving perhaps another mile through some dense, downtown streets; the cab pulled over in front of a different hotel that appeared to be not quite as nice as the first but still upscale in the grand, Lima perspective. He told me to wait in the car again but, after talking into another speaker, quickly motioned for me to grab my pack and step out.
The price was high...for me. I mean, I was looking for a room between 5 and 10 dollars a night and this place was like 40. But, like I said, I was willing to swing it just for one night and so forked over the cash to the front desk guy. The place wasn't worth 40 though...at least not in my mind. The lobby was nothing larger than a narrow hallway and the room (which I did inspect prior to paying) was comparable to that of a Motel 6 or something back home. It was clean, though, and it was a bed. So I paid the cabbie too and tipped him nicely since his rate did seem very reasonable.
“And in the morning,” the front desk guy had walked me back up to my door, “I will arrange for you to speak with Pocha. She is a very friendly lady who can help you on your way.”
“It's really not necessary,” I told him, “I just need to walk to the bus station. So...if you can give me directions; that would be great.”
“It is really nothing, Mr. Swanson. She is a very nice lady and, if you do not like what she has to offer, you do not have to accept. But I must warn you that if Cuzco is where you are headed then finding a room may be very difficult for you.”
“Because of the riots?”
“No, sir. Because it is the annual festival of Cuzco and people from all over the country and even foreigners such as yourself will be headed there. Normally, there are rooms to spare as it is the gateway to Machu Picchu. That is, it is only half a day's train ride from there. But with the festival...” he shrugged, “Well, it is a very exciting time to be visiting this town and our country. Did you not plan your trip because of this festival?”
“No. Actually... I mean, I actually had no idea that it would be going on right now. I mean, I usually like things to be nice and quiet but it never really turns out that way. I guess I should start doing more research before...”
“Well, if quiet is what you like; then I would not recommend Cuzco this weekend. Perhaps, Pocha might be able to offer you a trip up to the Amazon. You could stay in a village with a family there.”
“Jesus, no. Isn't that where all these riots started in the first place?!”
“Yes. But, according to the news, the military now has everything under complete control. And these families would be very glad for your money and very happy to see you.”
“Regretfully, I'm going to have to decline on that. I may never be here again, you see, and Machu Picchu is just one of those things, I've heard, that you just have to see before you die.”
“This is all fine, Mr. Swanson. But you should still just talk to her. If you do not like what she has to offer then...”
“I know, I know. I don't have to accept. Thank you, sir. This is a very nice room. I really didn't want to be wandering the streets looking for one tonight.”
“As you should not. Tonight is very dangerous. Sleep well, Mr. Swanson.”
And with that, I shut the door and took a steaming hot shower.
Then I flipped on the tube just to take in some local news and there was a little bit about the riots but, surprisingly, they didn't seem to put much emphasis on them. And I took this as a good sign. Also...outside my window, I wasn't able to spot any more mobs or firebombs. And, since I was on either the 4th or 5th floor and had some decent range in which to view; I took this as a very good sign also. Perhaps, I'd seen the worst of it...which would have made sense but only because that was always my luck.
My luck, my luck. Always. But I went to bed feeling safe enough and set the alarm so that I could keep that early morning appointment with this 'Pocha' character at the cafe just across the street.
An omelet and toast with some sort of apricot preserve. And freshly squeezed juice too. All complimentary for having stayed in the hotel last night. It wasn't bad. I'd crossed the street and found myself in the midst of a drizzly, grey morning full of smog. And what with all the glass bank buildings; I guessed this area to be Lima's main financial district.
“Hello. I am Pocha.”
She was a half-hour late and instantly picked me out by my being the only gringo in the room.
“Nice to meet you.”
I didn't want this but, what the hell; I was at least willing to hear her out.
“So...I have heard that you are planning to travel to Cuzco today.”
“That is true.”
“Okay. Well, you know that it is about to be the festival of Cuzco in just a few days.”
“So I've been told.”
She was probably 50-something and plump. But I liked her well enough just from this initial contact. Call it a 'judge of character' sort of reaction. She seemed honest to me. Meaning; I saw neither the salesman grin or glint in her eye.
“Okay. Well. I am here to tell you that, from my records, there are no bus tickets available to Cuzco. And, even when you get there, there may no be rooms for you to stay.”
“Well, yeah,” I answered without being swayed, “But I'll bet you, if I go down there, I might be able to grab a seat. People cancel their trips 'last minute' and such.”
“This is true. However, you will not be guaranteed. But with me, you will not only be guaranteed a bus ticket, you will be guaranteed a room once you get there. Plus, I heard that you want to see Machu Picchu.”
“That's true. But I don't like going through agencies. No offense. But, can you give me the logistics?”
“Can you tell me exactly what your offer is? Is this some sort of a package deal?”
“Well, yes. Of course. The package is this: one bus ticket to Cuzco on the best bus line Peru has to offer, a hotel room in Cuzco for several days, in between these days; you will take a train to Aguas Calientes, the town at the foot of Machu Picchu. The package includes also: a hotel room there for one night, a bus ticket to Machu Picchu, the train ride back to Cuzco whereupon you will still be booked in your same hotel for one more night. And from there, as you have already stated, you do not like to travel by agencies. So from there, as you will still have one whole week left to travel and explore this great country... From there, you will still be on your own to do so. And, from Cuzco, you can make any arrangements you so further desire. All for one package, as you say. For one low cost.”
“Well, yes. Of course. The package is this: one bus ticket to Cuzco on the best bus line Peru has to offer, a hotel room in Cuzco for several days, in between these days; you will take a train to Aguas Calientes, the town at the foot of Machu Picchu. The package includes also: a hotel room there for one night, a bus ticket to Machu Picchu, the train ride back to Cuzco whereupon you will still be booked in your same hotel for one more night. And from there, as you have already stated, you do not like to travel by agencies. So from there, as you will still have one whole week left to travel and explore this great country... From there, you will still be on your own to do so. And, from Cuzco, you can make any arrangements you so further desire. All for one package, as you say. For one low cost.”
It was a good hook. I'd give her that. She definitely had my number.
“Okay. So what's the cost?”
And it was a lot. It was definitely was. But...considering the circumstances. And considering that she already had everything in one envelope that could and would send me on my way (meals included) for an entire week with nothing else left to worry about... I accepted. I actually had to take a trip, while she sat in the cafe waiting, to the nearest ATM in order to extract a sum so sizeable; I wasn't even sure if it would let me. A sum that if, at that present moment, there would have been some sort of machine malfunction like the one that had happened to me once back in Sicily; I would have been fucked and stranded in Lima...something I couldn't even begin to fathom. But, since everything worked out alright, I made my way back from one of the bank buildings with one fat wad of cash and handed it over to Pocha with her even fatter manila envelope for me.
“These are some of the nicest hotels,” she assured me, “And the very nicest bus line. And here is my email in case anything comes up.”
And I trusted her. And from her end; everything did hold up fine.
But back to the arriving in Cuzco. I wasn't even expecting a taxi to be there waiting for me and yet, here it was along with the boy who already knew my name and the hot wind blowing sand in my face.
“It seems like you have a cold,” he said to me once we were driving in his tiny car.
“Yeah,” and I was sniffling, “I've had it for a few days now. I'm sorry. I hope I'm not contagious.”
“Not to worry,” he was the ever super-positive guy and I liked him because he'd already been paid for. He'd made this known to me. “Once you get to the hotel, there is some coca tea there. Just have a couple of cups and it will clear you up in no time. This, I promise.”
“Sounds good to me.”
And it was a pretty nice hotel that he dropped me off at...so far as location was concerned. It wasn't 5-Star by any means but it was probably one of the best that this town had to offer. The building was located right on the main drag and my room had a balcony that overlooked this Avenida del Sol so... I really couldn't have been any more pleased.
“If you need anything or have any questions, my office is just up the hill in the main square. Right next to McDonald's.”
“Nice. Thank you.”
“Okay, bye now. Enjoy your stay.”
And the kid pulled away in his little car while I climbed the narrow stairway with my backpack up to the lobby on the second floor. And sure enough, right there in the lobby, there was a thermos full of hot water and a basket full of fresh coca leaves. I wasn't perfectly sure what to do with the leaves, though, and so sort of abstained for the time being.
After taking another shower, I set out exploring and quickly found the main square (La Plaza de Armas) right up the hill that the travel agent kid had been talking about. And yes, there was the McDonald's too in all its glory; sandwiched right between two huge Spanish cathedrals that comprised two of the square's sides. The other two consisted of multistoried bars and shops. There was nothing modern about them though. Not a single piece of metal met the eye. Rather, these structures gave off the impression of being made mostly from stone. And judging from the barren, woodless landscape; it was easy to see why. I couldn't decide, however, whether these shops had actually been constructed in such a fashion or if they were just meant to look that way. I couldn't decide how real this place was what with a McDonald's staring me right in the face.
Now...I don't believe it occurred on my very first night in town. Because, had it happened then, I probably would have been much more freaked out without having at least one day's time to get a lay of the land and somewhat of a feel for the town. I cannot, for the life of me though, remember what I did on that first night in Cuzco. It's just not like me to not hit the bars and try to find some sort of a scene. But, then again, I had just dropped a ton of money on Pocha's week-long tour package and... Yes. It's all coming back to me now. The fact of the matter is that so many occurrences of so much importance happened just after this first night in town that trying to recall anything before it just seems... Well, just like that. Like a pause while attempting to remember something without the recollection of any events actually rising to the surface.
But if there's one thing that can trigger my memory when nothing else can; it's food. I remember eating a cheap, trout dinner in some family owned hole in the wall that first night on the other side of town at the bottom of the hill. I, at the time at least, was their only customer. But this was still in the late afternoon or early evening. Either way, the hour was way before I was used to eating but, in order to conserve some cash, I believe that I was trying to squeeze two meals into one; linner or dunch. And in a further attempt to conserve money (a surprising one and completely uncharacteristic of me); I believe that after dinner, I simply walked into a quickie-mart, purchased a couple 22 oz cans of beer, and responsibly went back to my hotel room where I probably took another shower and watched some TV.
The next day however, after exploring the town some more and taking lots of pictures, the combination of my restlessness must have set in with a phenomenon that had been occurring since about noon. Up the hill in the main square; people were gathering. Lots of people. And this was obviously because sometime since the early morning or last night; a group of workmen had begun to erect a large stage right in front of one of the cathedrals. At first, I honestly couldn't tell if this had anything to do with the riots. Without saying, I hoped they would have stopped by now and had halfway expected them to but...that was not the case. In fact, that very morning I was literally woken up by more demonstrations going on down on the Avenida del Sol just outside my window. They were much more organized and controlled than they had been back in Lima. But perhaps that was only because these citizens of Cuzco felt that they couldn't get firebomb-crazy during the daylight hours. But there I was; sound asleep in my bed one second and eyes wide-open the next. I'm not sure which sound it was that had awoken me exactly. It was either the mob chanting, certain individuals within the mob who had acquired megaphones, or the police in full-on riot gear blowing whistles every few seconds. The countrymen were still angry and this was further proven by a humongous (I'd say 6 X 9 foot) oil painting I'd seen on the streets amongst a slew of other arts and crafts and an entire avenue that had been dedicated to the construction of floats for the upcoming parade which was to happen in the next few days. The mural itself, though, depicted a super dramatized version of the battle that had happened between the military and the Indians last week; the events which sparked all of this rioting in the first place. On the left side, there were the many natives painted in cool blue shades with feathers on their heads and loincloths even. They appeared to be pissed off and emotional while, on the right side of the canvas, there were the soldiers who had been sent up there in order to secure that land which, in all rights, probably didn't belong to the government. And they were depicted with huge muscles and even gas masks which contributed to their overall uncaring and robot-like appearance; an old school technique that had always proven very effective in riling people up.
So this stage in the Plaza de Armas; I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. But I had seen several squadrons of troops out doing drills and making themselves known on some of the lawns in front of other churches about town. And I had to assume that their presence here was not by accident.
Call it a morbid sort of curiosity that could not be denied. But I did, as the people continued to gather and the day began to fade, stick closely around the main square just to see what would happen. In one of the restaurants adjacent to the cathedral and the stage; I sat for hours nursing a few beers and a plate of appetizers while watching the crowd grow and grow. At one point, when the evening was clearly upon us, I realized that the square had filled up entirely and that the whole town must have turned out. More than the whole town! Pocha had told me that this week amounted to the 2nd largest annual festival in South America The first, I'm assuming, is Carnival. The plaza (which had to cover an acre) was completely full now with people of all ages. Old ladies and kids even. And nobody would bring kids to an organized riot, right?
And so they had not. Everyone appeared to be in a great mood and they were cheering with glee and there was plenty of that pan flute music shit playing. The whole deal. This wasn't to be a political or social demonstration at all. It was a fucking huge concert. And this much was confirmed when, as the sun began setting and they sky became dark, the first band of the night started to play up in front of that majestic cathedral on that gargantuan stage.
“Yes, I'll have another please.”
Up on the balcony of this bar, I found myself with the perfect view of all this commotion and felt it would be a travesty now to give up my seat.
“Another. For the señor.”
Obviously, my budget bled a little bit with every beer I purchased but...how often in life does someone get to witness something like this. And, with the hint of a beer buzz on, I began to feel grateful for this timing that had befallen me; so unconscious and inadvertent on my part.
The festival of Cuzco! Yeah! And I was ready to sit here and watch this shit.
Band after band came out while I became steadily drunker and I was loving every minute of it. There was an MC who sort of kept things moving up there with a certain continuity. And, down in the crowd, the atmosphere was that of a state fair with vendors making their way through all the people while slinging anything from sweetened fry bread to those light-up neon necklaces the kids seem to love so much. The people were clapping their hands and spinning circles and all that shit. And I just couldn't stop thinking about how lucky I was to be witnessing this; the festival of Cuzco!
What I didn't realize, at the time of course, was that all this hoopla merely constituted the first day of this week-long festival. And without realizing this, and believing this scene to be the end all and be all, I had really drunk my fill at that table before deciding to tab out and walk back down the stairs in order to intermix myself with the crowd. Not that I was that intoxicated. Not that that even really came into play.
But down I went though the narrow, stone staircase and out once again onto the street level. And there were the people. Still dancing and making merry. I immersed myself in the crowd feeling like, as a conglomerate, they were all just welcoming another incomer with open arms and smiles on their faces. And maybe they were...most of them.
I did not, however, make it in too deep. In fact, I'd say that I was basically still in front of the bar I'd just left when everyone with all their spinning and dancing began to bump me around so much that I was already becoming a little annoyed. Call it; no sleep. No matter how joyous the occasion, I always get really irritable when I'm tired. So, that being said, I almost immediately fled backwards and more towards the outer perimeter again. And why not? It's not like I loved any of these bands so much that I felt compelled to fight my way up front and center. I didn't even know who they were. And the music wasn't really to my taste either. But hey; a party is a party. I figured then that maybe I'd head over to the edge of the square opposite that of the stage in order to take a picture perhaps; one that might encompass the whole scene.
Once I was clear of the crowd again, I instinctively pressed my hand against my hip pocket in order to feel for my oversized wallet. I didn't do this so much to ensure that it was still there as I did it to check that it hadn't begun to slide upwards thereby becoming visible at all. I'd never had any problems with it though. For the past several 'world trips' I'd taken; this large, nylon pouch had been my method for carrying cash and credit cards...and my passport. The thing was so big and bulky that, although it may have been a dead giveaway to any thief on the prowl, it would be equally obvious to me if someone ever tried to extract it from my jeans. I could barely get the thing out when I needed to pay for something! This was the infallible tactic that I'd used for so long now. And I trusted this approach much more than money belts although, as far as this 'trust' was concerned, my reasoning may have been a little off. I just imagined one of the many zippers on a money belt coming unzipped allowing money to flutter from my waistline down, perhaps unnoticed, until that particular hidden pocket's worth of bills was gone with wind. At least that's what I'd told myself. I was probably just too cheap to buy one, though, or felt that they may have looked unstylish. But mostly, I just never really needed a money belt or anything similar because I had the pouch...and the pouch had never let me down. Which is why I was so surprised when I put my hand down there this time only to find it...?
Gone? Missing? Again, it just seemed so weird to be able to apply a definitive word to something that so simply and suddenly was not. My pouch had become a nonentity for a suspended instant in time. And I, just before the shock of adrenaline hit me right in heart, was in a state of disbelief. My hand felt down there again; over my hip pocket at first and then into it. It still wasn't there. Then, while searching the ground with my eyes, I felt inside my other pocket only to find my phone right where it should be. I checked my satchel still standing there. Perhaps, after leaving the bar, I'd stuck the pouch in there too lazy and not wanting to deal with having to cram it back in my pocket. But no. And there wasn't much in my satchel anyway. It would have been easy to feel or spot it in either of its two pockets. Scan the ground again...which was almost impossible what with all the people still spinning and dancing on three sides of me. Would they pick it up if found? Would they return it? Was it really gone even and, if so, had it been stolen?!
The bar. Check the bar and maybe, if they hadn't seen it, I could get a nice bird's eye view of the area from the balcony. But again, what with all the people, I'd be hard-pressed to spot it. But shit, at least there was a chance! If I'd been anywhere closer to the denser, center regions; I probably would have abandoned all hope just about instantly. But as it were. My confusion and disillusionment were just going to be that much more prolonged.
“No, señor. You didn't leave it here,” the host checked with the waiter who checked with the bartender all just for good measure. I appreciated their efforts but they resulted in nothing more than the confirmation that I was indeed pretty much fucked here. And I'd never been in this situation. It's every traveler's worst nightmare. And for me, on this night here in Cuzco, it had come terrifyingly true.
Fuck. Back out to the streets. I needed to get away from this crowd for a minute just to regroup...just to separate myself from the scene a little bit where, hopefully, I'd be able to think more clearly. Because for once, a feeling and state of mind that I'm not really prone to was beginning to sink in; the state of panic.
Breathe deeply. Just shuffle your way down the open corridor that ran the length of the continuous balcony and, essentially, the entire square. At the end of, I knew there to be a break in the corner that slipped out onto a narrow side street. But I swear, just making it down those couple of hundred feet was like vertigo. And all of those people still spinning and smiling; they were now, in effect, causing my whole world to spin along with them. And those smiles! Even the faces of the elderly and the children had quickly turned into sarcastic masks and grins of an ugly conspiracy.
But I made it. Feeling like the thief or thieves were still watching me from a certain distance and laughing; I made it to the break in the square and tucked down the dark and quiet side street. And although going down a dark street may have not sounded like the smartest move I could have ever made just then; it also wasn't quite as bad as it sounded either. Because, as it was, I wasn't necessarily afraid of any of these fucks. Even a whole gang of Peruvian street thugs wouldn't have freaked me out that much...not nearly as much as this sort of unknowing and this violation and the very cowardliness with which the act had been executed. If there'd even been a crime committed at all! Because I still just wasn't ready to believe it. It still just wasn't a discernment that I could commit to 100%.
With my back literally against a wall, mostly to support the weight of my body on shaky knees, I checked my satchel again as thoroughly as I could without emptying all of its contents into the street. And then my pockets again. The tiny pockets of the cardigan sweater I was wearing. My pant legs! I actually frisked myself down each leg of my pants. And if that doesn't sound desperate enough; the pocket that my hand most frequently came back to check was the very hip pocket that I'd always carried that pouch in. Utter disbelief. Subconscious disbelief even. I just kept checking that pocket as if the pouch and all the important items contained therein would magically reappear...as if it was all a hallucination.
But it wasn't. Thankfully, the panic had subsided. Mostly, it had been induced by the crowd and the concert and all of the action and still being in the midst of the scene of the crime. And had I been bumped extra hard just once while I'd been down there amongst all the spectators and participants making merry? Maybe. But it was all such a blur. Luckily though, and sort of ironically because just due to the festival itself, there were plenty of cops present...every one of them paid by the city of Cuzco tonight must have been on duty. So, still leaning against the wall there, I didn't even have to go about looking. One just happened to stroll by me at that very destitute moment and, not really knowing what else to do in the constructive sense, I waved him aside and explained my situation.
“Now, I've told you,” the older gentlemen rambled on from the other side of the glass. I could hear him clearly, though, as the door had been left cracked. “When I got back to my room, there was no compute-a-dora.” He was speaking in English too but, for some reason, just really wanted to convey his compute-a-dora in what he thought the word was supposed to sound like en español. With his heavy accent, though, he wasn't even close. In fact, it took the police forever just to figure out what the hell he was talking about. I almost offered to translate but my mind was still very preoccupied with my own shit. “Now, it's a very expensive compute-a-dora and I'd like to try and get it back.”
I wondered if the guy still had his passport. Of course, he did. Because if he didn't; I'm sure he would have been making an inquiry about that first and foremost...at least I hope so. But you never know with people. I just wished that he'd hurry the fuck up.
From La Plaza de Armas, the first cop I'd encountered walked me over to a building down that side street which resembled a hollowed out firehouse on the inside and was full of nothing but cops. Dozens of them; standing around in there drinking coffee. I guessed that they'd turned this place into a temporary police station for the duration of the festival. To a group of them, I ran through my story again telling them that I'd been robbed and was now without passport or cash or even my credit card. And they nodded understandingly. This type of occurrence during this time of year was surely nothing new to them. They eyeballed each other as if waiting for someone in their group to actually volunteer to take me down to the real station. Nobody seemed very eager. In fact, a point came when I just absolutely needed a cigarette so, stepping outside for a moment, I contemplated just saying 'fuck these guys' and finding the station myself. The town wasn't that big, after all. But part of me was actually a little scared to be walking around in a foreign country (especially one in such upheaval as of late) without a passport or so much as a police report stating that it had truly been stolen. And even then; I didn't expect I'd be able to move about very much. I was probably Lima-bound tomorrow. The trip was a bust.
But, just as I stubbed my cigarette out in a coffee can they'd been using for an ashtray, a young cop approached me and motioned his head like I should come with him. He had a squad car about a block away and, together, we did drive down the hill to their main station which, although only being located about a mile away, still would have been difficult and a bit freaky to find in such a seedy looking neighborhood in the dark.
The cop then escorted me up an outdoor set of stairs and then inside the station which looked as though the city had merely rented out and converted half of the top floor of a 70's style apartment building. Once inside, I was instantly reminded of those old, downtown precincts that I've really only known to exist in movies. The kind with typewriters clacking everywhere and criminals in cuffs being booked and then thrown into some unseen holding cell all under buzzing lights of a fluorescent green color. He told me to have a seat and that someone would be with me in a minute just before disappearing again into the night where more action was certainly there waiting for him back up at the festival.
And there I waited amongst other cops coming and going and the simultaneous clack of many keyboards belonging to old school, IBM computers. But the wait wasn't so bad. And at least, in my satchel, I still had my book. Now, that should have been enough to cheer me right up! That, and I still had my phone. I suppose I should have been texting someone just now in regards to my plight but...shit was just still so up in the air that, truthfully, I didn't even know quite what to tell them.
After less than an hour I'd say, which is better time than I thought, a guy who'd been seated at one of the various desks throughout the room stood up and called my name. And so I went over and had a seat and began to go over my story for the third or fourth time already tonight in half-Spanish/half-English while he listened and typed up notes on his keyboard and followed up with the details in this broken, bilingual fashion. Then he printed out two copies of a document which we both signed; one of them obviously being for me to keep.
“So now you are left with no identification, señor?”
“Well, I still have my driver's license. And I made a couple copies of my passport back home.”
“And these both have photos?”
“Okay. Then you should be very careful to hold onto them.”
But how careful could I be? Should I keep the license in my wallet and keep the wallet in my pocket? Hells fucking no! But where then? Between my fucking butt cheeks?! Or worse; up in my hotel room at all times so it could be stolen from there just like that older guy's compute-a-dora?! Nowhere was safe! And that's the feeling that sunk in now...deeply. Nowhere was safe and every last one of these mother fuckers was a low-down dirty thief.
“But,” I continued, “Will I still be able to travel with just these forms of ID? You see, I've already paid to go to Aguas Calientes the day after tomorrow and then I'm planning to go to Puno after that. Are they still going to let me?”
“Yes. This should be fine, señor. Just keep copies of them with you at all times, please. This way, they will know what has happened. But you must have this report notarized for it to be effective and before we can officially file it.”
“Notarized by whom?”
“By the Banca del Sol on the Avenida del Sol. You must do this tomorrow because, due to the festival, it will be closed for the next four days following. Here is their address,” and he handed me a card.
“And what about flying? Will they let me fly home without an actual passport?”
“Yes, they should so long as you have the police report notarized properly and paid for.”
“Paid for? How much?”
“It is about ten nuevos soles, señor. Will this be a problem? Are you without any money right now?”
And I didn't want to say 'yes' for fear of this answer, however honest, provoking a further situation. So rather; I just shook my head, took the report, thanked the man, and made for the door.
“Señor. Would you like me to call you a cab?”
No. I can't afford one.
“No, thank you. My hotel isn't far. I think I'd just rather walk. Have a good night.”
“You too, señor. I am very sorry that this happened.”
And back into the night I went with all of its scary graffiti.
My feet were starting to hurt...that's how long the line was. But again, at least I still had my phone and, through it, a bunch of downloaded music to keep my mind occupied. I stood there bobbing my head to the medley of rock and hip-hop playing through my overlarge over-the-ear phones. This may have been the only bank in town. But even if it wasn't; it was still the only bank that I could go through, according to the cops, to get my police report notarized. And it was hot in here. Damn hot! But for some reason, that didn't stop anyone else I was in line with from wearing wool hats and heavy coats which was so fucking weird!
The line had started at the door...basically the sidewalk. And it looped around and around by way of like a million of those stanchion barriers with the retractable belts. But fuck it. I should be looking at the bright side. At least this bank was located more or less directly across the street from my hotel...which was great. Especially since I didn't have the money for cab. Or, to be more specific, wasn't going to have any money left once I processed this police report. But again, on the bright side, I'd at least been able, via email, to effectively cancel my stolen credit card last night. At least, through it, I wasn't still being drained. And at least once I filed this report and the bank took the rest of my nuevos soles leaving me with four dollars to my name; I'd have nothing much more that I could lose.
Everyone and their fucking Peruvian grandma, though, because no bank anywhere near here would be open for the next four days and every citizen of Cuzco must have been well aware of that. So just imagine the last minute rush. Especially if this was the only bank in town which, again, I do believe it was. Imagine Black Friday or Christmas Eve at the mall. The frenzy may have been lacking the hysteria. The panic. But, in its place, I was presented with something much worse. Boredom. And annoyance. Because it was a bank we were stuck in and not a mall and this rendered people-watching more or less moot. All energy was absent. All except, maybe, for a few flies buzzing around. And so far as forward progress in line went; think 100% inertia. We, all several hundred of us who had yet to be served, stared at each and every person who'd actually waited their way up to a teller. We hated them and burned holes into the backs of their heads with our squinty, laser-like eyes. Especially the ones who took any more than 5 minutes of a particular teller's time. Especially if they were having such an issue that that particular teller needed to walk away from his or her window in order to grab a manager! We hated them! Just cash your fucking check and get on with your day! What the fuck could they possibly be doing?! Trying to take out a loan?! Today!?
I looked at the single guard on duty then with his old fashioned, silver revolver snugly holstered to his hip. Six shots. Or eight at the most. Not nearly enough, though, to defend even himself if this crowd got out of control. And, standing there sweating, I could feel the lingering strain of stampede in the air. So where were the police in riot gear now?!
Much to my further dismay; when I did, after a couple hour's worth of waiting, finally reach the next available teller at her window...it seemed that she did not like my English accent at all even though I was answering her questions perfectly and knew exactly what she was saying. And she knew what I was saying too; the bitch. I think the whole police report thing may have been fucking her up, however. I mean, maybe she thought I was trying to scam her somehow as I would never really be sure just how many police reports around here any of these bankers were used to seeing. Standing there though; I did quickly become conscious of occupying too much time with this employee. Just like I became perfectly aware of all the people still waiting and wanting to kill me. And of course, the seemingly inevitable did happen. The lady actually left the service window and went in search of a manger.
Now, I have no idea where she had to go exactly in order to find this manager...but it felt like the guy must have been somewhere way back in Lima. Because she left me! She left me all alone like a sacrificial lamb for the others behind me in line to offer up to their Inca god. So I just stood like a good boy facing forward. I didn't dare turn around less they charge.
“Hello, señor,” she finally returned with a slick looking guy in a shiny, blue suit, “And how may I assist you today?”
His accent was almost nonexistent and his manner; very refined.
“I just need this notarized, please,” I spoke in English.
“Ah. Very good, señor. This should not be a problem.”
But he did make me first recount to him the events of last night which I didn't really understand since the document did include the police department's header at the top and the very signature of the cop I'd been dealing with. And since I was about to pay them for this service. But whatever. At the end of the day; the guy finally signed and stamped it and I walked out of that bank real fucking poor and full of new questions as to how exactly I should handle the rest of this trip.
I'd think about this while I walked though. For once, I was going to do the smart and responsible thing by making several photocopies of both this newly notarized police report and my driver's license (several copies of my passport, I had already). My goal was to get back to the other side of town though; the sleazy side back near the police station. I figured that the photocopies over in that neighborhood might be just a tad bit cheaper than in any of the shops in this area which catered mostly to tourists who'd lost either their cameras or (like me) their important documents. Maybe the whole operation was just one big racket. Maybe that old guy back in the police station would actually see his compute-a-dora for sale on the shelves of one of these places and be able to buy it back. It wouldn't have surprised me. None of these people could be trusted. At least that much was becoming clearer.
As I walked along with my headphones back in, a text came in from my girlfriend back home with whom I'd left the jar of money; my safety net so to speak.
Before responding, though, I strolled a few more blocks just kind of waiting for something more. I'd emailed her last night...after canceling the credit card and just before returning to my room. And she'd received it shortly thereafter as a barrage of texts came flooding in about a half-hour later while I was drawing myself a nice, scalding hot bath. She was worried and concerned and upset and scared whereas I was mostly just sad from that feeling of having been violated. And so, from the water's warm embrace and the decoratively tiled bathroom so South American in style; we tried, via texts, to comfort one another and she even sent me some really horrible jokes just to try to make me laugh. And I loved her so much then and became very sad for ever having taken this stupid trip in the first place. But...trying my best to think practically; my flight home still wasn't for another 2 weeks almost so... Supposing I did want to return home instantly; I wasn't even quite sure how all that would work. I would probably have to pay some sort of surcharge? And if I knew airlines (which I did fairly well); such a surcharge would not be cheap. It would probably cost half as much as the ticket to begin with which, once I really sat back in that bath and considered it, kind of defeated the purpose when I could just as well lie low for a while, live as cheaply as possible (once the money arrived) and...
Once the money arrived. That was sort of a big one. Because the bank had been open today, yes. But...according to the cops last night and the banker today; anything with a Western Union attached to it would probably be all closed up until after the festivities were finished. The internet had confirmed this. And now, as I walked past some of these drugstores bearing the Western Union logo; I could see that none of the sources above-mentioned were just jerking my chain. So it seemed that, no matter how soon she did send the money, I wouldn't be able to obtain it until... Well, at least until after I'd visited Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu if I still thought that that was a good idea and still chose to do so. Which (and this is the weird part), considering the circumstances, it did actually seem like the most sensible move...perhaps the only sensible one in this great clusterfuck was to stick to this trip as I'd planned it so far and this tour package that I'd already paid for. I'd already paid for lodging and most of my meals. And, while it may sound kind of insane to be taking a train tomorrow first thing in the morning (ticket also already paid for) to some town I knew absolutely nothing about; at least there would be food and a roof there waiting for me. But if I stayed on here in Cuzco frozen with the fear of being broke and up shit creek...well, then I really would be up shit creek. So really, there was only one feasible thing for me to do. Ride the river. Because even if I, as my girlfriend suggested via text (as I imagined a phone call down here ((even a short one)) would be outrageously expensive), return to Lima and try to fly out as soon as possible; I still had no money for a bus ticket or even a hotel room as I was sure that, tomorrow night when I was scheduled to be in Aguas, my particular hotel room here in Cuzco would not be held for me given the busy season. My itinerary did state, however, that I was supposed to return to this very same hotel the day after tomorrow for there would be another room there reserved for me (also paid for) for just one more night. So again...I could either stay here and sleep on the streets of the town in which I'd already been robbed or continue with this trip to a new town with just under 4 dollars left in my pocket; a new town that, according to the internet again, was so small that it offered no lonely Western Union outposts where I'd be able to pick up any cash. So in my mind, I wasn't going to have my hands on any money for days either way.
Mr. Swanson. My name was on an actual sign this time! This was something that had never happened to me before but caused me to instinctively believe that there was a limo waiting somewhere right around the corner.
The guy holding the sign; a guy whose face was so deeply chiseled in the Incan gene pool, had his skin not been an orangish bronze, he could have easily stood still and posed as one of their ancient stone statues. Well...also aside from the colorful knit cap he wore complete with ear flaps and plenty of short, little tassels. One would assume, perhaps one not being from Peru, that the kind of guy who would wear a cap as fruity and silly as his would also be sort of fun loving and good-natured. This presumption, however, did not ring true when it came to this guy at all. He was just some cranky old man who, by the crazy look in both his wide eyes, made it known to the world that he didn't enjoy his job very much.
He grunted long and emphatically before motioning with his head for me to follow. It served as both the next and last installment in our conversation. He then turned his back.
So I'd made it down to Aguas Calientes by train. The ride was somewhere around 4 hours and it did feel much nicer to be on a rail than on a bus. That being said; the train and its cars were still nothing compared to the crazy rails and great times of a SE Asian line...times that I'd been wishing and hoping for and had even been expecting down here (or at least something similar!). I'd been expecting Peru to be much different thus far (all theft aside). I'd been expecting people to be partying everywhere and at all hours. But here, what I'd found, was a place much more formal and even a little bit uptight. And the scene which I found inside the passenger car I'd been assigned was very subdued with the whopping majority (surprisingly) of travelers being just locals making commutes to some of the tiny mud hut villages at which we stopped along the way. Farming villages, I assumed. Although I never saw anything growing. Or ranches. Although I never saw anything roaming. But there was land. And there was sun. And there was a lot of it.
In Aguas Calientes, however, there was mist and shade. The surrounding countryside that had been so vast and flat and barren had now become green with grass and ferns and palms and, from anywhere in the whole town, one could hear distinctly the rushing sound of the river running. It was beautiful really. And the town itself was quaint and charming with rustic, Lincoln Log looking inns and shops and restaurants...and this description did not pertain just to the touristy district. The town was also nestled deeply within (and at the bottom of) some of the greenest and yet most dramatically steep peaks I'd ever seen. It was a breathtaking landscape and the outdoor air was cool, pleasant, and comfortable. There overall vibe was super laid-back.
Now, this was more like it! There may have been some cranky Indian leading the way but I knew without even needing any proof that there were no riots going on in this place. The atmosphere was calm and somehow set away from anything political. Plus, it was just too damn small. It would be like a tiny town in the US rioting. It just didn't happen. Business was good here and, because of Machu Picchu, it always would be. The people were happy. Grumpy perhaps...but fundamentally happy. Which made me happy...or at least put my mind at ease a bit after having just arrived with mere pocket change to my name. And oh God, how I just wanted a drink. Even just one. Just to savor the taste and to relax my nerves if only by the very most diminutive of increments. I'd wanted one the whole train ride too. The passengers hadn't looked to be much of a drinking crowd though. And even the cars themselves just seemed to nice to have ever seen any really serious partying. The fixtures were so nicely wooded and the seats so perfectly upholstered. Beers had been available though...I just couldn't afford one. Ah! The unknowing! When the fuck would my next beer be?!
Probably not for a while. Probably not until I got back to Cuzco and then some.
But nevermind that. Just follow the Indian. Which I did...over several wooden footbridges and down side streets and through a number a narrow alleys; a route so twisty and winding, I was sure that I'd never be able to find my way back to the train station even with a trail of breadcrumbs. And it was down one of these narrow alleyways, amongst a plethora of other doors leading into different shops and hotels, that we came to one doorway in particular which the cranky, old Indian opened and again grunted for me to follow. And so I did. With my heavy backpack on, we bypassed the front desk of the closet-sized lobby and proceeded up three flights of a confined yet carpeted stairway. Then it was out into an equally tight hallway where we finally came to a door which the old Indian opened for me, grunted for me to enter, and then handed me the key...the key to this room. Then he promptly disappeared and I never saw him again.
Well, fuck it. Here was my nice bed for the night in a room as wood paneled, wood trimmed, and rustic on the inside as all the buildings had been on the out. And it was a nice bed at that with a real Alpaca blanket! The room was nice too. Small but clean. And I became very happy to have trusted that Pocha lady back in Lima with her all-inclusive tour package. My money had actually gone to something worthwhile. Because both the hotels had been nice thus far! And the bus ride. And the train. It had all been kind of a leap of faith but...I'd trusted my instincts. And here already in Aguas Calientes; I was beginning to regain just a tiny bit of self-confidence after the whole thieving incident. And I was just about to take a look at the bathroom (and maybe take a shit) when there came a startling knock at the still open door.
“Your tour of Machu Picchu awaits, señor. But the bus leaves in 15 minutes and so we must hurry.”
This guy was more clean-cut anyway and he was sort of smiling. I couldn't tell whether he was with the hotel (he could even be the owner) or just another tour company guy but...I guess it didn't really matter. So I just dropped my pack and locked the door behind me.
And I thought the Indian walked fucking fast.
I followed this guy on foot and then back through much of the town before coming to a dirt road than ran right along the edge of the river. The scene was, once again, beautiful and wonderful...even with the long line of tourist buses and even if the very road itself would be more than just a little questionable (in the precarious sense) during any heavy rain. But right now, I could not give one fuck. Just put me in a seat and let me take a little ride. And if the mudslides would have me; so be it.
My attitude did change a bit once I was on the actual bus though. Because, as it turned out, the (although relatively) quick ride up to Machu Picchu's entrance did just happen to be one that came with its share of nail-biting intensity. The elevation gain, so I read, was about 400 meters and the road was nothing more than a muddy series of switchbacks where buses would take turns pulling over as far to the edge of any given cliff as they possibly could in order to let another one, moving in the opposite direction, pass. And if I mentioned mudslides and a heavy rain well...this town and this monument and all of its surroundings did seem to imply that a torrential downpour had either just happened or was imminent.
We made it though. And I have to admit that, as we gained in altitude, the view from any given precipice became ever more thrilling and spectacular. We made it in that humid, packed cabin that still seemed to hold (as did the train) an overwhelming percentage of locals as opposed to tourists. They'd probably seen the place a million times as I imagined. But hell, maybe they just liked it there. Maybe it was a nice place to just have a picnic or something.
The rains were coming, though, and the thunder let us know. But luckily, living in Portland, I'd grown accustomed to always carrying an umbrella in my satchel...even in the summertime.
Soon after, it started to sprinkle and this is where things began to get a little weird. When the bus dropped us off in front of the entrance gates, I still wasn't sure whether or not the whole busload itself was like a homogenous tour group (because it certainly didn't seem to be) and whether or not I was a part of it...or if, from here on out, we were kind of on our own and were supposed to deal with whatever deal we'd signed up for. One third of the people on this particular bus were obviously English speaking tourists while the other two thirds were a bit more difficult to distinguish. There were the locals, as I've said, but then there was also a cluster of Spanish speaking tourists from (presumably) other South American countries with even, perhaps, some Portuguese speaking Brazilians in there as well. And I had no ticket now. And suddenly, I had no guide. I had nothing and no one as we all trudged up the steep, muddy path together. So...as far as being thankful for what I'd paid for thus far; I also couldn't be completely sure if the money I'd given Pocha back in Lima also covered my entrance into the park. And although I did still possess the packet she'd handed me with all the receipts and brochures; I'd also left it back in the hotel in my backpack having had to flee the coop in such a hurry.
So I didn't quite know what the fuck to do. I certainly had no ticket already (on my person or otherwise). I would have clearly remembered having see one in the envelope. And yet, everyone who'd been on that bus appeared to be brandishing some sort of pass as they cleared the guards and the gates. So what the fuck?! But I had a feeling...just call it a hunch that if I did sort of lumber up to those glassed-in booths and proceeded to plea my case; they would have attempted to charge me. And, obviously, I only use the word 'attempted' here because the charge wouldn't have done either party any good in this case for I had no money to pay it. But, since I sure as shit wasn't about to turn around and go home without seeing this Wonder of the World; I did the only other conceivable thing there was to do. I got right in the middle of the largest group that had been on my bus and I fuckin' snuck in while one of the guards, recognizing a heavyset female tour guide waving a flag, lured us on through in one, big clump.
And in we went. And, as luck would have it, this group just happened to be one of the English speaking ones. Not that a Spanish speaking one would have been that terrible...but it would have been a strain. But now, shit, I just felt like I could kick back and put myself on autopilot which, given all that I'd been through, was really a nice sort of treat.
As a group, we hiked up a muddy path until...there they were in all their glory. All of those beautiful, wonderful ruins in that amazing, misty-green setting that pictures or TV, after seeing them with my own two eyes, make look like a fragmented sham. But here it all was right in front of me now. This is what I'd come here for. Mission accomplished.
Walking up the muddy path had been sort of an unnecessary exercise in that it had only been proposed, by this tour guide, for us to be able to get a better view of the whole thing...to be able to take it all in and for some great photo ops. And, as to be expected, the group began posing as individual couples and families and asking other folks within the main cluster to grab their cameras for a minute in order to take pictures of them. And I did this myself but the photos turned out badly with me half-hidden behind my umbrella as it really was starting to rain now. And this is where the tour guide came in and started to do her monument...
She gathered us together and said that those of us in the group who were basically Geminis (although according to the ancient Incan variation on astrology; simply born in late May or early June) should stand at the edge of this little incline we were standing on and blow in a certain compassable direction that, given most of our disoriented states after the bus ride and just being in an unfamiliar place, I'm sure most of us never remembered. But blow, we did. About half a dozen of us. And would you fucking believe this; I swear to God, about ten seconds after all of us had blown our puffed-up cheeks into a the sweeping blackness of near faintishness...the clouds did seem to move off in a direction that at least wasn't quite as oncoming as it had been. And it stopped raining then and never did again pick up for the rest of the day. So obviously, this tour guide...was good.
And this, consequently, is where my broke-ness began to bother me again. I'd forgotten about it for a short time and it had been a nice reprieve, I have to admit. But now, this nice Peruvian tour guide...well, everyone was going to tip her at the end of this thing. But I just couldn't. There was no way. And even though I wanted to tip her the four bucks that I had left in my pocket; I also assumed that everyone else would be tipping her like ten bucks per person or something (at least that's what I would have tipped if I had the money)...so I also didn't want to seem like a cheap-ass in that respect. And I realize that this philosophy may sound a little weird since stiffing her altogether was, let's face it, even worse! I just felt bad is all. I mean...I wasn't too stressed. The poor girl probably got stiffed by certain dickheads all the time. But I wasn't one of those guys! Not usually.
The ultimate result being; for the duration of this otherwise wonderful tour of Machu Picchu by a very skilled, insightful, and colorful tour guide...I found myself constantly worrying about having to shame myself at the very end of this thing and the bitter feeling that this nice tour guide might take away from this American kid who'd always stayed towards the back. And oh, fuck how I wish I just didn't have one of those faces that stuck out in a crowd. But I do. People always remember my face. I just didn't want her to remember it forever and associate my fucking face with such a negative context because that would be horrible. I just felt that it might taint her perception of...well, I wasn't quite sure what. But something!
On and on, though, we explored the ruins thoroughly and learned much from her as a group. For over an hour, we were educated by this smiling young lady while being tantalized by these fascinating sites. The perfect combination of life experience and the scholastic. And I was about to stiff her fucking ass. I felt so bad. Through all the ruins; all the wonderful huge, grey slabs of stone that used to be the foundations for homes...I lamented. And over all the lush, green grass that encompassed the whole grounds and the weird flowers that grew only here and nowhere else in the whole world...I worried with disgrace. As the group asked her questions but never I...and as she explained how the Inca worshiped the number seven because there are seven 'holes' in the human physical body and also seven colors in a rainbow...chagrin and humiliation seemed to eat me alive. But whatever. I couldn't just run away now. I was already in too deep.
So...another cool thing I learned about Machu Picchu on that day (something that I'd always sort of wondered about) was that there was a natural spring rising up from somewhere deep within the Earth so that the Inca always had a fresh source of water without having to hike all the way down to the river. And that's one job that would have sucked. It was the perfect settlement. The perfect stronghold. Because, even if the city were under siege (which was sort of unlikely since, having the high ground, it seems like the Inca could shoot, catapult, or even just roll shit down the mountain at their would-be attackers), they'd be able to hold out forever...so long as their was enough livestock to go around. And if the Inca could hold out on just spring water and mutton meat indefinitely then I could certainly go a couple of days without a beer.
But I was only trying to delude myself. Of course, I couldn't.
I didn't even catch this chick's name. She kept on waving that flag though. And I was always the last to follow...not wanting to hold up the group but, at the same time, not really wanting to appear as though as I was getting my full money's worth out of the tour. The moment did come, however. It was pretty much unavoidable less I wandered away from the group forever and hid behind a bush or something. I did just sort of wander away though. While everyone else was thanking her so much and complimenting her on her vast knowledge of the place and asking her where she learned to speak English so well and all that...I was already back up the hill and near the exit gates. And I swore to God, she cast me a look. Not a look of anger but one of bewilderment. “Why? After I did such a great job on the tour just now? Why would you fucking stiff me? Was it something I did? Because I'm sure that if it was, I'd more than happily correct the mistake.” These were the thoughts in her head as I interpreted them to be...at the time. Over the next few days, though, I almost forgot all about her and finally concluded that she never did give a fuck about me or my lack of a tip. I really had wanted to tell her that all my cash had been stolen though. But do normal people just continue touring without a dime in their pocket like nothing had ever happened? Should I have tried to explain that coming to Aguas Calientes secured a roof over my head for the night which I wouldn't have otherwise had? No. It was too fucking complicated and she would never have believed it anyway.
Finding a bus again wasn't much of a chore. Most of them seemed to run on a tram system and, so long as one had a viable bus pass made out for that day, anyone one of them would take you back down the mountain. And that sort of inglorious little anecdote was my entire Machu Picchu experience. But hey, at least I got some good pictures out of the deal.
It was nice to get back to my hotel. And the searching for it, down its back little alleyway, did allow me to inadvertently explore much of the town. I found a nice square, for instance, at the foot of another jutting peak rising hundreds of feet into the air. And I sat there smoking a cigarette (even those were getting low) while dreaming of how nice it would be to get a table at any one of the surrounding restaurants, to drink a cocktail or two, and to eat a nice meal tonight. Because, already, I was becoming a bit hungry. I'd eaten breakfast back in Cuzco...which came with the tour package. All breakfasts were included so I could at least be certain of having a meal tomorrow morning. And back there, I'd taken care to wrap a couple of stale rolls (they were served stale but I'm not normally one to complain about such trifles knowing it would do absolutely no good) in a paper towel and stashed them in my satchel so that I'd have something to eat tonight. And despite the fact that dinnertime hadn't quite arrived yet; I ate them in my bed while watching a movie in Spanish back in my room.
And then I was just bored.
After the movie was over, I turned off the TV and tried to read for a little bit. I smoked a couple more cigarettes in bed and rolled onto my stomach and then back onto my back like a million times. Because, while normally, I'm perfectly content to just lie in bed and read for hours and hours and hours...that was all domestically-speaking. But I was in another fucking country with plenty of experiences, I was sure, just out there waiting to happen. But 'broke' just happens to be one of those universal truths like laughter or even crying; it's the same in every language. Especially when an American abroad in a place like this; a nationality that, to these locals, represented something. Money. Because the streets up there really were paved with gold to them...practically. And every one of its citizens was expected to be rich.
By the time it grew dark outside, I was restless as fuck and just couldn't take it any more. And while I knew that just walking by any given restaurant would probably cause my mouth to water with an envying hunger... And while the sound of tourists making merry would stir up a similar emotion; I just needed to get out of that fucking room for a bit, take in some fresh air, but ultimately do enough walking around to wear myself out until the point of sleep was even a possibility. And so I walked the town.
I walked around more alleyways and then back out into the square where I checked out the town's main church; in front of which there was a golden statue of an Incan chief with his arms open...and I couldn't think of anything more perverse than this. Then I ventured further; walking down the more local streets where there were deserted (for the day) soccer fields lacking the benefit of electric, overhead lights. After that, I double backed along the river and sat on a bench where, while smoking yet another cigarette against the backdrop of that wonderful, rushing water; I lifted my head...and there I saw it. Right next to a convenient store of sorts. I'd already planned on going in there intending to buy a large bag of chips with almost the rest of the money in my pocket. Before I did though; I lifted my head and, right next door to this convenient store, there was a sign posted in the window of another storefront. A sign signifying that, despite what the internet may have led me to conclude, there was indeed a Western Union in this town.
And this meant everything!
Sure, it may have been closed just now but...assuming tomorrow wasn't a Sunday or anything (I honestly had no idea what day it was), I could have cash in my pocket as early as tomorrow morning! Holy shit, I felt like celebrating! With a beer! But I probably still couldn't afford a beer so I settled for a can of Pringles. And those were good enough.
I returned to my room so happy and full of energy that this discovery of the Western Union basically negated all the walking I'd done to purposely wear myself out. I'd just have to keep reading and watching TV though. And smoking and eating Pringles. Morning would come soon enough. And it was about to breathe some new life into this trip.
Where the fuck was this guy? The train had dropped me back off almost an hour ago and I had no way of getting in touch with him. Some other driver had actually offered me a ride (for a nominal fee, of course) but I'd told him, “No thanks, man. I'm sure my guy will be here. He was probably just detained.”
“Detained? It's very possible, señor. But because of the festival going on, it's also possible that he might not have been able to get out. I almost wasn't able to myself.”
“I know. But that guy's already paid for and everything.”
“Well,” he smiled with one side of his mouth, “Suit yourself, señor.”
He was a nice guy though. He wasn't trying to scam anyone. I did, however, choose to wait a bit longer.
I waited until every passenger that had been on-board the train with me was long gone and the platform was empty along with the terminal. The snack bar had long since closed and pulled down its rickety, overhead bars. Both the stars and the crickets were astounding while outside on a curb still warm with day's radiation; I smoked a cigarette in front of the station.
Fucking shit. I'd made the wrong decision and now there wasn't a soul around. There wasn't even a car in the lot where now even the streetlights had been turned off. The ride from Cuzco to the station only yesterday morning hadn't been that long. I mean, it would definitely take me a few hours to walk back into town (assuming I didn't get lost). But feasibly speaking; it was technically doable. As I stubbed out my smoke on the curb, I debated whether or not to stand up and start hoofing it or find someplace around here to lie down and close my eyes until daybreak.
Just when I couldn't believe this was happening though...just when I had some money again and there just weren't any cabs to pay for; a pair of headlights hovered down the black, unseen hill of that dark and deserted highway. And I was freaked out. It was a bit difficult to trace the exact direction in which these lights were moving but it quickly became apparent that this vehicle (whatever it was) was slowing down and pulling off the highway and into the lot. Wow. My first instinct was actually to hide but I also didn't want to appear suspicious supposing this was a cop or cops. So I just sat there. Unless there was a whole gang of thugs about to jump out with the intention of mugging me; I felt that (despite the fact that I hadn't done any since I'd been here) my steady push-up regiment back in the US still had my shoulders big enough to make one (or even two) guys think twice before trying to fuck with me.
On they came...slowly but steadily but coming right at me so that I was blinded by these lights and unable to determine just what sort of vehicle this was. On it came until it was mere feet from me and I thought I could smell the coolant in its radiator. The engine never did shut off and now, suddenly, I felt like I should stand up again less I become the victim some random (yet gruesome) vehicular homicide. And I did. Only then to hear the call, “Taxi, señor?”
Walking around to the side of the lights a bit, I discovered a beat-up old Ford Aerostar, maroon, and with nothing commercial (inside or out) to signify that this was a taxi at all.
“Do you have a meter?”
“No, señor. It's a flat rate.”
“Back into Cuzco?”
Well, fuck it. His rate was pretty standard and there was no sense in my sleeping in this parking lot tonight when I already had a room (paid for) back in town. And this guy seemed alright. I slid the side door open and threw my backpack on the floor then climbed over it and had a seat in back; the two-man bench close enough to the front so that the driver and I could talk. Which we did. And I became confident then, just based on all his skillful small-jabber, that this guy truly was a cabbie.
He asked me all about my stay so far...and so I told him all about the thievery I'd experienced which seemed to spark his interest. Then I told him about how I'd gone to Aguas Calientes with next to nothing (monetarily speaking).
“Ah, yes. But you did get money. Yes, señor?”
“Yes, yes. Don't worry. My girlfriend was able to Western Union me some cash and thankfully, although unexpectedly, I was able to find one of their locations in Aguas. More than one even...as it turned out.”
“And you were able to receive then the money?”
“Yeah, yeah. I got the money. But you're right...I was really sketched out at first that they might need to see my actual passport just to complete the wire. And if that had been the case... Well...I don't really like to think about it because I have no idea what I'd have done. But they were able to accept my driver's license as form of photo ID. And you can imagine how excited I was to finally have something in my pocket...again, that is. I mean, it's not like I landed here broke.”
“Yes. This must have been very good-feeling. What did you do first after that? What did you buy? Surely, a souvenir to remember Machu Picchu by.”
“Well, yeah. I did buy a souvenir but it doesn't really have to do with Machu Picchu at all. And even that was after... That is, I really didn't buy anything right away. Perhaps, I was being cautious.”
“You did buy another ticket to Machu Picchu, though, yes?”
“No,” and I chose not to rile him up in the wrong way by bringing up the fact that I hadn't actually bought one to begin with, “I'd seen it already. And although it was magnificent and everything, I guess I was just looking for something to do for free.”
“But you had the money then, yes?”
“But you had the money then, yes?”
“Yes. I had the money. Have the money.”
“Ah, yes. I see.”
“So I just took a walk.”
“Ah. It is a very nice town, Aguas.”
“It is. But I walked past the town altogether. And into the jungle!”
“Ay, señor. You should not do that. I am surprised you did not run into trouble.”
“What kind of trouble?” I feigned innocence just to see what he'd say.
“I'm sure I cannot say, señor. But I do know that there are people who live in the jungle who may not be used to outsiders. People who may not want them around.”
“Yes. I did find some weird evidence of that. And I even found a little shrine or a god or something that reminded me of santería. It was wooden but...it was like it had been assembled.”
“Ah. I see.”
“Plus, I also found a bunch of coca plants being farmed near a few odd looking...'shelters'? Anyway. That's about the time I turned back. But the walk up until then...and I'm talking like almost 3 miles here. Or, that is, almost 5 kilometers! It had been pretty nice.”
“This is very far, señor. This must have taken you most of the day.”
“It did. It totally did. But I didn't have to catch the train until the late afternoon so really I had all day to kill. And it felt good just hiking around outside, breathing in the fresh air and, ya know, just getting some exercise and stuff. I even saw some waterfalls and more wild mint growing than I ever thought imaginable. And I kept climbing uphill until the path, at certain points, became so steep that there'd actually been ladders set up. Real homemade ladders. Like nothing you'd buy at Ace Hardware or anything.”
“Oh, it's just a hardware store back in the US.”
“Yeah. But anyway. So then I realize that I'm finally coming to the top of this one hill. And it was a struggle, let me tell you. The jungle was thick and the vines and all the undergrowth kept grabbing at my feet and really tripping me up.”
“It sounds like you had quite a time, señor.”
“Oh, I did. And I wound up with a totally great view of the whole town from up there and I got some great pictures with the mist coming down and everything and all the other surrounding mountains. And then I had a beer. I figured I deserved one at that point. I mean, after what turned out to be quite a workout and everything. And then, since the breakfast served in my hotel this morning consisted of nothing more than a couple pieces of really dry toast and jelly, I stopped in a restaurant and ordered the lunch special which just happened to be an alpaca steak that came with some fries. So there's that; I got to try alpaca. It was either that or guinea pig and...well, I don't know man. I don't think I can bring myself to try that even though I know you guys seem to love it down here. There's just something about their pink little bodies...and those claws that they leave on there. But anyway. The meal was fairly cheap and the two waitresses actually came over and sat down and talked with me while I ate. Then I caught the train and had a few more beers along the way. Then I arrived at the station but the guy who was supposed to pick me up was nowhere to be seen...which kind of pisses me off since I paid for that ride already.”
“Well, yes señor. But I am sure that it is because of the festival that he could not get out.”
“Well, then they shouldn't have told me that they'd be there. I mean...to just leave me waiting? I was about to spend the night there and that's kind of messed up.”
“I do agree with you on this. But also, because of the festival, I will not be able to take you to your hotel if it is on the Avenida del Sol.”
“Yes, señor. There is no traffic aloud. Once we get there, you will understand.”
And he was right.
The entire ride thus far had been mostly in the dark. There were no streetlights overhead as this was Peru and streetlights only existed around bus or train stations and the densest sections of the cities. So, for the duration, I'd basically been staring at either the empty road ahead of us (in the Aerostar's low beams) or the side of the driver's face and how the weird, yellowish light from the console seemed to reflect in his concentrated gaze. But then...
Then we came to the top of a hill and there was Cuzco spread out down below. And the view from this height, although similar in vantage to that spectacular one I'd had on the hike back in Aguas early this afternoon, was also literally a contrast of night and day. And Cuzco, like I never imagined that valley floor ever could be, was lit up like a Xmas tree. And already, even from way up here on the hill, I believed that I could hear the sounds of happy chanting and more of that pan flute music. And still, even from up here, it seemed like the only true streetlamps were along the Avenida del Sol. But I could also see that portable, generator powered lights had been set up all along the many surrounding streets; huge, powerful white lights that possessed kind of a UFO quality and must have made this city appear alien even to its natives.
“You see, señor? I will get you as close as I can because, as you said, you did get the money.”
“Yes, yes. I got the fucking money. But yeah. Try to get close, please, if you will. I get lost easily.”
And I'll hand it to him; through the costumed, joyous mobs and the narrowest of side streets, this driver did get me close by taking a few routes that had been blocked off and were obviously forbidden. This guy really wanted his fare and, even though we'd talked the whole while and had become chummy, I still think he was afraid I was just going to bolt out the door without paying. Which I easily could have. I could have run down just one, short little alleyway and been lost in the crowd. But I wasn't like that. I wasn't a sketchy thief like some mother fucker who was out there and probably still at large. But I was going to party tonight. I'd just have to be extra careful.
So I paid the man and tipped him and he was very grateful. Then I walked between that short, little alleyway and when I popped out the other side, I felt like Dorothy as this strange movie I was living switched from black and white into the full-on Technicolor of Oz. The festival was in full swing now. Tonight was the night; the night of the parade and the last night of the official celebration. Undoubtedly, drunk as I could tell everyone was already, the party would carry over some into the light of day. But this was it. And I'd arrived right in the middle of it.
The craziest part just now was that that cabbie really had dropped me off as close to my hotel as he possibly could have. Surprisingly close. It's just that I didn't even recognize it at first. That short, little alleyway (without my really being aware of it) had spat me out right on the Avenida del Sol. Or rather, right onto one of its broad sidewalks. And it was packed! All the way up and down; all I could see were people shoulder to shoulder as they were on the other side of the street as well. And they were all posted here because the parade was actually ensuing right before my very eyes. And there seemed to be almost as many people in the parade as there were along the street! And the noise from these different groups was incredible and incredibly deafening. Some of the troops (which varied anywhere from 10 to 50 participants) only carried drums. But others...others were full-on marching bands with horn sections and baton twirlers. It was a dazzling sight. So dazzling that, as I said, it took me a little while to realize that my own hotel was directly across the street from where I was standing. Across the parade, that is. And as the procession streamed up the street, up the hill, and around the corner towards the main square just out of sight; I was left wondering how exactly I was supposed to get to my room.
Since I assumed this procession to stretch at least a mile back down the hill (and still unbroken by participants and spectators alike), I also knew that there was only one way to go about this. Had I not been wearing my heavy pack, I would have seen no reason to return to my hotel at all just now but...as it was. It's not like I could very well party while carrying this heavy thing everywhere. I would barely be able to walk up the hill to the square (where, I was sure, the grandest sights were still to be seen). So I just did it. I muscled my way through the crowd as politely as I could. I said 'excuse me's' to everyone as I went but I'm sure they just thought I was trying to get to the front of the sidewalk for a better view of the parade. Maybe they realized this wasn't the case, though, once they actually saw me waiting for some sort of a break in the sequence so that I could attempt to traverse it.
There wasn't one, however, and there definitely didn't seem to be anyone else crossing the street either. Which caused me to wonder; just how taboo was running through a parade in Peru? Like, was it an arrestable offence? And since there was no other way I could see around the situation; I guessed I'd find out soon enough. So I waited until there was...not so much an actual break in the parade as it seemed a clog up at the other end close to the Plaza de Armas. And as the marching band now stationed directly in front of me drew to a halt (albeit still marching in step); I chose to make my move and jetted across that street just as fast as my strained and waddly legs would carry me under the weight of my pack. And nobody busted me. Nobody really even seemed to give a shit. I was just a man, an obvious tourist, with an obvious hotel to get to in plain view. It was a completely understandable predicament.
I was happy as I pulled open the door to this building and its bells over the threshold chimed above me. Because I'd paid for this! This hotel was mine! And the fact that this building and my room there waiting were so close to all this action; it was practically inconceivable. So up the stairs I went with a smile on my face and even forgetting, for a moment, that feeling of violation that had been haunting me like some disease ever since the pickpocketing.
“Hello!” I said to the girl behind the desk who was pretty (about the only pretty girl I'd seen in Peru thus far) but looking pissed that she had to be working on this night of all nights.
“Room 306,” and she handed me the keys already expecting me but not really caring who the hell I was. Which was fine.
Then up the stairs I went again to my room which was, unexpectedly, the same one as before with windows that looked over the street. But better than those windows even; I knew that out in the hall, there was a community balcony.
It was there that I went just after dropping my pack on the floor and locking the room up behind me. With it; I'd left copies of my driver's license behind but took the real one with me...I don't know. Just in case I had to show it to the cops or something. But this very special ID card, such a gem to me now, I kept in the side pocket of my leather jacket and I kept that pocket zipped. Zipped until the Second Coming of Christ.
The community balcony appealed to me first. More than immediately getting back down and onto the streets again; I felt the need to take this whole thing in from the high ground and suspected that there'd be some pretty cool photo ops waiting for me up there as well. And so I went. Out into the hallway and then, with my key, I unlocked the double wooden doors that led out onto a tiny balcony with a wrought iron railing. And there was no one else out there. No one else would have fit. It was the tiniest balcony and the thinnest. But it was perfect for what I wanted just then. And that was to look both ways in the open, outdoor air. To look both ways in a way that was not obstructed or flattened by that of a window. And from up there; taking in the nighttime air, I did have a great view of all these festivities. It was a warm night but there was still something fresh about it; a cool breeze, maybe. And as the parade lay before me; the very one I'd almost been run over by mere minutes ago...I noticed that that same marching band I'd crossed in front of hadn't moved an inch which led me to believe that the square up the hill must have been fucking packed.
Snapshots from up there, however, left much to be desired. The view was spectacular but, from a photographer's standpoint, I was just a bit too far away what with it being nighttime and all...even with the zoom. If I'd had a better camera, sure. But what I had was the result of sort of an impulse buy in a train station just after I'd had my previous camera stolen in Malaysia. And that instance of thievery, let me go on record as saying, was my fault. I'd passed out practically in the middle of a thoroughfare and, God knows, I had deserved it. Unlike this fucking country where you could get robbed just minding your own business. Just walking down the fucking street!
But all that was behind me now. I took a deep breath. Just let it go. The night was young. The trip continues. And this was certainly a once in a lifetime opportunity for an outsider and an American such as myself to witness some serious shit go down. Some serious partying, that is.
Every last resident aside from the girl behind the desk in my hotel lobby must have been out on the streets. No wonder she was pissy. But hey; frown and you frown alone. And so I left her there again and went back downstairs merely nodding an acknowledgment of her presence (for the sake of politeness) as I passed by the front desk again. Then it was back out into the crowd where I felt much more mobile and free having rid myself of the weight of that backpack. For a moment, I watched from right in front of the hotel as more troops and groups came up the street.
I say 'groups' since some of the participants in this parade didn't quite qualify as marching bands much less anything that I would call an organization. Like...the next group that came our way was composed of only 8 dudes. And granted; they wore masks with scary, long noses and matching costumes of red kerchiefs, flowing ponchos, and leather vests. And I guess they each even had a prop. That being; an old fashioned moonshine jug complete with the marked triple-X's. And these guys, snugly positioned between two marching bands, just circled and staggered around to the music while either pretending to drink from their jugs or really drinking from them (I couldn't be sure). But all along the way, between the more organized troops, there were these types of groups: mariachi bands, or pan flute bands, or people who appeared to have just wanted to be part of the parade rather than standing stationarily by.
The general procession seemed to be caught up again and so I felt the need to see where the holdup was coming from. I mean, I knew that it was coming from up towards the square. But if the sidewalks were this crowded and clogged all the way down here; I really wanted to see what was going on in the Plaza de Armas. The scene must be terrific!
Moving through all the bodies and clapping hands was pretty slow going. But I certainly wasn't the only person attempting to get from point-A to point-B. And so; no one really got too pissed off if it came to my having to physically displace them. I didn't want to and I wouldn't have. But I just couldn't stay down here by my very own hotel all night! And by the time the crowd thinned out enough for me to be able to walk up to the square without any struggle; well, the entire parade may have been over by then! And I wasn't about to let that shit happen.
It must have taken me 20 good minutes to move just a few blocks. But finally, once coming to the plaza and entering the square, the people became not quite as dense as they had been back on the sidewalk. Because up here, rather than being sandwiched so awfully between the parade itself with their backs to the buildings, the square offered so much more breathing room. A lane about as wide as the avenida had been roped off and designated for the procession which, with all of its baton twirlers, drunken, masked guys and horn sections, continued to wind right up to and in front of one of the two huge cathedrals. It was here that the humongous stage had been set up the other night and very close to where I'd been robbed. It was also here that the parade seemed to end. Once each group reached this point, they stalled for a moment but continued to march and/or dance around in front of a smaller stage where there had been set a bunch of chairs underneath a canopy of some lacy looking material that reminded me, vaguely, of those ubiquitous tents in a romanticized Arabia. And it was under this canopy, I learned through eavesdropping on some of the locals, that the governor sat...and the mayor...and probably even the president. It was also around here, close to this tent and up several steps leading to the cathedral, that I found the perfect perch for watching the rest of the parade. And it must have been the perfect spot for...this was what all the acts had been saving it up for; to perform their last bit in front of all the VIP's and Peruvian royalty (so to speak). So why not mooch off some of these seated bureaucrat's importance to witness the bands and acts at their very best. Also, not too far behind me and stationed just off to the side of this cathedral, there was a convenient store that I kept hitting anew every time I needed another beer. And it's not like I was only buying one at a time or anything. But three at a time seemed fine. One in the hand, two in a plastic bag. I didn't exactly want them getting warm on me. And I splurged a little here after discovering, within the fridges of this particular store, a beer that was somehow brewed with a fair amount of coca in it along with the regular barley and hops. And it had a great fucking taste! Plus, I really wanted to believe that some of the stimulating qualities of the coca leaf had survived the brewing process and would lift me up and make me crazy while the alcohol itself was already causing me to clap and hoot and holler. I must have done this for well over an hour while making several more pit stops back at the store until I was finally good and drunk and the parade was coming to an end.
Watching on, I waited until the final troop passed the VIP tent and then... Then it was over. The people seated therein all stood up; I could see their silhouettes through the fabric. They clapped and whistled while I wondered how the hell they were going to get out of there being people of noted authority in this time of such political turmoil. They were surrounded by bodyguards, doubtlessly, and the lofty double doors of the cathedral would probably open just for them so they could make their escape. And I suppose that's when being a politician or someone of high profile truly sucks...more than any other time, that is. Because, just because the parade was over, that didn't mean that this night was over by a long shot. I could feel it in the air. The energy! These people were ready to tear this shit up and they weren't about to go down until it was time to pass out. And even then...strictly by necessity.
The rest of the night went pretty much as follows. Indeed, there were a lot of little events. But in that drunken blur of fucked up-ness; these happenings, after a while, just sort of ran together...as they often will. But the moral to this story is...or at least was to me on this particular night; one can still have a great time in Peru without a passport on their person. The cash however, and the recent obtaining of it, was helpful (though perhaps, I thought to myself, not entirely key).
Nothing seemed essential on a night like this except a great attitude and the willingness to get fucked up. And I was more or less always chock-full of that.
So with a curiosity to see what was going down off some of the side streets across the way (and there did seem to be the noise and cheering of much rabble coming from there), I slammed my last beer without worry as there had been set up more vendors with coolers practically every few feet. And as I crossed the square, I did pick up a beer from one of these vendors; a 22oz and he even cracked the cap for me.
Then, and this is really a strange sensation or phenomenon when I already have a buzz on...but I felt the slight pang of hunger in my gut and opted, as I passed through and outside the square now, to stop and get something to eat. It was probably just the fact that there was street food sizzling up everywhere that kicked this drive into an almost full-blown frenzy. But, as it did occur to me that I hadn't exactly eaten anything all day (and I wasn't about to count the stale bread and marmalade that was this morning's continental breakfast), I simply stopped at one of the many grills that had been stationed about as close together as the beer vendors...and I bought something to eat. And all the stands had the same thing on the menu. One thing. One item. At any other time, I may have complained to myself about a lack of variety. But, as it was, meat on a stick was more than good enough for me. More than good enough and it was more than just good! And it was so cheap! Seriously. If I was to just sit at any of these given grills or stands and absolutely gorge myself; I wouldn't have wound up spending more than like three-fifty...American dollars. Yep, good old meat on a stick. And each of these kebobs came, strangely enough, with a whole boiled potato on one end...and it wasn't even seasoned or anything. But hey. Meat and potatoes go together and since I was drunk, I wasn't complaining.
For a while, I walked with my beer in one hand and this meat on a stick in the other. Down some side streets, I walked, and between some buildings until the Plaza de Armas was quickly behind me again, blocked from my view, and well out of sight. I walked up the stone road and past the makeshift police headquarters at which I was obligated to stop just the other night. And on I walked until coming to another square (this one only about half an acre in area) where, just the other day, I'd seen people preparing floats for the parade...some of which I'd seen coming down the way tonight between the troops and groups. I mean, we're not talking Macy's Day Parade floats or anything. These had been more of the sort of paper-mâché statues that, tonight, had been carted along on wheels and did remain firmly placed in their bases. Not that some of them weren't interesting or awe-inspiring in their own, small-scale type of way. I distinctly remember one of a 20 foot tall rat and I have no idea what the hell it was supposed to represent.
But I liked this new square and decided to settle here for a while. There was action going on within its grassy, park-like center and along all of the surrounding streets to boot. Inside the square itself, there were at least a dozen beer vendors who seemed to have plenty of supply left to unload. And all along the sidewalks and outskirts; artists were doing cartoons of passersby for mere trifles while men spray-painted silver and pretending to be robots put on quite a show for the kids. Gambling tables had also been set up and were absolutely rocking. I stopped at one but didn't understand the game much. That is; not nearly enough to try my hand at a round. Most of these games were something in the family of keno. But, rather than numbers just being drawn, the dealer would hand any given (and intently eager) guy his chips which the gambler would then attempt to land (across a giant, horizontal board so full of symbols and numbers; it reminded me of the periodic table) on those particular digits of his choice. But like I said; having never actually played the game before and still only a touch better than iffy at conversational Spanish...I opted not to. Not that I've ever been much of a gambler anyway. I never felt the rush.
Somewhere inside the park, I began talking to some guy...or maybe he began talking to me. Either way; he was of about college age and immediately recognized that I was a foreigner and sort of out of my element. So we began talking. And this guy...he was fucking wasted. And possibly because of this, he kept chiming bottles with me about every 20 seconds or so as a sign that it was time for us to each take another huge slug from the beers we were holding. And we cashed those bottles pretty quick. So then we bought some more...and I continued to tell him what I could of my story thus far (my story since I'd been in Peru) in the loudest, worst Spanish even thinkable. But he never did stop smiling or patting me on the shoulder and asking me follow-up questions.
And then...somehow we lost each other. Maybe it was when we each went for another beer...which wasn't so surprising or hard to believe. This square had been full of drunkards (both guys and girls) and it was steadily filling up even more with all the runoff from the Plaza de Armas now that the parade had officially wrapped itself up. After a while, it had become practically as packed as the big plaza had! And I was left bouncing from beer vendor to beer vendor until some other kid pulled me aside and underneath the well lit balcony which ran the length of one of the buildings along this square's perimeter.
“Join us!” he cried, “Do you know how to dance?”
“I don't think I know this one. You guys will have to show me!” I yelled over the all the hullabaloo resonating from both near and far.
“That's no problem!”
So then, about as suddenly as I'd lost the other guy, I now found my arms interlocked with this new kid and a circle of about 15 of his friends. Many old men off to the side banged on skin drums to help us along. And the whole scene reminded me of something Jewish or Russian even...like a Cossack or those dances that I imagined they did at bar mitzvahs. And it was fun! We continued to drink even with our arms interlocked this way until each and every one of us was dizzy and practically fell to the ground where we remained looking stunned but glowing with happiness. It seemed we all just needed a momentary cigarette break.
“Where are you from?!” we still had to shout.
“Ah! I love this country!”
“I do too!” one of his friends slid closer to me on her butt. She'd been the person I'd locked arms with on my right and, just then, she kissed me right on the lips and just smiled after that not really expecting anything in return. Which was good because, for once, I did actually have a girlfriend whom I cared very much for back home. But it was just that kind of party!
After our smokes, one of the old men who'd been beating on a drum prompted me to stand back up by a mocking attempt to lift my whole body from under one armpit. Then he tried to show me a different dance. Arm in arm again, I found myself, but this time; just with this one old guy. And right in front of that entire troop of kids who'd been mostly my own age; he attempted to show me a step or two that was something more folkish. It was sort of a hop, knee-bend, hop again to the other foot. A simple step. But in my present state (beginning to border on complete intoxication); I found it difficult to coordinate my feet and knees and legs to just do this simple step he was showing me. And the kids still sitting laughed without abandon. I wasn't embarrassed though. And before too long, I actually did get the hang of it. To which, the old guy's drummer buddies assisted us in a little exposé of their own. A real Peruvian dance! Taught to me by a real old guy in a straw hat!
At some point, I remember leaving that square with the old guy to go to a nearby nightclub where the lights were dizzy and the music was thumping. And it was there, after slamming a beer at the bar, that I danced with the rest of these club goers on a floor that was absolutely ardent and packed. But then I felt like that friendly old guy's eyes were on me...intently. And although he was still sitting back over by the bar, I was starting to get a little weirded out. And it occurred to me then that he was just some gay old fuck...which was fine. Good for him. But for the life of me, I couldn't remember what had possessed me to follow him away from the square where I'd been having a perfectly good time. I think I was just trying to respect my elders or something. Especially those elders from a different, and in many ways, less privileged country. Always, I was so concerned about making a bad impression or poorly representing North Americans...or even properly (although I hoped not) representing them by being bad-mannered. And even then, as this once friendly seeming old man devoured me with his eyes and now (obviously) seemed nothing to me but completely creepy; I still didn't want to be rude. So, upon feeling the need to make a quick exit, I walked back over (my knees a bit rubbery from whatever the jumping style of dancing I'd been doing that had just come over me), patted him on the shoulder, said 'thank you' and that I'd probably see him around, and then told him 'goodbye'. And wouldn't you know it? The creepy mother fucker stood up in attempts to follow me! So I sort of moved quickly...quicker than I new he could move anyway.
After a short while of wandering around like some sort of party-voyeur, I found myself again over by the smaller square and back with the kids whom I'd been dancing with just a little while earlier. They were still drinking beer but, after a few more beers and a few more cigarettes, they hinted around that they were beginning to feel the need for something stronger. So the girl, the one who'd kissed me earlier, went with me down a side street in search of a liquor store. I knew that I'd passed one about half a dozen times by now. And down just a few more alleys and winding ways; we did find it. It was here that I purchased the cheapest fifth of dark rum that they stocked. And I apologized to the girl for my frugality but explained that I was on a very tight budget. She didn't seem to mind.
On the walk back to her group of friends, we passed the bottle back and forth...hitting it in turns and taking the very longest of slugs. And for the cheapest rum that storefront offered; I didn't consider it half bad. Of course, straight rubbing alcohol probably would have tasted just fine (and even normal) to me just then. When we reached the group of kids again, still standing close to where they had been all night...underneath the balcony next to a building that ran along one side of the small park, one of them handed me another full bomber of beer that I traded him for the three-quarters or so of rum that was still left. And by that point...well, I was practically past the point. That is to say that, between hits of my cigarette, I felt that I might actually projectile vomit while still standing straight up. Which I only wish I could say was a sensation entirely unknown to me.
So when one of the kids suggested that I should come back with them to one of their apartments in order to smoke a joint; I had to decline. It would have been totally cool just to see how these kids live and to hang out with them in a more private setting...but I didn't really smoke weed that much nowadays anyway and I knew that as soon as that smoke entered my brain; I would have completely embarrassed myself by blowing chunks all over the place. They seemed a bit disappointed but probably took one close look at me and also seemed to understand. And then they were off. I was just some foreigner to them anyway. A prop. A sideshow.
Around the edges of the rooftops of the buildings surrounding this grassy little square, the light of morning was starting to reveal itself in a stinging and pestilent sort of way. But I was glad that the party was nearing its end. The streets were even beginning to thin a little...finally.
I did get caught up, however, with a student group. The teacher recognized my American status (by my clothes?) and proceeded to bring over his group of adult students so that they might practice some of their English with me. And I was happy to oblige but I was also suddenly tired and wanted nothing more than to get back to my hotel and sleep until noon at least. So when I saw that that gay fucking old man had miraculously returned and was now heading straight for me; I took his presence as my cue to call it a night. And again, I waved to him in a friendly way. And again, after politely excusing myself from the student group, I moved faster, in the opposite direction, than he could.
The old lady had excused herself momentarily. At least she said 'momentarily'. But she'd been gone for quite some time. Fifteen minutes at least. Long enough for me, extremely queasy with hangover fatigue, to actually lie down on a bench right there in her tiny office. And what an office it was...
Located at the very bottom of the hill and a few blocks past the Avenida del Sol; I wouldn't say that it was situated any more than a mile from my hotel but this didn't make it any easier to find. Like...I figured there would be a sign or something posted outside or in front of the door or in a window even. But there wasn't shit. It was back down by the bus depot where I'd originally rolled into town. But unlike like that windy day almost a week ago; this afternoon was hot and stagnant. Into the office, I walked from off the dusty road. I knew that it had to be around here someplace. I knew that I was close. But I'd walked into this office in order to ask for further direction...not expecting that this putrid little room would ever have been the only office in Cuzco for the best bus line this country had to offer. And the actual buses were nice. That's why it was even more surprising that this filthy, stinking office could be the place. But it was. The old lady behind the most cluttered desk I'd ever seen in my life told me so.
I needed to buy a bus ticket down to Puno. This had been part of my plan originally or, rather, my rough sketch of things I wanted to do while in this country...places I wanted to cross off my list. And Puno, resting on the shore of Lake Titicaca, was one of these places. It was said that Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world. And while I wasn't quite sure what the whole 'navigable' part meant exactly; it didn't really matter because I just loved superlatives like this. I'd simply omit the 'navigable' part later on and tell people only that I'd been to the world's highest lake; plain and simple.
Again, I suppose there was the option of merely returning to Lima now just to see if I could catch the first flight home. Or, if that was going to cost me any extra, I could simply hole myself up there until the day of my scheduled departure. But this just seemed senseless to me as I now had a fair bit of money again and, if I budgeted well and always found a nice, cheap hotel; it should more than last me the rest of this trip. So, fuck it. Puno, here I come. That is; if the old lady ever came back...which, by now, I was beginning to have my doubts. And I wouldn't have even minded (as I'd made myself pretty comfortable lying there supine on that bench) but for that disgusting smell! It smelled like... It smelled as if this office had been used as a butchery up until just yesterday. As if this place had been a butchery for years in which many an animal were slaughtered here daily but the floor or walls had never once been washed. It smelled like death and death couldn't have been that far off. There were enough flies buzzing around in here to prove it.
The lady did come back, of course, and she didn't seem to mind (or even too surprised) that I'd made myself right at home in such a way.
“Any luck?” I asked sitting back up again and moving into one of the wicker chairs in front of the desk which wobbled and squeaked underneath my ass.
“Yes. But unfortunately, not for today.”
“That is unfortunate.”
“Or tomorrow either.”
“Yes, really. But the next day; there is a bus which can take you there. It's a tour bus and stops off at many interesting sights along the way. I think you will enjoy.”
“That sounds like it could be fun but...there aren't any regular buses that might leave a little sooner than that?”
“No. It is because of the riots.”
“Jesus. That's still going on?”
And she looked at me a bit funny here. “Yes. They have put many rocks on the highways, you see. Very big ones. Boulders even.”
“Farmers. Rural people. They call it 'civil disobedience'.”
“Well, it sounds pretty criminal to me.”
“Yes. And bad for business,” she agreed.
And it hit me just then that this was perhaps the smoothest conversation I'd had in Spanish thus far...in my life!
“You take cash, I hope?”
“Yes, señor. It fact, it is cheaper for you this way. But please try to have close to the correct amount. I do not have much change.”
“What's the total?”
And so I paid the lady. The ticket wasn't all that expensive and the tour aspect (although something I'm normally against), in this case, did sound like kind of a fun time. She even had a brochure for me to peruse of all the sights we'd be seeing. The real downside here, however, was the fact that the bus didn't leave for two more days and I'd already checked out of my hotel room (where they were still minding my backpack for me as a courtesy). Probably, I should have just been thankful that the festival was over and that most of the out-of-towners appeared to be fleeing back to their working lives and wherever it was that they came from. Which, in turn, meant that it wouldn't be difficult for me to find a room tonight...even in the hotel at which I'd been staying should I choose to remain there. I had no idea how much a night there actually cost, though, since it had come with the package deal from Pocha. I did not guess that it was one of the cheapest I might be able to find, though, and it was this hunch that led me onto my next mission; scour the land for a different place to stay. And in this sense; time was on my side.
“Thank you, señora.”
“Thank you, señor. I know you will enjoy your trip.”
Then it was back up the long hill towards the main square and the neighborhood just beyond. It seemed to me that sometime within the past few days; I'd seen some hostels up there with the flags of every nation waving outside and welcoming in tourists from all over the globe. I'd check those places and, if I didn't find anything that I liked, I'd check back with my present hotel to see what the rates were like.
All the way back up to the Plaza de Armas. It was the place to be anyway. It was this town's main attraction whether there was a festival going on or not. I'd already been up there once today already as it was also a touristy area where many offices were located pertaining to the tourism industry. In my case, the office I was looking for turned out to be right where the kid had told it was days ago; in one corner of the plaza next door to the McDonald's. It was this building that I walked into and took the stairs up to the second level where I'd read on the directory, their office to be; the office of Pocha's contact here and the very kid who'd picked me up from the bus station my first day in town. Through a glass door, I could see him sitting there alone at a desk...so I entered. And although the office was really small, it was also immaculately clean and even air-conditioned.
“Hello,” he stood up at once and shook my hand, “Mr. Swanson, yes?”
“Good memory,” I smiled. I wasn't pissed off about the incident or anything but more just wondering whether or not it was correctable.
“How is everything going? Are you enjoying your stay?”
“Yes and no,” and I relayed to him the the story of how I'd been robbed in front of this very building, “But I've dealt with all that. I've gone to the police. I've had a report filed and canceled my credit card and everything. I'm sure that it'll work itself out. But what I came to discuss was the ride back from the train station last night. He never showed up.”
“Ah, I see. I see.”
“And the thing is...I had to grab a taxi and pay my own way.”
“I see,” and the kid, suave and well-groomed as he had been on the morning I met him, was very hospitable and receptive to my grievance, “Yes, well...although I cannot refund however much it was that you paid for the taxi on your own; I can refund to you the cost of the shuttle. I am very sorry but, as you must have witnessed last night, our driver must simply not have been able to get out of the city.”
And try as I might to speak Spanish with this kid, he kept switching back to English seemingly proud that he could speak it so well...which he did. And this was fine despite my own need to practice and the feeling of confidence it instilled in me.
“If you could refund the money, I would be very grateful. We'll call it 'good business'. And, if there's any way I can book another bus ticket through your agency right here, right now; I'd like to buy one to Puno...preferably for today.”
“Refunding the money will be no problem, señor. It is my honor and my duty. But for a single bus ticket, as we offer mostly package deals, it would probably be cheaper for you to go down to the depot yourself and attempt to obtain one. Although I must warn you; I have heard that the protests are still,” and he searched for the word here, “Jamming everything up a bit.”
“I'll try my luck. Could you get me the address of Cruz del Sur?”
“It would be my pleasure, señor. And, please, just give me one minute on the refund.”
So everything was great. The kid couldn't have been nicer or more agreeable. And I did obtain my refund in cash just after he processed some information in his compute-a-dora. We shook hands again. And then I was off.
Even the refund itself, to my pleasant surprise, had been more than I was expecting. It wasn't that much, granted. But, just trying to make the most of what was left of my trip, I figured every little bit counted. More than just the money though; this kid's receptiveness towards my trouble and my complaint gave me a newfound hope and a better outlook on this country in general...especially when it came to his fellow, thieving countrymen. Because I hated them. Even as I walked through two corners of the plaza and up an alleyway towards the neighborhood where I knew that I'd seen some hostels; I fucking hated those sleazy teenagers with nothing better to do than offer me coke, pot, or even acid...none of which I ever expected to be real. Were you the ones who stole my fucking passport? “Fuck off!” I said to them and, with a wave of my hand, they actually dispersed.
Much to my dismay on this day though; the one hostel that I'd remembered in particular (the one with all the flags flying outside) appeared to be closed. I even tried the door and it was locked. Weird. Well, maybe I'd stumble upon another if I just continued walking up the hill a bit; the hill which grew ever steeper as its narrow streets now weaved through this compact residential district with an unbroken chain of buildings on all sides; every last one of them two-storied but not a story more. I never did find another inn though. But, for all I knew, this may have been the wrong area in which to be looking. If I had to guess, this vicinity was the 'old money' side of town. There were churches on every tiny corner as I kept ascending and it was easy to tell that this was sort of a locals-only zone. Not that anyone was acting territorial or giving me dirty looks. Rather; no foreigners made it out this far mostly just because they didn't really care to see the daily life, the real neighborhoods, and often the grit and grime. And I certainly didn't see any foreigners now.
My knees were worn out by the time I'd reached the crest of this hefty hill. And it wasn't that I'd given up looking for an alternative place to stay for the next two nights. But I had begun to walk in a straight line on purpose after a while. I wanted to get to the top of this hill just to do it. It was a challenge combined with an activity of sorts...and I felt that I had the time.
When I finally reached the top, I was winded by the high altitude and actually had to pause for a bit. So for a few minutes, I sat down on the side of the road (there weren't any sidewalks this far up) and enjoyed the sunlight absolutely pouring its beams down on me as there wasn't a cloud to be seen for miles and miles. Maybe hundreds of miles even. From up here, I felt like I could see that far at least. I could see the whole town cloistered and quiet looking; so different from how it had appeared to me last night. Perception. And perspective. Were those two really the same thing? I don't know. But I did know that they were everything. They affected my attitude. And attitude is everything...so they say.
It was all so beautiful. The barren rocks stretching out forever. The deep blue sky which must have never ever seen rain. And as I walked along a dusty road that seemed to run along this hill's very crest; I found peace in the dry, waving shrubs and grass that so much reminded me of the Arizona of my youth. I even found some dogs sleeping within this grass. Just sleeping the afternoon away. A whole family of them and I knew unquestionably that they were free and belonged to no one.
Then I made my way back down again via an intersecting road that ran right by that small park I'd had so much fun in last night. I could see that all from up here...even the tin-tented marketplace that must have comprised an acre in itself. And the marketplace, when there is no official festival going on, is always the heartbeat...the very life force of a town. It was here that I decided to go once again having nothing much better to do. And feeling lazy; I kind of also decided right there just to rebook (perhaps for only one of these two more nights in Cuzco) at the hotel in which I'd already been staying. They'd figure as much, I assumed, when I was a little late in retrieving my backpack.
Ambling casually back down the hill then, I felt excited to see some life again in all of its activities. I stuck a headphone in each ear and enjoyed the good, bouncing to the beats of Awol One and Josh Martinez. Yeah. I'd have a little look at what was going on down at the market, maybe find something to eat for dinner while scoring a few beers, and then make my way back towards the hotel. That sounded fine and exciting and like a viable compromise with the little devil who was always hiding inside me...the one who really relished the bar scene. But there could be no more barhopping on this trip. The money simply wouldn't allow it. And so I made this promise to myself. Just a few beers at the end of the night. No hitting any bar upon waking and then just drinking all day. Always just dinner and a few beers...especially if those beers were to be bought at a store and then taken back to any given hotel. It seemed a bit sad to be resigned to this. Me who'd once partied in Asia everyday from dawn till dusk. It seemed a bit sad to have to conform to whatever was on TV and a few 22oz bombers. But that was what this trip had become...under the circumstances. And again, I should just feel lucky to be able to travel like this without having a 'real' job back home. I should just feel lucky. And grateful. Just take some pictures so that those could be my memories and not any crazy situations. Which, given my lack of a passport, was a very good idea...said the little angel.
So I strode through that marketplace once again and did find a number of alluring sights. It did seem that, since the festival was over, the heart of this town had indeed resituated itself back here with every citizen swapping their goods in the necessity of living. It was basically the village Walmart and I wondered then if this tin-tented roof was owned by a singular landlord or entity or if the city had simply provided this center and structure to ensure the well-being and prosperity of its own civic growth. Who knows. But the place was packed and it felt like a mall. And there was always that omnipresent stink of the fly-ridden quadrant set aside for the butchers. It was there that I saw all sorts of animal heads. I couldn't be sure but it was as if the very heads of the creatures themselves (lambs and pigs mostly) were purposely put on display right next to their meat...in order to demonstrate the quality of the animal? I had no idea. And the butchers were very busy so I didn't even think to ask. But there were the heads staring right at me and every other passerby for their morbid, scrutinous inspection. And there were all the flies; so plentiful that they'd actually fly right into your face. And then there were the other quadrants with their dry goods; none of which, though, I could consider taking home and calling a meal.
After sneaking in as many snapshots as possible (sneaking; so as not to offend the natives) I sauntered back outside the way I'd come in and hung a right with the intention of letting my hotel know that I'd be staying with them at least one more night. I did not, however, get too far before...
The hip-hop beats were still bumping along nicely in my ears and probably causing me to walk with an extra little strut in my step. And I wondered then just what kind of music the kids my age were listening to down here...the kids from last night, for instance. Surely, there had to be something down here besides that awful pan flute or an accordion based band where every song seemed to have no more than a two note bass line. I wasn't trying to feel superior or anything. It's just that, in other parts of the world, there were just so many varieties of music available to the public that anyone just walking around is able to hear shopkeepers blasting some World Beat stuff while kids driving by may be bumping rap in some other language over their car stereos. But all I'd heard down here thus far was either pan flute or the accordion, two note bass deal. And this included what the shopkeepers were listening to inside their shops and people driving around in their cars. They even played that shit in the bars! Which is the very reason I had my headphones in at that very moment; I was getting burned-out! They probably had pan flute music piping in from overhead in the marketplace for all I knew! I just needed a break.
Outside once again with the sidewalks not very packed, I walked coolly down the street smiling complacently to myself. I even smiled to some of the shopkeepers looking bored as I passed their doors in this area that I would still consider sort of a no-tourist zone. Not; anti-tourist. But again, this whole neighborhood in general seemed to lack the extraordinary attractions that normally draw travelers. Anyway...the shops along this sidewalk sold hats and boots and other goods made of leather. Items that an actual citizen of Cuzco would buy at a bargain because they probably knew the owner and they needed these products to last. These were specialty goods to be sure and not the type of cheap knickknacks that tourists don't have to go far to seek out; in other words, janky souvenirs.
And then my music turned off. I was right in front of one of these leather goods shops (one that appeared to offer quite the selection of belts with silver inlay) when...all of a sudden; I went from Awol and Josh to the sounds of Spanish chatter coming from the small groups of people either in front of or behind me...or even from louder voices just across the street. And this sudden lack of hip-hop in my ears was somewhat shocking (like the sensation one experiences when somebody suddenly turns the lights on or off without them expecting it) but, thankfully, not really all that uncommon. My phone was simply a bit finicky. Whatever sort of functions going on in its guts, its circuits, or even the nicer memory card I'd bought for it...whatever electronic sort of shit going on in there got gummed up from time to time and would most often require a manual restart. And it didn't happen all time. Maybe every few days or so. And that was fine considering the very ample musical catalog that I'd synced into its storage. The poor device was probably overloaded and so I couldn't blame it. And so it was without much irritation (let alone worry) that I calmly placed my right hand down into my pocket in order to retrieve it but... It just wasn't there.
Well, what the fuck. The phone had been connected to my headphones via a wire and now one end of that wire (the end that had obviously been plugged into the phone itself) was now dangling down there by my hip. And even this had happened to me once or twice before. I'd either walked by something too closely, the wire had become snagged on whatever object it was that may have been too close...and bingo. The cord came unplugged and there I was without any music. Temporarily. It had even once so happened that I'd snagged the wire in such an instance so that the snag not only unplugged the wire but had also, in the snagging process, ripped the phone right out of my fucking pocket. It had happened. And so I wasn't freaking out. Rather, I just looked down and scanned the sidewalk looking for my phone or even various pieces of my phone as the back and the battery liked to pop off and out now and again in these instances upon hitting the ground. But I didn't see it. And it would've been hard to miss since the phone itself was red and, assuming the battery hadn't popped out, it should now be playing hip-hop through its own tiny speaker now that the headphones had come unplugged. The sidewalk. Behind me. In front. But behind me would have made more sense assuming I brushed up against something. Around the corner of the shop. Inside the shop's doorway even! I looked. I scoured. I even asked the old man whose leatherwork it was, “Did you see my phone just hit the ground a second ago? Right here.”
To which he just slowly shook his head.
Yeah. Fuck you, old man. I bet you were fucking in on it, you shriveled piece of shit.
But no. Seriously. It had to be around here somewhere. It just wasn't possible that somebody could have... I mean, I did just pass a group of people but... Or maybe someone could have snuck up behind me but... Even then! I suppose they could have easily seen the cord dipping down into my pocket but...what the fuck would they be expecting to find?! An iPod maybe?! But even with those! I mean, aren't there some sort of serial...or like passwords or something required to access them the next time somebody tried to hook it up to a computer?! Fuck, I used to have one and I couldn't even remember. But a phone! What the fuck good was a phone going to do anyone?! Oh. I guess it did have a SIM card that could probably be replaced with anyone else's but even then! Shouldn't my phone company be able to track it somehow?! Track it and hunt down whoever these dirty...mother...fucking...
This was a hate crime. I was minding my own business and they hated me for the color of my skin. I wasn't flaunting anything. I wasn't pompously flouncing any of my shit like I had money which, by the way, I didn't! I was wearing an old cardigan sweater for shit's sake and a pair of worn, brown corduroys that didn't even fit me! There was nothing about me, save that I was a white boy, to have allured...to have constituted... I was a fucking friendly guy! But, hold on. Hold up. Don't jump to conclusions. There was still a chance that another theft hadn't even occurred here. Something about the very idea was just too difficult for me to believe. I hadn't sensed anything. I hadn't seen anyone looking through the side of their fucking shifty-ass eyes. Not to mention that it was just inconceivable that anyone could be robbed twice in the same town in just a couple day's time. It wasn't conceivable. And that's why I continued to search for it; albeit, pathetically. And I knew they were watching me. They were probably getting a good laugh. Which is why I also ran back just to have a peak around the corner. A giggling group of teenage boys would have prompted a very invasive interrogation but...nothing. Just a small group of 8 year olds kicking a plastic ball around. Not even a rubber one! Just one of those shitty, thin tie-dye or marbled looking plastic ones done in pink and green pastels that would probably pop on them before sunset and...aaahhh! This was not really happening. My music. My fucking music. Not to mention that I'd been texting my girlfriend all along. All through this previous melee of thievery and emotions; she'd been there, via texting over my phone, to offer me silly jokes and moral support in attempts to lift my spirits. Furthermore, it must have done her an abundance of good; she, who'd seemed so worried about me coming down here in the first place. It must have done her great good just to hear my words and see that I wasn't freaking out completely as I tried to sound calm and collected this whole time over that little keyboard. But now! Oh, now all that shit was completely out the fucking window! Because there was no lying to her.
“Oh, well why can't you text me anymore?”
“Oh, I don't know. My phone broke. Sorry.”
Yeah, right. And not that I'd even be able to text her that because now I couldn't text her at all! It would be up to email from now on. So thank God for email and the internet and all that. But I'd have to write her. I'd have to write her tonight and I'd have to say... I'd have to admit it. I'd have to admit that I'd officially been robbed twice down here and that the locals obviously had it in for me. And she would picture me like some kind of human sacrifice all tied up for the vultures to just pick at at will. And fuck, that was the last thing I wanted. And fuck, what in the fuck was I still doing out here on the street!? It wasn't safe anymore! Nor was it ever! I needed to get back to my hotel and just sit there! For two days. Otherwise, they'd steal my entire identity next. I was sure of it. And the sun was setting.
“You like the NBA? I love the NBA!”
It was exciting to find another enthusiast...especially a Peruvian bartender in such a one-horse town as was Puno.
“Yes. I try to watch as many games as I can on that television right over there.”
“That's awesome, man. Do you know the Portland Trailblazers?”
“Could you repeat?”
“Portland. It's the town where I live. And we actually have an NBA team. The Trailblazers.”
“Oh, yes. I think so. Are they a very good basketball team?”
“They're so-so. Depends on the year, I guess. They usually make it to the playoffs though.”
“Oh, yes,” he smiled, “The playoffs. It is your turn I believe...”
By this last remark, he was referring to the game of Jenga we'd been playing right on the bar between us; its little, wooden tower of blocks had been set and reset a number of times now. I was enjoying it. And for him...well, I hoped the game was at least helping to pass what would have been (perhaps) an otherwise boring and uneventful shift.
So I pulled another little wooden block out; slowly and methodically from the tower. And the tower didn't collapse. And strangely, I found myself better at this game than I'd ever remembered myself to be. Could it have something to do with the fact that I was quickly becoming spinning, stinking drunk? Probably. I was less nervous now. My hands; all the steadier. And, just for the heck of it, we were sort of keeping score. Just keep handing me pints, my man. Pints of the cheapest shit you have back there and well...when the money I budgeted myself for today runs out; I'll simply stagger back through a few twisty blocks and get some really great sleep tonight.
This barroom was relatively small and situated up on the third floor of some building near Puno's main drag. Not that there was much of a main drag. But there were a couple of blocks dedicated to catering towards the other tourists who wished to see Lake Titicaca. And these blocks consisted of the usual money changing places and restaurants who felt they could overcharge anyone just because they were well lit. And the people totally fell for that shit. Old people, mostly, who just weren't feeling too adventurous. The types of tourists who never would have walked down the way as far as I had after dark and turned into a doorway just because some window way up above was advertising cocktails. But hey, that's why they missed out. They would never be sitting here shitfaced and talking basketball or playing Jenga with some local bartender who couldn't have been more than 17 years old. Nope. The old people; they wanted a package deal and, at that, probably one that they could completely book before ever coming abroad. Jesus, would I ever end up like one of them? Or really; I should say 'revert' back to being one of them. Because I used to be all about the package deals. Package deals used to be my thing.
Or more like a bunch of wooden clinking. Either way; the tower had come down on the kid's next move. And although he'd been concentrating at first, I noticed that something had startled him and captured his attention.
“Darn it!” the kid exclaimed and I could tell that he truly was frustrated with himself as this particular round of the game had only just gotten going.
“It's alright, man,” and I smiled, “It's my turn to stack anyway. But, you realize, that does tie things up; 2 to 2.”
“Ah, yes. But I will win!” and he pointed his finger at me here quickly regaining his sense of humor, his sporting face, and his competitive edge...which I was very glad to see.
But what the fuck had startled him so? I turned to look. It must have been the guy who'd just come in. And although the guy was very old (at least that was my first impression of him); there was something else about him that I'd consider shady. Like...try to picture a generic, incognito guy or that shadow of an icon on neighborhood watch signs. Picture a pervert or a pedophile in a hat and a trench coat with the collar turned up. Picture an old Indian guy with wild, dilated eyes that were red around the corners. He had long, pure-white hair that had grown down almost to his shoulders. Yeah. This was our guy. It was no wonder that the bartender kid had been startled by his entrance...even if the kid already knew who he was (which I assumed he did; being a local in this tiny town and all).
I watched him as he thought about a table (perhaps only one of five tables in the room ((one already being occupied by what appeared to me like a bunch of high school kids getting drunk on a shared bottle))). But no. He didn't choose one. He didn't even choose to sit down. Rather...this shady looking old man just walked right up to me. He didn't get right in my face or anything but did stand directly in front of the barstool right next to mine.
“How's it going tonight?” I asked him while restacking the tower of little wooden blocks...merely glancing at him through the side of one eye.
“It's going alright. And how about yourself?” He finally straddled the stool and sat his ass down. Sitting, however, didn't really appear to be a comfortable position for him at this time. He was just too...energetic.
“I'm fine,” and I kept my cool assuming that he was just some local drunk. But there was something about him that was just so...fast. And I, what with all the beers I'd already had, was just so slow in comparison. But I couldn't put my finger on it until...
“You are fine. Yes. I see that.” But then he switched for a second to address the bartender kid who had suddenly become so absorbed in his work...wiping the other side of the bar off with a rag or some such nonsense in a place like this, “Bartender! One shot of rum for me, please!”
And I, almost finished (but still restacking) the tower of Jenga, turned my eyes back and pretended to focus wholeheartedly on my work. Maybe this guy would just chill out once he'd had his rum. He would try to converse with us, surely. But, so long as he was a paying customer, I suppose there wasn't much we could do about it. Which was too bad since the bartender and I had been having such a pleasant and peaceful time together. I could have gone on playing Jenga all night. Or at least until my budgeted money had run out. And the portion for tonight that hadn't been budgeted; I'd carefully hidden back in my hotel room with the obvious intent of not spending it no matter how drunk I became or how badly I wanted to buy out the bar.
He was doing something right beside me. Right there on the bar. But I didn't dare turn to look. I didn't want to pay him any attention whatsoever and hoped that, by ignoring him, he would soon drink his shot and leave.
“And what about this? Does this interest you, my friend?”
He'd tapped me on the shoulder so that I had to look and see.
And what he'd been doing; this crazy old fuck had lined up two perfectly long ones right there on the bar which he'd just poured out of the little, plastic film canister which he still held in one hand.
“Wow,” I acknowledged. So suddenly, he had my full attention, “That's getting pretty crazy up in here. But I'm really sorry. I'm going to have to pass. I don't have any money and I just want to grab a few more beers here and still have enough leftover to leave a nice tip for this fine gentleman,” I motioned towards the kid who was still at the other side of the bar minding his own business.
“It's no problem. No problem at all, my friend. This is just for us. So we can celebrate properly and I can get to know you better. It's just for us. No money. No money right now. No money is necessary,” and he did smile at me without the intention of appearing wicked.
I thought back then to all the pieces I'd seen...not so much on the news but on the documentaries that I'd been watching about Peru just before coming down here. And many of those documentaries had been done on the subject of what was so perfectly lain out on the bar before me...and of its negative impacts on everything ranging from this country's economy to the environment. They showed clips of guys dumping straight hydrochloric acid right into the river. The Amazon. That river so full of strange and wonderfully exotic life. Like piranhas.
“My friend, it is my treat,” and he passed me a short-cut straw.
“Well, if you're sure. Because I swear to you, I don't have any money. I'm not looking to buy.”
“My friend. Please, you insult me. Just...” and he made an imploring sound while motioning towards the lines with one of this hands.
And so I ripped that shit. I ripped half like it was nobody's business. Paused. And then ripped the remaining half up the other side.
“And now, how do you feel?” he asked me in the strangest, most sincere of tones.
“Pretty good,” I grunted dryly as the shit was just beginning to slide down the back of my throat.
“Ah. Yes. That's my friend,” and he patted me on the back as the teenagers across the room watched on and laughed.
To my great surprise, aside from the fact that he would have had to eventually anyway, my bartender friend came right back and asked me without so much as looking at the shady guy (but dropping a shot of rum in front of him just the same), “Do you want to keep on playing?”
“Would you pop me another beer first? And then...definitely,” I smiled.
“You have it, man. And then we can talk some more NBA.”
“You better believe we're going to! And it's your move on this here neatly stacked tower of Jenga!”
“Alright, my buddy,” and the kid seemed to have calmed down quite a bit, “Then that's what we'll do.”
But how the fuck had I gotten here? Seriously. Was this even me? I mean, I like to be fucked up in a bar and partying with the locals but...I'd never expected my heart to be pumping like it was. I never expected to now be so keenly aware of everything. And I never fucking expected that just those couple rips could have ever been so strong! But this was Peru! It's where the shit was made, for fuck's sake! It hadn't been stomped on. It hadn't been cut. And fuck, I felt like standing up out of my seat just then too but put pressure on myself...on my mind...on my ass; to keep from doing so!
Maybe I just didn't give a fuck anymore. Take me, Peru. Take me for all I'm worth...which wasn't much. Shit fucking Christ, I didn't even have a phone anymore! And that had been fun. Back at the police station way back in Cuzco again! And wouldn't you know it. The very same cop who'd taken my statement the last time I'd been robbed stood up from his desk and called my name again.
“Mr. Swanson? Was there some trouble filing your report?”
“Oh, no. It was filed just fine.”
“Well, then why are you back here?”
“I was fucking robbed again.”
So he took another statement and printed out another report. This one, I didn't bother to file with the bank. A passport is one thing. But to file an investigation report over a stolen cell phone? What was the fucking point. I did, on the other hand, want to at least describe the phone to them in case they ever busted the guy who'd stolen it. Who knows? Maybe they'd find it and send it to me or something. The odds were slim, sure. The very effort; probably futile. But I had to do something if for no other reason than to put my mind at ease. But in the end; the thieves had me. They'd fucked me. They won.
I did manage to make the whole police department laugh though. They'd all been paying attention to my case; every last one of them at their dozen desks or so. So the white boy was in here again...and they wondered. What the fuck for? But then when they heard! Not that I was being subtle about it or anything. But they all sort of laughed and pitied me and said they were sorry. And then I conjured up something in Spanish while they were all looking at me like, “Yes. And it appears that I need to leave town quickly while I still have my clothes!” And they loved this. Or at least they loved my sense of humor about the whole thing. Some of the women officers even clapped. And there I was; a star that night in the police station in Cuzco just smiling and absorbing the applause. A star for getting fucked. A fucking porn star.
After that, I went directly back to my hotel room avoiding anyone on the sidewalks who looked like they might have sticky fingers. But even then, I didn't feel safe. Not like 'safe' from bodily harm or anything. If any of those mother fuckers who'd robbed me would have actually tried to stick a knife in my face...or if they had tried to gang up on me down some side street in a threatening manner; well, then I would have showed them exactly who the fuck they were messing with. But they never did do that. They were cowards. And sneaks. And damn good at it, I'll have to hand it to them.
So I wasn't afraid of anything physical happening to me so much as I was still very afraid just to be on the streets. Nothing was safe in my pockets at all. At least I finally learned that lesson. And so the copies of the documents I'd made, from now on, I'd keep in my satchel whenever outside which would be strung across my chest at all times. Also, I had copies of both my passport and my driver's license in both my backpack and inside the bottom of my shoe. But even then, I didn't feel like being in public in Cuzco anymore. Now, there were obvious impossibilities when it came to the idea of never leaving my room until I had to catch the bus in two days. Two days! Jesus. Maybe I should have seen if there was anything...any bus heading anywhere before that time. But it was too late for that. I'd already bought the ticket.
Certainly, though, there would be no more hanging out at bars. I didn't really have enough money left in my daily budget to do so anyway (at least not in serious excess) and I considered this a blessing. But I still needed food. A guy has got to eat. And so I did wind up leaving my room whenever hunger struck. I did not, however, go very far and made sure to stick to places that were out in the open (so to speak) so that I would know instantly (should I ever feel a tap or even the slightest brush against my person) who did it. Not that I carried, as I've said, anything of value in my pockets anymore. Not that I had anything much left that could be considered irreplaceable save my driver's license which I surely would have crammed all the way up my ass if only it were foldable.
It turned out that the restaurant I found for all but one of my last meals in Cuzco was (or at least it claimed to be) the world's highest Irish bar. They offered a pretty thorough fare. In fact, I discovered that their lasagna was excellent and even ordered it for lunch again the very next day. Then, on my last night in town (much as I'd had it with this country ((had it to the point that I no longer wished to sample anything else 'native'))), my bitterness towards anything Peruvian was somewhat relieved by a nice old guy who met me on the street and practically begged me not to go into the Irish bar that night.
“But I have pizza!” he claimed.
“They have pizza here.”
“But I have a wood oven.”
“I'm pretty sure that it's a wood oven here too.”
“Ah. But I have ceviche. And ceviche, I know that they do not have here. Please. I will make it for you free so you can have before your pizza. Please. I am owner. You will love my ceviche and my pizza. This, I promise.”
“Please, señor. You see, my wife and I have just opened this restaurant but we have had no business. Please. My wife will make the ceviche fresh for you right now. And I will make the pizza. You will enjoy very much. I promise.”
“Oh, alright. You have beer there?”
And so I went. And if there was nobody in his restaurant at present, I figured that my pizza would be that much less of a wait.
It just so happened that the guy, surprisingly, wasn't even talking out of his ass. Because, after following him across the square and right next door to where I'd originally been robbed, I was (sure enough) the only customer in his restaurant. His wife even came out of the kitchen to greet me. The pizza, like most pizzas I've had abroad and every pizza I'd had so far in Peru (which weren't few), left a lot to be desired. The crust was dead...as was to be expected. There wasn't enough cheese. And the cheese there was, was not from a cow. The sauce was from something from a can. And the toppings were strange vegetable parts...some of them unidentifiable. Some of them even unedible. But the ceviche. Lordy, Jesus! And again, the guy was not lying. His wife really knew her shit. The trout was abundant and fresh and incredible. But even then, it was only one of many delicious ingredients that had all been cured in lime juice not unlike a recipe that I have for fish tacos where the fish isn't cooked but solely cured in the acidity of the citrus...which grosses some people out; picky eaters and 'queasies' mostly. But this dish; and I mean this particular one they set down in front of me...it was amazing. Crunchy onions with a little bit of chili powder. And there were kernels mixed in that reminded me in every way of a corn nut only much larger. The avocado was ripe and fresh. Everything. And I praised them. I fucking praised them on my way out and left there feeling full and happy and like that bitter taste when it came to everything Peru now had suddenly sweetened the tiniest bit or so. Still...
That didn't keep me from going straight back to my hotel with a couple of canned beers and watching TV. Luckily, there'd been a Lou Reed concert on HBO or something. I mean, the channel may or may not have been HBO. The concert, however, I remember distinctly.
When it finally came time for me to get out of Cuzco, I was very grateful and especially stoked about what a long bus ride it would be and the stops we were scheduled to make along the way. There would be tourists. And they, in turn, would cause me to wonder how they found the door just to leave the house...let alone make it to the airport...let alone navigate the wife and/or family around another country. But hey; if there's a will, there's a way. A will and some money. I wasn't going to let them bother me though. And as it turned out, even amongst these white-bread yokels and their sunblock, I did manage to have a really good time. The first of many stops was a church that Peruvians referred to as the Sistine Chapel of the Americas. Or perhaps just; South America. Either way, it was an excellent use of hyperbole. There were some nice frescoes but the church, overall, gave me the impression of being in some great-aunts garage; so cluttered it was with rickety, old antique end tables and other such junk. And the dust! But I have to say; the place felt real. The little village connected to it still held mass in there daily and the village itself was something straight out of an Old Western movie...like a gunfight might break out at any moment behind some sandy corner or sunbaked stucco wall.
Sometimes the bus would just stop at the request of the passengers in order to fulfill their desire to take pictures of the snow-capped peaks we'd see. At one stop, I remembered llamas. And at another...in a tiny museum in yet another tiny village where the church bells did ding; a waist-high (but five foot wide) stone sculpture that represented the face of a god who had a fetish (somewhat ironically ((although I doubt the sculptors ever really 'got' the joke they were creating))) for heads! Or the cutting off of them anyway. And I liked this god so much that I even picked up a little souvenir figurine of him (also carved out of stone) with the daily allowance that I'd allotted myself.
All in all, the day had been bright and blue; the sun absolutely searing down on us although, peculiarly, not with any vehemence of heat. Because it was July after all and, so far as South America was concerned, the dead of winter. One would never really guess, though, from the sunny skies and the kinds of day that created that sort of indecisiveness, whenever leaving the bus temporarily, about whether to bring a jacket along or not. And it was like this all day. The tourists and I... I. Why did I need to separate myself from them so thoroughly and remain untalkative amongst all these other friendly folks who were just down here seeing the sights just like me. Folks who even spoke my native language. Welp...maybe because I was the kind of guy who would wind up ripping 'blow' with some sketchy old local in a bar once I reached our mutual destination. It was always a different kind of trip for me...at least it seemed so. Different even amongst the towering walls of ancient, mud brick fortresses. Their thatch roofs; long gone. Some of them even held up now by crude, branch stilts.
We arrived in Puno after dark. The station was small, seemed to have been built of mud brick just as those ruins, and was so poorly illuminated that it would have given someone (either senile or tripping) the assumption that mostly candles were involved in the lighting of its interior. And it was here in this station...this station that felt so much like a church that I, after receiving my pack, merely waited for someone to find me. And find me, they would. It just took a bit longer than expected. But no big deal since, from the bus, I had seen the city lights against the lake as we climbed down from the hills. There at least appeared to be some sort of a well lit drag not too far from what must have been the shoreline. It wasn't much though. Cruising in; I would have guessed the main street to be about a quarter mile long at most. But it was enough. Just enough for scouts to be trying to find somebody like me. No matter the season.
While I waited, I smoked a cigarette outside and tried to gain my bearings. Just in case no one showed up, I'd paid special attention to all the twists and turns that our huge tour bus was forced to endure down a series of side streets. And where there were tight turns; there was city. Civilization. And that's really all I needed to know. I could take a walk right down the road towards the lake and find a place to stay...if no one came. So be it.
Some guy approached me, though, while I was outside smoking a cigarette.
“Hello, señor. A hotel for the night?”
And that's all it took.
I explained to the guy; a middle-aged guy with greasy, black hair around the sides but a shiny, brown dome on top...I explained to him without any delay that I didn't have much money and sort of gave him a ballpark figure of what I planned to spend. He sort of frowned then and lifted his eyes as if searching his mind for any place he may have known that even offered such cheap rates.
Then, “Ah. I have just the place. It is not the very best but I think it will do for you. Please...follow me. The hotel is very close by.”
True to his word; the hotel was very close. From the station, we hung a right and I followed him with my backpack strapped firmly around my shoulders and waist like a grey shell too big for its turtle. It bobbed back and forth with every one of my steps as we made our way in a single file manner so that the occasional, oncoming car could squeeze by us; so narrow were these streets. Then, after hiking up a slight incline and tucking down another dark alley, we came to a door on our right. The dimensions of this doorway were so slim in fact that, upon my first attempt to enter, I wound up clothes-lining myself before realizing my backpack made me too wide. I almost fell right on my ass! But the guy just laughed as he was already halfway up the steep set of stairs that were the only passage once inside and matched both the alley and the doorway in their dimness and their closely confined crampedness. Thankfully though, as well as very unexpectedly, quite a wide room opened up at the top of the landing alleviating some of my claustrophobia. The ceilings were still low, however, and the floor was wooden and creaky. The space struck one with the instant impression that this address was some sort of residential row home that had been converted into...I wouldn't call it a hostel exactly. But they had a few rooms to let. The family it belonged to still lived here and two of them, a mother and son if I had to guess, sat facing me across this main living room behind a dining room table that also served as their front desk.
The son got up and showed me what would be my quarters. It was through one of the four connecting doorways in each corner of this main space. I wouldn't have surprised if the room belonged to one of the family members whenever there wasn't a guest staying in it...not that there were any personal items left in it when I entered. It was just a hunch.
The door itself was flimsy and falling apart. I probably could have knocked it down with just one shoulder. And the lock...and I'd never seen anything like this before in my life. Not even in Asia! The lock that belonged to the key this kid handed me was nothing more that a padlock hanging there between the door and the door jamb by two metals eyelets. And instantly; this shoddy, ghetto setup stirred up that same old question...the one that had been plaguing me practically since the time I'd landed in this land of the damned. Was there a safe place to keep fucking anything?! Obviously, not on my person. But if one couldn't even keep shit in their hotel room then what the fuck. Like, even if this room (or even my last room which seemed more secure)...even if either of these rooms came with its own safe; I still wouldn't feel safe about keeping my shit in there because someone would just break in and take with them the whole safe. It was a problem. And a constant dilemma. And I'd bet that that old compute-a-dora guy had had a pretty nice hotel room. And they still stole his shit right out of it. And so the answer to that same old question was simply; nowhere. Nowhere was safe in the country. Probably not even up my butt.
This room was dirt cheap, though, and so I guess I couldn't complain too much. And since (as I've just stated above) a more expensive lodging wasn't going to be anymore secure; what would even be the point of paying more money?
Well, alright...a different room might have been a little more secure considering that the windows in this place (that offered up a view of absolutely nothing) had been broken out in panes by rocks or fists or God only knows what. The windows themselves somehow managing, through all these attacks, to avoid shattering completely. And even the ones that hadn't been busted out completely left possible traces of break-in like long, spidery cracks.
But, fuck it. It was a bed. Or, make that two beds, to be precise. Without saying, I'd sleep on the one furthest from those broken windows. There was also an ample closet where I could at least stash my pack and keep it from plain sight. And there was a bathroom with a shower and shitter.
“With hot water!” the kid seemed excited like...was that such a rarity?
There was no TV. I'd simply noticed. It didn't matter to me. I didn't really plan on spending that much time in this room anyway. It was a place to sleep. Just that. Like most hotel rooms are whenever I'm traveling. This was a new town and I was ready to give it a new chance. And so rather than holing myself up in my room like I'd just done for two straight days back in Cuzco; I actually wanted to get out of bed sometime tomorrow (maybe even in the morning) and take some pictures and see some shit. And this was where my finder of lost people from the bus station again came into play.
Of course, he didn't only take commissions for his delivery of people to their guesthouses. He was also a tour coordinator of sorts.
“So, my friend,” he addressed me as I pulled up a chair where he was already sitting at a small table across from the 'front desk', “What is it you would like to do tomorrow?”
“I wanna go out on the lake,” I smiled...the satisfied smile of a man who knows what he wants.
“Well, then. I am very glad that I found you. Because there is a boat that leaves in the morning and this will take you out all day. It also includes lunch.”
“Awesome. I'd like to do that. How much?”
And the price was very reasonable. I did not, however, wear this particular thought on my face but rather pretended to weigh it against my budget. It's always a good strategy. Especially in parts of the world, which are most, where prices aren't actually set. But the guy, even after letting me sit there for a minute with a contemplating look on my face, didn't offer to come down any further. So I just accepted and, not really feeling in the mood to barter anyway, dished out the cash.
“And maybe the day after, you would like to go to Bolivia? I have a trip that can even deliver you to the capitol overnight. And you will see, it is very beautiful.”
“Bolivia? Are we that close?”
“Yes. It is right on the other side of the lake.”
“Well...and I'll tell ya. I would love to check out some Bolivia. But here's the thing...” and it hadn't occurred to me until just then that this hotel and its staff of family hadn't even asked me for any ID. Huh. “The thing is that my passport was stolen back there in Cuzco right before the festival. I still have a photocopy of it. And I have my driver's license which has my picture on it...”
“Ah yes, my friend. But they will not let you enter. Or,” and he had a pretty good and somewhat nefarious laugh to himself here, “They might not let you come back.”
“Are you sure? I mean, it's not even worth a try? I mean, you don't have any...ya know...connections or anything?”
“My friend, I will save you your money because I do not.”
“Well, alright then,” I acquiesced but felt like a pouty teenager about it, “Let's just see how tomorrow goes.”
And tomorrow started early. When the guy said 'all day'; what he really meant was that it starts at the crack of dawn and lasts until the early afternoon when and where the boat would drop us back off pretty close to the hotel down by the docks.
Once these negotiations were over, the guy got up and left while I went back and checked to see that the lock on the door to my room was secure. After that, I strolled back out into the night (unexpectedly chilly) and hit the main drag just a few blocks back down the hill and closer to the water. There wasn't much that I needed. Some chips and maybe a sandwich. I'd call it a quiet night since I had to get up early for this tour of the lake. A tour for which, I knew without having to ask, there were no refunds no matter what.
It didn't take me long to gather something to eat. I didn't even grab any beer. But I at least hoped that, after the long day of traveling (even if 'traveling' in this case didn't mean much more than sitting there on a bus), I'd be tired enough to zonk out for a while. If not, though, I always had some books. Also, the hotel offered a book of its own. I couldn't help but notice it on the nightstand. And it just happened to be a book of which I'd never seen the like. The New Testament only. And I just had to laugh thinking about what hardcore fucking Christians these people actually were.
When I returned, the mother and son were nowhere to be seen. And their absence, combined with the fact that the front door right downstairs had been left unlocked to anyone on the street, only added to my feelings of insecurity and my actual insecurity. Oh well. Fuck it. I'd just padlock my door from the inside (as there were two more metal eyelets that had been screwed onto the inside of the door and its jamb for this purpose) and pray for the best. And it wasn't even the door that I was worried about so much as it was those busted ass windows.
Just before hitting the hay, I decided to take a quick shower. My body and its various cavities were stinky to be sure but mostly...I just wanted to get under the stream of hot water in order to warm up (so cold had the night suddenly become). And maybe, just by doing so, some of that warm vapor may actually stick in the room a while before getting sucked out all those little holes in the window panes. Just for a few minutes. Just long enough for me to step into a pair of clean underwear and get warm again under the Alpaca covers. And great covers that Alpaca fur did make. It wouldn't take me long, I knew, to warm up once I was under them. But two things went wrong here and they each, in their own unique way, kept me from being able to sleep very well.
First; the shower. The shower with the supposed hot water that that kid had been so excited about. Well, let's just say it turned out to be a complete joke. The shower head itself barely spat out any water. I'm talking; only the tiniest of streams that I had to stand under and move my body around for many minutes just to wet my skin enough to apply any soap. So just imagine how long washing my hair took. Especially since I mostly used bar soap as shampoo when traveling. I don't know; just call it one less item I felt I had to carry with me and keep track of. But even this little, piddly excuse for a shower stream would have been tolerable had the water actually been steaming fucking hot. But it wasn't. Not even close. It was lukewarm at best and due to the sorry, trickling amount that this faucet was giving me combined with the freezing air in the room; I found myself shivering in there! Knees buckling even with my feet on the cold, white tile and all! What a fucking nightmare. But I stayed it out. I stayed the duration. It's not like I could just leave a bunch of bar soap in my hair after I'd already started the job. And all the while, it was the thought of getting under that Alpaca blanket that kept me going. Getting under there and pulling the covers up to my neck...at least until I warmed up properly. Then I'd eat in bed and maybe read for a little bit. Then I'd turn out the lights and just try to relax. I love lying in the dark; wide-awake or half-asleep. It didn't matter to me. Just so long as I was warm; I could lie there for hours just letting my thoughts take me away. And I was looking so forward to all this as I slipped into my clean underwear and pulled back the sheet... And that's when I saw it.
It couldn't have been any more obvious either. Any more blatant. And the strangest part was; the bed itself had been made right back up so tight and nicely. And it's not like either the sheet or blanket had been washed. That much was obvious too. Because, when a stain like that is washed, it may very well remain a stain...if only a faint one. But this wasn't a stain. The substance was still thick enough that it could be scraped off with a fingernail if I so wanted. But why would anyone...? It was blood. There wasn't any doubt about it. It wasn't deep, red paint. And it sure as hell wasn't watery enough to be anything like cranberry juice or Kool-Aid. This was plasma; thick and crusty with red cells and probably still crawling with hepatitis and other diseases.
The questions this dried-up blood puddle prompted at the moment, though, probably weren't the ones one might expect. Like...where did this blood come from? Or...should I move this mattress over to the other frame by the window and then move that mattress over to this one? No. The question that came to my mind just then was...should I go find that kid and complain about this or not? This and the extremely disappointing shower I'd just had, come to think of it. And this led me to what would have to be the next logical question in succession; when one pays as little for a room as I had, can one expect to find blemishes like bloody sheets there waiting for them? Was this sort of occurrence normal for Peru when it came to budget tourist dives? And sadly, the answer I concluded was 'yes'. I suppose I could have asked for another room or something but...what was the fucking point? It probably wouldn't have been any better than the one in which they'd put me. Not to mention that the other rooms might be full and, if this proposal turned into some sort of an ultimatum on my part, then I was also way to tired to go roaming the streets in search of another inn tonight. That, and I didn't want to piss this family off by seeming like a customer who could be labeled as 'trouble'...less I want my shit to go missing while I was away all day tomorrow. Not that I didn't want to give them the benefit of the doubt. I wanted to believe that these people were good. But after what had happened to me on this trip already; I was suffering from a certain amount of prejudice in my system and I knew it. I didn't trust any of these people anymore and had been wondering for days now whether or not the moral code existed in the DNA and if this chromosome or whatever was somehow flawed in the Peruvian gene pool. Or! Or, maybe it was the way of life that was so corrupt down here and maybe it had been for so long that... But I knew all this was complete bullshit. And one side of my brain continued to tell me so. It was as if my own morality were trying to pile up sandbags in order to levee the other freely flowing bullshit river of racism.
Plus...who the hell was I to start criticizing anyone's morals?
And so, it was without contacting anyone from the hotel that I got into bed that night. I simply pulled the covers back up and tucked them back in as if pretending to have not seen anything. Then I ripped the blanket from off the other bed (also woven of Alpaca) and used it as my only cover while sleeping right atop the bloody one; the blood that had not, I remind you, soaked all the way through. And I probably would have ventured to pull the sheets from off the other mattress as well but was actually afraid of what I might find. Don't dig too deep, I yawned. Not around these parts. And fuck it; I'd only be staying here one more night anyway.
In the morning, it was up to me to get my own ass down to the dock. But this didn't prove too hard as there was really only one. Or; one marina, that is. Anyway...all I had to do was walk down to the shore and look in both directions. Nothing but swampy smelling sand and reeds on my left. And...bingo. Swampy smelling sand and reeds (but with a marina) about half a mile down on my right. There were only about half a dozen boats fastened to this dock anyway. And only one that seemed to be taking any passengers at this hour. And what an hour. The sun was up, sure, but that didn't mean it wasn't butt fucking early or anything. (Early for me, I guess, now that I got to thinking about it. But, all in all, I suppose this was the time that 'regular' people begin their day. Office people.) And since the sun was up and unobstructed as there wasn't a single cloud in the sky, this morning felt even earlier to me and more painful. My eyes stung with the irritation of the a.m. I did not, however, rule out the fact that something else...something more real could have been stinging my eyes; something that had been infused with my pillowcase last night. But whatever. It would go away, I had faith.
I can only suppose that this hour must have also been too early for the breakfast I'd been eagerly expecting. The breakfast that was supposed to have come with the price of one night's lodging. The breakfast that I felt I almost needed after not being able to find a sandwich and having to settle for nothing but a couple varieties of chips last night. But again, I'd live. I could make it until the free lunch today assuming that it hadn't been mysteriously canceled as well. I was just so ready to leave this country. Absolutely nothing seemed to be going my way here and hadn't been from the get-go but...was it something that I had done? Something that was my fault? But I wasn't about to start breaking this little enigma down just now. Because even if I hadn't done anything to deserve such shitty treatment; I remained pretty confident that Peruvian hospitality (in general) was simply horrendous and would have proven to be a constant; no matter who I was or what country I happened to be from.
Upon locating the boat, there was a guy (part of the crew, I guess) who naturally asked to see my ID. And when I flashed him my driver's license rather than a passport; he froze for a moment as if not quite sure what to make of it. So, in order to better assist him, I also pulled from my satchel the Xeroxed copies of both my passport and the police report for his additional perusal along with the handwritten receipt that my finder-of-lost-tourists had secured to me just before he left last night. And it was this quadruple combination of proofs, it seemed, that allowed me entrance to the vessel.
The boat itself...I've said it before and I'll say it again; I don't really know shit about boats. But, if I had to, I'd call her a forty footer. In other words; medium-sized as is the limited extent of my nautical vocabulary. That is; there was a cabin in which a dozen or so passenger/tourists eventually boarded and seats for perhaps a dozen more that remained empty on this day. And since I was one of the first tourists aboard this cozy, well-cushioned cabin; I was forced to stare forward and endure the 'music' of this pan flute guy who happened to be standing front and center. Apparently, he was our morning 'entertainment' while we each found our seats and waited for things to get underway. And it was because of this guy (and his intermittent pauses between 'songs') that I again was put in the awkward position of not tipping such an artisan for the umpteenth time on this trip already. He didn't cast me any looks or anything but the other passengers were tipping him...just coinage as he went along. So I felt bad because I knew, intuitively, that he wasn't an official part of the boat or this tour. Meaning; he wasn't something that I'd already paid for. So here I was again; the cheap ass. And I had money with me. I'd brought it all on my person since I wasn't about to leave it back in that hotel room. I just didn't posses a denomination small enough that I was willing to give him. Plus...with my early morning headache in full force; I really just wanted this guy to go away...which he did. Just not soon enough.
Everyone applauded him, however. Everyone but me. So I was the dick. The lone dick. It was nothing new.
When the motors started to hum, I was very thankful. It was this noise and vibration that prompted the pan flute guy to get moving and, in his place, there took over a guy who introduced himself as our guide for the day. And everything he said; he repeated in either Spanish or English depending on which language he started his sentence with...and this preference seemed to alternate with no apparent rhyme or reason. There were a couple of other Americans on-board and a couple of Brits. And I was glad to learn this and that he wasn't speaking the English for my benefit only. But the Spanish...from what I gathered throughout the rest of the day; the majority of other tourists aboard were Brazilian. Families; most of them. And since obviously, this Peruvian tour guide didn't speak any Portuguese (less there be a third language installment here); I had to assume that he (at least) assumed that most Brazilians were able to speak Spanish fairly well. And I suppose this only made sense from a commercial and cultural standpoint and just how close the Spanish language was to Portuguese anyway.
So the guy up front, as the boat began to move (slowly at first but soon picking up speed and generating some real wake)...the guy; he pulled down a map (like one of those roll-up apparatuses that used to be in every elementary school classroom) and on this pull-down map there was pictured an iconic, computerized drawing of the lake itself although in very low detail like that of a young child's illustration but without all the scribble. Basically, the entire map was blue. Not aquamarine or turquoise or seafoam or indigo. Not navy or royal or cobalt or powder. It wasn't baby blue nor was it sky. It was just the plainest blue I'd ever seen in my life and it was completely uninterrupted. There were no squiggly lines to represent any waves of motion on the water nor was there any grid even for the purposes of navigating this lake. But there was something about this lack of feature, I knew, that was sucking me in and luring my attention right to where the guy was pointing. He was actually touching the map's surface with his index finger which caused something inside me (that kid from elementary school, perhaps) to feel compelled to stand up and touch the map as well. That thick, canvas material with its seemingly thick, blue paint that was this lake. But of course, I just sat and listened.
“And here you see the reed islands,” he pointed at a few tiny dots in the middle, “We will be going there first...”
He went on to explain how these Uru people had fled the city of Puno hundreds of years ago from the siege of the conquistadors. They fled to the lake. And I guess they just fucking stayed out there. These people actually constructed floating islands from the reeds that grew out of this lake; Lake Titicaca (a name that instigated that elementary student again to chuckle every time I heard it). And these reeds, surprisingly enough, even seemed to break the surface of some of the deepest parts of the water through what must have been some of mother nature's strongest determination to reach the sun and air. And as I glanced out my window momentarily, I could see that there were indeed thick patches of these reeds growing like little specks or swamp or marshland in this immense tub of rather crystal-clear water.
“After that,” the guy proceeded, “We will be heading here,” and he pointed again at the map in its upper right-hand corner. This is an actual island where indigenous people still live. And it is here where we will be having our lunch. Okay?”
“Okay,” we all repeated and not without a certain amount of unified enthusiasm.
“Alright,” he smiled, “Well, now I turn the boat over to you. You may go up to the top deck if you desire although it may be a little windy up there and even a little chilly this morning. But if you are going to smoke; please, use this top deck and please, also, use the ashtray up there provided. Thank you.”
And here, the group offered him a nice round of applause which he seemed to really appreciate despite the fact that he'd probably done that little speech about a million times in his life. He was a nice, smiley guy. And hey...I might be too if my job was to take a boat out to some nice islands everyday. Although I'm sure, to him, this occupation had lost some of its original luster. But it wasn't such a bad gig. Especially not after I'd seen some of this small town in the daylight. Most of it just looked like rubble and I had no idea what sort of appeal there was that could have kept anyone here save inertia.
The ride took a while but I was comfortable and cozy in my cushiony seat...just rolling along with the waves and looking out my little window. We passed more patches of reeds...some of them actually quite dense. Then we passed a few boats that appeared to be constructed of these very reeds. They were canoe like in shape but large enough to hold twenty plus people! Floating! Just a bunch of long stems bundled and then tied together with even more reeds like a castaway may attempt to construct a crude raft. But these Uru people had their boat-making down to an art form by now...and why shouldn't they after 500 years of living like this. These were the older folk, though, who still lived out on the islands to this day in their tiny huts...also constructed of these reeds. Their kids, of course, wanted to move to the big city (Puno) as soon as they came of age. But I liked to imagine they they'd return to their weird, floating islands someday...perhaps, to raise their own kids there.
I heard something go off and then saw a tiny wisp of smoke. It had come from one of the canoes and its single occupant had just fired a gun not 50 feet from me.
“He shot a bird,” the tour guide must have sensed everyone's heads simultaneously shift in that direction, “And it looks like he got it!” He smiled again. “Obviously, these people did not have firearms when they first came to live out on these islands. But they were very good bow hunters and some of them still use the bow and arrow to hunt to this day.”
After that, I saw a small group of people come back inside the cabin. They'd gone up to the deck above and were now rubbing their hands together with their shoulders still raised up to their necks as if still trying to fight off the cold. And I took this as my cue. Everyone else was still down below, I was almost sure of it. So I just made a move and, sure enough, after stepping outside and climbing an attached ladder; I did indeed have the whole upper deck to myself. The wind wasn't whipping too badly and the view was spectacular. And Puno, well behind us now, actually didn't seem like such a bad place to be...from this distance. I did notice, though, thin streams of black smoke rising up from tiny and various points around the town now which caused me to wonder if residents were just burning debris or if this was something to be alarmed about. Were the conquistadors back? Were the re-sacking the city? And this is just the perfect of example of something that comes up in a really foreign country that causes one not to know quite how to react. It's better to do nothing though. It's better not to react at all. Just read the natives' faces. If they seem alarmed then be alarmed. If not, it's always better to just go with the flow. I could have just asked the guide once I went below again but didn't want him to think I was some sort of paranoid freak; the kind of tourist he was probably used to. I'm sure it's just brush fire, I told myself. But it was just those damned riots and the fucking ongoing-ness of them that kept me wondering.
“I'm on a boat!” I yelled mimicking that instantly classic SNL short. The people below, over the buzzing roar of the engines, couldn't have heard me. I was confident of that.
Here I was with no fucking passport and still managing to do the things I came to do down here in Peru. And I was very pleased with the outcome of traveling passportless thus far despite the tiny bit of adversity I'd faced. But it hadn't been so bad. So I couldn't go to Bolivia, I told myself, but things could be much worse.
I did try to smoke a cigarette up there but... What with the little bit of wind and... I'm just a weird smoker and get no satisfaction from pure nicotine. I have to be in a relaxed state in a relaxed setting...usually somewhere sitting down and enjoying a drink. So halfway through, I just put it out in the coffee can that was the ashtray and hoped I didn't stink like tobacco when I reentered the cabin. Nobody cast me any looks or gave out any vibes though. So I just took my place right back in my comfortable seat again and watched out the window.
When we reached the reed islands (there were about 10 in a cluster); I assumed that the largest one was for us tourists since, out here, tourism is probably where most of these people's revenue did stem. And they were very nice people. And this largest floating island, about the size of a basketball court, was gleefully spongy and responded to the weight of each of our feet as we stepped off the boat. Here, the natives gave us a short tour. Short only because there was not that much distance to cover. And the tour guide, of course, translated all that an old Uru man in his 'baja hoodie' had to say. The old man actually lived on that island. He even showed us his reed home. His hut. And it was very small with only one room. I was prompted to think here about how my ex, Mindy, was forced into getting a larger apartment because, by Oregon state law, two kids of the opposite sex who were over something like 8 years of age couldn't legally occupy the same room. And this legality began to seem sad and crass to me. But, then again, America (as in: The States) was such a free (and therefore fucked up) place that maybe such laws were there for an actual reason. I don't know...for the greater good of our offspring. Because people (kids even) can become so fucked and isolated...even at a young age. Shit just isn't as family oriented in the US. At least not in our white man's culture.
Eventually, our group sat in a circle atop these floating reeds while the old man held up first, a gun, and then a dead bird.
“Ah, this is to be their dinner,” our tour guide explained, “They eat mostly this foul and a few vegetables that can be obtained from the island we are about to visit.”
But I had to wonder. During the siege of the conquistadors... Say, the siege lasted months and say the conquistadors had no knowledge whatsoever of the people hiding out here on the man-crafted islands...which was the whole point, right? I mean, these Uru people weren't fleeing the city to escape...at least not permanently. They rowed their asses out here to hide! Why else build islands in the middle of the world's highest, largest lake?! Why not flee instead to the east or...I don't know! Anywhere! Just run! But what if they knew it was all inevitable? All futile! The Spanish were coming with their horses and guns. So why not just hide and wait things out? Why not just see what would happen? Because...it's not like the conquistadors had boats that they brought with them all the way down here from the wherever they landed along the Atlantic. And it's not like they would ever need to build them in order to surround this gigantic lake and claim it for their own. No. All they had to do was conquer any civilization along its shore and then they owned it. They could fish from the beach for a while. And this 'while' must have been just long enough for them not to care whether or not a small group of Indians had actually decided to live out there. Because, much as it is Israel's standpoint today on the truly indigenous peoples of their land; so long as the Bedouin only wander the land setting up tents but nothing with an actual structure along the way...they're cool with it. At least that's what I formulated in the case of the Uru; negating, of course, the 500 years of turmoil and probably very turbulent history. But that's what the brain does. It fills in the blanks in such a simplistic way that makes events and ideas perfectly registerable to mostly just the self.
So this guy showed us his island and his dead bird or whatever.
And, since the real island was so close; it became an option for us tourists to take a ride over there in one of those neato reed canoes. And since it seemed that practically all the rest of our group was opting to do so (and were so gung-ho about it), I myself opted out. Call it antisocial behavior. Call it what you will. I didn't care. The tour guide would never think anything of it...would never think anything of the fact that I, along with only some feeble old couple who were probably too afraid of breaking a hip while trying to board the awesome reed canoe... We were are going to the same place anyway so who cared. And maybe I didn't have enough money in my budget to be able to tip the 'row man' properly. But again, I didn't care and it wasn't about that. I just needed some peace and quiet. Just me and the motors and my comfortable, cushiony seat, and the silent old (Brazilian?) couple. That sounded like bliss to me. I honestly hoped then for a long ride over to the other island. The 'real' island. So that maybe I could squeeze in a nap.
But, of course, this didn't turn out to be the case. The ride took only about 10 minutes. Well...in our boat; the ride only took about 10 since our 'captain' really seemed to be hauling ass like he had somewhere to be. I mean...even if the guy was hungry and planned on eating lunch with us; we still had to wait for the rest of the group to arrive in their reed canoes. But, of course, this didn't turn out to be quite the case either. When we arrived along a rocky shore that showed no signs of human habitation; our guide sort of encouraged the old couple and I to disembark and enjoy some sunlight while waiting for the rest of the group. And just as soon as we disembarked; the boat took hastily off and quickly disappeared behind a white rock jetty. And, man those stones were bright. They actually hurt my eyes as I watched our vessel abandon us. The captain must have had some family over on the other side of the island and he was going to lunch with them. That was my best guess...not that it really mattered.
Thankfully, it didn't take the rest the group nearly as long as I'd expected to catch up with us. Those Uru guys, apparently, could row pretty fast. And I say 'thankful' because the sun was absolutely beaming! That's not to say that the day was hot by any means. In fact, the temperature was right at about a perfect 72. But everything was just so fucking bright! I swore, I'd never seen anything like it in my life...and I was scared! These UV rays, intense as they were, had to be giving me skin cancer of the face. Luckily, the rest of my body (that is, except my hands) was covered. I never wear shorts and almost never sport any sort of pant besides jeans like the ones I was rocking on this day. I also never leave the house in short sleeves if I can help it..so much do I dislike being in direct sunlight. But it was my huge, black sunglasses that would keep the onset of a serious headache away. And I would say that I was grateful for having remembered them except that like skin and bone, they were so much a part of my anatomy that I don't believe I'd ever once left them behind.
We finally did meet with a bit of shade but only after our entire group ascended to the top of this rocky shoreline by way of a rather steep and gravely trail that, I could see looking behind me, was really challenging some of the old people...and even some of the younger ones! But this was the highest lake in the world, after all, and so I guess it was almost expected that people should pant and become winded. Our smiling guide even proposed a natural remedy from such an ailment by breaking off some strands of a very low-lying shrub from the bright outcropping. Then, tearing and crushing the shrub up in his hands, he bid the people struggling to breathe to inhale some of the fresh, green pulp he'd rendered. And these struggling individuals, after smelling some of this stuff, all seemed so excited and ready to move on that I was prompted to kneel down and uproot some of the shrub myself...which I did. I crushed it up in my hand just like the guy had done, drew in a nice, deep breath...but nothing. I'd been expecting something mentholated, no doubt. Or, I don't know, at least something herbal in aroma. But nothing. I couldn't smell a goddam thing and, based on the positive reactions that the rest of the group had exhibited, this was concerning. Alarming even! So I put my nose right down into that shit and breathed in heavily. But still nothing! So I don't know...I'm not one to dwell on shit and my alarm quickly transformed itself into something like that of contempt; contempt in the rest of them for even believing such a hoax. Whatever, assholes. Quit stopping to smell the fucking shrubs because lunch is somewhere right over the ridge! I was the first one up there. And yes; I knew it wasn't a race...especially since most of this crew was over the hill and there really wasn't any competition. But there was just something about reaching the top of this trail and being the first to do so. Since whatever was above and behind the rocky ridge remained hidden to all of us; I'd be the first to see! And since I couldn't imagine the entire island being comprised of just bright, white rock (it would seem hardly worth coming to); I had to imagine that there was something awesome just around the bend. And it was this vision which carried me.
The island, I'm happy to say, did not let me down. The scene that I encountered then (as I bent over to catch my breath) was 'breathtakingly' beautiful. It was paradise, surely, if not just a little drier. That is, we weren't exactly in the land of swaying palm trees and Maui Wowie. But it was almost better than that since I could see everything clearly without the obstructions that would have come with a more jungle like setting. It was farmland. These were a farming people and this was a farming island. But it was an old school type of farming and one that's hardly ever seen anymore; one that has to be seen these days to believe it even exists in this 21st century. They were fucking using plows! As in...plows pulled by actual animals of the burro variety. And this had something to do with the beauty of the small, rocky island. A neon green John Deere tractor would have just been an eyesore (let alone many tractors occupying the small lots of different crop and color as the scene spread out before me).
The land flattened out at the top of this rocky cliff overlooking the lake (which may as well have been the sea, vast and blue and endless as it was). But there were also little dips and valleys where even more tiny lots were being cultivated. And make no mistake (as my description thus far may have been a bit misleading); this island wasn't so small that I could see the other end of it.
“You like?” the guide had reached me now with the rest of the group close behind.
“It's really nice,” I replied, “So pretty.”
It looked like a land where gnomes would live or something.
“Right there,” the guide pointed and was addressing everyone then, “That's it. That's as far as we have to go right now. I promise.”
To which 'everyone' seemed to unanimously sigh with relief.
He'd been pointing at a small house built of stone just about a quarter mile further up the gravely path. And although the incline of this path had flattened out dramatically; technically, we'd still be on an uphill course. So now all the people were stopping to catch their breaths about every ten feet or so. But I didn't mind so much now that I could actually see the destination ahead of us. Plus, it gave me a chance to look around a bit more and discover that just about each and every one of these lots came with a similar stone house attached to it. It was all just so quaint. And cute! And that's when I became aware of actual people moving around. Actual natives of this island who dressed strangely but, for once, maybe not just for the sake of us tourists! Their colorfully knit hats and vests and loose, long sleeved shirts of white cotton; cotton that was probably grown right on this very island and the shirts that were knit here! And as I watched two of these native men cross paths just ahead of us; they each pulled from the pouches strung to their sides a bunch coca leaves, traded these handfuls, and then began to chew as they exchanged pleasantries for the day. The shit was so real that I was just loving it.
In another 15 minutes, our group reached the stone house right out of a nursery rhyme. It had a thatched roof even and some cows out back! And I almost would have forgotten myself completely and believed that we were somewhere in the Bavarian countryside except for the fact that the natives were very dark and Indian looking...which, essentially, they were. Indian, native American, Incan farmers. The family whom this stone house belonged to looked very happy to see us and were eagerly awaiting our presence.
It's not bad work for these people, I thought, as our group was seated at a long, wooden table in the backyard. Above us, a ramada provided ample shade although some sunlight dappled its way through the dry brush that this crude canopy was constructed of. And finally, my eyes were able to relax a bit. It's not bad work for them. It's not degrading or anything like some of the tourist attractions I'd seen. This family of four (a mom, a dad, a boy, and a girl) surely worked hard on their farm but made lunch for tour groups and put on a little show for some cash on the side. And why not? Their culture was all but unknown to me and maybe many others in this assembly. This was their chance to educate us...educate and enrich the rest of the world (for that matter) since we'd undoubtedly take pictures of them doing their thing only to go back home and share them with our respective countrymen. Because, as a wise Israeli once told me; each and every tourist is like a tiny, little ambassador...some of us better than others. I threw in that last part.
So this was their gig (and it was educational enough although I wished we could have eaten first as my stomach was, and had been, gurgling as it attempted to digest itself). But this family...this family that could have easily made the cover of the next issue of Bucolic Monthly; they did a little folk dance...the dad pairing off with the mom, the son with the daughter.
“This is the dance the people do when it is time to plant the crop,” our guide informed us.
And so it was. An interpretive dance of sorts but not a very abstract one. The male and the female would sway back and forth in graceful steps before doing a little spin. The male with a crude plow in his hand. The female sprinkling seeds just after he'd made a plowing motion. Back and forth they went...bowing to each other here and there. And in the background there could be heard, by way of a small, inexpensive cassette player, some indigenous music that did include a pan flute but also some other kind of string instrument that reminded me of a mandolin. I pictured this family recording themselves days...weeks... or possibly even months ago on this cassette to replay and dance to for us just now. It was cute. All in all; it was a nice, little show.
But bring on the food! Luckily, after their little performance, this family didn't dally. The fucking shitty part was; these lunches weren't exactly served in the box variety. And so, as the family took turns putting plates on a side table, our group (every last mother fucking one of them...even the old couple!) stood up and bum-rushed the whole damn show! I mean, I get it. Everyone was hungry...especially after that climb we underwent. But...ya know. Be polite. Show some manners. And above all; try to act like anything other than feral creatures. But, seemingly, they were incapable. And since I felt it beneath me to push and shove in order to make myself a plate; the joke wound up being on me because there wasn't jack shit left by the time the crowd thinned out.
“Now, this is all food that has been grown and harvested on this island,” our guide explained, “Even the eggs, this family has collected from the coops in which they keep their chickens.”
These weren't chicken eggs, though, I gathered from looking at other people's plates. It must have been some other kind of foul that the guy just didn't know the word for. Quail or pigeons or something.
Obviously, this lack of lunch didn't put me in the best of moods...not that I was in a great mood to begin with after being burned on the breakfast that that 'hotel' was supposed to offer. I swear, what the hell does a guy have to do in this country?! Become a lying cheat himself just to get what's rightfully owed him? It seemed so. And there was something about this thought that caused me to sink even deeper into my dark place. Yet, this sinking (even I was able to recognize) just seemed so unnatural. The sun was shining. The quail or pigeons or whatever were chirping. And every last goddam mother fucker was smiling. And maybe that was it. How could these fucking assholes with their mouths all full...? Well, fuck 'em. I'd get the biggest pizza just as soon as we got back into town. I didn't want any of this primitive shit anyway. And I just couldn't wait to get the fuck out of here.
Standing up, I walked some feet away to smoke a cigarette.
Ironically, I thought, I'd been taking some really great pictures all day thus far. And as I smoked, I switched my camera on to evaluate these digital images while sort of entertaining myself at the same time while attempting to draw attention away from myself by making it look like I was tinkering with the camera and doing something that really needed to get done.
And the whole rest of the day, despite my mood, I managed to take some really great pictures...and sometimes that's what counts, I guess. To appear as though one had a really great time. This way, once I got home, I could look at those photos and actually believe that I'd had a really great time...so easy it is for me to delude myself. Plus, I could share these pics with others so that they could enjoy them and think to themselves, “Wow. What a really great place. You know, someday I may even want to venture there myself.” And they'd never know the difference. They'd never actually go anyway. They would see, however, one particular photo of me with the lake in the background. The lake mimicking the sky. And they'd see me smiling in that photo while sitting on a wall with a whole gang of native girls (little girls, I mean; kids) posing with their arms around me with smiles on their faces too. It was a great shot. They wanted money though, of course; those little scammers. It's not like I'd asked them to come up there but I knew the deal. And so I offered one of them a note but made her promise that she'd change it and split it with the others. She appeared neither happy or disappointed.
And then there was this one kid. A little boy. And although our exchange had been brief and benign (at the time); my encounter with him resonated with meaning only afterwards but it resonated deeply:
Our group had traversed seemingly the whole island by this time; at least without shooting off onto any of its interconnecting footpaths. And during this time, we never did see anyone with a cart or any other apparatus that would imply the invention of the wheel. The group even passed a guy hunched over with the weight of about a ton of bundled sticks on his back and he reminded me of the serf pictured on the cover of that Led Zeppelin album; the one with 'Stairway to Heaven'. The one that I'd joked about over ten years prior by telling a friend, “You see that guy. For some reason, I think that's gonna be my future.” Weird.
But this kid; he was standing in front of a table full of goods set up in front of his stone house as we were coming to the other end of the island where our boat was supposed to be waiting for us. And these goods on display varied from little trinkets to packs of cigarettes to some larger and really ornate shit. But on one table; there were about a dozen little stuffed animal finger puppets. They were felt and cute and came in green turtles and white llamas and tropical looking birds that probably did exist in Peru but much farther north near the more Amazonian regions of this country...up by the city of Iquitos.
There were some other animals represented as well...animals that didn't quite belong. Camels and shit. But, as a purest, I opted to buy one of the native beasts. I'd become somewhat of a collector already having purchased a couple of these little puppets back in Cuzco. They were cheap, the money went directly into the hands of children ((whether or not they got to keep it)), and I knew that my girlfriend back home would think they were really cute. Surely, they'd melt her heart with their cuddly likeness and beady little eyes.
“How much for the turtle?” I asked him pointing at it.
“The turtle?” he turned around, grabbed it, and then held it up as if to make sure that he had the right puppet.
“Yeah. That one.”
“Um...” and he had to think here; the little bastard. Then, instead of answering me verbally, he simply held up his empty hand as if he were about to give me a high-five.
“Five?” I feigned flabbergasted just to see if the kid would smile...to see if he'd betray the very absurdity of his first offer.
Or, who knows? Maybe it wasn't that absurd. Back at the Western Union in Aguas, I'd received all of my transferred money in soles. It seemed both practical and prudent under the circumstances. Since then, I'd been treating (in my mind) each, individual sol just as if it were a dollar. And this seemed to be the thing to do. Now, obviously one dollar was worth quite a bit more than a sol...but when looking at things from the viewpoint of what shit actually costs in Peru; the individual, monetary unit (I found) was actually quite comparable. For example; say I felt comfortable paying 5 bucks for a quick, decent lunch in the US. Well, in Peru; a quick, decent lunch cost 5 soles...on average. And the quality of the food may have varied just like in the US. At certain joints I'd come across in this country thus far; the meal was certainly worth the money. At others; it was not. But if something didn't necessarily meet my standards; there was no real sense in complaining about it because I was on the move too much and those establishments would never see me again anyway...and vice versa. But anyway. 5 soles. 5 bucks. Which meant that this kid with all his salable goods behind him; he wanted 5 fucking bucks for that tiny, little finger puppet.
So I continued, “Five? No way. One,” and I held up a single finger to further convey my meaning.
But, as I was saying, maybe 5 soles or 5 bucks wasn't completely absurd for certain people (certain tourists) with money to pay (or have paid) for some stupid finger puppet. And maybe this kid had actually received 5 bucks for one at some point in the past. But not today. Today, he was about to receive 1 fucking sol and thank me kindly for it.
But the kid raised his hand again. Three fingers this time.
“Two,” I came back at him.
To which he finally nodded in acceptance of the payment offered.
“Two,” I confirmed, “You better be handing me back some change.”
“Yes, yes,” he said eagerly and held out that empty hand again; this time, in order to receive the 5 sol note I was pinching between two of my fingers.
And he received it. And he pocketed it. And at least he handed me the turtle. But...
“Alright. Now three Soles back to me,” and I did the sign language again knowing that these island folk didn't speak Spanish that well.
And, of course, he just smiled at me.
“Three, kid. Hand it over.”
Alright, so maybe he just didn't have any change. But I was on a fucking budget here and it's difficult to explain to a kid (more difficult than disbelieving adults even) that not all Americans are made of money. But I did try to explain that we'd had a deal; a deal that I really didn't want to negate or renege on just due to that fact that it would undoubtedly cause more processional complications...complications that I didn't really have time for seeing our group (that had been generally behind me a bit) now catching up and even passing us at this stand.
“Okay,” I explained, “If you don't give me my fucking 3 soles then I'm going to give you back this turtle and we're just going to have to call it a day. Ya got me?”
To which the kid's eyes opened wide...just before he spun around and made for his house.
And not even a wise, little mother fucker at that. He'd left all his shit behind. All of his goods, right there, abandoned on the table. And this left me tempted (so tempted) to take the couple of steps necessary in order to just grab another one of his stupid finger puppets (maybe the llama this time) just to get my money's worth but... I don't know. I just couldn't do it.
Fucking, little asshole.
“And then what did you do?” the wild-eyed old man asked me as the bartender stood by and listened on.
“I didn't do anything. I mean...I rejoined the group, caught the boat, and came back here. And then I went to some restaurant and grabbed some dinner.”
“The pizza you wanted?” the bartender asked.
“No. But only because they didn't offer pizza in that particular restaurant. But they had this good chicken dinner that came with all these sides that I really pigged out on. It's probably why I'm able to drink so much right now!” I joked.
“Boy, I would have given that kid the beating of his life!” the old man erupted (and yet mumbled somehow at the same time), “You should have! You should have beaten that little fucker! Turned him upside down until your change came falling back out of his pockets!”
“Yeah. Well,” I joked again, “I guess that the rest of the group was around by that time and such a retaliation might have seemed...a bit extreme.”
The young bartender a laughed. He and I were still very much involved in our sets of Jenga. And the old man...well, we both found that treating him as if he were just some senile old fool was the best mode of action since he didn't seem to be going anywhere or have plans to do so anytime soon. We treated him this way but it was an effort. It was an effort not to constantly remind ourselves that he was really (albeit low ranking) a hardcore drug dealer. Yet, it was because of his true identity that I couldn't help but wonder if the reason he wished that I would have beat my change back out of that kid was so that I may have had a few extra nuevos soles leftover with which to purchase some of his product.
“Watch! Let me show you!” he grumbled, “This! Watch! This is how you do it!”
And without asking, he took my turn at Jenga performing for us what must have been (in his own mind) an ingenious strategy. The old man flicked his index finger out like a switchblade just before stabbing one of the wooden blocks with it. Granted, it was one of the center blocks in this wooden tower and therefore not that 'tricky' to remove so far as the balance of the whole structure was concerned. But I was amazed that a crazed and wired-out old man (such as he was) did have an astoundingly agile hand while, at the same time, displaying for us the most adroit motor control and hand-eye coordination. He stabbed that block out like it was nobody's business with only three, jerky motions. And it fell upon the bar with a slight, vibrating rattle.
“Well...I guess it's your turn again,” I smiled at the bartender who removed his own block then and left the tower still standing.
But the old guy wasn't done, to be sure. He tried his same strategy with one of the blocks forming a sidewall. Stab, stab, stab. And of course, the structure came tumbling down then with what I probably just imagined to be more of a violent destruction than the neat and tidy collapses of our past rounds.
“Bahh!” he stood up then in a sudden and single motion; the bar stool sliding back with a screech. Then he looked at me. Right at me with his wide eyes in which I could see whites all the way around each iris. He looked straight into my own wide eyes; so potent and long-lasting had just those couple of sample rips been. “So, my friend.”
I knew what he wanted despite the fact that he didn't say anything more. He wanted an answer. Unfortunately for him though; it was the answer I'd already given. But, just to be polite, I reiterated.
“I'm sorry. But like I said just a bit earlier. I'm on my last beer. And then I have only enough money left to pay for my tab and to leave this nice bartender here the tip he deserves for doing his job so well and being my friend. So you see. It's not that I didn't enjoy your merchandise. And I thank you very much for the little... But I'm just not going to be able to buy any tonight. I'm sorry. But I thank you just the same.”
“But, how much?” he put on his bargaining voice now.
“There is no 'how much'. I'm sorry. I'm out of money. I'm about to pay this fine bartender here for a lovely evening and then,” I suddenly switched to look up at the bartender now, “Could I pay up with you?”
“Of course,” he smiled and told me the total without having written anything down. And this was fine. I trusted him and had even halfway expected that there was no actual register. Plus...I'd sort of been keeping track myself.
“And here, you see?” I showed the old man and watched his eyes as they followed my money, “This is for my drinks and my friend here. And that is all I have. I'm sorry again. And I thank you.”
“But you have change, no?! You must have some coin.”
“Uh...yeah,” but I wasn't quite following him, “I mean, I have a few soles in change. But that's it.”
“Yes! Yes! That!”
“You want my few soles?”
“Yes! That is all. And I will give you the...”
I stood up then but it had nothing to do with the old man's excitement.
“Goodnight, man,” I said to the bartender, “I had an awesome time. Thank you so much.”
“Yes. Me too!” and he smiled genuinely which instantly filled my heart with something like...warmth? “Maybe tomorrow, you will come back?”
“Maybe. But I'm trying to get out of here tomorrow. I want to go to Arequipa before I leave.”
“Okay. Well, maybe I'll see you.”
“Maybe,” and I liked that guy very much as he turned back around to wipe down some cabinets and shelves that were spic-and-span already.
“So yes? You have the change?” the old man had followed me out and into the fluorescent stairwell. It was white, metal, empty, and it echoed.
“Alright,” I gave up. I also didn't want him trying to follow me all the way back to my hotel because I certainly didn't want him to know where I was staying, “Here. Look. That's everything I've got,” I confessed removing the coinage from both pockets.
Maybe he was just hard up. Maybe his man just gave him drugs to sell but he, until he did, didn't have a penny to his name. And if this was the case, or even if it wasn't, I honestly was not expecting anything in return. To me, he had turned into just another beggar then; unlike most beggars on the street that just seemed like jaded little ornaments that came with the territory...but a beggar just the same. Not that I didn't or wasn't capable of feeling any empathy for those who were poverty stricken in some of the most poverty stricken places in the world. But I also felt that the very act of me coming to a country and spending money in even the most touristy sorts of ways... Well, that still counted as pumping money into this foreign economy. There was now a sum of money left down here because of me that there certainly would not have been had I not chosen to come to Peru. And I liked to believe that this money, even a few cents worth, would eventually find its way into the hands of those who were needy. Often, it would seem to come to them directly from the hands of their own people...after having received it, of course, from people like Pocha (the tour package lady) from doing good business with people like me. Either way...
But this guy. The more I started to think about this guy and whether or not he even liked being a drug dealer or just had to in order to put food on his own table... Because maybe he was just caught up in the game or something. I guess that's why I had no problem or tinge of regret when I spilled out what was probably worth no more than a couple soles in change and handed it over to him. Obviously, I'd felt more ambivalence when it came to that kid on the island and his stupid, turtle finger puppet...but whatever. This old guy, however, stayed true to his word and did, in return, pass me a little bag just before disappearing so fast that he may truly have been only an apparition. Down the stairs? Back into the bar? Which way had he gone? I had no fucking idea. He vanished. But there it was. Proof of his existence right there in my hand. One tiny, little bag. Or, portion of a bag rather; the corner of a sandwich baggie or something that had been torn off and twisty tied by hand. One tiny, little bag that contained (I guessed) about one gram of powder exactly.
I was no philanthropist.
Luckily, I never claimed to be.
Back in high school, I had this friend who'd gone to Turkey and, when I asked the natural question (whether or not he'd smoked some dank dope over there); he replied that no, unfortunately he had not. And when I asked him the next, natural question; why? He told me that it was pretty commonplace in Turkey for the very drug dealer who'd sold someone (especially tourists) the contraband to turn right around and accept a small finder's fee for narking them out to the cops. And I wouldn't have expected any less from the old man who'd just disappeared. In fact, I may have even been fearful enough to just toss the bag right then and there had my hotel not been right around the corner.
This time, the son was sitting in the 'lobby' when I reached the top of the stairs. The room was relatively dark, though, and he didn't say anything to me.
Re-padlocking my door behind me then, I was actually grateful to be so drunk tonight when I immediately thought about the shower I wanted to take before turning in. And for that same reason, I suppose that I was also glad to have the little baggie. Because seriously...last night's had been true hell. But tonight! Maybe I'd been too numb to even feel the water. Just a couple rips should do the trick. Just a couple like I'd had before and then...well, I didn't exactly want to be roaming from city to city with this shit. In fact, I didn't even want to get anywhere close to the bus station with it. In fact, I believe I'd seen dogs there a time or two. So, fuck it. I guess I'd just have to dispose of the entire amount tonight...one way or another.
But then I tried some. I licked my pinky, dabbed it in the stuff, and then touched my tongue. And it was plaster of Paris of something. Or probably a lower grade version of even that. Either way; it wasn't about to get me high tonight and it certainly wasn't about to take any sting out of that shower that I was about to step in. But again...at least I was drunk.
Despite being intoxicated though, it turned out to be the worst shower of my entire life. No joke. And I thought about this. I really thought about it while I was in there and under the trickling stream of water. And because of its trickling little sprinkle; I had so much time to think. And because of this sprinkle; it was so much more tortuous than it had to be. More tortuous, say, even than taking a shower with freezing water spraying me down at full blast. Because, however intense that situation may have been, at least it would have been over with fairly quickly. But this...this was both teeth chattering and knee buckling. And why didn't I just wait until morning? I don't know. Because I'm a nighttime 'showerer'. Simple as that. Also, because I didn't think that showering in the morning would have made much of a difference. Or maybe it would have. I don't know. I wasn't thinking very clearly.
In the morning; I just like to get up and go, you see. And especially when considering that I'm hungover most of the time; the thought of taking an even semi-cold shower anytime during those most tender hours...I shuddered to think. Shuddered harder than I would have shivered, to be sure.
So...much as wanted to just get up and go the next morning after a long night of finally shivering myself to sleep...again! My bowels wanted to get going first...which was fine, actually. Probably anything beat taking a shit in a Peruvian bus station. I hadn't had to yet but I had taken enough leaks in there by now to know. And what did I learn about public shitters in Peru? I learned that the people taking their shits wiped their asses and threw the toilet paper into a lidless, plastic trash can that had been set next to every commode. And the shit stunk. All those little trash cans teaming up to collect flies and stink up the whole room...till the shit in them dried and more was added. Till the 'once a week' janitor finally rolled around to collect. It was disgusting. And just by thinking about these shit smears simply left out in the open; I imagined that I could actually smell them...smell these public restrooms as clearly as the one I'd been in just a couple of days ago. So...
I opted to take a nice shit right there in my hotel room. I hadn't really been keeping track but it seemed like I'd been backed up a couple days now. Riding on a bus does that to me sometimes. Still...it's not like I'd been eating that much and the shit that I did wind up taking sure wasn't that big or anything. Be that as it may, when I went to flush the thing, the bowl filled with water so fast that it was astounding. Astounding considering just what a little trickle of water there'd come from the showerhead. And the bowl kept on filling. Of course, it did. Why should I have expected it to do anything different?! A toilet that would just flush my shit down? Not for what I was paying. The water kept rising until it began to pour slightly over the edges of the bowl and only then did it begin to slow down.
Well, fuck. I could have just left and probably should have. It was their fault anyway. Even if my well compacted log had slipped out onto the floor (which was carpet I might add!); they would have deserved it. The carpet was of an industrial, synthetic material (granted) but...who the fuck lays down carpet around a shitter? Peruvians, I concluded. And probably a lot of nationalities, I guess.
But I needed them to be aware. I mean, eventually, they would have discovered the damp floor and the clogged crapper. Or...who knows? Maybe not. Maybe they would have just rented the room to someone else without even checking. But I needed them to be aware of this shit. For me! I wanted to see the look in their eyes when I told them what a piece of crap their bathroom was.
“You have a 'plunger'?” I asked the 'front desk' kid as he sat at his table eating breakfast.
He didn't understand the word because I'd said it in English and that's because I had no idea what the word for 'plunger' was in español.
And this took a while; this little procedure of articulating what it was that I needed since I didn't exactly want to sit down on a chair and mimic the act of taking a shit. He figured it out though. Soon enough. But then he just sort of waved me off as if to say (by a single motion of his hands), “Don't worry about it, man. I'll get it later. That shit happens all the time.”
Maybe I could have complained about the hot water too. Now certainly would have been the time. But what was the fucking point.
“Is it alright if I just take a few pieces of this bread to go? I have a bus to catch here pretty soon.”
“Of course,” he said over his shoulder just before walking into one of the other rooms and closing the door behind him. Apparently, this had been too much talking for him for one morning. And since that was the case, I wrapped up every loaf in that bread basket and put them in my satchel (4 medium-sized rolls). Fuck it. They owed me. And they were stale anyway.
After that, I went back into my room only to grab my backpack. Then it was back out into the bright and cloudless day. The sky; blue and searing with sunshiny UV rays. The lake; glistening like a million little crystals. It wasn't hot though. And it wasn't cold either. If nothing else, I had to admit that the weather had been pretty temperate the entire time I'd been down here. But the people were weird, man. Indians were weird. I'd almost forgotten that fact; so long had it been since I'd lived with them way back in Flagstaff. They were always standoffish. Especially with the white man. But...who could blame them, I guess.
Following the road that followed the lake, I traced the same steps I'd taken towards the dock yesterday and then proceeded about half a mile past it. And there was the bus station comprised almost entirely out of cinder blocks that had been thickly painted blue. I found myself surprised that it was a multistoried building and not just some cul de sac with a bunch of different stops posted every few bus lengths like the condition and size of this town might have led me to believe. But this...this bus station reminded me of a small airport. In fact, I'd flown out of airports even smaller.
And it was fairly busy.
“Arequipa! Arequipa! Arequipa!” the ticket agents called out to me and anyone who happened to be passing by. It must have been a hot destination from here just based on its proximity. “Arequipa! Arequipa! Arequipa!” I already had my ticket though. I'd purchased it back in Cuzco.
The bus didn't leave for a while yet so I grabbed a beer and a real breakfast at the main diner on the second floor.
Lima was fast approaching. I'd done it. I couldn't believe it but I'd done it...everything (pretty much) that I'd come here and had wanted to do in Peru even without the benefit of a passport. That being said; this trip still wasn't nearly as pleasant as I'd expected...even if I hadn't been robbed twice over. These were the most unfriendly and dickish people I'd ever met. They didn't want me here. They never did. And I began to understand that from just about the moment I stepped off the plane. Message received; loud and clear. Or, rather, grunted and mumbled. But none of that mattered now because I was close. I was on my way home.
I had taken a bus down to Arequipa but wasn't really sure why. I guess it was because I still had an extra day and just being there would mark the farthest south I'd ever been. I enjoy little records like that. I had an extra day but not an hour more before having to head out again if I was going to make my plane. So, from an actual traveler's perspective, I wouldn't really have time to see anything. But even this idea went right out the window the second I arrived there and realized that there wasn't much to see anyway.
Arequipa might has well have been Cuzco but without so many tourists moving through. The city was set in the high desert just as Cuzco had been...or even Puno for that matter. And by just a hair, I'd rate it as slightly nicer than Puno. That is, there wasn't so much rubble and trash in the streets...streets that were practically rubble themselves. And Arequipa was a larger city although isolated and therefore very local. It was surrounded by nothing but rocky, barren hills with one behemoth cinder cone of a smoking volcano looming vigilantly a little too close for comfort. The sunlight continued to pour down as unobstructively as I'd come to expect it. Had I even seen rain in Peru? I didn't think so.
The bus had arrived well after dark and the roads around the station were sandy and torn up with sharp rocks jutting straight up out of the sidewalk in places. There didn't seem to be much going on on this side of town so I followed the cars until there were more cars and then followed the streetlights after finally seeing some of those. There wasn't really a strip or a district so to speak though. Just a couple of restaurants; one of which I entered as it lured me right up to its glass door with the smell of delicious chicken. I stood at the counter for a few minutes waiting for someone to come up and take my order but... The cooks in the back saw me but I wasn't sure if it was one of them who was working the register as well. And at one point, I turned around to see all the patrons staring at me (and there were many). And their stares were nasty ones. Hateful even. I wished that this unwarranted welcome would have come as an unexpected surprise but, sadly, it didn't. So I left quickly thereafter and settled for some grilled meat on a stick which I bought on the street. I probably wound up saving money that way anyway. So, fuck it. And I still found it funny; that whole boiled potato they always stuck on the end of the kebob. It wasn't the most filling meal but, like I said, it was cheap.
The hotel I finally found was also cheap. It didn't have to be though. They probably could have charged anything they wanted seeing as how it was the only one around. There was barely a sign for it outside, though, and it certainly wasn't neon so... The place could be considered 'hard to find'. Adding to that; it was located down a dark side street with no streetlamps. And I literally tripped my way through the door after stumbling on a jagged piece of ripped up sidewalk; sidewalk that lined both sides of the road but seemed to serve no purpose other than tripping people up. It looked as though someone had taken a jackhammer to them.
“Just one night,” I told the clerk while hardly able to believe my own words. I'd have almost another all-day bus ride tomorrow. Oh well. Might as well stretch out while I can.
The room was tiny and up on the third floor. The hotel, however, was much larger than it appeared from the outside. Narrow but long. At the end of a ground floor hallway, I climbed the spiral stairs upward. Through various open doorways or moving along the second and third floor halls with laundry in their arms; I saw some other white folk moving about...20-something's just like me. And I know it sounds a little racist but I was glad to see them. I would have felt the same way if they were black or Asian though. Simply; I was thankful to see anyone of any other race down here...other than Spanish-Indian, of course. I was glad to know that they knew that other races did actually exist. I was glad to know that I didn't stand out as much as I felt like I did.
After depositing my backpack on the floor and placing the contents of my pockets on top of a nightstand, I locked the door (thankfully, not a padlock this time) behind me on my way back out. From there, I made my way further down the hall...fully clothed but with a towel wrapped around my shoulders just the same. Normally, I'm not a real big fan of this community bathroom crap. In fact, it's the one amenity that I'll pay more for if it's even an option which, in this case, it wasn't. I've never had any real problems with them like contracting foot fungus from the shower or anything. The turn off is more psychological than anything else although there was something seemingly real about having to smell somebody else's lingering dump while I steamed up the shower for myself.
Once I was cleaned up, I hit the streets again for a little bit. The problem was there just wasn't that much to see and there were barely any streetlights in the whole town so venturing into yet uncharted territory through the sandy blackness and jagged sidewalk debris just didn't seem all that inviting. Seriously, I felt like I would need a flashlight just to do so... So... I don't know. I just walked around the 'block' a couple times. But that's it. After that, I went to bed. And I slept well. This wasn't some weird house converted into a hotel. Rather, it was a business; three floors of tiny rooms catering to tourists on a budget such as myself...and so I slept soundly. I loved paper thin walls in this case. Just hearing them as I lay there in the dark; the in's and out's...the trials and tribulations of what other travelers were experiencing. It was still early yet...relatively...for me. But just their mumbles through through the hallway were enough to sink me into a much needed sleep. I'd check out this town tomorrow and then...
Obviously, the city was much larger than the darkened neighborhood near the bus station where I'd been dropped off. I discovered this the next day. And it took quite a hike but I did eventually make it to Arequipa's main square and had a look around a bit. It was the same as all the other towns I'd already been to though...basically. It reminded me of photos I'd stumbled across in my grandma's albums. Photos that must have been taken by my grandpa while they were traveling through Mexico. I heard they even talked about moving there permanently. But anyway...there was a square and there was a cathedral vigilantly watching over everything. Just what time and expense did the Spanish not take in establishing themselves and converting the natives, I'd never know. But they definitely made their point as, to this day, the churchy square was still the center of everything.
Despite this being the main square, though, there still wasn't much going on. And despite the vastness of this square; the pigeons still well outnumbered the people. The was a large fountain that formed the center of a traffic circle and it seemed like Spanish tile had been lain just about everywhere. There were poofy, white clouds in the sky but the air was as dry as ever. A few stores forming the sides of this square sold watches that seemed too expensive for anyone who ever lived here to buy. But other than these observations, few and meager, there was nothing I could say about this place that pertained to the actual, living people.
On the other side of the square, across from the designer jewelry and accessory vendors, I noticed a rooftop restaurant; almost blinding to gaze upon as bright as the sun was. Every building near here was built tall and of stone and had been made to last. Only in this square though. As for the remainder of Arequipa, as if following the rest of the country in some horrible trend, every other structure looked as though anything more forceful than a breezy day would take it down...and it probably would! Any type of calamity would have demolished this city. An earthquake, for sure. All except the main square.
Since I hadn't had breakfast and since I probably wouldn't eat again all day, I thought it prudent and reasonable enough to check out this rooftop restaurant. The air temperature was still perfect for being outside but the imminent threat of skin cancer definitely left me seeking a ramada or shelter up there of some sort. There were patio umbrellas though. At least, I believed there were. It was so hard to tell. So hard to even see through the tiny slits my eyes were strained to squint.
Talk about old school. There wasn't even an elevator up to the top. Seven fucking stories. Eight, if you count having to make it all the way to the roof. But once I got up there, out of breath as I may have been from lugging not only my body but my backpack as well, the view was definitely worth the effort. I could see the whole square and the fountain with all the white pigeons that seemed to make their home around it. Some of them were even flying by below me now. All the cars appeared as toys. And the people as autonomous beings driven with hurry and purpose but by something external...something way up high in that searing, white stratosphere above. The only feature around that became more pronounced by my being so high was that volcanic cinder cone that now met my gaze completely unobstructed. And it was fucking scary. I could easily imagine that thing just cracking open Mount St. Helens style and, seeing as how there was absolutely nothing between this volcano and the building on which I now stood... That's what it was. That was the scariest part about it. Behind this square; the city of Arequipa ended. Beyond the cathedral and this rooftop restaurant that ran parallel; there was nothing. Just nothing. Not even a single plant or shrub. Just rocks and sand. The same rocks and sand that led right up to form that threatening pyramid; the top of which was actually snow-capped and tinted blue by its proximity to the sky. I was practically connected to it.
Talk about a calamity waiting to happen.
A man appeared as I was looking over the low ledge of this patio and asked if I'd like him to open one of the umbrellas for me to sit under.
“Please. And a beer, please.”
Then he left me with the menu.
Hmm. There was a lot to choose from and a lot of fare I'd never heard of. It all seemed pretty authentic though. Perhaps, this city marked another region of Peru; a region outside and beyond the traditional cuisine that people hear of...the ceviche and such. There certainly wasn't any water around here so I guess that fresh trout, as the key ingredient, was unavailable and out of the question. But this was all fine and good and I wound up settling on something that sounded even better to me; a cheesy dish like fondue but served all together in one, deep plate. And impossible to fuck up. Or so I thought.
When the food came, though, it just flat-out didn't taste very good. There was something about the sauce. It was orange and too tangy and...canned? I would never know for sure. But four little loaves of stinky cheese came smothered in it. And I'll fucking eat anything...usually...even when other people are whining about the quality of the cooking or whatever. So the fact that I really didn't want to finish this plate, or even take more than just a few bites, was really saying something. I ordered another beer, though, and washed most of it down with that. If they served dinner on the bus ride tonight; that would be a bonus. But I wasn't about to count on them to do so and therefore filled my gut with this strangest of dishes. At least, I imagined, it would sit with me quite a while.
I walked around a bit more after that...not really fascinated by anything, though, and mostly just waiting for the sun to go down. Just beyond the square where the neighborhoods turned all shitty again, I found an internet cafe and emailed my girlfriend and parents. Then I proceeded in a direction that I thought was that of the bus station. At a stoplight, as I was waiting to cross the street, a couple of hippie looking kids (a boy and a girl) ran out in front of the stopped cars and juggled bowling pins back and forth with (I'll admit) a fair amount of skill. Where had they come from, I wondered. The circus? Brazil? Phish tour '98? The guy, in full-on juggling motion, winked and smirked at me and I knew that he wanted a tip. I hadn't found their act entertaining though. On the contrary; I found it rather annoying but that was probably only because I was really tired and perhaps they'd reminded me of those awful, freeloading Phish kidz after all. I was just sick of all these sideshows and people looking for a handout no matter how skilled or cute they thought they were. And anyway, they had the stopped motorists to solicit for tips... They were their primary targets. Not me.
As it turned out, my normally keen sense of direction was off that day (another sign that I was tired and perhaps on the verge making even more mistakes) and I wound up on the southwest side of town when I needed to be on the southeast. There was plenty of time before I needed to catch the bus though. Nothing to freak out about. But I was tired of walking and my backpack was really starting to wear me down. My Converse had taken me to a particularly dusty part of town; completely deserted. It was eerie in a way and gave me the willies even in the daylight. Before me, there stood what looked to be an old bus mall or cab mall or something of the like. And the long structure with its ramada-like shelter from the sun was so antiquated that, if it had ever been painted, the color had been blasted off by wind and sand and now appeared as plain and sandy colored as the unpaved streets and alleyways all around me. And this cab mall with its lengths of ramada and curbs to pull up to was all but abandoned except for one, single taxi; a tiny, grey hatchback with a removable sign on top that read 'desocupado'. There was a person behind the driver's seat (or more of a body, really). He was a scraggly, bronze colored old man with longer, grey hair and he looked to be passed out drunk.
The intoxicated part, I couldn't quite confirm as there wasn't any evidence like a bottle lying around out in the open. But the passed out part; definitely. He was snoring slightly and his chest was heaving heavily up and down concurrent with the pattern of either a deep sleeper or sickly, labored breather or both. Either way, I was most assuredly afraid to wake him. And yet...
Well, he was the only cab around. He was the only anything around for that matter. And what if he needed the fare? Maybe he'd be pleased that I woke him.
“Um...excuse me. Sir?” There was no way in hell I was going to touch him; such was the compromise I made with myself.
It took me a couple minutes worth of these efforts but, sure enough, the guy did come around...slowly. And I was actually grateful for this rather than he start awake and instinctively reach for a gun or something.
“Can you take me to the bus station, please?”
The man seemed neither pleased nor displeased at my having disturbed his midafternoon nap. In fact, his facial expression really hadn't changed any from that which he wore while sleeping. He also didn't answer me...not verbally anyway. Instead, the man simply motioned towards the backseat with his head and I obeyed.
What I didn't realize (and perhaps neither did he) was that there were indeed two different bus stations. And I'm not even really sure why this was since either station was within easy walking distance of the other. It was as if (I speculated) the demand for a larger station was finally enough to fund the breaking of ground on one. But perhaps the money wasn't quite as large as the demand. And so, rather than having only one large station (both new and nice); Arequipa wound up with two (both of them; small and shitty and one of them; super old). Such was the infrastructure here. And on this day which was to be my last in this country; I finally felt I knew Peru.
Of course, the station at which this cabbie dropped me off was the wrong one. Since it was the same station I'd arrived in last night, however, I certainly had no reason to even suspect that there was any other. And I swear to God; my ticket didn't indicate a thing. So I just wound up hanging out at the original station for hours contemplating such oddities (or so I thought) as a Chinese restaurant existing in a bus station in Peru (especially in such an obscure town as this) and smoking a lot of cigarettes outside amongst the sand and busted up chunks of cement. Then, about 15 minutes before my bus was supposed to depart, I approached the counter for Cruz del Sur to present my ticket and be let into the little waiting room that always seemed to precede the actual gate. There was a short line but it moved fast and steadily. I certainly wasn't worried. What was there to worry about? I was here. The bus was here. But when I actually reached the front of the line and presented my ticket to the guy; he instantly became flustered, cursed to himself, and made sure it was known that the now dirty look he put on was unquestionably meant for me.
“What's the matter?” I tried to offer up an innocent, toothy smile.
And he looked me dead in the eye with his own like two, searing pieces of onyx. He looked as if he were about to explain exactly why he was upset with me but then... Well, I don't mean to say that he actually thought the better of it. But maybe he just wanted to spare himself the stress of having to blow up and the scene that would have ensued in front of everybody.
“Come on,” he barked and actually stormed out from behind the counter where there was still a line of people waiting. The man headed quickly towards the main doors and didn't look back to see that I was following.
I was following though. Hurriedly. Waddling along at almost a jog with my backpack and satchel and everything. This is how I discovered there to be two, separate stations in Arequipa. For three blocks, that man stamped ahead of me without ever turning his head. Then in through another set of entrance doors, he led me into a station almost identical to that of the last depot. In fact; the atria, the ticket counters, and even the restaurants resembled its sister-station so closely that, even if I had known at the time that there were two, I still would have been confused.
“Here,” he snarled depositing me at the end of another Cruz del Sur ticket line that seemed an exact replica of the first (even the passengers standing in it!), “Here. Here is where you need to be.”
“Thank you!” I yelled and had to yell because, before the words could even leave my lips, his back was turned and the man was almost through the outer doors again.
Well, that was nice of him...I think.
From there, I waited again (this time, with more success). And soon I was corralled into the little waiting room-slash-holding pen where, due to the occupancy, I was forced to stand...but only for about 5 minutes or so before they began boarding. Once again, I was given a little flack for not having an actual passport. And this seemed funny to me since the guy behind the ticket counter didn't seem to give a shit. But the 'boarding pass' takers; I suppose that they were the ones more concerned with security. So, who knows? Maybe this predicament of not holding on my person the correct identification that I'd been dealing with for almost weeks...maybe it was just like everything else. Maybe the severity of which this fault of mine was viewed varied from person to person. Not that any of that mattered now. Nothing mattered because I was going home.
Which leads me back to, 'Well, don't go to the airport because they won't let you leave.'
It's true. I know that now. Ya live, ya learn; I guess. But just like back in Arequipa; I still honestly thought that if somehow I were able to speak to a different ticket agent or any of the security personnel who may have seemed cool or the pilot or the president of the freaking airline for crying out loud or the Department of Homeland Security... Anyone! Anyone who had any sort of power and might be able to help me in this plight. But there wasn't. There was not. And it was time to face facts.
So close, I'd come. I believe that's probably what stung the most. I knew I was cutting it close though. And I secretly enjoyed doing so, I think. Getting to the airport just in the nick of time; it was the perfect climax. It was James Bond demurely stepping from some sort of a platform right as it was about to explode. But alas! He makes it home. Perhaps, a little worse for wear but also generally unscathed and ultimately triumphant.
I hadn't really started to bite my nails, though, until the bus was nearing Lima but still just beyond any real suburbs. Outside the windows, there were mostly fruit stands to be seen, gas stations, and the modest dwellings of the people who tended to these. And it was way out there, 50 miles from the capitol perhaps, that we hit gridlock. Whispered rumors spread throughout the bus and I was able to pick up that (it was the general consensus at least) the protesters were back at it and, this time, had somehow rolled huge boulders into the road which were blocking traffic both ways. And there we sat. For hours, it seemed. And then, literally, hours. These buses, Cruz del Sur's entire fleet, were sealed and climate controlled from within. So it really shouldn't have seemed like the air inside the cabin was becoming stagnant too...but it did. Perhaps, the AC relied on the vents or whatever to keep it working properly and required forward propulsion in order to do so. Perhaps, we needed to be moving. No. Scratch that. We definitely needed to be moving! I had a fucking plane to catch and everyone aboard had been riding for something like 16 hours now and the restlessness had inevitably set in with a vengeance. Legs were beginning to twitch. People beginning to squirm. Babies to cry. There were bathrooms aboard. One on each level and at least those were clean so that was something to be thankful for. But fuck, man. Come on!
The bus driver even orchestrated an improvised game of bingo just to keep people from flipping the fuck out.
In due time though (and I do mean due); we did scooch forward a few feet. But it was even an hour after that that we actually started to move. At a crawl, at first. But then...slowly but surely. It appeared that officials had been sent in to deal with this situation in whatever way they knew how. And from what I could surmise as we finally passed by the 'problem area'; a crew had successfully moved the boulders out of one lane but were still working on the next. Huge fucking boulders! Taller than I was even! And so heavy that the road crew was using trucks to try to pull them out of the way! So how had they done it? Those Indians. Those protesters. Those slippery Inca. So many of their feats raveled in mystery. Even today.
So basically, the crew had cleared one lane and were letting people pass at timed intervals like that of a construction or roadwork site. There were a couple of guys out there holding stop signs and a whole gang of guys out there in fluorescent orange vests just making sure that everyone obeyed the rules. It was in this fashion that we finally passed. And it was this scene, or so I thought, that would become my one, lasting memory of Peru. But as we all know by now; that wasn't quite the case.
My blood pressure was spiking. It was a sensation that I knew how to identify but also one that, brought on solely from stress, I was unused to. This was cutting it close. Too close to play into part of my little fantasy anymore. And the window of arriving one hour before flying internationally was fastly closing.
Soon, the city popped up all around us. Traffic was heavy but this was normal, city traffic with the absence of any boulders involved, thank God. And when we at last reached the station in Lima and everyone crowded the bus's narrow aisle in a hurry just to stand up and breath the outdoor air again; I was slowed down yet further by an error that, at first, had nothing to do with my passport or my lack thereof. I'd simply and somehow lost the square inch piece of paper (its twin stapled to my backpack) that confirmed that the the pack was rightfully mine. And again; these guys outside working the ramp seemed to be much more concerned with this type of security than the ticket guys inside. Such was my luck. Not that I wasn't glad that Cruz del Sur took something as luggage fraud so seriously. But...I was kind of the only white, American, backpacker looking kid on-board this day. And since I was not able to locate and produce my luggage slip after much foraging around in my pockets and satchel; they had me wait until the very end after everyone had long since gathered up all their shit and vacated quickly as they could. And since there was then only myself and my bag left to claim... I don't know. I just thought they would have figured. But no. The guy who had been redistributing everyone's luggage first asked to see my passport. And then, when I told him that I only had a photocopy of said document and explained what had happened to me for the thousandth time way back in Cuzco, he actually asked me to describe what sort of contents there were to be found in the top pocket of my own backpack. And for a moment; I staggered. The sheer fact of the matter was; I couldn't rightly remember what the fuck I'd stuffed into that topmost pocket yesterday as I left my hotel. But this fleeting case of amnesia was only, thankfully, due to being put on-the-spot. All I had to do was relax, pretend this wasn't some sort of interrogation, and it would all come back to me. My system. Of course. There was really only one set of items that I would ever keep in that top pocket. My bathroom supplies. And once I described these to the nice man; he unzipped the pocket and removed, for us both to behold, my bar of soap, my toothbrush, and my tube of paste. So there ya go, mother fucker. I'm sorry I lost my slip. Now, just let me the fuck out of here.
After that, finding a cab wasn't hard. All I had to do was walk right outside. But again, it was the city traffic that was stressing me out even while the cabbie tried to be polite and make conversation with me. In order to somewhat reinforce what was really bothering me in the back of my mind; I used this opportunity to gain his opinion on whether or not they would let me fly. So even then. Even after that cops back in Cuzco had told me I could and would be able to; there obviously remained some doubt in my mind. So maybe my surprise at the airport wasn't quite as surprising as I may have let on...as I may have made it sound.
And it wasn't. It wasn't surprise so much as it was disbelief that I experienced. It was disbelief when the airline agents informed me of what I really had to do. And still disbelief as I, after writing the email to my girlfriend in another plea for wired money, stepped outside again not really wondering but also not quite sure what the fuck to do.
I was standing on the platform for arrivals. Just standing. Not even smoking. Just standing and listening to the planes take off and wondering which one of those was mine. Disbelief that I wasn't going home. And disbelief that, in order to get home, I actually had to do shit. Some seriously complicated shit from what they made it sound like. From what I'd gathered.
The roadway was busy around here and smelled of poorly maintained exhaust systems and jet fuel. The obtrusive noise of jet engines and combustion engines and squealing brakes and bad fan belts were present in surround sound. The obnoxiousness of tourists just arriving. The optimism in their voices as they stepped out into the smog and sunlight and took their first looks around. Yeah. That used to be me.
Directly across the way, about a quarter mile or so off, I saw what appeared to be sort of a multistoried strip mall. It wasn't nice by any means. It didn't even appear to cater to tourists really or so much as attempt to draw them over but... But it was somewhere. Somewhere to think. On a bench, perhaps. Down the platform a bit, which turned into a sidewalk, I could discern one of those pedestrian overpasses with stairs leading up to the cross and then back down again. Down towards that weird, little mall stained the very color of the smog in the air. I didn't have a dollar. I didn't have shit. But all I needed was someplace to sit for a while and maybe someone who could give me directions to the closest Western Union.
If she'd even received my email. And if, after receiving that sketchy letter from her, she'd even choose to comply. For the time being; I was almost helpless. I knew that much but wasn't about to wear that information on my face. And so I tried to put on a mask and a stern one at that. A mask that seemed to say that this was all part of my plan and that I knew exactly what I was doing and even that I'd been down in this part of the world a thousand times before. I tried. But even then, it didn't stop every empty cab before I reached the overpass from pulling close and asking if I needed a ride. Hmmph. If they only knew. If they only knew that I wasn't even worth mugging. Because, what would they get? Just one bar of soap, a toothbrush, and a tube of paste.
Peru. I'd always been weary of coming down here. The Middle East didn't scare me. And China was fine; quite nice even. But there was something about South America. It wasn't the rumors of kidnapping and it wasn't the secondhand info I'd picked up about all the slums. I don't know what it was really. Save a hunch. Just call it a hunch. As US citizens; we were too close to them. And maybe that's why. They were Americans too. Just like us. And yet so not like us. They were close enough, geographically I guess, to actually taste it. The dream. The American dream and how great they must have envisioned our country to be. It must have been their idea of heaven...and I'd come from there. But like heaven, no single dream or idea lives up to or becomes (especially after one has crossed its gates) exactly what it ever was in the mind. It's the conception that's so beautiful. The reality; always more complicated. And increasingly more complicated the longer one stays there. And more negative too. But then more positive as one who becomes assimilated realizes that it's really all the same and America (North or South) still consist of people just trying to get by day-to-day for the most part. But then more negative again when that first-generation realizes just how lonely and separated and ineffectual all white people are. But then positive again as his or her children begin to thrive. But then negative again as they realize that we are just the machine. Positive; we aid and help other peoples. Negative; our tax dollars bomb other peoples. Positive; the melting pot both influential and influenced by those of every nationality under the sun. Negative; the despairing, lonely atmosphere of underlying yet omnipresent drugs, booze, and porn. Positive; the anonymity provided in a society driven by drugs, booze, and porn. Positive. Our ship may be sinking but come and stay with us, why don't you? Come and stay with us because it's fun here. It's the best. Come and stay with us. We've got all the new clothes. We've got everything you could ever want. Ever ask for. At the mall. The mall. The mall. The mall.
And they would. Jesus Christ, when an outsider just gets one fucking look at our malls. Holy shit!
Across the overpass. This was a center with many groups of buildings. But there was even less than I'd thought there would be when it came to commercial stuff. Mostly, these were office buildings. I walked to the center of the center where I could be completely blocked from the highways and stress of cars whooshing past. At least it was quieter here. Not that 'quiet' was going to help me in any way, pragmatically speaking. Still...I needed a moment's peace.
“Hello, señor,” the guy was skinny and ancient but his muscles were unbelievably toned, “Yes. Can I help you? Are you lost?”
Well, so much for that idea. God, how I just wanted a hotel room. Just any sort of door that I could close behind me.
“Um...no. I mean, I'm not lost. But...I was wondering if you knew how to get to the closest Western Union.”
I had to start somewhere.
“Of course, of course. Please, my friend. Please, come inside.”
“Come, come. Sit down for one minute. Have a drink of water. I will take you there even.”
“Oh. I mean, that's really not necessary,” I knew his plan already. Not that I felt like he was out to scam me in any way. In fact, I didn't have much doubt that he would deliver me to a Western Union (and probably the closest one). But then he would ask me to pay him for the information and the escort. And even after I got the money (if I got the money); I didn't feel like I could spare one cent. The Embassy. One hundred dollars. I think that's what they said. But then I'd need another cheap hotel room and maybe...just maybe, some dinner.
“It's okay,” he smiled genuinely sensing my unease.
And so I followed.
Had I known he was about to lead me into a travel agency, I probably would have hightailed it right out of there since, usually, that's a sure sign that you're about to get pressured into...well, I don't know. Something. But this travel agency was a little different. It was mere feet from where we'd been standing so I was able to see its interior through the glass door and some windows before even taking my first step. And the place seemed legit. It was small but there was nothing sleazy about it. Inside, there were desks with about 5 people sitting at them who appeared to be working busily. And there weren't any posters on the walls of all the places one just had to see while staying in this country. And it was this lack of them that led me to suspect this agency may not have dealt with tourists at all. Not personally, that is. They were middlemen of sorts. It was all starting to make sense and I became much less apprehensive. Still...there was just one piece of the pie that didn't seem to fit. And that was the guy himself.
Everyone in the office was dressed professionally and very nicely by Peruvian standards. I know that sounds bad but seriously...these were some of the nicest dressed people (probably the most) that I'd seen since being down here. But the guy...the guy who'd found me; he didn't match them. At all. Like...it seemed as though it might have been a few days since he'd had a shower. The coppery skin of his face was shiny and oily and there were darkened sweat stains underneath each of his armpits. He was wearing slacks and a collared shirt, however. But this salmon collared shirt was untucked and his grey slacks didn't fit him quite right like both garments may have been passed down to him secondhand. Also, his teeth were rotted and many of them were even missing.
So was he their lackey?
That was all I could surmise as he led me inside. In front of the desks in a corner, there were a couple of empty chairs and it was here that we sat. And, true to his word, he poured me a paper cup full of water from the office cooler. The workers themselves glanced at me for only a second but quickly returned to their computer screens undisturbed.
“So, my friend. What brings you to this place?”
And so I gave him the story; long and uninterrupted. It even drew a few chuckles from him and the others.
“So, you see,” I finished, “That's why I really need to find a Western Union sometime today before it closes...otherwise, I'm completely screwed. I think they said that the day after tomorrow's a holiday or something. And so, yeah. If I don't get the embassy tomorrow then I'm really screwed. And I'll even have to buy a whole new plane ticket or something...which I can't afford. So, who knows? Maybe, I'll just wind up down here working with you guys,” I joked.
“I will take you to the Western Union,” he spoke sincerely...almost solemnly now without any trace of the humor in his voice that had been there before.
“Thank you,” but I threw in, “But if you could even just get me the directions. I don't want to be a burden. I mean, I'm sure that you probably have a lot of work to do.”
“It is no trouble. No trouble, my friend. In fact, it is very close.”
“Oh. Well, that's good news. Because I'm also supposed to get some photos taken. You know. For the passport. So I'm also worried that all those places are going to be closed. So...” I concluded without wanting to sound pushy, “I think I'm really gonna need to get going here. At least to find Western Union to hang out at until my...” I didn't want to use the word money, “...funds go through.”
“It's okay, it's okay,” the guy tried to calm me.
But I wasn't calm. And I couldn't relax. And I didn't exactly believe that it would be wise to even try.
“Well, look,” I stood up, “I thank you very much for the water but I really feel like I've got to get a move on here so... Thank you all,” I addressed the people at the desks this time, “for having me. Maybe I'll see you guys around. Hopefully not, though. If you know what I mean.”
“Okay, okay,” the old man stood up now too, “I will show you. Right now. I will show you where it is.”
Alright. Well, that was really nice of him and everything but, like I'd told him before, all I really wanted were the directions. But, fuck it. If he wanted to keep the directions a secret from me... If that was his little game. I could play my own fucking game just as easily. And the name of that game would be; I'm going to pretend like I didn't get the money. Even if I did get it; I still wasn't going to give this guy shit. And if he got pissed; it was his fault.
“Come. Very close. Didn't I tell you?”
So close that you couldn't have just told me how to get there?!
I shouldn't have been pissed but I was. I didn't want to make people pissed off at me. But it's like they put themselves in the position...
“There, you see?” he pointed.
He pointed and we were still standing in the middle of the business mall. We'd barely left the office of the travel agency at all but had only just turned a corner! And there it was. Well, the sign anyway. Those black and yellow letters; that very simple yet copyrighted font that in itself caused my head to lean back in a deep sigh of relief. The office itself, on the other hand, was like no other Western Union I'd seen anywhere else in the world. Even in this center of offices; this 'building' was uniquely freestanding. And rather than an office or a building; it resembled a Popsicle stand more than anything else. Or...like a Dairy Delight. Something...some type of business that didn't require much overhead or room. And I supposed that a freestanding Western Union wouldn't actually require that much room. And so here we were. I approached the little window feeling like I was about to order a shake but instead asked the worker within if they could look me up by name. The old man, all the while, paying very close attention.
Tragically, the representative quickly reported that, no, they had nothing in their system regarding myself just yet.
“It's okay,” the old guy smiled, “We will check back. Give it time.”
Time, however, was not exactly on my side at this point.
Late afternoon hung in the air. The sky was beginning to yellow.
It's okay, I told myself. If need be, I could get the photos done tomorrow first thing. But where?! Not to mention that the reason I needed to be at the embassy first thing was because my plane, the only other flight that I could catch before having to seriously come up with some new plans, was scheduled to leave in the early afternoon and I just didn't want to be taking any chances. None! I needed, for my own sanity's sake, to be back at that airport with all my documentation and shit with hours to spare. Or, at the very least, I needed to make sure that I arrived at the embassy right when it opened in order to secure as much time as there was to be secured. Because I had no idea how long the process was going to take. It might even take only a few minutes. I had no idea. But this was some serious paperwork we were talking about and I was expecting a lot of red tape.
To make matters worse, there was also subject of my...visa? I wasn't even sure if that's what it was. But it had been the tiniest slip of paper that they'd handed me upon my arrival. No joke; the fucking thing couldn't have been more than a couple inches square. The slip had been stolen along with my passport, credit card, and cash but...next to all those items, I really hadn't given it much thought. In fact, until I got the the airport; I'd all but forgotten about it. How fortunate then that they reminded me of its existence and exactly how important it was. So important that, according to the airline personnel, I wouldn't be able to make it past the customs inspectors on my way out.
'Exit' customs inspectors? Had I ever gone through this shit before? I drew a blank. If anything, if a different country had given me a similar piece of paper upon arrival; I'd probably just kept it sandwiched in the pages of my passport so that I took it for granted or was less aware of it at any rate. Yes, actually...I did recall having somewhat of a similar problem in Thailand. Or trying to get back into Thailand, that is. The customs officer at the border had asked me for a slip that, for the life of me, I couldn't remember ever having received. Turns out, it was just lost in one of the more disorganized pockets of my backpack. But again, that was trying to get into a country. I couldn't, however, ever remember them giving a fuck about anything like that upon leaving.
So...back to those chairs in the travel agency we went. Might as well. Because, although I no longer needed the old man, I also knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that he wasn't ever going to leave me alone. What's more; he didn't appear to be very busy at the moment...whatever his actual job around there was. Fuck it. Why not take advantage of an opportunity to practice my Spanish conversationally. A conversation, that is, that didn't involve talking to the police or dealing with my lack of identity. And so we chatted back and forth for awhile while the others at their desks were only halfway paying attention. Finally, the old man made a joke about one of the prettier girls sitting in the office and 'wouldn't I like to marry her or even just take her to bed'.
In an uncontrollable motion, I looked up and made eye contact with her. I wasn't even sure why but it was probably due to an instinct within me that needed to see if she'd been as embarrassed by the comment as myself. And she was. She was blushing even through that tan pigmentation as the two other ladies in the room began to tease her without remorse.
“I'm gonna go smoke again,” I smiled but got up in rather a hurry.
“What?” the old man asked, “You don't like her?”
“No,” I answered. “I mean, yes. I mean, I like her. Yes. She's beautiful. It's just that I'm sure she's taken and I also have a girlfriend back home waiting for me. So, you see...and with my deepest regrets,” I didn't know that last part so just spoke it in English, “I'm afraid it's just not going to happen. Plus, as you all know, I have really got to get out of here. Tomorrow.”
“But there's still tonight!” the old man kept joking even as the glass door closed shut behind me.
I couldn't quite believe it but it appeared as though he was going to let me alone for just a little while. Still...I was right outside the office and suspected that he'd never let me out of his sight. And suspected correctly as, once I'd finished my cigarette, I decided to check-in with the Western Union stand again only to hear the door to the office open and close behind me.
Through the little window, I just handed them my license this time allowing the rep to read my name rather than me having to spell it out for him. My monicker being too 'white', I guess. Which, in all honestly, it really was.
“Ah, yes,” the rep looked up from his computer after checking a minute.
“Yes, Mr. Swanson. We have you on file.”
“Oh, thank God. Holy shit!” I grew a bit too excited and almost forgot that the old guy was right behind me.
“Yes, please, just fill out this form.”
“You got it. Thank you.”
And just like that; I was back in business...for the second time this trip.
Next time, I promised myself...next time, I was just going to take a vacation! Not Hawaii but...I don't know. Just somewhere with a beach or something. None of this 'moving all around' God's fucking green Earth. I was sick of it. Too much stress.
I always said that though. It was like my prayer or something.
“Thank you, thank you,” I said once again after everything was processed . Then...almost under my breath, “Could I have it in small bills, please?”
Never could I be too careful. Someone, sometime tonight or tomorrow may even try to charge me just for attempting to break up a bill into smaller denominations.
Paranoid, I greedily took the cash (which was ample) but instantly realized that I had no idea where to put it. My backpack wasn't safe enough. It's pockets could be unzipped from behind without my so much as noticing. And my satchel? Well...normally, I always kept it slung around my neck but, what with wearing the backpack too; I'd taken to carrying it today in my arms just to save the spine a little. So, with that article, there was always the possibility that someone could snatch it in a flash like.. if I set it down in a chair or something or even right out of my lap! The best option seemed like one of my shoes but my mind instantly played a short 'what if' type movie where the bills slipped out somehow and quickly became carried away by an unexpected gust of wind. So, much as I hated to do it, there was only one other place I could think of. It's where I'd mostly kept the last little sum of money I'd picked up. And that was right there in my left hip pocket. Right where my money had been robbed originally. Circumstances were, however, just a little bit different this time...for both better and worse. The stakes were much higher now. High as they possibly fucking could be by what I could ascertain. It was either; make it out of here tomorrow or stay here forever. God, why couldn't this just be happening to me in Thailand. I don't think that I'd have minded a bit. But the upside was; I don't believe that this hip pocket looked quite as enticing as it had back in Cuzco. That black, humongous billfold was no more and as far as anyone now could decipher; the pocket was empty. I kept the bills folded perfectly in half so that they could remain as flat as they could against my leg without sticking out at all. And I made some next to impossible vow to myself like 'I wouldn't get caught in any more crowds'...like that could always be helped.
“Yes, yes?” the old man was trying desperately to make eye contact with me, “Everything worked out for you then? Everything is going to be okay now. I told you so, did I not?”
And, for the life of me, I actually could not remember him having ever said that.
But I agreed anyway, “Yes. I'm afraid that was just phase 1 of the plan though. You don't know anyone who does passport photos, do ya?”
“Of course, señor! Of course, I do. I live here. You forget.”
“Close by? Like also in this business center, maybe?”
“No. No, not here. But still pretty close. A taxi could take us...”
“I don't think I have enough money for a taxi,” I interrupted. And this was completely true but I also wanted to make it known to this old man that, although I'd just received a bunch of cash, it was basically already spent. Not to mention that, in this vicinity around the airport, I didn't expect that a passport photo place would prove that hard to find. And I told him so.
“Yes, yes,” he heard me, “But who can guarantee that they will be open this late?”
And he did sort of have a point. I didn't have my phone anymore so I didn't have a clock. But I knew what time my flight was to depart. Or, I should say, did depart. And that meant that after all the time I'd spent at the airport...and now here; it was probably well into the evening despite the bright, yellow sky. The shadows were long though. And then a jolt-full of alarm ran right through my heart. We were so close to the equator down here that it was probably way later that it even seemed. Fuck!
And he did sort of have a point. I didn't have my phone anymore so I didn't have a clock. But I knew what time my flight was to depart. Or, I should say, did depart. And that meant that after all the time I'd spent at the airport...and now here; it was probably well into the evening despite the bright, yellow sky. The shadows were long though. And then a jolt-full of alarm ran right through my heart. We were so close to the equator down here that it was probably way later that it even seemed. Fuck!
“You know a guy?”
“Yes, señor. I would be happy to show you.”
“Yes, señor. I would be happy to show you.”
“But I don't want to take a taxi.”
“That's fine, señor. That's okay. Then we'll take the bus.”
“Well,” I thought about it, “Alright.”
And by 'bus'; the man meant...well, not quite what I'd anticipated. In fact, I couldn't remember having seen an actual city bus in Lima...but that's not to say that there weren't any. I was still surprised though, when, after leading me back towards the airport a bit (over the overpass once again); we found ourselves standing alone on the side of the highway in a patch of shoulder so sandy that I was finding it difficult just to breathe. Also (and I really should have expected this) there was no post or sign.
“So this is a bus stop?”
It's not that I didn't trust him. I'd made up my mind to trust him already. I think I was just making conversation.
“Yes,” he said again, “And here it comes now.”
And holy shit. Here it came alright. Separating itself from the busy streaming highway; there pulled up to us a rusted out, beat to shit, Volkswagen van (not all that unlike the one I used to own in my teens). And somehow, as if by magic, this 'bus' seemed to recognize that we were standing there waiting for it because it quickly pulled up kicking even more dust up into the air already stinging, smoggy, and perfectly toxic.
“Jump in!” the old man yelled at me over the vehicle's un-mufflered exhaust.
And it didn't stop for long. It barely stopped at all! I kind of felt bad for the old man then. I mean, had I but known; I would have at least let him hop in first. But there I went (right in through the sliding side door wide-open). And in he piled right after making quick use of the extended hand I held out for him. And, had I imagined it, or were his toes still actually dragging in the sand as we sped away. It all happened too fast to ever know for sure but, once we were inside, I was certain that the dude riding shotgun already had his hand out.
“How much is it?” I asked the old guy. I trusted him now, not the drivers.
And he told me that it cost mere change. He specified the price. That is, he told me specifically but...I just fucking had no more change. So I sort of whispered to him, “I only have a twenty,” meaning; soles, of course. “Do you think they can break that for me?”
“Mm-mm,” he shook his head in the negative, “How 'bout...you pay me back after, okay?”
“Sounds good. And thank you.”
And so, pulling a couple coins from the bottom of his pockets, he paid the man.
The drivers and the few passengers in there with us thought this was funny. They thought it funny that this busted old guy in his secondhand clothes should be paying for a whitey like me. And I guess it was, sort of. Since the back bench was filled up and the middle bench had been ripped out for, when I imagined, this bus got really crowded; the old man and I sat on the rubber floor as we began to pick up speed and rumble along.
The place was close. He hadn't been bullshitting me there either. Just over a mile or so, perhaps. I could have walked it but...even with directions...
If I thought that the bus had come to sort of a rolling, 'California stop' before; when letting us off, it seemed, the thing barely slowed down at all. I jumped out (when the old man tapped my shoulder to do so) and damn near sprained an ankle. And he...well, maybe it was these bus rides that kept him in such great physical shape. This way of life. So tough and unforgiving. But it kept him fucking young. It was survival of the fittest here in the Third World. And in some ways; I wished The States would learn a lesson from that.
“Jesus,” I tried to collect myself as the van rumbled off again, “That was crazy. Where the hell are we?”
Just like before, we'd been dropped off on the side of the road where there was no sign posted. Things seemed to have slowed down a bit here just this far from the airport. The highway had narrowed, for one, and it didn't seem nearly as busy. And there were a few more roads now; paved but just barely. They were surrounded by multistoried tenements that ran their length as far as I could see. This being said; I would have expected more people to be about. Or any, for that matter. But there weren't. Not a one. Maybe...just maybe I could see a couple kids in the distance. But the atmosphere was even dustier here and my eyes may have just been playing tricks on me.
“Come on,” and now it was the old man who didn't seem to be into wasting any time.
For about a quarter mile, I'd say, the two of us trotted down one of those lonesome, dusty roads. And then, to my surprise, we made a quick turn towards a gigantic building that appeared to be nothing more than an abandoned warehouse comprised mostly of corrugated metal. Inside that warehouse, however, went on something that I never would have imagined. It was a market! A huge, fucking market full of people and vendors and stands and goods. And ceilings so high; one almost felt as if they were still outside! Meat sellers. Fruit sellers. And all different sorts of weird knickknacks for sale that would have been perfect for souvenir presents if money, as always, wasn't such a strain. And time. And that was the real difference now. This was a race against time.
And the old man suddenly seemed to understand that!
He was walking fast like a man on a mission. Fast like I always walk no matter where I'm going...even to work. Then again, maybe he just didn't like this much public exposure. Or maybe he was afraid that his face would be seen. Or just seen with me. Maybe this was the lowest of the low for them. Especially now during the riots and protests and such...to be helping out a white kid who, to them, probably represented business and big government and all that was wrong with the world. Even I doubted that though. More likely; this guy had burned a lot of people around here. Maybe this was his neighborhood. Maybe he owed someone rent!
But any...any of these possibilities were obviously just speculations at best. Still. I couldn't begin to fathom that he'd picked up so much speed just now on my account.
Either way, the market whooshed by me. Vendors shouted out every once in a while. And it seemed as if, even if we were right next to them when their sales pitches started, their voices were well behind us seconds later. The faces flew by. And even people's feet, so fast were we moving, seemed to be in slow motion now or like little freeze-frames where I could only catch them in mid step. The stands too. Everything. We crossed almost an acre.
Then it was out the backdoor. The backdoor; indescript and unbusy as the front one had been. And, for all I knew, this was the front door. Because, just like at the last doorway, there were before us; residential roads (poorly paved) and apartment buildings all around. But there was a courtyard between some of these apartments now (poorly gardened). And it was here, before the very doors of some of these dwellings, that we now made our way.
I suppose that just as with buildings in big cities or any sort of civic environment; the ground floors of certain doors led to places of business. And it was up to one of these doors, right there in an apartment complex (again, all but seemingly abandoned) that this man whom I trusted now led me.
“This is it,” he assured me, “This is the one.”
We were right up against a doorway now and a window with glamour shots crudely exhibited and masking taped up from the inside.
“Should I...?” I shrugged, “Knock?”
“Yes, yes. Of course, yes. He is my friend.”
And so I did. A couple of fisted raps. Just trying to sound friendly. In a hurry but friendly. But not like the law or anything.
And sure enough, it opened.
“Can I help you?”
And this is where the old man jumped in. He put his face in the doorjamb and spoke some Spanish jabber. The words weren't uttered under his breath or anything but they were still too fast for me to understand.
“Of course!” Of course, the guy said 'of course'. “Please, come in. Just tell me, please. How may I assist you?”
The walls (and even the floor) of the room we entered had been painted black. This being so; it was very difficult to gauge just how large or small the room actually was. But from what I could tell; it was a legitimate photo studio with a few of those lamps close-by...the kind with those silver umbrellas attached to them that help filter out the poor light. At least that's what I always assumed they did. There were also a few barstools before us and this man, the photographer, bid me to sit in one of them.
“I just need a couple of passport pictures,” I blurted not wanting this guy to get his hopes up with the thoughts of any job more detailed, interesting, or pricey, “But, you know, they have to be 2 by 2 inches exactly. So if you can do that, I'd be very grateful.”
“Absolutely. You've come to the right place.”
“But I also need them like right away,” and I explained to him my situation with the embassy without trying to come across as demanding.
“This is fine. I do have a digital.”
“Would you like to comb your hair first?” he asked while grabbing his camera from behind a wooden desk.
“Nah. That's alright. I don't even own a brush or a comb or anything. I know I need a shower and that I probably smell bad. For which, I apologize.”
“You are fine. Please, don't worry. But you may want to put down your bag. The strap is pulling your collar down unevenly.”
“Oh,” I hadn't even thought about it. My mind wasn't firing right, “Thank you. Good idea.”
Then this nice photographer did something that I thought went above and beyond his duty...in a good way. It was a gesture that spoke of the man's true nature to me. He was keenly attentive and took his job seriously. And he was more, I knew for sure then, than a mere passport pic guy.
“I think you should take off your jacket altogether,” he said.
To which, I complied.
After I'd done so, and ever so smoothly...the man used his hands to smooth out the fabric of my overshirt. He then pulled on my collar in order to straighten it and lastly caused a comb to appear, seemingly from out of nowhere, and proceeded to fix my hair with it.
“Now then,” he stepped back to take in the bigger picture, “I think that is much better.”
Then it was picture time. He snapped off a couple of shots and chose one himself without letting either the old man or I see the other potentials.
The printing didn't take long either but the three of us did sit around a few minutes to ensure that the images didn't smear. Then came the moment of truth. The three of us stood up, the prints were passed to me in a tagboard envelope, and the price for them was...?
Fifteen bucks. Nothing I could complain about. He'd done a fine job, after all. I was in a predicament, for another. And this photographer, if he was just a dick or something, could have easily raped me for a whole lot more. Not to mention that 15 is what I would have paid back in The States anyway.
“Thank you, sir. You are an artist!” I spoke this with just a little bit of dramatic flare which he seemed to enjoy.
“Anytime, señor. I hope you have enjoyed Peru.”
“For the most part,” I couldn't quite decide whether or not this was the truth though. And, “I'll try to come back someday,” I definitely lied.
When the door to the man's shop closed shut behind us again, the sky had grown grey with deep evening and the tenements surrounding us gave off a sharp and shadowy presence. And this is to infer that, without the old man at my side, I may have been more than just a little afraid. Not that a single Peruvian male thus far had exhibited enough bulk to have really, physically intimidated me; but in a neighborhood like this...if enough of them ganged-up, I would have been fucked.
From here, it was the old man's plan to find me a nearby hotel. And a hotel is exactly what I wanted. It was just the 'nearby' part that I had a bit of a problem with.
“But how far's the embassy?” I asked him. I knew what the people back at the airport had told me but I was still curious as to what he would say.
“It is very far, señor. Not even in Lima, city proper.”
“Well...if you had to guess. How far would you say it was?”
“Oh, I don't know, señor.”
“Not even in kilometers?”
“Well, how long of a ride is it? Like...if I had to take the bus or something.”
“Hah, hah, hah,” he laughed with a nefarious overtone and then said in an uncharacteristic, deep voice, “All day.”
His laugh had been a joke. The second part of that assertion; I believed was not.
“Don't worry,” he continued, “I know what to do.”
And I believed this as well. It's easy to tell when a person doesn't completely understand your situational crisis and/or just doesn't care. But this guy understood. He was sharper than he looked and I didn't doubt for a second that he'd captured every detail surrounding my plight.
His 'plan' was a good one too. Or at least it was one that I couldn't complain about or find any problem with. Apparently, the old man had a friend who was a cabdriver whom we would contact from back at the travel agency since neither one of us had a cell phone and neither, in all probability, did his cabbie friend. So through the marketplace warehouse we went again. Then out onto the dusty street. And it was here, as the sun set all around us in a fiery fuchsia, that another bus picked us up. Or; Volkswagen van, I should say. The old guy paid for me again but I well understood that my time was coming.
His plan proved seamless. We had to sit at the office a little while...and then it front of the office for a short time after it closed. But the cabdriver did show up shortly thereafter as the old man and I were smoking cigarettes.
“He will drive you to the embassy tomorrow, okay?”
“Yeah. That would be great. As soon as it opens, if that's possible.”
“What time does it open? Eight?” the cabbie asked me after we'd both hopped in; the car causing a crunchy sound beneath us as we began to roll along in the gravel and dust.
“I believe so.”
“So I should pick you up at six,” he stated matter-of-factly.
“Sure,” that sounded really fucking early to have to be up and ready but...I can't believe I was even griping about such a thing! Even if it was only in my own head. “Six would be great.”
“Okay,” we'd taken the highway for less than a mile but were back on residential grounds now, “Then I'll just pick you up in front.”
And as we slowed down now; the vehicle's body began to shimmy. Its tires had come into contact with a long, unbroken stretch of inch long ruts in the hard dirt that was the road now. They even caused my voice to vibrate when I asked, “In front of where exactly?”
“Right here,” he turned around to smile at me as we pulled to a stop.
And, once again, I didn't find myself with the slightest cause to complain. I'd been afraid that they were going to try to drop me off at some fancy looking place despite what I'd told the old man about being pretty much broke already under the weight of all my expenses.
“Please. Follow me, my friend. I will show you to your room.”
He must have called them ahead of time because, just upon entering, there were three dudes waiting for us. Not a one was smiling or even faked being happy to see me; this guest who, due to unforeseen circumstances, they wouldn't have otherwise had. One of them extended towards us a room key which the old man grabbed just before nodding back at them with a tight smile. He, unquestionably, wasn't one of their best friends either but there must have been some sort of understanding between them. He brought them business and that was good enough for them.
The hotel itself, from the outside, had looked like either a tiny motel or a rather large (especially for these parts), four story house. It was stucco and of a coral hue. The whole building. Either that or a peach color. Its windows and doorway had been accented in white paint and there were highlights, here and there, of colorful Mexican tile. Like the windowsills, for example, or all along the ground like some sort of decorative weather stripping. And there was probably even some wrought iron going on too...like a gate or something. But basically, the place gave off a very authentic impression and not at all (at least from the outside) uninviting or un-homey. And this was partially do, as well, to a warm, glowing light that seemed to radiate from every room and even the main door.
Two flights of stairs, we climbed. And even then...even after what a busy and physical evening we'd had; I just could not bring myself to believe that this old man's body should be capable of such feats. They must have normally had him running a lot of errands around that travel agency.
“Here you are,” he said and even unlocked the door for me.
He allowed me to enter first but quickly followed me in and shut the door behind himself.
“So,” he took a look around, “Is everything to your liking?”
“Looks great,” I admitted (and it did), “But how much is it?”
“You told me how much you wanted to pay. I told them how much you wanted to pay. And they know me so they make that happen for you.”
“Really? Perfect. That's great. Thank you.”
I was standing by the window looking out onto this neighborhood so post-apocalyptic in appearance or like a construction site where every cinder block building for acres and acres was only half yet erected. And everywhere, it was like I could see bare lightbulbs but had no idea what exactly they were supposed to be lighting. It was as if they were shining on potentially hazardous areas like a pile of plaster and broken glass or an exposed steel rod that someone would have easily wrecked themselves on.
The old man came a couple steps further and then sat down on the edge of the bed. “And now, señor. Maybe we should talk about my fee.”
“Alright. Here's what I think,” and at first, strategically, I low-balled him a bit. Not too much. I mean, I didn't want to offend him or anything. But I really did need to hang onto as much money as possible and actually negotiate with some tact.
In the end, I wound up giving him what amounted to about 20 bucks American. At first, he put up a bit of a protest. But then, I think once he realized that there was no firm ground for him to stand on, he shook my hand and acted happy enough with our bargain. And I highly doubt that that man had earned so much money in one day in quite some time...if ever!
“Ah. Now,” he said standing up, “You would like me to send Karina to this room, yes?”
“Yes, yes. Please, don't tell me you have forgotten already. She is much too beautiful. Karina from the office.”
“Oh,” a wave of relief came over me although I wasn't sure why. “Hah-hah,” I enunciated. “She was pretty. You guys were definitely right about that but...”
“Yes, yes. You know that I am only joking. I know that you have a very special one back in America. That is so?”
“And do you have a picture? I am very curious, you see.”
“And do you have a picture? I am very curious, you see.”
“Actually...” I spaced-out for a few moments, “I don't. But I definitely need to get one.”
“Definitely,” the old man agreed and I could tell that he was disappointed for real this time. That is, it wasn't just a face he put on to try and squeeze more than 20 bucks out of me. “Well, señor,” he shook my hand heartily and genuinely smiled so that I could really see those poor, decaying teeth...those that were still there, “I have enjoyed helping you very much. Very best of luck.”
And I thanked him again. By the door, he made one last attempt (a weak one though) to try to scrape up a few more bucks from me but I told him, honestly, that that really was all that I could spare. He smiled understandingly and even made a little bow on his way out.
Then, for the first time in what felt like forever, I was alone. I was alone and didn't know quite what to do with myself. So for a while, I just sat there on the bed not thinking about anything. Not a single thought went through my head and yet it's not like I was trying to suppress them. But my brain had been gutted. Hollowed right out like a fucking pumpkin. And that's when the feeling came to me. Or the drive; I should say. The same sensation that always brought me back. Hunger. That corporeal instinct that, I believe, is the strongest force that keeps the whole world turning. My gut had been hollowed out too and I needed some food. It had been a while since I'd eaten.
On my way downstairs and back out into the evening, I stopped in the foyer (there wasn't really a lobby by definition) and inquired about some internet. The three gentlemen were still hanging out in almost the exact same places but were sitting instead of standing this time. When I asked them if there was a computer for the guests to use; the man who must have been the owner stood up and fidgeted a bit like he didn't know quite what to tell me. He even seemed a little put out. And I...I wasn't even going to be persistent about the matter as it was no longer really that imperative that I use a computer tonight at all. Mostly, I just wanted to email my girlfriend to thank her or check to see if she'd emailed me back.
The owner's solution, although ultimately functional, wasn't pretty to say the least. And for me, personally, it quickly became awkward...a lot of that having to do with the fact that I still couldn't tell whether or not he was pissed. But, for just a minute, he left the foyer and slipped into a backroom. Briefly, I exchanged glances with the other two guys but quickly decided to just look at the tiled ground. And then he returned...with his arms absolutely overflowing with electronics. Cords, a plastic modem-looking box, and even a whole laptop.
“Oh. It's okay,” I told him then, “I really didn't know you were going to have to go to all this trouble.”
My attempt to be gracious, however, caused the man's mouth to sneer and his eyebrows to wrinkle up even more than they already had been. So I just shut up. And I mean, it took him a while to plug everything in and set all that shit up and get it going. And all I could do is sit there with a toothy, indebted look on my face.
Once finished, he set the laptop gently down in my lap with an almost sarcastic glare. I said 'thank you' once again and speedily logged into my email account. She hadn't mailed me. Fuck. A feeling of uneasiness ran over me and stayed. She was pissed and I felt helpless to do anything about it. To put her mind at ease. To tell her that I was sorry for whatever it was and that everything was going to work itself out. That I wanted it to work out so much. I also knew that she didn't care if she heard anything from me tonight or not but I quickly sent her a letter anyway just to let her know what the situation was and that it looked as though I might just get out of here tomorrow afternoon sometime. She wanted me to then get my shit and leave her place at once. I knew. She'd actually written that to me. But that just couldn't... Even if it was just a direct flight out of here; I could have kept it together inside. However, that was not the case. There was one fucking long layover awaiting me in Panama City and I knew that, although I still had tons of shit to do and stress to deal with, the time would pass fairly quickly. For her; it would not.
The letter itself took me only a couple of minutes to write. And then I felt bad for the owner having gone to all that trouble to set everything up...but I just couldn't take it. I couldn't fake like I needed the internet for anything else or like I was checking out other shit. I needed fresh air desperately. And when I stood up after just those few minutes and placed the laptop back down in the seat where my butt had been, I was met with the well anticipated vibes of negativity and even a, “Psssh.”
But I just had to get out of there.
The streets of this neighborhood were dark and depressing but surely there had to be some restaurant around here somewhere.
I was thankful that there weren't any other people about. Lights were on inside all the domiciles around me. It must have been dinnertime. Perhaps in Peru, people still sat down to a family style meal. And typically, I would have found some sort of irony in that but I was too numb and of very ill humor. But there was a light up ahead. I'd walked maybe a half-mile and turned a few sandy corners always staying conscious of where my hotel was in relation. But at least there was that light. A pink awning illumined from within and the lights were on inside too. There weren't any patrons but that suited me and my mood all the more. Quietly, I slipped inside.
There wasn't anyone around. No one. So I just sat at a table and waited not really caring for all the world how long it took them to notice I was here. The place was well lit but not too bright like a fast food chain or anything. It was also spacious with about a dozen tables or so and more than ample elbowroom. And the restaurant was Chinese which seemed to make everything all the better because the Chinese fucking loved everyone...especially me for some reason. A few aquariums exhibiting those long, narrow fish that, to me, always resembled tapeworms bubbled in the background.
“Hello? How you?” a cute girl came from out the kitchen.
Jesus. Even their Spanish was broken. More broken than mine even.
She was a sweet thing. Eighteen, I'd say, and cute as a button.
An entree and a couple egg rolls, I ordered. And when the food came up, she even sat down and talked to me. She was bored and I actually didn't mind the light conversation. She was impressed that I was an American and all that and made it very clear that she was completely bored with her life here and her seeming lack of a future.
“You can do whatever you want,” I smiled and told her those dangerous lies just like a parent would, “Just believe in yourself.”
And she really liked hearing stuff like this. I guess, we all do. She also liked to watch me eat. I could tell that she was proud of the food...which wasn't great but I did prefer it (by far) to anything Peruvian. And that's not just because of my recently induced spitefulness.
“You like?” her eyes were black and glassy and her smile to big and real for this world.
“Very much. Thank you. But I don't think I can finish it all.”
“It's okay. I put in to-go box for you,” so weird it was hearing this come through in Spanish.
“I'd appreciate that. Thank you very much.” I told her this in Chinese too which came out something like, “Fay chong gong shee,” and I became sure then that she thought the world of me. It was a good feeling; that mesmerized look in someone's eyes when they think that you're something more...much more than just some desperate person whopping up lo mein.
“You come back again tomorrow?!” she brought my food back in a box in a bag for me.
“We'll see. You know I'd love to but if I don't...it's only because I've gone home, okay?”
“Okay,” and those words...that tone of disappointment as I left through the door again; for some reason, they got me.
On my way back, I found a dimly lit quickie-mart and stopped there to pick up a couple cans of beer. First, I tried the door. That seemed obvious enough. But it was locked. And yet they had a window full of goods for sale and I swore that I could hear someone behind all the barred glass within. Turns out, this was a...well, not so much a 'front' in the 'illegal operations' sense of the word but a 'front' like, literally, that's where the store's business was solely conducted; like one of those in a bad neighborhood that locks all their doors after dark. And it was only then that it hit me. This was one of those bad neighborhoods. Holy shit. It didn't seem so bad. But just the old lady opening a glass slat in the window before me prompted my ass to not want to stay out here very much longer. Especially not after what I'd seen in Lima upon my arrival. Riots or no...
“Just a couple of those beers, please.”
I passed her the money through the slat and out came the beer. Luckily, I wasn't but half a block from my 'hotel'.
After a long and scalding shower, I think I finally managed to relax. The men, when I reentered, were nowhere to be seen. But at least, so far as security was concerned, they'd closed the gate and I did have to utilize my key in order to unlock it. And my room; it was the nicest I'd had in a while. It felt like an actual hotel room and not just some cubby hole or drafty locker where travelers were left to fend for themselves against the elements or the possibility of an intrusion. The bed was actually a bed with no blood even. It was queen-sized and inviting and I quickly made my way to it and flipped on the ceiling-mounted TV. An episode of 'Friends' came on. Dubbed over in Spanish, of course. But, either way, I actually found myself taken away by its comedy which was a nice escape. It was the one where Ross's new girlfriend was pissed because he was still close friends with Rachael, his ex. And in the end, there came an ultimatum where Ross just straight up told her that, if she had that much of a problem with it, she would have to go somewhere else. And this was unsettling to me and I believed I knew why then. But these were just characters and it was only TV. And besides; I hadn't even seen her in years, had none of those feelings for her and never would again, and she was about to get married. So unlike TV was my situation and yet so similar was my problem. But isn't that art.
A hot and sweaty couple (or at least as I imagined them to be) started fucking on the floor above me as I ate the rest of my leftovers and continued to watch sitcoms. Fucking hard. Real hard. I mean, she was making noises like I'd inspired in chicks only a few times in my whole life. And their bed kept thumping against the wall. It was fucking epic! And I knew that she wasn't just a whore. Whores, I assumed, just laid there to take it from men with big, pasty bellies. But this...this was some actual sort of lovemaking or something. I mean, whoever this superman was was fucking railing her ass! And her screams unintentionally, of course, arousing the beast in me and probably every other guy in this hotel who happened to be in his room alone on this night. Just who were these outstanding lovers?! Jesus. I tried to imagine which positions they were in. And for some reason then; I got it into my head that it was that girl. Karina. Karina from the office.
Eventually, though, I did mange to drowse under the covers and then finally fall into an actual curled-up-and-hugging-a-pillow kind of night's sleep. And it was warm.
So when the phone rang in the morning; I couldn't exactly say I was surprised. But I couldn't say that I was already down there and waiting either. It was the owner's grumpy voice on the other end and he didn't sound too amused at having to make this simple call. The cabbie, on the other hand, couldn't give less of a shit since we'd previously arranged a flat rate and he knew that I wasn't going to take more than 5 minutes to get ready and moving...which I didn't.
Outside, the air was nice and cool and the sky; a very pale color with accents of apricot right around the horizon. The sun had come up perhaps an hour ago but, due to the overcast nature of the day, I couldn't tell quite where it was.
“You ready?” the cabbie asked me while helping to take my pack.
“As I'll ever be.”
He'd wanted to put it in the trunk but I felt more comfortable with every piece of my baggage right there in the backseat with me.
It was early. And it was always such a strain for me to speak in Spanish; so much so that I neglected to talk very much at all. But again, the cabbie didn't seem to mind. The traffic was incredible and the smog, even at this cool and early hour, was toxic and nauseating. But through it all, we weaved; over and under overpasses until, perhaps half an hour later, we were well outside the city.
Around us now, there could be seen some grassy hills but up from them sprang massive, monolithic buildings of concrete; more apartments, I assumed, by their appearance. Ugly apartments that seemed to lack any grounds crew or maintenance man. And I noticed a lot of pools of stagnant water that didn't seem to belong there. That is, it hadn't rained recently which left me to guess that, the last time it had, the sewers had overflowed in a big fucking way.
For another half hour, the scenery stayed this way; more grassy hills and apartment buildings. These were the suburbs...just not the kind that come to mind back home. These were slums and I couldn't imagine what sort of activities comprised people's days this far out. In my head, I pictured tiny television sets getting horrible reception. But on them, on the screens of these TV's, there ran soap after soap opera. The story lines were basically all the same; only the names of the characters different. And these were what kept people entertained. At least the women, anyway. Kids were pretty much kids anywhere and always found a way to play...even if that did mean swimming in an irrigation ditch. And the men; well, they were always up to no good. Always drinking and scamming. But who was there to scam? Only their own. I'd bet that the criminal activity around here was off the fucking charts. I'll bet the whoring was pretty high too and started at a despicably young age.
Coasting down another hill then, we came quickly into an area I wasn't expecting to see. Not around these parts, anyway. But, ever so suddenly, I found that we were now cruising down a stretch of highway that held a really nice outdoor mall on our left-hand side. It was two stories with an esplanade on top that linked all the stores. And balconies and shit. And I do mean 'shit' since, let's face it, that's all malls carry anyway. What surprised me the most, though, was that based on those slummy apartment buildings we'd just passed; I highly doubted that anyone living there would have been able to afford any of this shit. These were designer stores and not just quickie-marts or stands along the highway! There were fountains and brick patios and the place was a little bit gaudy even. Upscale, retail merchandisers. Franchises that sold catalog clothing! So just what the fuck was going on?
I never did see where any of these wealthy and elite actually lived. I didn't even know if they resided anywhere around here. But I did discover who they were. Who they must have been. Because all along on our right now, there were the many walls and gates that barricaded various embassies from the outside world. Each one flying the flag of their own nation. It was an amazing sight, really. I had no idea that such concentrated districts actually existed.
“This is it,” and the cabbie pulled up to curb skirting one long and enormous grey wall.
And there it was; Old Glory flowing majestically over a couple of service windows and doorways through which one had to enter...to get beyond that wall anyway.
“Nice. Thanks, man.”
“You want I should wait for you?”
“Yeah, but I honestly have no idea how long this is going to take.”
“It's alright,” he nodded across the street towards all the brick courtyards and fountains and wrought iron, “I'll go to McDonald's.” And he smiled. The cabbie was definitely pretty excited about this.
“Alright. But you're not going to try to charge me for all the time that you're sitting here, are you?”
“No. It will be the same amount to go back to town. I'm not a crook. I'm an honest man. And honestly, I can say that waiting around here for you is better than trying to find fare in Lima. I hate that traffic, man.”
“Alright. Deal then.” And I watched as he made one giant (and surely illegal) U-turn before finding a spot in which to park right along the sidewalk just across the street.
So now I had that set up which was nice. I'd been worrying a bit about being able to find another cab who'd feel like driving all the way back into town. In reality, most cabbies probably wouldn't have minded or might have even preferred to drive a long fare such as myself. Still...it never hurt to worry about such potential snares. Especially when in a foreign country. Especially on a day like this. I hadn't seen any more cabs in this vicinity (not that we'd been in this vicinity very long) but it just seemed like the type of place, mostly, where people had their own rides or private cars with hired drivers. Little worries were probably a good thing. Because I knew that once I stopped worrying; it was game over time. I'd lose and Peru would get me.
Turning around then and forgetting the cab situation (because, thankfully, I could) I looked up and came face-to-face with...well, that wall mostly. The actual embassy must have been set back a ways since there wasn't any sign of it whatsoever. Not even an overhanging rooftop. Nope. There was only a door. A glass one. And through it, I passed only an instant after they'd taken down the 'closed' sign.
Inside, I found the lengthiest and most industrial looking metal detector slash x-ray machine I'd ever seen in my life. It comprised almost an entire hallway leaving minimal space for the handful of security guards to even stand. The first of these guards, the one standing closest to the door, asked to see my ID...of course. And this prompted me to tell him just enough of my story in native English and a genuine American accent... And I believe that this is what he was listening to more than the story itself. I did show him my driver's license, though, and I guess that was enough for me to pass. This guard must have heard the same story a million times. Although others, perhaps, weren't so fortunate as myself. That is, they may not have had any ID to show at all. And I wondered if they would get the 'pass' or if the general procedure was even the same.
After lifting my heavy backpack up onto the conveyor, I was patted down vigorously by the next set of guards and asked whether or not I was carrying any weapons. And they were kind of mean about it. Their attitude and their tone; it was gruff and unpleasant. But they passed me through too and, soon enough, I was standing face-to-face with another glass door; this one, however, surrounded by windows. Then through this door, I was still surprised to find that the embassy itself was nowhere near. But I could see it at least. It was about a quarter mile to my right and slightly up a slope. There was a wide, concrete path that led to its doors directly. And on both sides of this path, there were waist-high, concrete walls that gave the path the appearance of being sunken (which I guess it was) in the grassy grounds all around. But these walls also gave the appearance of forced orderliness; an insinuation that, if anyone should step off the pathway, they'd be dealt with somehow. Like, there weren't any signs saying 'keep off the grass' or anything but...ya just knew. And maybe that's all there was to it. Maybe they did actually take their grass that seriously. Because, unlike any other grounds I'd seen so far in this land (save, perhaps, a nice churchyard back in Cuzco), this grass was green and kept with the manicured precision and fine eye as that of a golf course's groundskeeper. There were also a few large trees; sparsely but strategically placed. And no rubble to be seen. And no garbage. Sad to say that that should seem so weird but it was. Truly this was a little slice of American soil.
Making my way up the path then, I quickly realized that I was the only one around. The only one in sight! Nobody was coming or going. No workers were just arriving even though this was obviously the very beginning of their workday. Perhaps, there was a rear entrance to this place. For all I knew, though, they also could have lived on these grounds or been helicoptered in here. Because the most noticeable feature about this gargantuan building as I drew nearer, was that it was a fortress. Any windows at all had been situated up high and were nothing more than thin, little slits. And the walls, I had no doubt in my mind, were of masonry at least 2 feet thick like those of the Pentagon's. It was built to withstand a blast or buy Americans time inside should a riot erupt. This being said, I was surprised to find that there were no additional guards at the front doors. I know that I'd already passed a multitude of them and their inspections but still! We live in a post-9/11 world here and you can never be too careful. But there weren't. I passed through one glass door in a line of many and felt exactly like I was entering a bank...a bank with hidden blast shields that would fall right over those glass doors at the push of a button if necessary.
The lobby was very bank-ish and boring too. Shiny, white tile comprised the foyer, the second and third balconies were completely exposed, and all around there were the mouths of hallways leading to different chambers. The place did have a classy feel about it though. Like...the lighting wasn't too bright but rather emanated softly from a beautiful, grand chandelier way up overhead. And all the walls were done in a nice, dark wood. I almost expected to see a fireplace!
Along one wall, of course, there was a directory inside a glass case and I quickly learned that the department I wanted was located down the first hall on my left. So I went. And it was finally in the office at the end of this hall that the grandeur and gloss of the embassy wore off. Not that the office had become less expensive looking in any way. The setup splayed out before me now was still very shiny and posh looking just as the foyer had been. But there was black marble tile beneath my feet now instead of the white. And overall, it was still very high-class bank looking as opposed to inner city DMV. In the middle of the room, there were nice, cushioned benches. And along all the walls; there ran a continuous shelf with little barricades for privacy so people could fill out their paperwork. And of course, right there in the front of the room just before any of the service windows, there stood one of those red, 'take a number' dispensers. At this time, however, there was no need for that. A few people had snuck in right behind me (one guy even appeared to be another backpacker who'd had his shit stolen too) but it was obvious that I was still first. And so the clean-cut looking guy behind one of the windows (there were eight in all but only two other people working) waved me right over.
The guy was nice. But, then again, I did already have all my documentation in order. Had I not, I did get the distinct feeling that he could have been a real dick. If I hadn't made those police reports, I would have been fucked. If I hadn't shown up with my passport photos...well, that was an obvious fucking but more in the financial sense since I believed that they did offer that service here but for a much higher price. And, lastly, had I not had the money; I have no doubt in my mind that they would have fucked me right back out onto the street. But that's how America works. And more than once, I think, I've actually been glad for that fact.
“Rough time in Cuzco, huh?” he had clipper-buzzed red hair and a Midwestern feel about him. Also, he was thirty-something (or possibly even late twenties still) and, strictly through intuition, I sensed something of a religious background. Or, perhaps, it was just the way he wore that lily white, short sleeved, collared shirt.
“Yeah,” I tried to chuckle and feign a smile, “You could definitely say that.”
“It happens. Just fill out this form and we'll get ya a new passport. A temporary passport, that is. I'm gonna need you to fill out this form first though. It's a pretty standard passport form just like you filled out when you originally applied. So just do that. I'm going to take some other people in the meantime. But just sit right there when your finished,” he pointed at an exact spot on the bench nearest his window, “And I'll call you back up.”
“Sounds good to me. Thank you.”
And so I did what he said and then I sat on the bench. A few more lost, tourist souls had entered by now requiring assistance but this ample waiting room still echoed with its own emptiness. And I was just about to break out my book when he motioned to me again. The whole process was surprisingly expedient but I had no idea what the place would have looked like any later in the day. Either or, I still had a flight to catch and another office to head to yet and I sure as hell wasn't about to hang around just to find out. It took them a half hour or so this time but, sure enough, a lady called my name from a window on the far left. I signed a few more papers and then she handed it over; my brand-new (temporary) passport. It looked pretty much just like my old one; a tough, navy blue exterior but without nearly as many pages for various visas. Just a couple or so. Just enough to get someone home should they have to connect in many other countries in order to get there. And I only had to connect in one.
Perfect. Mission accomplished. Mission: one, that is. It had been easier than I thought it was going to be. But I was pretty sure that this is where shit was about to get a little more difficult. The US had no hand in my next stop but I still needed to go there in order to leave. And this place...it was going to be strictly Peruvian.
My cabbie was waiting for me just as he'd promised and, thankfully, right in the same spot that I'd seen him park. That spared me some distress. And he knew right where I had to go next. It was way back in Lima but so was the airport so I guess that it was kind of on our way. And so, once again, I just went along for the ride. And kind of like the ride out here; I considered it neither pleasant nor unpleasant. But at this point in the trip, I was bright enough to realize that trifles such as pleasure could never be brought into the picture. Survival mode had been fully activated and this was no joke. I tried not to think at all. Only to conserve energy and prepare for what I was met with next.
Back into town we went and into an older area of the city; so it appeared. The streets were narrower and the buildings were somehow even dirtier than the ones that I'd already seen. And the sidewalks were busy. People still lived in a condensed environment around here obviously. Obviously; in the sense that anyone I now saw did not seem to be dressed to engage themselves in business or any kind of real workweek. Rather, most members of this mob were just walking along. Some of them stopped to do some shopping at the sidewalk vegetable markets. There were a few others, though, (the majority of them men in wife-beater tank tops) who were just standing around looking like they were up to no good. This was, however, a positive observation for me overall. It prompted me to keep hold of my new passport at all times. Literally...I would keep it where it was in my hip pocket but maintain physical contact with it by constantly squeezing it between two fingers. At least while I was out on this street.
“That's the building right there,” the cabbie pointed towards a doorway catty-corner to where we now sat stationary at a 4-way stop sign. “I have to go do something now, okay? But as you can see, there are plenty of other taxis to catch around here.” And in that, he was correct. “Very best of luck to you.”
I thanked him and then paid. Leave it to me to find the nicest people in Peru right as I was leaving.
There was nowhere for him to park so I just hopped out at the intersection.
After that, almost instantly, I was accosted by several people who obviously had me pegged and knew the reason I was in the vicinity. A dozen of them! Of every every age group! Men and women! Boys and girls! They were all trying to direct me (in different directions!) and inform me of the procedure for obtaining a new 'arrival record'. And I brushed them off, of course...at first. But then this old lady with long, white hair and a pruney, brown face pleaded with me in English. The distress in her voice caused it to stand out above all the others.
“Señor. Please, listen to me! You first need to fill out this form. Otherwise you will wait in a long fine for nothing!”
And she had me...listening, anyway, but not quite yet committed.
“Which form is that?”
“If you want a new arrival card, the form that you must first fill out is in that office,” and she pointed behind herself somewhat across the crowded side street.
I wasn't quite sure what her game was but...so long as I didn't give her any money; what could it hurt to indulge her. She might even be right.
So I followed her into the building at which she'd pointed. It didn't look much like an office; inside or out. Instead, I found myself in a single room about the size of a convenient store and there were so many people crammed into this space that I instantly seemed to be bumping shoulders and elbows with everybody. The room was also pretty dark and every fixture was of very old wood; worn and crumbling along every edge. And believe me, I would have been suspicious. Super suspicious had there not been a lot of...well, what at least appeared to be business going on. The majority of people in here had some kind of paperwork with them and many were filling out forms on the countertops stationed throughout. Still...just being around this many people made me nervous. My hand was still in my pocket, though, and grasping my passport with an entire palm.
With her hand around my forearm even; she led me towards a wall full of service windows where several tellers (just as in the embassy) now stood behind glass. Thankfully, the lines were pretty short. In fact, she led me right up to one where there was only one other guy waiting ahead of me. When it was my turn, she told the teller what I needed in Spanish that was too fast for me to understand. Then the teller looked at me and told me that it would be a certain amount of nuevos soles for his own stamp of notary on the form. It wasn't much but...
“And it needs to be notarized,” I asked without really putting a question mark at the end.
“Before I take it across the street,” I did it again.
“So I can get a new card. This is the form.”
The guy looked professional...enough. That is, he was wearing shirtsleeves.
“Yes, señor.” Not a muscle in his face changed but I could hear the shortness in his voice. He was sick of my questions and probably long since sick of clueless Americans. He wasn't trying to schmooze me at all and that's why I decided to trust him. After I paid, he stamped a green form and handed it to me.
“Alright. Thanks,” I said and went to move quickly out of the building.
“But, señor! Señor!” the old lady called after me.
God. Damn. It.
I had to though. I was obligated. And if I didn't, she probably would have some of the guys in wife-beaters jump me when I came back out of the main office.
“Alright, alright, alright. You're right,” and I turned around to face her.
“Señor, I only ask that you buy from me,” and, in her hand, she held out a plastic passport cover, navy blue, with the official seal of Peru sort embossed on the front.
“Only 50 soles, señor.”
Which was almost 20 dollars.
“Then how much will you pay for this. And not only. But also for showing you the way. You would be lost.”
I wound up giving her 6 bucks (as much as the notary's stamp had been). That seemed fair enough, I guess. Plus, she was selling me a souvenir of sorts. And she didn't complain. She was sorta pissed but she uttered not one more word.
“Thank you,” I said sincerely. But she was pouting by this time and had stopped making eye contact with me. So I just headed across the street and into the office through a larger entrance (larger than the last place's had been) comprised of many glass doorways with people moving in and out of them constantly. Some of these people appeared to be professional business men and women. Some of them were wearing suits even. And some were just schlubs like me. Everyone in this building had one thing in common though. They were all moving quickly. Everyone here was on a mission. Everyone had something to do.
By way of another glass encased directory, I again found my way up to the third floor. Even the stairs were crowded with people practically running up and down and shoving my cumbersome backpack (purposefully or not; I couldn't tell) out of the way. The buildings interior, it occurred to me on my way up there, was extremely reminiscent of high school. The floors had been laid over in that boring white tile and many of the walls had been sloppily painted a weird turquoise with an industrial matte finish. Once I reached the third floor's landing, I found myself in a wide room with doors leading to different offices. And even the doors reminded me of school; that grainy, maple colored wood with slits for windows in the upper right-hand corners. Those aluminum doorknobs that always seemed somehow too smooth. And after locating the doorknob respective to my case; I twisted it, entered, and closed the door behind me where it whapped shut with a dry sound louder, obviously, than I'd ever intended.
This is where this sort of clerically themed day of mine finally began to resemble the DMV. With these types of errands; I knew that it had to happen at some point. The rows of plastic chairs all stuck together. The looks of loathing and boredom on everyone's face; the couple dozen or so who were in here. And instead of everyone filling out forms as they had in the building I'd just been in... Or instead of everyone running around like they were right outside in the halls... Everyone in here just appeared to be waiting. Yawning and waiting. Stretching. And growing restless while the energy...the sense of urgency behind the long, wooden counter with its little service slots (there wasn't any actual glass) was all but extinct. But I guess that's how it always is. And I guess I can't really blame these civil servants of sorts. I'd certainly lack motivation myself having to work in such a melancholy environment under all those crazy-bright fluorescent lights.
Almost directly to my left, there was a little stand-up station where I filled out my pre-notarized form. Then I hopped into a short line which, all things considered, was a pretty good sign since there was only one service window actually open. It was slow moving though. I probably stood there 20 minutes; green form in hand.
When it was finally my turn, I approached the guy and explained in the best Spanish that I knew how that I needed a replacement arrival card. Then I smiled and passed him the green form that now had a few damp spots on it from where my hands had been sweating substantially from inner tension. And...he looked at me inquisitively.
“So...should I pay now?” I asked figuring that this is what his look meant.
And, for the record, it was not. He spoke slowly to me, though, and I was thankful for that. The guy told me that, indeed, the green form was not the correct one for obtaining a replacement card. So, mostly by way of pointing, he redirected me back to the little stand-up station where, in various wooden cubby slots, there had been inserted many various forms. Other forms of many colors. Not one of them, however, was green. He instructed me to fill one of those out and take it downstairs somewhere? Yep. That's what he said. And only then bring it back to him. Where I would then probably receive the honor of laying down a bunch of money for all my efforts.
Okay. Well...so long as I could see one step ahead of me. The 'taking the form back downstairs' part; I wasn't ready to deal with just yet. But that's okay. Because first, I had to fucking find the right form...and then fill it out...which should take a little while and give my nerves a chance to defuse.
Back downstairs, back downstairs; my mind repeated as my pen scribbled down the basic information asked for on my third form of the day. Would I have to pay to get this one notarized too? And would they really charge me again for processing it once I got back up here? Probably. I had enough to cover it...hopefully? Yes. There was no way they'd price gouge me so badly. Although...they could if they wanted to. They really had people by the balls in this building and, just for the sake of saying, could probably charge whatever they wanted. We'd have to pay. If we ever wanted to leave.
Once I'd finished with the scribbling, I left that office and consulted yet another glass encased wall-directory right by the stairs. I looked for any office on the first floor that sounded like...well, like where I needed to go. Some office with a title that seemed pertinent to my case. But...nothing really did. Or, nothing stood out at me anyway. And not that it helped that everything was posted in Spanish. So...feeling like a helpless child; lost and clueless, I turned right back around and prepared to stand in line once again. Maybe this time, the guy behind the counter could draw me a map or something. Seriously.
As luck would have it though (and a lot of outgoing kindness); a man who'd been sitting on a bench close to the door grunted at me in such a way that wasn't negative but merely attention grabbing. I'd noticed him there the first time I entered. He'd been eating something and drinking a Coke from a can.
“Let me see,” he held out his hand and motioned with his fingers for the form.
Well, fuck it. What did I have to lose. It's not like he was asking to see my replacement passport or anything. And although this man had picked a really strange place to eat his lunch; at second glance he appeared not to be 'somebody' waiting around this office for whatever he needed. Instead this guy, despite being mostly bald, overweight, and eating a greasy, fast-food lunch; was wearing shirtsleeves and a tie with brown slacks and at least seemed somewhat professional. He may have picked a really weird place to hang out and have his lunch but...I handed it over.
The man then perused the form, looked up at me, then back to the form... And then he really surprised me by standing straight up, taking a few steps toward the door, and twisting his neck around slightly to see if a was coming. I'd been so stunned by how quickly this fat man had taken action that I hadn't even yet thought to yell something like, 'Hey, man! Come back with my form!' But he, apparently, never did have any intention of going anywhere without me. He even made that little 'come along' gesture with his hand again.
Well...what did I have to lose? A few more minutes and one copy of an easily replaceable form? It sounded like a pretty safe bet. And so I wound up following this guy back down the stairs (my new form still in his hand) and into another big office on the first floor. Basically, the room was a carbon copy of the one we'd just been in...except that the line was longer, of course. But the line seemed not much of an object to my new friend. In fact, he disregarded it altogether. The man walked right past the line and up to a hinged piece of the counter which he flipped up, stepped through, and then let back down again. Then, somewhere behind the desks and filing cabinets and stacks of paper, he disappeared into that world of bureaucratic red tape. With my form. Form stealer!
But again, there was no reason to freak out. Because unless this guy was just some random psychopath that enjoyed taking his lunches in government office buildings and always felt free to let himself into presumed areas of restricted access; I should still be in the clear. It's just...how long would I have to wait? But I guess even that didn't matter. It couldn't take any longer than waiting in the actual line and it's not like the guy had told me to go sit down or anything. Although, with my pack weighing me down and beginning to hurt my back, sitting down actually didn't sound like such a bad idea. But...no time to even make a move! Back came the guy already, through the counter again, and then he practically walked right past me.
“Follow me, please.” And he didn't make the motion with his hand this time. He didn't even stop to look back to see if I was coming.
Guess this was just going to be my lucky day. I could feel it. And it felt great because I knew that I still needed all the luck I could get. And what a nice guy! Upstairs, he pulled the same move as he had down on the first floor and slipped right past the line again. He disappeared as before, momentarily, and then popped back out again about 5 minutes later. This time he didn't pass me though. He walked square up to me and stopped.
“Sit down and they will call your name soon. When they do, just walk right up.”
He handed me my form back then and left. Poof. Just left through the doorway again and headed back down the stairs. I didn't even have time to think of asking him if wanted any money or anything. But obviously he didn't. And it occurred to me then, intuitively, that even if I had asked and even insisted; he wouldn't have taken any. In fact, he probably would have even been offended. But I was just so used to people charging a service fee around here; it's like I'd become conditioned.
“Muchas gracias!” I didn't quite yell but spoke loudly enough that it echoed in the room through the doorway. And luckily, just before the man's head disappeared down the steps, he waved his hand in acknowledgment without actually turning to look at me.
It wasn't more than ten minutes after that that a man who'd been hidden somewhere behind the counter walked up and called my name out loud. He told me that he needed my form and some soles which I happily turned over. And then without having to go back and process more shit, thank God, he pulled from a manila folder a tiny slip of paper just like the one I'd had that had been stolen. I wished that it would have been a bigger piece; one that I'd be less likely to lose...even just on my way to the airport but... The airport. Why was I still complaining? Why was I questioning?! Because essentially, there was no more shit to complain about. There was only the airport. I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe that all I had left to do was get there and catch my fucking plane.
Ahh! I crumpled up that green form I'd paid to have notarized across the street and threw it in the garbage.
It was a hot, July night. Hot for Portland anyway. Some might even call it muggy. And as I walked uphill along the sidewalk with my pack; I broke into a sweat. Above me, I could even see the stars; a rarity in the Pacific Northwest. And I was happy to be home. Better than home even. I was happy to be on my way to her place.
We hadn't communicated since I'd sent her an email back in Lima. And really, even if there was internet access available to me along the way, I wouldn't have been able to afford to use it. But that didn't matter. Almost certainly, she hadn't emailed me and I'm sure that, true to her word, she didn't really care if I sent one either. But I also knew that all that would change once she saw me. Once she opened that door and saw how tired I was. Once she saw my face and knew, a tad clairvoyantly, just how much stress in it was from worrying about her and her feelings and what was going to happen just now. She'd be able to tell how my heart felt; like a cancerous baseball. And also know that the lump in my throat was all somehow for and about her. She'd know. We hadn't even been together that long but when there's a connection...
I'd arrived at the airport in plenty of time but getting out of Lima and the goddam whole country would prove tricky right up until the end. This time around, not even 24 hours after I'd been sent away with nothing but despair, I again approached the ticket counter. And it worked like a charm. The agent accepted my temporary passport. I received a boarding pass and everything! Holy shit! I felt like jumping for fucking joy right there in front of everyone!
Security was a cinch since it wasn't ridiculously crowded and since, obviously, I'd already checked my backpack. But then came a room right after security; a room that every foreigner had to pass through before being let into the terminal. The Peruvians passed right by while all aliens were made to wait in yet another line. It wasn't very long, though, and I knew that I still had plenty of time.
As to be expected by now, there were more service windows. These were well guarded by more security officials, however, and the workers themselves each stood in a separate booth behind a thick layer of glass. A light shown down on each of them too. In every booth; a fluorescent bulb that emanated an eerie, green color weirded me out. I knew that these guys were only here to take my little, replacement card, though, and stamp my temporary passport; both of which I'd worked so hard to get. This was the last step and there was nothing to be afraid of.
Or so I thought.
This country was going to pick the last bit of meat from my bones and cash from my pocket. I had to pay 60 bucks to leave Peru. Sixty fucking bucks for the privilege of having come down here and been constantly fucked with... Sixty bucks as some sort of departure tax. It had nothing to do with my arrival card or having to have it replaced. It had nothing to do with my temporary passport or the fact that I was now flying a day later than scheduled or even anything to do with the certain souvenirs that I'd bought along the way. This tax was standard and I would have wound up paying it no matter what. Everyone had to. But most everyone had a credit card and this could be used if they didn't have the cash. But my credit card was gone anyway. And so, as quickly as I'd come upon the money I needed just yesterday, Peru had now stripped me of my very last cent...again. Basically. I think I had a dollar left but that wasn't about to buy me anything. No food. No drink. I'd have to rely solely upon the airlines for that and I hoped that they'd serve something on each flight.
The problem was; I must have received a really good deal on these tickets because, as far as scheduling was concerned, they'd totally fucked me. In my head before I left, I obviously assumed that I'd have some money left in my pocket...enough to help deal with the monster layover that I was now about to face in Panama City. I'd probably envisioned going into the city; that is, taking a cab from the airport down to the main strip (assuming there was one). And from there, I could hang out and have a few drinks and walk around and take pictures of stuff. I could even get a hotel. There would have been plenty of time for all that and it might have been a smart idea anyway so I wouldn't wind up half-dead on no sleep for the second half of the journey. But not anymore. There would be no heading into the city because paying for a cab was out of the question. Maybe I could walk it, I thought. And I would definitely check into that. But there definitely wouldn't be any hotel which meant that I'd have to stay up all night or find someplace to sleep in the airport. And in Panama; I had no idea whether or not they took very kindly to this type of stranded, up the creek vagrancy.
Sixty bucks later and I did finally fly out of Lima. And believe me, just taking off and seeing the ground shrink beneath the plane felt great. Liberating, really. And I slept very well all the way to Panama. Too well, in fact, because I wound up missing whatever little snack they'd served. Evidence of it remained on other people's tray tables and just seeing their crumbs and crumpled up napkins caused my stomach to grumble. And this was very stupid of me. I should have tried to stay awake. Because now, unless by some sort of miracle, I wouldn't eat for the next 24 hours. And adding to this morning's fast and this afternoon's, that would bring me to about 40 hours total with no food. But whatever. People all around the world missed more meals than that all the time. I wasn't going to whine about it and I sure as hell wasn't going to beg. Besides, I still had like half a pack of cigarettes and if I rationed those carefully enough; they would stave off any hunger pangs. The hardest part would be the boredom.
When we landed, the rest of the passengers and I stepped off the little 16-seater and walked across the tarmac towards the gate. The steaming tarmac, I should say. The steaming everything. The air was so humid that I could almost see the individual drops of water hovering around; each one a tiny magnifying glass that acted to enhance the vivid orange sunset blooming above all the thick, green brush. And then, once inside the gate, the AC hit me hard and caused my shoulders to instantly shiver. And I knew... I just knew that it was going to be one of those nights of no equanimity. I'd be inside and outside repeatedly just trying to stay comfortable (not too hot or too cold) and not get sick.
Terra Firma. That was the name of the little restaurant inside where I'd waited out the layover on my way down; my short layover of only a few hours. So carefree; I'd ordered up a few beers and even a snack. Had it only been 2 weeks? Yes, it really had...no matter how hard that was for me to believe. But again, it must have been a lot longer...
Well, one thing was for sure. I wasn't going to be sitting down in that little restaurant and ordering anything this time around. So, for the remainder of that afternoon and on into the purple evening, I made my way up to the second level and found a row of plastic chairs on which to sit in the middle of a bright, tiled corridor. Not that a hard plastic chair was very choice but, after doing a couple laps around the entire place (an initial way to burn off loose energy and kill some time) that row of chairs that I was able to locate proved to be the only pod of seats on the less crowded second level. And cushioned seats, from what I ascertained, simply didn't exist in this place. Well, great.
Stationed there, I attempted to read the novel that I'd brought down with me but it was in Spanish which made it difficult. Not that the language itself was tripping me up. If anything, I was more polished than ever just now. But I'd become very tired of the language and wanted not much to do with it anymore. I'd also brought along another book of adolescent short stories...also in Spanish. So, pretty much, my options in that department were mind-numbingly limited. And yet, I tried. I needed to pass the time. There was a clock on the wall. One of those cheap, plastic clocks that anyone can pick up at Staples or Office Depot or something. And I thought how funny it was that such a clock should be hanging in a country's only international airport. And that, in itself, killed about five minutes. But according to that clock; I still had almost 21 hours. It was time to smoke a cigarette.
Outside, I heard thunder but it never rained. I could smell the rain and even, in the darkened distance, see the clouds. But I never felt it or heard it.
On my way back to the plastic chairs; I stopped in the only gift shop, bought a Snickers with my last dollar, and proceeded to eat it as slowly as I could. Read a page. Take a bite. Don't chew. Let it melt in your mouth. It takes up more time that way. Read another page.
Things definitely started to slow down after about another hour. The regular daytime bustle had diminished and all that was left were people just arriving on various flights. They rolled there bags right by me. They had places to get to. At one point, I stood up and looked over all the goods in the gift shop. I got the feeling that it was about to close and so wanted to make the most of this last opportunity to do so. Then the store did actually close but I was still able to suck some time out of it by reading a long list of Mother Teresa’s quotes that were hanging up in one of the windows. I meditated on each one as long as possible but... “Love begins by taking care of the closest ones – the ones at home.” ...some of them obviously made me a little uneasy. Others, I felt myself presently able to relate to and pondered. “Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat.” Well...I did just have a Snickers.
Sitting again, I watched the restaurant workers wipe everything down and then flip every chair back on top of each table. Then the overhead gate came down and they left for the night. There didn't seem to be anymore travelers either; just a few janitors rolling garbage cans along the tile and even they disappeared eventually. The silence was incredible and with no one dimming the lights or anything; the place almost began to feel like a prison. I tapped my foot nervously and it seemed to echo. I put my head in my lap and tried to sleep but the lights were just too bright and I must not have been quite tired enough to just pass out for any length of time...even just 10 or 15 minutes would have been nice.
Another cigarette and I got a wild hair up my ass. I decided to follow the road leaving the arrivals platform and see...I don't know; how far it would take me. Maybe I would walk into the city after all. But even this idea was pretty short-lived. After about a mile, the road turned into some kind of a thoroughfare with absolutely no shoulder or sidewalk. And it's not that the road was very busy at this time of night but, supposing that ambling down a highway such as this was illegal (which it almost certainly was), I didn't want to get busted or even detained. I wasn't going to miss my flight for anything. I'd pay dearly if I did.
So back towards the airport I went feeling like this attempt of mine hadn't been a complete failure. It ate up some more time and that had been sort of the name of the game anyway. Not much time though. Not nearly enough. I checked the little, plastic clock inside and it had only been like 15 minutes! And I thought about walking down there again but taking little baby steps the whole way. But...I don't know. Call it a hunch or an instinct or whatever but I suddenly felt sure that I would have been stopped and questioned this time; even if it was just by some security guard pulling alongside me and asking what the hell I was doing. And again, I didn't want to draw any unnecessary attention to myself. No more, that is, than I must have been drawing already by being pretty much the only person in this airport. I knew that there must have been a guard or guards somewhere on duty though; probably watching me on black and white video screens from a tiny office upstairs somewhere.
And this is about the time when, just after having another cigarette outside on the arrivals platform, I found a flattened out piece of cardboard lying on the cement ground. I'd been mindlessly pacing just past the building's last supporting pillar; a very wide and flat beam of steel. Just behind this pillar; there was the cardboard. And just beyond that; the grass. So I figured, 'What the fuck,' and moved the cardboard onto grass and, still feeling that I was safely hidden (more or less) by the steel pillar; I laid down atop the cardboard like a happy hobo. Flat on my back; I laid there and it felt wonderful. It felt like I needed to be careful less I fall asleep. But my flight wasn't until 3:30 in the afternoon or something and I quickly realized that even if I did fall asleep; there was no way I was going to miss that. Not once all the traffic picked up again. And, more presumably, I'd be woken up by the heat and choking humidity once the sun came back up.
And that's when I saw it...from my cardboard...having rolled over on my side; those first, faintest accents of pink in sky right around the horizon line. Ahh. I laid back again and stared straight up into the nighttime sky. The steamy air must have been so thick that only a few of the very brightest stars were strong enough to shine through. I'd be home today. Late, granted. But just hang on.
Then I actually tried to go to sleep...although I'm not quite sure if this was ever accomplished. The effort, however, did at least bring about one of those in-and-out states for the better part of an hour. And then, just as I'd suspected and before it was really that bright, the dreaded heat began to rise...enough to make me sweat even. I didn't want to go back in but basically had to since, certainly, I was already smelling pretty ripe. It seemed like a good next move to head into a bathroom and wipe my pits out with some paper towels and hand soap. I could take a leak while I was in there and, if I moved slowly enough, both of these actions might eat up a solid ten minutes. Perfect.
The general airport commotion began to pick up shortly thereafter and the true light of daytime to shine in through the doors and windows. The ticket counters would open within the hour and I could kill further time (and further put my mind at ease) by checking in and getting a boarding pass. The spaciness of fatigue was really beginning to hit me and my eyes stung. But rather than going back to that pod of plastic chairs on the second level; I sat downstairs near the baggage claim area and waited. Just waited and stared...mostly at the floor. I even began to feel a bit nauseous.
When the counters finally did open, I purposely waited until there was a hefty line before approaching them. That would eat up even more time. And soon...oh, so soon; I'd be able to go down to the gate for a nice change of venue. That would be nice. And (even better) as it happened; after standing in that line until an agent was ready to assist me, I was told that I had to fill out yet another form and that they also needed to see a copy of the police report I'd had notarized so many millions of years ago back in Cuzco. The agent said that I could skip right ahead to the front of the line after filling it out but, again, I preferred to wait.
In my satchel there was a pen that I'd picked up somewhere along the way and somehow managed to hang onto. But I guess what I didn't realize before I'd taken it out and started writing with it was that the little tube had ruptured inside and that quite a bit of ink had leaked its way all the way out. Then, through a tiny crack in the shaft of the pen itself, this ink had greasily seeped until covering...well, almost everything on the inside and out. And it wasn't until I actually started to write that I felt my fingertips sort of sticking to it and then my fingers sticking to themselves. And only then, of course, did I look down to find that almost half of my hand had now been dyed a dark blue. I didn't really have anything to wipe it with either and didn't want to go to the bathroom while I was doing what I was doing. Not that it would have mattered much because I still only had one pen. And people in these places and situations can be very stingy with pens should I have gone up there and asked to borrow one...especially to someone whose hands were all inky. Not that I could very well blame them. So I just tried to make-do...tried not to touch the form anymore than I had to. The ink though, from all the leakage and exposure to the air, had begun to dry even around the ballpoint of the pen's tip causing it not to roll smoothly or even flow at all without a very focused and dedicated effort. So basically, from then on out, each single letter that I needed to inscribe was done in sort of a pointillism method; much more like painting or etching than printing or writing.
By the time I'd finished, had stood in line again, and made it back up to the ticket counter; the form was a sorry, sloppy excuse for a document and, what with all the fresh ink marks, blots, and smudges; gave off the impression of being transmittable to the touch somehow like a contagion. And it probably was! Luckily, the lady behind the counter seemed to be able to tell that I was in pretty bad shape and she'd already seen the police report to prove it. So, rather than annoyance or disgust, she treated me with a certain amount of sympathy and I really appreciated that. And at the end of our exchange; she did present me with a boarding pass...which I rendered instantly inky as well.
After that, time seemed to move much more quickly. I got that change of venue that I'd been so eagerly anticipating and the nausea (and even some of the spaciness) subsided as I waited in a cushioned chair near the gate. I couldn't wait to get on that plane though. I had it all planned out. Just before takeoff, I'd go in the bathroom and scrape out my pits again. And then, once on-board, I'd let the person or persons sitting next to me know that they had my permission to wake or shake me should I start snoring too badly. It was the least I could do. It was the only thing I could do. Because I seriously felt myself on the verge of a blackout. Unfortunately, I wasn't even going to have the luxury of sleeping straight through to Portland because that cheap ass travel website required that I once again have to connect in Houston where yet another layover would be awaiting me. It was only a couple of hours though. And, after this, a couple of hours sounded like an enjoyable activity.
Once in Houston, I was told that the flight was overbooked and, because I was flying a day later than expected, there wasn't much they could really do about it. I would just have to sit around the airport and wait for the next one which would be the last to leave on this night. And if I didn't make that; I'd pretty much be 'sleeping' in the airport again. But hey...at least all the chairs in Houston were cushioned. By some grace of God though, as the plane was boarding, they called my name from the counter at the gate and told me that, due to a couple last minute cancellations; they did indeed have a seat for me. It was a middle seat, granted, but I wasn't about to start complaining.
Those fuckers hadn't fed me out of Panama and I had no reason to believe they would on this leg of the journey either. When they came by to take our beverage orders, though, I'd opt for a tomato juice figuring that that probably had more nutritious content than any of the other free drinks available. Snacks would be offered on this one to be sure but only at a cost and an unreasonable one at that. But again, I thought of the starving children in India and told my grumbling gut to stop being such a pussy and that many people were more unfortunate.
“Are you Mr. Swanson?” a steward had come down the aisle just before takeoff.
Yep. Fuckin' shit. This is where I do get bumped after all.
“Yeah. That's me. What's up?”
“We were just wondering if you would like to...”
Call it precognition but, just by the way he started that sentence, I knew that the news was then good. I also knew what he was about to say and I swear to God; my ass was up and out of the seat before he'd even finished speaking.
“Would you like to come up to first class? We have an open seat if you'd like to take it.”
Why...me? Normally, I ask that with a negative connotation but not this time. Why my stinky, sleep deprived ass? Why would they call me up to pollute that whole area with my snoring and stench? And the truth is; I had no idea. These guys hadn't seen the police report. They had no idea where I was coming from or what I'd just been through. I think it was just a stroke of luck. Good luck. The tides seemed to be turning. That first class seat, to me, would seem like a little cloud up in heaven. I'd sleep like a baby. And I did. But only after staying awake long enough to gobble up the free meal and even a drink! And I felt it then like I had few times in my life; the sweet release of mother mercy.
So up the hill I walked. Under the stars on that hot summer night. I was feeling anxious as hell about the impending encounter but also very grateful and I longed to be able to express this emotion with words and hopefully a hug. I was grateful that she'd sent me the money...twice. And I was grateful that she'd watched my dog while I was away...for two reasons. The obvious one; that it helped facilitate the whole trip. But I was also grateful to fate because, without having to retrieve my dog, I would have had no palpable reason for going back to her house at all. And who knows if she would have ever texted me again? But if she could just see me and read the apology all over my face...
After turning onto a side street, I walked by a couple of houses before hanging a right onto the little cement path that led to her door. Hers was an apartment in a large house that had been converted into several and the entryway was down that little path in back. When I knocked, she let me in but seemed standoffish at first about my staying. Thankfully, though, I was able to soften her mood by expressing the regret and the guilt I did feel. And after a while, I even managed to show her the souvenirs that I'd picked up. All of them; little gifts for her. One was even a silver necklace with a coca leaf embedded in glass. But I think she liked the little finger puppets best. And I watched her sad eyes as she held them and smiled down at each of the little animals.
She let me stay the night...and then a few nights. But whatever emotion it was that she'd felt while I'd been away resurfaced inside of a week. So although I still receive a Spanish Xmas card every year from Pocha... Although the guy who'd taken the photo for my temporary passport had done such a better job than when I went back to Walgreens... And although I did finally meet a handful of people down there who were kind and hospitable... I regret going down there and the reason makes me ache to this day. I guess it didn't have to be Peru though. It could have been anywhere.
But anyway...that's what to do in Peru sans passport and cash. Fuck it.