5-14 february, 2006
Angels and Demons, Miami International Airport
Well, the trip got off to a bit of a disastrous start when snowstorms in Chicago kept me from making my flight to Peru. Actually, let me rephrase and more accurately say that LAN Peru, those devils, kept me from making my flight to Peru: American Airlines got us to Miami as the flight to Lima was boarding, made a call saying “we´re here! hold the plane!” and sent me and about 15 others sprinting from one end of the airport to another, but LAN Peru (which I am convinced is under the operation of some evil spirit or another) yawned and decided they´d rather let 20 passengers spend the night in the airport and find alternight flights to Peru than wait an extra 30 seconds for takeoff. And so we watched helplessly at the closed gate as our plane left us behind, and the adventure began. The first 24 hours of my trip consisted of an allnighter, and a loooong day of trekking from one ticket counter to the next, waiting in a zillion lines, rebooking a flight, and creating various hyper-imaginative scenarios in my mind about what would happen once I arrived in Lima at midnight, alone, with or without luggage–and all to the tune of “Ring of Fire,” which was playing relentlessly in my head, since my 3 year old neice requested it all the way to Chicago (quite possibly the only toddler in the universe who knows the lyrics to multiple Johnny Cash hits).
As several family members who got middle-of-the-night calls can attest to, I don’t do well on little sleep. Tends to make me a bit emotional. But Miami wasn’t all buckets of tears–I was lucky enough to be stranded along with a group of Peruvians who were some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. They were my saving grace–we hunkered down in a corner of the airport and they poured over my Let´s Go Peru, giving me suggestions, history lessons, email addresses and phone numbers, offering me rooms in their homes, etc. I ended up on a separate flight, but I knew they were on the other end should I need them. Mi familia peruana, angels of the Miami airport.
Lima: Pyramids, amor, and Pepto
I was welcomed in Lima by my backpack!! Very exciting since I was sure it was lost or stolen, and immediately hopped a camion to the Friend’s House Hostel, in Miraflores, which is a nice section of Lima just outside the city center. Cheesy name aside, the Friend´s House is in a good location, it’s cheap, and the woman who runs it is completely adorable and helpful. I shared a 7-bed dorm room with several solo male travelers: a late-night British guy on vacation from teaching English in Argentina, a large man who never spoke but kept a nearly-empty handle of rum on his nightstand, and a greasy, but friendly, Norwegian wanderer.
I was warned by many that Lima was a downer–most people use it only as a hub to get to other more attractive destinations. But while the sky is perpetually grey, an unfortunate consequence of geographical location and pollution, Lima exceeded my expectations. I spent a few days exploring (highlights include: the hilarious Convento de San Francisco, where you can inhale particles of hundreds of ancient Peruvians as you pass by the open graves of the underground catacombs, and where a centuries-old Peruvian depiction of “The Last Supper” portrays Jesus and the rest of the usual suspects feasting on cuy, guinea pig, a national Peruvian specialty, and sipping from what appear to be martini glasses. I got a sunburn and a history lesson at the Incan ruins of Huaca Pucllana, a pyramid that stands amid traffic and telephone polls. And I happened upon El Parque de los Amantes at sunset–a garden full of poetry and love (live and in concrete) that sits at the edge of a cliff overlooking the Pacific ocean. An enormous stone statue of a man and woman embracing stands in the center, surrounded by curving Gaudí-inspired benches and walls, filled with professions of love (Roberto y Maria, Paola y Manuel) and poetry (“La presencia de tus ojos impedio que llegara la luna hasta nosotros (Corcuera),” “Pero llega la hora de la venganza, y te amo (Neruda)”) written in colorful tile pieces. Very beautiful, and also hilarious–I mean, this place really motivating, action central!!
So Lima was great and I met some really fun people, and was ready to go to Nazca, the next stop on the tentative itinerary, home to the famous Nazca lines, mysterious Inca calendar symbols carved into the desert and visible only from the air (Incan gods from the sun, extraterrestrials from their UFOs, tourists from some rickety, vomit-inducing 5-seater airplane). Between the hours of 4 and 11 a.m., however, when I should have been catching a bus, I was pretty occupied at the hostel baño, draining my body of all of the poison that I apparently consumed over a lunch of comida típica that I was so proud of myself for trying (no more ceviche for me, ever). Buses were no longer leaving for Nazca that day, but I was all packed up and mentally ready to go–not to mention eager to get to a place where I might have my own bathroom! So when another Friend’s House guest said he was leaving for Pisco and there was room on the bus, I was in.
Pisco & Ica: Where have all the cowboys gone?
Pisco is the birthplace and namesake of Peru’s favorite booze, and a port to the Islas Bellestas, the “poor man´s Galapagos,” and the Parque Nacional de Paracas, a desert wildlife preserve at the edge of the ocean. I highly recommend both–the first, a boat ride out to massive rock formations that play home to giant families of sea lions, penguins, unique birds, and LOTS of guano (they build nests out of their own poo!), and the second a bumpy bus ride along a spectacular curving desert shoreline to see dolphins, dunes, and geological splendor. Water crashes into the land, ocean drinking desert–it’s incredible.
More than the penguins and the Pisco Sours, though, my 3-day Pisco-Ica excursion made me incredibly aware of myself as a woman travelling solo through a man´s world. Yeah, it sounds totally cliché, right? Maybe so, but the feeling is a bit overwhelming. And I´m not sure if it´s the world at large or the latino world in particular–although we face certain inequalities in the workforce, economic and political worlds when it comes to sex and gender, it´s pretty easy to feel totally independent and equal in the States (although I wonder if I´d feel differently as a foreigner living alone in the U.S.?). At any rate, I have been amazed at my experiences in the land of Machismo, where I live among men who are not necessarily (always) threatening, but who, in their world, have every right to stare, whistle, catcall, approach, judge, touch…
Offensive, yes, but more than anything, mind-boggling: what is going on here? I know there are more women than men in the world, so why is it that everywhere I go, I am surrounded by men? In addition to Peruvian guys, I am regularly approached by guys travelling alone (I haven´t yet another woman travelling by herself, and I am almost never approached by women here unless they are trying to sell me something). Perhaps I´m hyper-aware of it because I´m trying to be cautious–trying to train myself to not trust anyone, lie alot (I have a boyfriend, I´m engaged, I´m from Canada…), and always imagine the worst possible scenario so as to avoid getting into it (this is hard for an optimist–I´m still going by my sixth sense, but I´m trying to give it a little less say than I normally would and let some boring common sense factor in, too).
To give you a glimpse into my life in the Boy´s Club, here´s a brief profiling of 3 of the characters that occupied one of my days in Pisco (since this is online and everything, I´m changing names to protect the…innocent?):
As soon as I heard his voice in the hostel lounge, broken gringo spanglish at its best, I thought, “Who is this yahoo?” Rob is a nice enough guy, but I don´t know that I´ve ever used that word more accurately. With wrinkled skin hanging from a bony frame, a half-bald, half-long-grey-ponytailed head, and a white beard that grazes his chest, he looks like Willie Nelson´s less-hip little brother. He´s a total hippie with hippie stories–ditched his CT suburb for life on a Santa Cruz commune, practiced spiritual yoga till his group turned to a cult, sold alfalfa sprouts for a living, lives in Asheville, NC, as a professional gardener (very into horticulture…and herbs…). His last name is Keeppeace, for God´s sake.
Rob and I shared about 24 hours of travel (I blame the ceviche)–ended up on the same bus, at the same hostel, and then buying the same tour of the Islas and Paracas. An interesting guy, with lots of random knowledge, but unfortunately, little things about Robert Keeppeace started to bug me, and quick: his tendency to scratch his balls in public, his unfortunate flair for turning interesting stories into drawn-out and utterly dull monologues that usually left me (and others) responding, “Ahh…” or “Mmm…,” no further questions asked, just glad it was over. And his gaze that was less and less paternal-friendly and more and more Hungry Eyes. Lingering stares, hovering around my bedroom door, sending weird vibes…harmless, but obnoxious. I said goodbye to the guy the next day, as soon as we were back from the tours. His shorts were hanging unfortunately low as he gave me a sloppy kiss on the cheek. Adios, Robert.
Alan is a 30-something Tazmanian-born, Hungarian-raised Californian computer engineer who owns a house in Costa Rica and is on a 5-week vacation with his Peruvian wife. When I meet him, he is alone, speaking loud, rowdy English across the aisle of the bus, laughing with a few other solo guys about booze or Peruvian weed or something. I´m tired. He introduces himself. He looks like a brown Bruce Willis–muscle tee, big smile, king of the world. He´s off to cause some trouble while his wife stays behind in Lima (she´s a 5-star hotel kinda girl). He talks to me for the rest of the busride, though I´ve got headphones in and have already said I´m trying to sleep off food poisoning. We get off the bus. The next day, I´m wading at the shore of Paracas, when I hear “Anna!” I turn to see Alan grinning and sipping a beer with his guide. They´re both getting drunk. Before I even sit down, he´s buying me a drink, but I take off, since my bus is leaving. Later, Alan.
Juan is a 25-year-old Peruvian tour guide who speaks 12 languages fluently (from guiding, not from studying), and who has also been a taxi driver and a salsa/merengue instructor. He sets me up with a tour of the Islas, then gives me a free tour of Pisco, during which he parades me past his ex-wife of 1 1/2 years. I´m leaving for Ica to catch a bus south, I say. He´s headed home to Ica for the weekend, he says, so we can take a bus together. I take the bus to Ica with him and his 3 year old daughter, and I imagine that I´m about to be taken prisoner in some Peruvian hut, where I will spend my days mothering this child and finding scraps to make soup before Juan comes home from tour guiding. When we get to Ica, all the buses are booked, uncharacteristilly, because of some festival. So I go home with Juan, and it´s not as threatening as I imagined–his extended family is wonderful, they give me one of their only beds, and Juan gives me salsa lessons at a local club. When it becomes obvious that I need to do so, I break out the boyfriend lie. He freaks a little, we leave and sit in a park to talk it out. Then he sings me the song he wrote about me the day before, followed by “You´re Beautiful” by…I can´t remember, but anyone (Ali? Beth?) who´s been around me since it´s release knows that I think it´s the worst pop hit to make the radio in years. Cringe.
The next day, Juan and his family give me a tour of the bodegas of Ica, which is awesome. One of the old men serving up Pisco has been hitting the bottle as often as he passes it, and no one can understand a word he says, but he proposes to me several times and says that there´s a hotel just down the road we can head to. Hilarious. Juan drops me off at the bus, saying something about who knows what will happen in the future…hasta luego, Juan.
Now, this is a day. Thank God I dyed my hair! Because it´s not me, Anna, grabbing the attention, it´s the girl. Girl. Sola.
So I arrived in Arequipa on an overnight bus, and it was refreshing to be completely anonymous for a second in what must be one of the most beautiful and well-kept cities in all of Peru. They seem to have a no-littering policy (or at least a regular street cleaning crew) that extends beyond the plaza de armas, which was the first I´d seen in 6 days and several cities. And lots of greenery, and scenery: to big volcanoes on the horizon, and the Andes, of course.
I´ve been staying at a pricier (and by that I mean over $6/night) hotel, Hostal Angastora, where I have my own marble-tiled bathroom, a telephone, cable TV, and refrigerator, not to mention housekeeping and fresh coffee in the morning (well, fresh Nescafé, that´s the coffee of choice since all the good stuff gets shipped overseas). It was an incredibly welcome switch from a week of hosteling, especially with that whole Montezuma´s Revenge thing.
Today is Valentine´s Day, and the Plaza was filled with couples and vendors selling roses and heart-shaped balloons. I bought roses for my hotel owners, and the old lady gave me two huge cheek kisses and talked to me about love and nostalgia. It was great. I am leaving early in the morning to trek some of the Colca Canyon, the 2nd largest in Peru (first is also in Peru). It´s twice as big as the grand and sure to be–like everything else so far–an incredible adventure.