Weeks ago, when I wrote last, I was in Quito, Ecuador, suffering through one of the worst four-day periods of my life. I was sick and lonely, stuck in a hotel room in a foreign country, with no prospects for improvement each day. I got better after a couple days, then I moved on and continued my trip, moving south to Guayaquil. The trip got much better again, but not until I got back to Peru.
When I arrived in Guayaquil, I was struck by familiar sights: a large and modern bus terminal and wide roads that rose above others to become overpasses and highways. Such infrastructure reminded me of my own country, and not of anything I had seen in South America. Not even in the capital cities of Lima and Quito had all the bus companies operated out of a single terminal, and nowhere had I driven through a city on a highway. I took an expensive cab over smooth streets to the hotel that was recommended to me by my driver in Tumbes and then again by my driver there in Guayaquil.
The Hotel Velez was cheap enough and it had a comfortable bed, but it was far from pleasant. I spotted two or three small creatures crawling around the room and the single window, which seemed to face an airshaft, somehow managed to let in no natural light, even at midday. Though I had become mostly healthy before leaving Quito, I wasn’t confident enough in my health to travel far into the city. I spent my day there entirely within a few-block radius of the hotel. I read in the room, walked around the block, and found a rare store open on Sunday to use the internet. I asked for a lunch recommendation at the desk in the hotel lobby, and I was directed to the hotel’s restaurant one floor up. I ventured out to a nearby park, where I brought Cat’s Cradle and the yellow legal pad I wrote in throughout the trip.
I’ve told a lot of people that I hated Ecuador. I haven’t been lying. A large part of my displeasure with my time in Ecuador was my sickness, which prevented me from enjoying the fun and sights of Quito and Guayaquil and made me especially unhappy to be traveling on my own, far from home. But I was also put off by the people. I have no way of knowing what Ecuadorians are really like; all I know is that I was annoyed and a little creeped out by many of my interactions in the two cities I visited. And I believe that, unfortunately, a great deal of my discomfort may have been the result of miscommunication.
As I sat and read in the park, I heard a rustle from below me. When I heard it again, I looked down and jumped in surprise: there was a lizard, about three feet long, under my bench, only a few feet away. I had heard about El Parque de las Iguanas, but the sign had said Parque Centenario. Only then did I realize they were the same. Scared by the iguana near me, I stood near the bench. I asked an older man nearby, “Es peligroso?”—Is it dangerous? No, he said, it just wants water. He picked up a cup and I poured some water, which the man splashed on the iguana’s head. It continued to crawl around, and I sat back down, as did another man of about the same age. The man started talking to me after a minute. He asked me where I was from, where I was traveling, and how I liked Ecuador. I answered truthfully, until he asked me whether I had paid for my hotel room that night. I said I had. His questions put me on edge, but I was not scared. He wasn’t very threatening. Still, I only became more uncomfortable as he asked me about my religion and told me about his sister in the U.S., to whom he wanted me to deliver a letter he wrote after asking to borrow paper and a pen. And when he invited me to his casa, ahorita–to his home, right then–I stammered and declined. “I’m sorry,” I told him, “I don’t want to be rude, but no. I just want to stay here and read. I’m sorry.” Throughout the conversation, which lasted twenty or thirty minutes, I was made more uncomfortable by what I didn’t understand than what I did. I wasn’t scared by his invitation, but I was worried that I would offend him by declining, or that I was missing important parts of the conversation that would reveal to me what kind of person I was speaking to. I didn’t know if I should be more at ease or if I should be more concerned. That uncertainty kept me nervous. Eventually, he handed me something. A menthol, he explained, signaling he wanted something in return. I handed him a dollar and got up. I wasn’t happy to leaving so abruptly, but I wanted a way out of the conversation. I was sure we were miscommunicating. Nonetheless, I wanted no more. I spent the rest of the evening in my unfortunate hotel room and went to sleep early, ready to get the hell out of Guayaquil and Ecuador.
The next day I got up to find that all the cabs in the city had gone on strike. On top of that, drivers were in the street blocking traffic directly outside the hotel. I asked the woman at the reception if the city was safe, if the blockade would turn into a riot. She said no, they were just trying to stop unlicensed cabs, who were not striking, from driving. I could get to the bus terminal by taking a combi bus like the ones I had taken in Lima. Still sick, uncomfortable, and unhappy in Ecuador, I faced one more challenge before I could escape. Luckily, I hopped on a combi quickly and made my way easily to the terminal. Then I waited seven hours for the next bus to Peru. I was a grateful man when the bus finally pulled away.
Unlike my trip into Ecuador, there were no border hijinks on the way back to Peru, just the normal procedure as we crossed. I got into Piura, in northern Peru, at around 6:30. As I had been after other overnight buses, I was exhausted. I overpaid a cab driver to take me to a hotel he chose, understanding I was being ripped off more than once. But the hotel was still cheap and it looked fine; more importantly, I needed to sleep. I dropped my things and passed out.
When I got up, in the early afternoon, I left to walk around some, but I didn’t see much. I don’t think there was much to see. I read most of Portnoy’s Complaint and later went out again. (Side note: I rarely re-read books, but I was thrilled to re-read Cat’s Cradle and Portnoy’s Complaint on the trip. Though I call One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest my favorite novel, those two aren’t far behind.) I stayed out late, eating dinner well after dark and then making a stop at an internet shop. I got back to my hotel room at about 10:00, and I began watching TV. I found HBO and watched most of The Number 23, finding it better than I expected. When the movie ended, I flipped through the channels and eventually came across Spanish ESPN, which was broadcasting the Major League Baseball All-Star Game. I had known the game was taking place that night, but I had assumed I would miss it. I should have realized when I found HBO that I would probably have ESPN, too, but no matter: the game was in the twelfth inning, and I got to see the most exciting part. Of course, when it ended, the American League came away with another win. Someday I’ll see the National League win. Someday.
The next morning I took off for Chiclayo. Amazed once more by the cheap bus tickets, relaxed now that I was back in Peru, and newly enamored of fried plantain chips, I enjoyed the three-hour ride to the next city. In Chiclayo I found a cheap hotel and vowed that, since I was feeling healthier than I had felt since Tumbes nearly two weeks earlier, I would finally explore a city again. I planned to see Chiclayo that day and get outside of the city to see nearby ruins the next day. Then I opened my laptop and discovered it picked up perfect wireless internet access in the room.
To that point, I had been feeding my internet addiction at what I thought was a healthy level. I checked in most days, usually spending about an hour on the internet. That was much more time online than many travelers would have spent online, but 1) that amount of time represented a marked decrease from my usual connectedness, and 2) having no structure to my days or weeks, an hour or even two on the internet still left me with too many hours to fill each day. But when I got a high-speed connection for the first time in weeks, and on my laptop, I forgot any plans that didn’t involve my computer. What followed was a chapter in my trip and my life that doesn’t make me proud, but in which proper perspective can allow me to find amusement. I spent the next 60 hours in that room, reading articles, watching videos, and answering emails. I moved from the bed to the desk to the bathroom, keeping the computer in my hands. Once each day I left the room to get food. Each time I brought back chicken fried rice from a nearby chifa shop. My digestion problems returned, and I began a taking antibacterial medication. Over two days I cleaned out my inbox, my Google Reader, and an online reading list that had been growing since Spring Break. When it was all over, I had little to show for it except an all-too-long blog post about a New Yorker cover and an empty online to-do list. But I felt good. I had sent and received many emails to and from friends, I had read things I had long wanted to read, and I had brought myself out of the funk I had been in since Ecuador. As I packed up my things, I noticed the room was a sight to see: clothes were all over the place, an open bottle of pills sat on the desk, and Chinese food containers littered the floor. Another person might have spent two days in this room on a hell of a bender. My only drug, however, was electronic. I had refueled, and I was ready to move on.
But I had spent more time in my Chiclayo hotel room than I had planned, and I found I didn’t have time to see Trujillo, the country’s third-largest city, as I had intended. I needed to be back in Lima by the 19th, when I had an appointment to make, so I skipped Trujillo and took an overnight bus back to the capital, arriving that morning. Also that day I was supposed to make contact with my family in Lima.
I didn’t mention I had family in Lima? That’s because I only learned about them in early July. My mom emailed me about halfway through my trip with a revelation: one of my second cousins, whom I’ve never met, married a Peruvian guy a couple years ago, and his mom and grandparents live in Lima. I sent them an email right after that, and I received two replies. First I was told I could stay with them if I wanted, then I was told they would be expecting me on the 19th. So I headed to their place to meet my newly discovered family.
Though I was hesitant about staying with people I hadn’t met before, my concerns were quickly forgotten. My hosts were immediately kind, generous, and fun, and I was happy to have such a wonderful place to stay. I stayed with the grandparents and spent more time with the younger members of the family. Over my four days I spent with my second cousin’s husband’s grandparents, the biggest problem I faced was convincing my “grandmother” that I couldn’t eat anymore. No tengo mas hambre, I had to repeat. Estoy satisfecho. No puedo comer mas. The home was beautiful and comfortable, and I was living in luxury. I was given the top floor to myself, where I enjoyed a king-sized bed, my own bathroom and living room, a kitchenette, wireless internet, and a widescreen TV. But I got out of the house each day, spending time with my “cousins,” a fifteen-year-old and a twenty-two years old with whom I walked around Lima and saw Batman, and doing some more of the work I was supposed to do in Lima.
The reason for my return on the 19th was a meeting I had scheduled with Jake Lyell, a professional photographer I had emailed with but never met. Jake was the first person I contacted when I began planning my trip to Peru back in February. I had found his website and his photos from Lima, so I asked him for advice at a time when I knew nothing about photography, Peru, or my summer ahead. When I learned in July that he was coming back to Peru this summer, I asked if he’d meet me, and he suggested a meal. We had dinner that night and I got to ask him lots about the life of a professional photographer, one who travels around the world for assignments. But that wasn’t our only time together: he invited me to join him for a day of shooting, and I accepted immediately, having been hoping for an invitation along those lines.
We went shooting a few days later in Villa Maria, one of the large districts far from the city center that is filled with pueblos jovenes, Lima’s shanty towns that have grown since the war of the 1980s and 1990s. I tried not to step on Jake’s toes as he shot, and I would have been happy just to watch him and learn, but since I had my camera, I took a lot of photos, too. Helped by Jake’s company and his talent, I got great photos that day. We talked to many people and wandered through the district, seeing up close the Lima that few foreigners see, and coming away with visual documentation. It was a great day.
That night I headed to Ayacucho, where I traded business for pleasure. I went to Ayacucho, a city in the Andes and the least-popular tourist destination I had seen yet, to visit new friends. They were friends of friends that I had met in Cusco and then again in Lima, and, now that I had little to do, I took a few days to visit them where they were working and living for the summer. But two or three days turned into a week when I began having so much fun. They invited me to stay in the house they lived in, which was owned and operated by Cross-Cultural Solutions, the program they were working with, and the head of the program gave me a warm welcome. Despite the invitation, I was uncomfortable staying there, since everyone else in the house had paid for what I was taking for free. Nonetheless, I stayed and had a great time. The house had fifteen to twenty American and Canadian college kids, and I spent my time as they did: reading, walking around the city, chatting around bonfires on the roof. I met great people and had more interaction in that week than I had had in the previous month.
My fourth day there was the 28th, the Peruvian Independence Day. Because of the holiday, I couldn’t travel then or the next day, so I extended my stay and planned to enjoy the festivities in Ayacucho. One of the others suggested we buy fireworks, and I signed onto the plan immediately. Fifteen of us pooled our money to buy a five-story castillo (castle), not knowing what to expect. The show was astonishing and provided me my first experience with fireworks from up close. Here’s a taste of the event:
See this post for photos and more about the evening.
I spent another two days in Ayacucho, took an overnight bus back to Lima on the 30th, and passed my final two days in Peru at my family’s house. I saw my little cousin again and met up one last time with a few of the friends I had made in Peru. And on the night of the 1st I went to the airport and boarded a plane home. We stopped in Ft. Lauderdale and then at La Guardia. It had been a great trip, and I was happy to be back.
My summer in Peru had come to a close.