“Oh shit, you're right!” I could feel them crawling all over my body, jamming their feeding tubes into my flesh, injecting me with anticoagulants and sucking my blood. They had already attacked my arms and legs, and now they were working their way across my shoulders and up my neck like tattoos on a punk rocker. I raised my arms into the light and smacked every suspicious mark, trying to eradicate the infestation.
When my panic attack subsided, I stopped hitting myself and examined my arms more closely. The marks were only freckles. I rose to my knees and scrutinized my sheet with the intensity of a predator. Nothing out of the ordinary. “Never mind,” I said. “I was just imagining them.”
“Well I'm not imagining. They've bitten me from head to toe. I'm sleeping on the floor.” Mathieu dug into his backpack, yanked out his sleeping bag, unraveled it on the tile floor and crawled inside. He left the light on.
I writhed in my bed for the rest of the night, dreaming that I was drowning in a pool of bugs whenever I drifted off. When sunlight filled the room, Mathieu said, “I give up. I can't sleep.”
He climbed out of his sleeping bag, walked to my bed and leaned over me, scratching his forehead. “How do I look?”
“Not so bad,” I lied. He looked like he had chicken pox. “Do you still wanna go today?”
“I sure as hell don't want to stay here.” His face grew even redder. “I'm going to give the arsehole at the front desk a piece of my mind.”
I decided to leave Mathieu alone and headed to the hostel's common area for yet another bread-and-sludge “American Breakfast.” We had stayed in a variety of hostels in the last week since finishing the Santa Cruz trek and breakfast was always the same. Mathieu came to my table a few minutes later, saw me eating a buttered roll and said, “Dan, we're not supposed to eat breakfast this morning, remember?”
“Yeah, but I'm sure I'll be fine,” I said, washing down the food with a mouthful of coffee. “So, did you get a refund?”
“No, the owner was there, and he suggested that I tracked the bugs in,” Mathieu said with a strange calmness.
“What? That's crazy,” I said without much conviction. Preposterous as it seemed, most backpackers don't practice great hygiene, and I had no idea how bedbug infestations started.
“I know, but there's not much I can do about it now. Let's get out of here and look for a flight.”
We stepped outside and the sun immediately began to scorch our skin and dehydrate our bodies. We were in Nazca, Peru, a sea-level city in one of the driest deserts in the world. Three-wheeled mototaxis – chimeras with the head of a motorcycle and the body of a rickshaw – crowded the dusty streets, horns screaming, two-stroke engines excreting clouds of exhaust. When we hailed one, its driver looked at us and asked, “Where are you going, my friends?”
We had come here to fly in a small plane over the giant figures drawn in the desert by the ancient Nazca people. Mathieu's guidebook explained that the lines were made by removing reddish-brown stones that covered the land, causing the light-colored earth below to stand out in sharp contrast. That was the how. But experts couldn't agree on why the lines were created. Did the Nazca people build them to be seen by their gods? Were they used to mark celestial events such as solstices and equinoxes? Perhaps they were rudimentary maps of the stars? I had read about these lines before starting my trip; seeing them was something I was particularly looking forward to in Peru.
“To the airport,” I said to the taxista. “How much?”
“Three soles. Let's go!” Less than a dollar for a ride to the outskirts of the city. I was still astonished by the low costs here.
Mathieu and I squeezed into the backseat, the driver grabbed the handlebars of the beast and we took off. Soon we were on the highway, passing a line of wooden shacks, beyond which lay an infinite expanse of desert, shimmering red and gray.
The airport's hangar was small, yet dozens of men accosted us before the taxi had even stopped.
“Come wit' me my friend, I give you great deal!”
“My friend, that man is lying. You want window seat, right? Come wit' me!”
“I include cemetery tour.”
“I don't charge airport tax.”
After my encounter with the salesman in the bus station in Lima, I knew better than to engage them in any way. I looked at Mathieu's puffy, sleepless eyes and splotchy face and motioned with my head toward the hangar. We paid our driver and walked to our refuge without saying a word. The men followed, but stopped short of entering the building.
We walked into a travel agency office where a young woman was sitting at a desk with her hands clasped in front of her. “Good morning. How can I help you?” she asked. She was wearing a business suit, and her dark hair was pulled into a bun behind her head, giving her a professional appearance that matched her physical beauty.
“Good morning,” Mathieu said. “We would like to book a flight to see the Nazca Lines.”
“Of course. Please take a seat.” She gestured toward the chairs in front of the desk and we sat down. “Unlike some of the other tour companies, we only use small airplanes, so both of you will have window seats. The flight takes fifty minutes and you'll get to see all of the Nazca Lines.”
“Sounds good,” I said.
“Normally we charge seventy dollars per passenger,” she continued. Then she narrowed her eyes, smirked and said, “But I can see you're too smart to pay full price. How does fifty-five dollars sound?” She smiled, revealing a set of brilliant white teeth.
I was overtaken by her allure and was about to agree, but Mathieu jumped out of his chair before I could speak. “That's too much. We'll keep looking,” he said, and turned toward the door.
The lady motioned for Mathieu to sit back down and leaned forward. She spoke quietly while staring at Mathieu's splotchy red face. “All right, I'm not supposed to do this, but if you sign up now, I'll give you our lowest price. Forty dollars.”
Mathieu scratched his neck and said, “That's better, we'll take it.” He nudged me as if to say “Now that's how you bargain!”
“Excellent.” Eyeing Mathieu's splotches, she didn't offer a handshake. “I need to let the pilot know you're here. In the meantime, I have a video for you.” A small television and VCR sat on a wooden stand next to the desk. She slid a tape into the machine and left the room.
The video began with spooky music, like something out of The Twilight Zone. Dark, blurry images of ancient humans danced around a fire in slow motion. The scene faded to a flyover featuring long, parallel lines drawn in the desert. An ominous voice broke in and announced, in English, “These are the famous Nazca Lines. They were created over one thousand, five hundred years ago, and their existence was forgotten until the invention of the airplane.”
The flyover continued, showing drawings that looked like a monkey, a hummingbird and a pair of hands. Connecting them were trapezoids and more parallel lines. “Whoever crafted these figures must have had an advanced knowledge of mathematics in order to draw with such precision. In fact, the figures can only be appreciated from above. Why would the ancient Nazca people have created such large drawings?”
The video zoomed in on a drawing of a humanoid with a long, slender torso, a circular head and the large, round eyes of a child. It looked like it was wearing moon boots and a jumpsuit as it waved one hand in the air. “This figure is known as The Astronaut. Many people speculate that it was created to welcome aliens that visited here long ago. The trapezoids could have been landing strips for their spacecraft.
“Others believe that the lines are much older than their accepted age. Perhaps they were crafted by the lost global civilization of 10,500 BC. This culture could have been advanced enough to create hot air balloons for viewing the lines.”
“Oh, come on!” I exclaimed. “They're insulting the ancient Nazca culture. Does anyone actually believe this crap?”
“You have to keep an open mind, man,” Mathieu responded. It looked like he was enjoying these fantastic speculations. I was still locked into the mentality of a computer programmer, where logic precluded using one's imagination.
“Maria Reiche didn't believe these myths. She was a scientist from Germany who began to map the Nazca Lines in 1946 and dedicated the rest of her life to unraveling their mystery. Here's an interview with her explaining her thoughts behind the lines' creators.”
“Finally, a bit of reason,” I said.
But before the interview began, the woman in the business suit returned and stopped the video.
I rolled my eyes. Maybe these people really wanted us to believe the lines were created by space aliens.
The woman was accompanied by a man with a bushy mustache and a large gut. He was wearing a captain's hat and a white button-up shirt with yellow epaulets on the shoulders. “This is your pilot, Manuel,” she said.
Manuel led us outside the hangar and onto the tarmac runway, which looked like a steaming tar pit in the hundred-degree heat. Next to the runway was a row of parked airplanes. We walked to a four-seater in which a boy was sitting in the front passenger seat. Manuel opened his door and said, “This is my son. You guys sit in back.”
I climbed aboard and sat behind the boy; Mathieu squeezed in through Manuel's door. Airsickness bags were stuffed in the seat pockets in front of us. Two sets of headphones lay on the seat between Mathieu and me. Manuel hoisted his large body into the driver's seat and put on his headphones. The boy, Mathieu and I all followed suit with our own headphones. Our pilot fiddled with the myriad dashboard controls and the propeller began to spin. The headphones did a good job of blocking the noise, but there was still a high-pitched background whir in my ears and I could feel a rumbling in my bones.
Manuel turned toward us and asked, “Can you hear me?” He sounded like he was talking through a tin can. Lacking a microphone, I gave a “thumbs up” and Mathieu did the same. Manuel continued, “Keep your seat belts buckled for the whole flight. We'll be over the lines in ten minutes.”
He turned around and played with the controls again. The plane slowly rolled down the runway, past the other aircraft to the edge of the tarmac. We turned around, gained speed and were in the air with at least a quarter mile of runway to spare. We passed a few houses at the edge of town, and within minutes we were flying over the hilly, desolate desert. On the side of one of the hills was a long, narrow trapezoid.
That must be one of the alien landing strips. Why didn't they choose a flatter location?
The engine whirred as Manuel threw the yoke to the left. My head jerked sideways and I was looking straight down over Mathieu's shoulder through his window. “Look, there's the monkey!” came Manuel's tin-can voice through my headphones. “You see it?”
I surveyed the landscape and didn't see any monkeys. “Where is it?” I asked, then remembered that Manuel couldn't hear me.
Before I could find the monkey, the pitch of the engine shot up and we banked to the right. My head almost banged the window and I felt like I had gotten punched in the stomach. “There, look! You see the astronaut?”
I squinted and scanned the vast terrain, but still saw nothing. Then, engraved in a hill, I spotted the figure that the movie claimed could be an extraterrestrial. Its jumpsuit was zipped up and ready for flight, and it looked friendly as it waved to me.
Who knows? Maybe the movie was right. Hello my little space alien friend!
While I was still gazing into its eyes, the plane turned again and the horizon fell down my window like the view from a glass elevator. I was looking straight up at the clear blue sky and felt so queasy, I was afraid to move my head.
“Quick, look! That's the spider!” Manuel shouted. I tried to turn slowly, but gravity yanked my head sideways and I felt a sharp pain in my neck. “Do you see it? Not only is it an accurate drawing, but it was created using a single line. Isn't that neat?”
Indeed, a little spider was lurking on the ground far below us, but I couldn't enjoy it. When Manuel turned the plane back in the other direction, I felt nauseated and started rethinking that “American Breakfast.” I picked up my airsickness bag and held it close.
We continued to fly back and forth in this manner for half an hour; I kept my eyes closed for most of the flight. The few figures I did see were so small, I would not have noticed them without Manuel's guidance. My stomach was convulsing by the time we turned around to fly back to the airport.
“Oh God, that was close,” I said to Mathieu after we had landed. “You were right about skipping breakfast.” Even with our discount, the flight was a waste of money.
“I don't feel well, either,” he responded. His body had taken a lot of punishment in the last twelve hours, and it showed. Besides the red welts on his face, the blood had drained from his head and he was sweating profusely. He looked exhausted.
Do I look that run-down?
“They should offer tours from one of those flying saucers instead of the aeroplanes,” Mathieu said. “I bet the ride would be a lot smoother.”
“I like the way you think, Mathieu.”
“I'm going for a walk around the city,” I said to Mathieu. This was our second stint in Arequipa. After leaving Nazca a week earlier, we had spent two days here before taking an excursion to the Colca Canyon, one of the world's deepest. “You wanna come with me?”
“No thanks. I need to make a phone call.” Mathieu's welts had faded into blotches over the last week, and from ten feet away he could be mistaken for someone with a bizarre sunburn.
“OK, see you later.” Mathieu and I often spent all day on our own when we were in cities. This was probably why we weren't sick of each other yet.
I stepped outside and walked through central Arequipa. With a population of 750,000, this city felt smaller, cleaner and safer than Lima. The whitewashed colonial buildings surrounding the central plaza gave it a Spanish charm and the perfect volcanic cone of El Misti stood in the distance, 19,000 feet above sea level. But my favorite part of Arequipa was the Goldilocks climate – its elevation of about 7500 feet, combined with its tropical latitude, ensured year-round temperatures in the seventies. And unlike many tropical cities that have long rainy seasons, Arequipa is sunny 300 days a year.
Having already seen the downtown area, I walked about a mile to the Yanahuara District. This neighborhood had an impressive main plaza full of imposing palm trees and red and orange flower gardens. As I walked through the square, I noticed a group of teenage girls creating a brown, yellow and rose mural on the street, featuring a cross and the phrase “Christ lives in you.” I assumed the girls were using chalk, but then I noticed a large “Alpo” bag next to the mural.
Amazing, they're painting with dog food!
As I continued walking, I came upon a religious procession in which a small group of men and women in purple robes were slowly marching through the street. A few of the worshipers carried an altar with a painting of the Virgin Mary surrounded by bouquets of flowers and burning incense. Soon the crowd swelled as more and more onlookers joined. The people began to chant quietly to the slow rhythm of a beating drum. I walked with the crowd through Yanahuara's main street for a while, then broke away and headed back to downtown Arequipa.
Clothes were flying through the air when I walked into our room. Mathieu's possessions were strewn across his bed and he was frantically throwing everything into his backpack.
“What's going on?” I asked.
“I'm leaving,” Mathieu said without looking up at me.
“I just got off the phone with my brother. I need to go home as soon as possible.”
I fell back against the door and it slammed shut. “What happened?”
“It's an emergency health issue in my family. Sorry to rush but I need to get out of here now if I'm going to catch the next flight.”
I felt a tremendous empathy for him. “Of course. Is there anything I can do?”
“No, I'm just glad you made it back here before I took off so I could say goodbye.”
“Well, it's been great traveling with you.” I felt silly saying something so generic, but it was hard for me to believe he was really leaving, just like that.
I went to shake Mathieu's hand, but he pulled me in and gave me a hug. His eyes were welling up, and soon mine were too. “Yeah, it's been great. I'll email you later.” Mathieu's backpack was stuffed inefficiently and bits of clothing were sticking out of its sides. He lifted it over one shoulder and dashed out of the room.
I sat on my bed and tried to let what had just happened sink in. Mathieu, my travel partner since my first day in Lima, was gone. We had made a great team and I had assumed that we would travel together until he left for Thailand in another month. And now, for the first time in my twenty-two days in Peru, I was alone.
I thought: What am I gonna do? I don't know anyone here. I could easily make new friends at the hostel, but what would that solve? Eventually we'd have to split up. Now that Mathieu is gone, there's no denying the truth: everyone I know in this world is only a temporary acquaintance. My entire family and all of my lifelong friends are in the US. I won't get to see any of them again for at least another year. A year! I've never been so alone in my life.
What kind of existence had I escaped? Living and working in Rochester, Minnesota may not have been my dream life, but it really wasn't so bad. I had a stable income, a solid group of friends and a Corvette! I knew where I would sleep every night. I spoke the language, I understood the food, the transportation system, the television schedule and how to wash my clothes. Now every time I went to a new city, I had to figure it all out again. There were no price tags anywhere. The taxis didn't have meters. I had to negotiate every purchase and accept that I was constantly getting ripped off because I was a foreigner. I was spending half of my time just dealing with logistics. At least I had always had Mathieu to fall back on. Now even he was gone.
I felt burnt out – I hadn't had a day of rest in the last three weeks. I had treated this trip like a vacation with a friend. But this wasn't a vacation. It was a full-time job, and then some. I needed to slow down and relax.
Eventually, I would have to go home. What would my future look like? At IBM, it was normal for people to quit, but only after taking new jobs. I was the exception.
Why were we expected to spend our healthiest years working? Why was it only acceptable to do what we wanted after turning sixty-five? I had managed to escape from this backward system, but I didn't have enough money to keep traveling forever. Eventually I would have to return to work and my employment gap was getting bigger each day. I was burning through my cash reserves on a frivolous trip. Who would hire me, knowing that I might quit at a moment's notice? I had put a lot of hard work into getting a degree in computer science and creating a career as a software engineer. Had I really thrown it all away, just to be lonely in some distant country?
The last three weeks had been great, but now I wanted my old life back. I had been so comfortable back then. I could deal with the pointless meetings and unreasonable deadlines, the constant threat of being laid off and the complete lack of communication with upper management. My life in Peru was pure chaos and I didn't think I could take it much longer.
I thought: My career is still salvageable. If I go home now, I can get another job without having to rationalize this little adventure. It will just be a footnote on my résumé, not a hole. I'll be with real friends. I'll understand the culture. I'll have a comfortable life. Maybe it's time to admit my mistake, cut my losses and buy a ticket home.
Now what am I going to do? How about heading to Amazon to find out?