Sept. - Oct. 2005
(View the map for this chapter.)
A fog of dust hung in the air over Lima, as if everyone were emptying their vacuum cleaner bags all at once. Rather than trees, the streets were lined with garbage. Cars parked on the sidewalks, kids played soccer in the road and vendors sold everything from potato chips to light bulbs anyplace they could cram themselves. Reggaeton beats blasted from taxis and buses as they swam through wide avenues, ignoring lane markers. Packs of emaciated stray mutts darted through the traffic in a desperate and endless search for food. Bored police officers were on every corner, perched on tall chairs above the bedlam like lifeguards, wearing spiffy uniforms with brilliant white gloves and whistles chirping in their mouths. Security guards armed with shotguns stood outside most businesses. I had not experienced chaos of this magnitude since my high school trip to Mexico a decade earlier. I was still in the shelter of an airport taxi, but I was already feeling the effects of culture shock.
My taxi took me to a neighborhood called Miraflores and dropped me off at a hostel. I walked into the lobby and said, “Good morning, I have a reservation,” to the receptionist, struggling with my Spanish.
She fumbled through some papers. I looked around the lobby. Hardwood floors, plush leather couches, Picasso prints on the walls.
The receptionist said, “Welcome, Daniel. Here is your key.” I was off to a good start – I had not used my Spanish in years, but the language was still lurking somewhere in my brain. With time, I was sure it would get even better.
I walked upstairs and found my room, which was tiny but clean. I laid my heavy green backpack on my bed, then walked downstairs to the hostel's central courtyard to find breakfast. About a dozen travelers were eating at tables on the lawn and speaking various European languages. The self-serve breakfast table was next to a door marked cocina (kitchen). An “American Breakfast” was included in the price of my room, but there was no bacon, sausage, eggs, pancakes or anything else that I, being an American, would want for breakfast. Instead, there was a basket full of bread rolls, a jar of jelly, a stick of butter, a thermos of steaming water and a tiny carafe of thick gunk that looked like used motor oil. I buttered and jellied a couple of rolls. Out of curiosity, I picked up the carafe and swished it in front of my face.
“That's what passes for coffee here,” said a man with a British accent.
“I'm supposed to drink this?” I was craving the caffeine, but it looked too awful to try.
“No, that would taste terrible. If you dilute it with water, it'll become merely repulsive.”
I filled a coffee cup most of the way with hot water, then tipped the carafe upside down. The sludge oozed into the water and dissolved into something resembling coffee. The man was sitting alone at his table. “Thanks. Mind if I join you?”
“Not at all,” he replied and gestured toward an empty chair. Like me, he was in his late twenties, but he looked unkempt with messy hair, a scraggly beard and a potato sack shirt. His glasses, however, told me there might be a studious man underneath the veneer.
When I sat down, my new breakfast companion asked, “Did you just start traveling?”
“Is it that obvious?”
“You do look rather clean.”
“My flight landed a few hours ago.” My hair was short, I had shaved the previous morning, and my clothes were new – of course I stuck out among the other backpackers. I took a sip of coffee and winced from its bitter sting. “God, I thought there'd be better coffee than this in Peru. Don't they grow the beans here?”
The man chuckled. “Yeah, go figure. The locals pour in massive amounts of sugar to disguise the taste.”
“When in Rome,” I said, grabbing the jar of sugar that was on our table. I added a few spoonfuls, stirred the concoction and tried another sip. Passable.
“What about you?” I asked. “How long have you been here?”
“This is my first day in Lima as well. I came on an overnight bus from Trujillo.”
“So is that where you started your trip? Tru-ji-llo?” I had never heard of it.
“No, I started in Montreal.”
“So you flew here from Canada?”
He thought about it for a few seconds. “Wrong again. After Montreal I traveled overland across the country to Vancouver, then down the Pacific Coast of the US, Mexico, Central America, Ecuador, and now Peru.”
I was impressed. “Wow, how long has that taken?”
“About six months.”
The kitchen door swung open and a woman who worked at the hostel walked past us carrying a new basket of rolls. She added this to the breakfast table, then combined it with the last few remaining rolls from the other basket.
“Just a minute,” my new friend said. There was nothing but crumbs on his plate and his cup was empty. He turned around, got the woman's attention and asked, “Excuse me, is there more coffee?” Strangely, he sounded French when he spoke Spanish.
“Yes there is,” she said and walked back into the kitchen.
“Hey, where are you from?” I asked, intrigued by his changing accent.
“Paris.” Then, in an exaggerated French accent, he asked, “Do you expect me to zound like zis?”
“Yeah, I guess I do. Where did you learn English?”
“My mum is British. She always spoke to me in English when I was little. And from your accent, you sound American?”
“Yes, I grew up in Wisconsin and lived in Minnesota for a while.” I realized that I hadn't even introduced myself yet. “My name's Dan.”
The woman returned and set a new carafe on the breakfast table. My friend got up, began to make an oil-water mixture, and said over his shoulder, “Strange, isn't it? You can have a whole conversation with someone and not learn their name. I'm Mathieu.” He returned to the table and we shook hands.
“Nice to meet you. How much longer do you have on your trip?”
“Another six months or so. I'm going to travel through Peru and into Chile, then fly to Southeast Asia and make my way toward India. How about you?”
“I don't have much of a plan other than traveling south until I reach the bottom of the continent, then turning around and heading north.”
He must have detected my hesitation because he said, “Don't worry, it's important to stay flexible. That way you won't miss out on any spontaneous adventures.”
“Right, but now I'm starting to think my plans are too vague. I don't even have a ticket home.”
Mathieu ran his hand through his hair. “No, it's better not to buy one until you need it. I'm starting to regret having purchased my round-the-world ticket. My next flight is always coming up, so I'm constantly in a hurry.”
“I can see how that would get annoying,” I said, thinking: He has a whole year to travel and he still has a tight schedule. Maybe it was a good idea for me to buy a one-way ticket. But was quitting my job a good idea?
Mathieu shook his head. “Before I know it, I'll be back in France. Which reminds me, I need to run to a calling center. I told my brother I'd phone him.” He stood up. “I'll see you later.”
“Yeah, nice meeting you, Mathieu.” Then I remembered that I still didn't have any Peruvian money. “Hey, do you know if there's an ATM nearby?”
“Sure, there's one at the supermarket a few blocks down the road.”
“And is it safe to walk there from here?”
Mathieu laughed and said, “You haven't been outside at all yet, have you?”
“Well, no, I came here straight from the airport in a taxi.”
“Don't worry, this is one of the safest neighborhoods in the city. No one's going to rob you here in broad daylight.”
“OK, thanks,” I said, feeling silly for having asked.
“No problem.” Mathieu gulped down his coffee and hacked. “Absolutely repulsive,” he said and walked away, shaking his head.
I ate the rest of my roll and forced down my coffee. Then I went upstairs to my room. Wanting to get organized, I took everything out of my backpack and laid it across my bed. I had drained the battery from my laptop at the airport the previous day. I plugged it in and was happy to see the charge light come on without having to use a power adapter. Next I liberated my feet from my sweaty socks and shoes and put on my sandals. Then I made sure my money belt was hidden beneath my clothes and went back to the lobby where I picked up a map of the city at the front desk.
As soon as I walked outside, I saw what Mathieu had thought was so funny. The street had only a bit of traffic, and most of the vehicles weren't even honking their horns. There were no shouting street vendors or whistling cops. The air didn't smell of diesel fumes. How had I not noticed this quiet neighborhood from the taxi?
I walked to the supermarket and saw that it was huge, with an abundance of food options in dozens of aisles. It also had a strip of smaller businesses near the checkout lines, including a bank with an ATM. I withdrew a week's worth of Peruvian soles and walked around the complex. The familiarity of an American-style big box store made me realize I could get by in Lima after all.
The next morning when I went to the courtyard for my “American Breakfast,” Mathieu was sitting at the same table.
“Good morning. How have you been?” I asked, holding a carafe in one hand and a thermos in the other.
“Not bad. You have the coffee down to a science yet?”
“Working on it.” I alternated filling my cup with sludge and water to get the perfect ratio, then added a liberal amount of sugar. I prepared a roll and sat with Mathieu.
“How's Lima treating you?” he asked.
“Miraflores is nice, but Lima in general is just so big. I'm looking forward to seeing some smaller towns.”
“That's understandable. I'm not much of a city person either. And I only have a month left to travel around Peru, so I don't want to waste a lot of time in Lima.”
I thought this was funny, considering that a month translated into two years of vacation time in my old life. “Then what are your plans for the rest of Peru?”
“Funny you should ask,” Mathieu said, sipping his coffee. “I've decided to go to Huaraz tonight. You interested in coming along?”
“Where's that?” I asked, stalling. I didn't want to stay in Lima for a long time, but it was only my second day there and I barely knew Mathieu.
“It's in the Andes, about eight hours from here by bus. I was thinking of spending a week up there before coming back down to the coast.”
“Why do you want to go there?”
“Some friends recommended it to me. It's a small city with lots of trekking nearby in the mountains. So, what do you say?”
I thought about it some more. Mathieu knew far more about backpacking than I did, and it would be easier to get around the country with his help. While preparing for this trip, I had convinced myself that I would be OK if I traveled alone. I hadn't expected to make friends so soon or easily, and I was happy for the opportunity. “Sure, why not?”
“Very well, shall we meet here at, say, five o'clock?”
That left me with several hours to kill, and I figured I should at least spend some time sightseeing. “Sounds good. What are you doing until then? I was thinking of heading downtown.”
“No thanks, I want to relax and use the internet. But go ahead and I'll meet you here later.”
How could he not want to see more of this city?
I packed my stuff and left my backpack in a storage room behind the reception desk. Then I walked to the palm-lined main avenue in Miraflores and tried to figure out the public transportation system. Every few minutes, a large van called a combi passed with an assistant leaning out of its sliding door and shouting a destination. But the assistants spoke so fast I couldn't understand a word they were saying.
Frustrated, I got the attention of a lady walking past and asked, “Do you know which bus goes downtown?”
She stopped walking, listened to the assistant of the next combi that came toward us and spoke in English. “This one goes there.”
“Thanks,” I said, thinking: I make an effort to speak her language and she responds in English. Maybe my Spanish isn't so great, after all.
I boarded the van and my urban adventure began. The combi dropped me off in a square that I figured was the center of the city. I walked around the plaza, which featured a beautiful colonial church and several fountains. But the thousands of people, cars, buses, taxis and dogs that filled the streets and sidewalks commanded my attention. The chaos of downtown was the same as I had experienced in the airport taxi. I spent hours walking around aimlessly and came to understand that the main attraction of Lima was the life flow of the city itself. When I had seen enough, I took a taxi back to Miraflores, content to be leaving so soon.
When I met Mathieu in our hostel's lobby later in the day, he was sitting on a leather couch and studying a page from his French language guidebook of Peru. His backpack was leaning against the wall. “We have a small problem,” he said.
“Oh yeah, what's that?”
“I called the bus company my book recommends and they're sold out for Huaraz.”
“So we can't go tonight?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Of course not. Loads of other buses go there.”
I felt embarrassed at my defeatism. In the future, I would try not to give up so quickly.
Mathieu grabbed a pen from the desk and scrawled an address on a napkin. He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes, looking stressed from his search. “I think this is our best option. The book says they don't take reservations, but their buses go to Huaraz every hour.”
“OK, let's try it.”
Mathieu and I loaded our backpacks into a taxi and went across the city to the bus station, an unpainted concrete building with steel rods poking out of its roof. A man stood outside guiding a beat-up bus as it backed next to the building, belching a thick cloud of black smoke. We stepped over a dog sleeping near the entrance and walked inside. Peruvians filled a row of seats in the center of the waiting area, dressed in bright ponchos and alpaca wool hats. Many young women had babies on their laps and colorful duffel bags at their sides. They were fixated on an overhead television showing a Spanish language telenovela (soap opera). The volume was at full blast.
“How much to go to Huaraz?” Mathieu asked the ticket salesman with his French-accented Spanish.
“Twenty-three soles.” About seven dollars, a price that seemed impossibly low for the overnight ride. I would expect to pay ten times that much for a similar trip in the United States.
We bought our tickets, then sat on the floor of the waiting room with our backs against the wall. Mathieu leaned his backpack against his torso and hugged it. I did the same, and slipped my leg through my backpack's arm loops in case anyone tried to grab it and run.
After we had waited for a few minutes, a man with a tote bag hanging from one shoulder came into the station. His beady eyes shifted back and forth as he scanned the room, then he walked up to me and reached into his bag.
My heart skipped a beat. Did he have a knife? A gun?
The man stared at his hands in feigned awe as they emerged cupping a drum on a stick like the one from Karate Kid II.
I thought: Oh, he's just a salesman.
“¿Quiéres?” the man asked in a long, drawn out tone.
I looked away from him and shook my head almost imperceptibly. The man held the stick between his palms about a foot from my face and began to twirl it, slowly at first, then building up momentum until it reached a staccato beat. BAM, BAM, BAM, BAM! Figuring that if I said anything it would only encourage him, I remained silent with my eyes half open, focused on the other side of the room. The man moved the drum so close it would hit my tongue if I stuck it out. BAM, BAM, BAM, BAM! the beat continued, and it took every bit of patience I had not to grab the drum and smack him upside the head with it.
Finally, the salesman walked away. I let out a sigh of relief and looked to Mathieu, who couldn't contain his laughter. “Good job, man,” he said. “If I were you, I would've taken that guy's drum and hit him with it.”
“Thanks, but why'd he single me out?”
“He didn't.” Mathieu nodded toward the salesman, who approached one of the Peruvian women with a sleeping baby on her lap. The man put away the drum and pulled a stuffed frog out of his bag.
“¿Quiéres?” he asked as he rotated it back and forth and squeezed it. SQUEAK, SQUEAK, SQUEAK, SQUEAK! The woman ignored him until he gave up.
“Uh oh,” Mathieu said. “He's coming this way again. Put on your game face.” We both became statues as he shook the useless toy in our faces and moved on.
“OK, Mathieu. It's not funny anymore. I'd rather be anywhere but here.”
A bus employee cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, “Huaraz! Huaraz! Huaraz!” An empty bus was backing up next to the building.
“Looks like you'll get your wish,” Mathieu said.
We followed the man who was shouting. He loaded our backpacks into the storage compartment under the bus, then climbed aboard with us and took our tickets. I expected a mad dash of people fighting over the prime seats, but the bus was virtually empty.
“Nice, there's so many open seats, I might as well take two,” I said, looking forward to sleeping, splayed out across a row.
“No, you better sit next to me,” Mathieu responded.
“Why? The bus is almost empty and these seats have no legroom.”
I sat next to Mathieu and turned sideways so my feet stuck out in the aisle, a little annoyed that he wanted me to sit in this cramped seat. Am I the only tall person in this whole country?
After pulling out of the station, we drove slowly down the street as other vehicles went flying past us. The assistant leaned out of the door and shouted, “Huaraz, Huaraz, Huaraz!” to every pedestrian he saw. We turned a few corners and I wondered if we were almost out of the city, but then I saw our bus station again. For the next two hours we drove around in circles, slowly picking up any straggler we could find looking to go to Huaraz. The first few people to walk past me tripped over my legs, so I was forced to squeeze into my seat with my knees pressed against my chest. Maybe $7 wasn't such a great deal after all.
It was late and I fell asleep for a few minutes between the assistant's shouts. I took another look around the bus and was relieved to see that every seat was finally filled. But rather than getting onto the highway, we pulled into a gas station.
“What the hell? Why didn't they fill up before we left?” I asked.
My question was rhetorical, but Mathieu answered patiently, “Dan, they didn't have enough money for petrol before we left.”
Finally, the bus drove out of the city and onto the open expanse of the Pan-American Highway. I fell asleep, but soon we left the main road and started moving uphill around switchbacks. Every time I closed my eyes, we changed directions and I was jolted awake. After we had gone uphill back and forth for six hours, the road flattened. It was freezing, and sleeping was out of the question.
“Jesus it's cold here,” I said to Mathieu, who was awake and shivering.
“Welcome to the Andes. I hope you brought warm clothes.”
Mathieu and I stumbled off the bus at dawn, red-eyed and teetering on the edge of consciousness. There was barely enough light to see the buildings, yet I could already tell that Huaraz was different from Lima. The air was clean and crisp, and the city was quiet save for a few chirping birds. In the background were the peaks of the Central Andes, covered in snow and begging for exploration. I decided to try something I hadn't dared attempt in smoggy Lima – I closed my eyes and mouth, tilted back my head and took in a deep breath of clean mountain air through my nose. It had taken eight hours of being wedged in a cramped seat and 1000 days of planning to get here. The wait was over.
Now this is why I came to Peru.
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