It was the hiking poles I carefully placed in the overhead storage bin that started my adventure in a very pleasant way. They didn’t fit in my suitcase and I thought my knee would appreciate their support while tramping around the uneven surroundings of the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu ruins. Making sure the poles wouldn’t be in anyone’s way, I slid into my seat with a mental note not to leave the airplane without them. They brought attention my way that I hadn’t anticipated…
It took two flights to get to Peru- from LA to Dallas and Dallas to Lima. Since I booked the flights from a third party, I was not able to choose my seats and didn’t realize that meant that I had no choice- ever (unless I wanted to pay extra)! If I had bought my tickets from American Airlines I could have chosen seats when I booked the flight. I have a hard time sleeping on planes, so I always get a window seat to lean against something (instead of a person I don’t know)- especially if it’s an overnight flight, which the second one was- over 7 hours. So, for both flights I stood in line for close to an hour, hoping to get my preferred window seat. I didn’t get it on the first one, but I sat in the aisle next to a delightful man who saw my hiking poles and asked if I was a hard-core trekker. He loved hearing what I’m up to, even though the poles were just a preventive measure to minimize arthritic knee pain of a 60 year-old woman. The fact that I was pursuing something on my bucket list and looking for ways to make this phase of my life meaningful made his eyes glow. He implored me to learn how to make some money while I travel and insisted I turn on my phone to jot down a list of resources he recommended. I tingled inside to have his enthusiasm coming my way- a total stranger, much younger than I, who encouraged me to reach out and help others do what I’m doing. Sweet!! I didn’t even mind that I was sitting in the aisle anymore.
The next flight from Dallas to Lima was not so great, even though I was able to get a window seat. It was in the emergency exit, which gave me some welcome leg room, but the seat did not recline, requiring me to sit in a rigid, totally vertical position, chasing sleep for 7 hours. I never caught it, but at least my eyes got a rest- fortunately I had an eye mask on hand. Even though I covered my legs with a blanket and had my sarong wrapped around my upper body, I was cold! And when I arrived in Lima at 5:05 am, I remained cold. All day long!! At 12 degrees latitude and on the coast, I anticipated that Lima would greet me with a steamy, warm tropical experience for a day before I ascend to the colder Andes. It’s closer to the equator than where I stayed in Guatemala, and right on the ocean, so I packed a couple tee shirts. I was shocked to see everyone wrapped up in jackets when I arrived. I’m staying at an air bnb, and, typical of many places in Peru, there is no heat and not much insulation- in fact the wide gaps in the louvered windows in my room let the cold air flow freely in, fluttering the curtains now and then. When guests say they are cold they are given more alpaca blankets, which are very warm- unless you’re not in bed! I wish I had my sheepskin slippers, but my suitcase was packed tight. After a brief, but very friendly greeting from my host, Aixa, I slipped in to bed to take a 2 hour nap before breakfast- with all my clothes on and thick socks on my feet!
Aixa, and her boyfriend, Carlos are vivacious, friendly people who loved sharing the beauty of Peru with me over breakfast. Carlos had many intriguing photos on his phone to augment his descriptions of places I should go. I loved trying out my Spanish with them- it always amazes me how quickly it returns once I am immersed in the language. I’m constantly reading signs and interpreting everything I can- a downloading of vocabulary which my mind craves like my mouth craves rich, dark chocolate. My driver told me my pronunciation was very good, which boosted my confidence, but I also realized that people assume I’m fluent and tend to speed up their own talking once they hear me- and they tell others I can speak Spanish, so they follow suit. I was a little too bleary-eyed this morning to manage, but as the day progressed I began speaking to more and more people in Spanish. I was even asked to translate for the other air bnb guest staying here! I realize one thing on my bucket list is to immerse myself for a longer time to become fluent- some day….
After Aixa advised me where to go for food and shopping, and assured me everything was very safe in this area, I ventured out for the afternoon. Here are some of my observations:
I’m a little unsure of safety practices, though I’ve traveled plenty and read lots of advice before I left the US. Do I leave my passport in my suitcase in my locked room where my host or her mother are always home, or do I put it in my money belt and tuck it under my clothing all day? I chose the latter. Do I bring a purse, a backpack, or just what I can fit in my pockets? I brought my small purse and put enough cash for a few items in my pocket- though I always held the strap of my purse in my hand. I also left some money, copy of my passport, and a credit card hidden in other places so I never chance losing it all. Do I use my phone map app or draw myself a map? I used my phone- EVERYONE seems to have one, so I don’t see why mine would be so appealing.
I walk out of my air bnb home into the bleak light of a grey sky (Carlos says it’s partly pollution), unsure which direction to turn. I use my phone map app to figure it out, but I feel a little conspicuous since some advice said to be careful about exposing your cell phone to someone who might see it and know they could make some money- about the same as the average annual Peruvian income- by selling it. I am very aware of my surroundings, looking back to make sure I remember where I came from, and feeling everyone’s eyes on me- a light-brown haired, pale blue-eyed woman in a sea of shiny black-haired and brown-eyed people. My blue eyes have brought some unwanted attention my way on past trips I’ve made to Latin American countries. Several men have declared that they could not resist my blue eyes, implying they were not responsible for their wandering hands and pleas to give them a kiss. I was always able to maintain my boundaries, but it wasn’t comfortable. My dress is practical and functional- quick-dry, multi-pocketed REI cargo pants (with a little splat of white paint and a little baggy from all the weight I lost last year); my hooded, striped long sleeve tee, also from REI; comfy but well-worn running shoes; the dark grey fleece vest I got from a clothing swap- which I wear almost every day when it’s cold; and to top it off, my visor and sunglasses, just in case the sun decided to come out (like the weather report said it would)- I noticed no one else wore sunglasses or a hat! No make-up (this keeps coming up for me…), and my long, somewhat frizzy brown hair helped to mark me as a tourist and not a local, as most of the women I see have coifed hair cuts or hair in a bun and wear pressed pants or skirts and matching tops, shiny boots or heels, and, of course, make-up. I’m trying to get used to seeing my face in the mirror without make-up: no I’m trying to love seeing myself in the mirror without make-up!! Maybe it will just take time- somehow it’s a statement I feel I need to make right now…. I packed light, not wanting to bring too much since I’ll have to carry everything myself: one other pair of pants plus a pair of yoga pants, rain pants and poncho, a light-weight down jacket, one other long-sleeve shirt and two fleece tops, fleece and silk long underwear, waterproof hiking boots, and nothing at all dressy- for two weeks of travel in what is predicted to be rainy weather on and off for most days. And still, I had to sit on my bag to get the zipper to close! Well, my ultra-thin yoga mat and stash of herbal remedies might have had something to do with it…
There’s something about traveling alone and putting yourself in a situation that is a little edgy, a little out of your comfort zone, that is both challenging and freeing. It allows a new you to emerge, and provides an opportunity to re-evaluate what is meaningful to you, if you care to take it. Traveling to a culture that is not mine is stimulating in unpredictable ways. In some ways I forget who I am when I’m out of my familiar environment- or maybe I forget who I’ve become because of that environment, and am open to remembering who I really am. I’m no longer defined by my personal past when I meet new people- only by the stories and presence I choose to share. I am however, somewhat defined by the past of my culture and my country’s politics, but those perceptions I strive to change for the better when I travel. Once, when I was walking down a street in Bali during my first time out of the US, I began to sing out loud. I would never have done that in front of people I didn’t know in my own culture because I was shy about my voice, but the Balinese seemed to think I was already pretty unusual, so I felt I could be whoever I wanted to be. What a joyful sensation spread through my body as I let that repressed part of my being sing out!
Today I felt myself come alive as I walked down the streets of Lima. Everything is new- I can’t tell north from south because the sun is behind a grey curtain, and I’m not sure how it would appear different in the southern hemisphere anyway. I don’t know my way nor what is safe, so I wait to see what the locals do- like when to cross the street in traffic. I’m not sure what food I want to eat because the names are all new, and it takes me forever to figure out how much the coins in my hand are worth when I go to pay for something- the local currency is soles and a few of the coins are worth more than one sole. I heard parakeets screeching overhead instead of the scrub jays and crows at home. I was looking for something for lunch, and a beautiful, weathered-face 4-foot tall woman shyly caught my eye in front of a small, local restaurant (the kind I like to eat at!). I guessed she didn’t think I would choose to sit in her restaurant instead of the touristy ones a couple blocks further up the road, but she had just what I was looking for- a healthy lunch for about $1.30. I ordered sopa de pollo (chicken soup), but it came with some ingredients I didn’t recognize: some soft, chewy but slippery balls- kind of like hominy, but smaller; some spicy golden sauce with a tiny serving spoon; and some chicken body parts I don’t normally eat. I tried being adventurous, but I’m a vegetarian at heart and had to quickly swallow something that felt like a chicken liver in my mouth before I had a negative reaction- I just couldn’t do it again, even though the soup was delicious. I spooned up the remaining vegetables and broth, leaving the gristly meat and spongy organs behind. How much more sustainable it is to eat the whole animal if you’re going to take it’s life- my culture and upbringing have trained me to be wasteful and to not even think about it because those less desirable parts just disappear at most of our grocery stores. I eat chicken, fish, and occasionally beef because my acupuncturists all told me my body type needed the dense nutrition of animal protein, and I do feel better when I eat it, but it’s more of a condiment to me than the base of my meal. Really, I’d be happy with just bone broth and vegetables but that’s REALLY wasteful!! I felt a moment of disgust at my food prejudices.
Later I enjoyed buying some fruit from a man at his sidewalk stand- only the ones with peels so I don’t risk an unintentional hitchhiker my digestion can’t handle. I got 3 bananas- the tiny super-sweet ones that aren’t often available in the US (I try to only buy tropical fruit when I’m in the tropics, so it’s a real treat!!), 2 delicious tangerines, and a perfectly ripe avocado- all for about $1.60. I found a fresh meat empanada for less than a dollar, so there I had enough food for breakfast and dinner for under $3. Perfect!! Plus I enjoyed the interactions with street vendors. I like trying to live like a local and avoiding the touristy, expensive restaurants. I really do need to keep my spending down since this trip is a big splurge for me, but I also am curious about what it’s like to live in a culture where the average income is almost a tenth of what I made last year. What does it feel like to have visitors come and spend so much money on non-essentials when so many just barely get their needs for nutrition and housing met? Whenever I travel I like to get to know the local people, or to have something I’m offering besides money for services and products. I strive to connect, rather than divide, which means interacting as equals. Many years ago I was traveling in Guatemala with my boyfriend, Ross, when we were held up at gunpoint by two teenage boys on the shores of Lake Atitlán. All we had were our backpacks, which had our cameras and swimsuits, and about $10 each. We thought we were being wise travelers, but after one kid asked Ross for his money, and Ross did not respond (Ross said he didn’t hear him), the kids lost their nerve, grabbed our backpacks, and ran down the road then jumped into the back of a pick up that appeared. Ross found his nerve and ran down the road after the truck, disappearing around the curve. I waited for the blast of gunshot that would mean the end of the beautiful man I had fallen deeply in love with. Instead, after a few panicked moments when my heart beat so fast, or maybe stopped beating at all, I saw him limping back up the road, my backpack slung over his shoulder. He’d grabbed my pack from one guy, then fell off the back of the truck when it went over a bump. The teens got away with his backpack. The rest of our three-week trip was tainted by the fear from being threatened with our lives over just a few dollars and our cameras. Instead of becoming afraid of traveling ever again, I got curious about what would cause someone to do that to someone else, and the answer seemed obvious. The perceived disparity of wealth and opportunity, plus the complexities of political power between developed and developing countries could easily cause bitterness and lack of respect for life. At that realization, I decided I no longer wanted to travel as just a tourist. Since then, I have mostly traveled as part of a group with some sort of intention or purpose to do some good in the world- to raise awareness or make connections.
And so, this brings me to the purpose for my current trip to Peru. Visiting Machu Picchu has been on my bucket list for many years, but that’s not enough for me. This trip is also about nurturing my writing, a call I’ve been hearing for most of my adult life and not fully acknowledging. It’s through my writing I hope to raise awareness and deepen connections that create a more socially just, environmentally sustainable, and spiritually fulfilling human existence on this planet. It may simply be that through a writing practice I will figure out my own path and get to understand myself better so I can relate to others better, but hopefully sharing my process will also spark some ideas that spread out to others, too. Today I realized a fantasy I had of sitting in a coffee shop and writing- on weekdays when I would normally have to go to work. The words to describe the images and feelings I experienced flowed through me as usual, but this time I had set time aside to capture them on paper, rather than storing them in my head for a future that allowed me time to write- a future that rarely came when I worked full time and had a house to maintain. So much fun!!! I’m already benefitting from making the commitment to take this workshop with Laura! Here I sit, bundled in my fleece long underwear and thickest fuzzy socks with two layers of winter shirts, watching the curtains flutter in the cold wind trickling through the louvered windows of my air bnb bedroom. It’s just before midnight as I finish capturing these final words on my computer, and I am in a blissful state!!