Weekly TBT Post: Lima, Peru

March 2016

I was so terrified to land in Lima, Peru–the first foreign city where I’d be on my own–that I couldn’t even make small talk with the nice British woman seated next to me. All I could think about were scary realities: that I would be landing at 12:45 a.m., and then trying to find my arranged cab ride to the hostel (my first hostel, ever), where I would be arriving in the middle of the night to climb into a bunk bed in a room of strangers.

Surely the crowds at the airport, groups of families and friends greeting passengers, and multitudes of cab drivers, could see the fear on my face–probably even whiter than usual. Carrying a backpack and messenger bag, the lightest I’d ever packed, I paced in front of the row of drivers holding signs with names, desperately searching for mine. After what felt like an eternity, I noticed one driver looking at me intently, in a kind way. I watched him dash out the door and run back with a sign that had my full name on it.

Breathing a sigh that was part relief, part worry, still scared to get in a cab alone in a foreign country for the first time, I forced a smile as he greeted me. “Como estas?” {And then more words my brain couldn’t translate fast enough. My eight years of studying Spanish had grown rusty from lack of use.}

My hesitation signaled his switch to English. “You are American?”

“Si,” I smiled, feeling at ease as I got in the car, my internal “danger” sensors calming down, despite noticing the car’s back bumper dragging onto the pavement.

Ramon safely dropped me off, offering his driving services for the next day if needed. Grateful to have a ride secured for my bike tour in Miraflores, a 45-minute drive from where I was staying in Callou–which was happening in a few hours already, I tossed my bags over my shoulder and rang the doorbell to the gated hostel. It opened after a few seconds too long of waiting, as I looked around at the dark desolation that seemed to span in every direction.

The front desk worker whom I’d woken up rubbed his eyes and led me to my room, where I climbed to my bunk, immediately sweating. Setting all my things on the bed to avoid waking everyone by messing with a locker, I stripped to a tank top and shorts. A rush of feelings flooded my mind as I curled onto my side. Just hours ago, I was wearing a winter coat, celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with a friend, then scrambling to finish last-minute packing. And now I had made it to my destination, through all the scary steps to get here: to late summer/early autumn, to South America, to the Southern Hemisphere, on my own.
I awoke nervously, with new fears to tackle. Tiptoeing around sleeping travelers in my room, I noticed an older couple sharing the bottom bunk under me. After getting a turn in the shower after the other guests, I locked up my things, smeared on loads of sunscreen, and set out to face the breakfast situation downstairs. I was learning that even simple scenarios in a foreign country, surrounded by foreign languages, can be intimidating at first. Despite common sense of knowing there’s nothing to be afraid of, no matter how old you are, it can still feel like being a child again, facing the first day of school, unsure of the expectations and the routine.

I looked around at the other travelers sitting in groups around the brightly painted kitchen, feeling clueless. Pacing around, confused, I wasn’t sure what the large jug of water with leaves was, or what the fruits on the table were. Cereal was nowhere to be found. Catching onto what others were doing, roaming about the kitchen and helping themselves, I poured some of the exotic tea into a mug, found some instant coffee as well, and dared myself to try the unknown fruits. The feeling of being foreign, being new, and being scared was starting to sink lower into my chest, replaced by the feeling of excitement at the new opportunities I would face.

As Ramon drove me to Miraflores, I watched in awe out the window, at crowded streets with people crossing in front of cars, with vehicles and motorbikes zig-zagging every which way, slightly resembling footage I’d seen of India. I stared at buses as we passed them, with people piled on top of one another on the other side of filmy windows. The sights surrounding us were simultaneously chaotic, dirty, and also full of life, of color. I saw large billboards of politicians and equally large graffiti in protest.

“There is a lot of political tension,” Ramon said when I asked. He began to fill me in on the controversial upcoming election. As I would find most conversations with travelers in the future to flow, we switched easily from the topic of politics to travel. “I’m saving up to travel by boat across South America, from west to east. Hopefully within the next year.”

“Wow, that’s so amazing!” I gaped, wonder growing inside me as he told past stories of traveling around South America.

“Will you travel to more countries this trip?” he asked.

I frowned, already dreading the end to this vacation. “No, I only have 9 days. But I want to come back… I want to see every country in South America.” I had only just arrived, but knew it was an honest wish. I just didn’t know when it would come true–when I would have enough time to travel until my heart was content.

I panicked as Ramon dropped me off at the intersection of the bike tour; we were 15 minutes late because of traffic, and I didn’t have wifi to let the tour guide know. I got out of the car and barely looked up before a guy around my age approached.

“Arturo?”

He nodded.

“Oh, good, I’m so sorry I’m late; there was all this traffic!”

“It’s okay, no problem,” he assured me, and I breathed one of many sighs of relief that things had worked out.

The 3-hour bike tour (by Lima Bike Rental & Tours–which I highly recommend!), led us through a handful of neighborhoods in Lima. Arturo educated us about the areas as we rode through, stopping for stunning photo opportunities, and also making stops for us to try lucuma flavored ice cream and chicha morada, a sweet corn drink. It was a lovely (and strenuous, but so worthwhile) day that allowed me to see so much of Lima. We rode to the top of the biggest hill I’d ever biked up, which required walking most of the last part, to stand as tiny ants next to an enormous statue of Jesus. Overlooking all of Lima, observing the contrasts between townships and wealthy neighborhoods, we could see all the areas we rode through, with the Pacific Ocean and all its beauty as the backdrop.

Later that day, sunburned as ever despite my sunscreen, I tried and failed to find a food walking tour. For over an hour I trekked in endless wrong directions, my attempts to ask strangers in Spanish misunderstood every time. Eventually I passed a Starbucks and took a break to try a lucuma flavored frappucino, then walked back to an outdoor mall in Miraflores where I knew I could find food, wifi, and a view of the sunset over the Pacific.

Scrolling through my pictures from the day, over a Peruvian meal of ceviche (that included octopus), a pisco sour (the drink of Peru), and alfajores (a brilliantly tasty dessert), I reveled in my time alone, amidst groups and couples. When I navigated finding a cab that would safely take me home, upon realizing their driver didn’t speak as much English as Ramon, I found myself–in a buzzed state from the strooong pisco sour–suddenly speaking Spanish. I was mostly speaking in the present tense, substituting long descriptions for words I didn’t know, but by some miracle, my rusty knowledge came back to me. We talked the entire 45 minute ride home, conversing calmly and respectfully as he asked why I wasn’t married, how my then-boyfriend could “allow” me to travel alone, and discusssing cultural differences and gender expectations in both of our countries.

I climbed back into my bunk to sleep for a few hours, since my flight to Cuzco–where I would meet a small group to start the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu–was leaving at 3:40 a.m. Again, before falling asleep, I thought about how crazy it was that I was really here, doing all these things. And while still full of fears about the challenges to come, with each day of this trip, I was putting more fears behind me every time I accomplished something I was afraid of.

 

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