Apr 27, 2003
David Rich 950 Words
P e r u R e v i s i t e d
I took the bus across a chunk of Argentina and half of Chile with thirty-nine fellow passengers anxious to get home to Lima. Nice bunch, halfway sedate from matrons and teenyboppers to young families, a few unattached studs, and me. But after two long days into the trip (the bus left seven hours late), and trying to communicate with my execrable Spanish, I was getting paranoiac, based on my previous Peruvian experience, which had required keeping twenty-four watch on all my possessions lest they be stolen. Even the bespectacled nun with long white headdress (how she kept it spotless and snow white on a filthy bus is beyond me) seemed sinister in her long plaid dress, chanting Sunday evening mass behind me, leading thirty-eight other passengers in interminable rounds of recitations and song. As I started to doze off it was sounding like a pirate's ditty, "On the count of three, after a prayer to thee, we'll all jump the gringo, grab his purse to see."
I had resorted to the only available solace on a bus of sour unwashed bodies (no water in the bathroom), to sleep, perchance to dream. And dream I did, so that suddenly all the Spanish became crystal clear. The lady with the auburn hair in the seat in front of me nudged her companion, "Did you see the wad of hundred-dollar bills he has in that not-so-secret money belt?"
I nervously fingered my wad. I was headed for the Galapagos and with Ecuador using the dollar, it wasn't cheap; but how did they know? Suddenly everyone had left their seats, huddling in the back of the hurtling bus. It was obviously a conspiracy. The dream had become so vivid that I didn't know when I had awakened, assuming I had. I surreptitiously felt through the multiple pockets of my daypack and transferred my Swiss Army knife to my pants pocket. I wasn't giving up without a fight, hoping I could remember which was blade and which was nail file.
It took an hour for me to figure out the perfectly understood Spanish was a dream. I should be so lucky to understand half the Spanish that's thrown at me. It was the border that finally broke the shell on my dream world. Right after we cleared customs from Chile into Peru the guy with the long curly hair stood up, threw his fist in the air and began shouting, and suddenly everyone but me was doing the same. I could understand this Spanish, "La Frontera, Peru," shouted over and over.
Right—we'd left the unlittered first-world countries of Chile and Argentina and had entered the insecurity of Peru. That was my take, not theirs. This was the happiest bunch I'd seen in eons, singing, playing music full blast—a fiesta full-blown. The bus halted and a family with huge Philippine suitcases invaded us, the cheap red, white, and blue jobbies that can be stuffed with a piano and these seemed to contain two pianos each. It took two adults to boost each suitcase onto the bus, up the steep stairs, four huge bulgy bags suddenly blocking the aisle as we rocked and rolled into Peru in the midst of a truly bizarre bazaar. Clothes, jackets, shoes, watches, cameras and phones were flying around the bus, fake Tommy Hilfiger, Canon, and Nike, and all my bus-mates were in a buying frenzy, so happy to be back in Peru that they were paying prices in dollars instead of Peruvian soles. This family of hawkers consisted of incredibly consummate sales persons, repeatedly demonstrating the self-timing flash on the cheap cameras, lights popping like New Year's Eve, finding the proper size for the jackets, zooming the "Nike" shoes across the top of the bus seats, illuminating the watch dials. I was pressed into modeling jackets for the ladies intent on surprising their husbands with a fancy fake suede homecoming present.
Having made up our seven-hour late departure by not stopping for food or anything else for two days, the highlight of the fiesta continued into a local Tacna, Peru restaurant, well after midnight, where we feasted for an hour on local dishes. I had no idea what I was ordering, and when my tablemates were served their order, the caldo de gallina that looked utterly scrumptious, I knew I'd ordered the wrong thing. I scurried around trying to exchange my ticket, which I'd purchased for loma (whatever that was), for the excellent looking caldo de gallina, a large deep bowl with a whole, cooked potato in the center topped by half a steaming chicken and surrounded by homemade noodles in a rich broth. Not having eaten much in two days, anything would have looked great and this looked super. But the restaurant had expended its stock of caldo de gallina, so I was stuck with the loma. In my state of starvation, the sole harm was the delay in receiving my order.
The loma turned out to be quite edible in the circumstances, strips of lean (if not to say chewy) beef fried in a brown sauce chock full of onions, and French fries topping a huge mound of rice. I'd have been happy with a can of Pard, so I was ecstatic at my loma, almost as happy as my hilariously overjoyed new Peruvian pals. I quietly put my Swiss Army knife back in my daypack as we continued on the bus toward Lima, only twenty hours to go.
When we got to the Lima bus station and prepared to venture out into the dark, rung out and smellier than ever, my seat companion said, "Be really careful, and don't let someone steal all your stuff." Ah, Peru revisited.