Well-worn shoes. Hair in disarray from an early morning international flight. 23 days of travel smell permeating our gear, we strolled up to the clean, orderly American immigration counter in the Miami International Airport and realized that the craziness of our dusty Latin American summer adventure was coming to a smooth end with a warm welcome from our American government.
“Welcome to the United States of America,” the immigration officer dryly greeted us at her four-foot-high, clean, black desk, strewn with the most advanced technology immediately analyzing personal backgrounds and preventing suspicious characters from entering our country.
“Why thank you, how are you doing ma’am? I am sure you have seen quite a few knuckleheads pass by your desk today,” I said and then peacefully slid our tattered blue passports over the glossy surface. Our official entry into the United States turned from eight seconds into fifteen, then thirty; typing ensued on her omniscient computer; several more glances between passport pages and computer screens; our immigration officer leaned back in the authority of her swivel chair and asked with a newfound cheerfulness, “Mr. White, did you have good time on your trip?”
“Sure did, it was great to return and see a bunch of friends back in Peru that I haven’t seen in three years.”
Leaning forward now with a smug smile, she baffled me with her initial question. “Mr. White, do you currently have a warrant out for your arrest?”
“Has your wife recently put a restraining order on you?”
I turned my head and asked Nadine, “Well, did you?”
“Well sir, where have you been the past 22 days?”
“From San Anton, we flew here to Miami, through El Salvador and Costa Rica on our way to Peru, where I revisited the country I lived in for a year and a half. Finally, we returned the same way, spending a night in El Salvador.”
“Well, I am going to need you to follow me into an adjacent office to answer a few more questions.”
No cavity checks, just more probing questions asking about my individual whereabouts over the last month, and just like every trip has transformed me. I lived in Peru the latter part of 2001 and all of 2002 as a volunteer with the Congregation of Irish Christian Brothers in the northern coastal city of Chimbote better known for fish mill. I taught English and coached basketball at Mundo Mejor High School where wafts of action verbs and putrid burnt fish often filled our classrooms. This was my return trip to Peru to appreciate the life I had known for sixteen months. I went to reconnect with the land and friends, and explore areas of this great country that I had yet to meet, but I guess government authorities don’t take too kindly to random roaming around Latin America, especially when your name is John White, and there’s a warrant out for a certain John White’s arrest. Fortunately, I am a different John White.
Safely past immigration
Every morning, I closed the heavy wooden door of our three-story house that I shared with seven others and strolled down the street to wait for a tiny yellow car. Sometimes I waited five minutes and sometimes a few seconds, but it carried me to my teaching post at Mundo Mejor High School.
A colectivo, a common form of Peruvian transport, hauled us across the desert. Old Dodge Chargers serving as colectivos basically act like a shared taxi. Colectivos don’t leave until all five leather seats are occupied, comprising two passengers up front (less desirable with less space) and three in the back (more desirable). Our driver secured three more passengers after 45 minutes, and put us on the road to Ica.
While Nadine nuzzled on my left shoulder, and a random Peruvian nestled on my right; I peacefully observed the passing parched Peruvian desert. On another arid hill, our driver leaned over, pulled the key out of the ignition, while diverting his eyes from the busy winding Panamericana Highway. He stared momentarily at his silver key, and proceeded to excavate. He placed his key deep into throes of his right ear, searching for any buried hidden treasures. I watched in amazement and promptly nudged Nadine out of her heat-induced afternoon slumber. Concluding his explorations, he inspected his key again for any prized discoveries. With vigor that would make any archaeologist at a dig site proud, he passed the key to his left hand and repeated. I leaned and whispered in Nadine’s keyless ear, “I bet you have never seen that back in the States.”
Looming high above my Peruvian home of Chimbote is Cerro de la Paz. This hill guards the town like a big brother, and stares down at the two amber bays that welcome back fisherman with their haul. Anytime I wanted a panoramic perspective of my Peruvian hometown and ponder the route my life was following while I lived there, I would hail a cab to amble up the dusty road and drop me at the foot of the church balancing on the peak.
Unique treasures of natural beauty present themselves unexpectedly. The Oasis of Huachachina pinched between mountains of sand on one side and the Andes on another, provided us countless photo-ops sliding down eight story tall dunes. Our all-terrain vehicle climbed up and screamed down arid tracks as if we were on a roller coaster. This adventure filled our most remote crevices with memories.
Further along the Gringo Trail at the Nazca lines, we splurged on a flight spying down on geoglyphs created by the ancient Nazca people. These lines formed the shapes of monkeys, fish, spiders, and hummingbirds, and served as a prayer to the Gods to insure fruitful harvests.
On the edge of the Peruvian coast with Nadine and Profe Nate
I trekked monthly to the Cruz del Sur bus terminal in Chimbote to catch a ride to Lima for some reason. I met head south to welcome visitors, attend retreats, or enjoy the modern conveniences of the capital. Bus rides did provide valuable practice of number and letters in Spanish during intense games of BINGO.
Convenient and efficient overnight bus travel in Peru furnishes colorful characters. Nocturnal busses offer comfortable seats that stretch out, and one doesn’t loose a day of sight seeing. With these time-saving and memory-making benefits in mind, we took an overnight bus to Arequipa.
We found our seats in the back, behind a chatty mother and daughter, and next to a courteous, old Peruvian man clasping his bottle of chicha morada, the exquisite Peruvian drink made from boiled purple corn. In all my experiences with Peruvians, they are friendly and curious to uncover a tourist’s story. The mother and daughter slyly glanced back and asked in broken English, “Where have you go in Peru?” I responded, “Pues, ya fuimos a Chimbote y Lima, y vamos a pasar tres semanas acá en Perú.” There was surprise and relief in their tan, oval faces learning of our three weeks in her native country, and we speak Spanish. They fortuitously suggested places to visit. Just as curious, the older gentleman leaned over to inquire if I had ever tried this precious chicha morada. “Por supuesto, you can’t live in Peru and not drink chicha morada or Inca Cola, and not eat choclo or ceviche.” I omitted the fact that I don’t like chicha morada, but very much like the national bubblegum flavored soda, their white corn, and the staple of seafood dishes, raw fish sautéed in lemon juice. He handed me his tattered thermos cup filled to the brim. Understanding the importance of accepting invitations of food or drink with the culture, I drank a big gulp disguising my distaste for that old purple corn with a broad smile and a quick “gracias,” then swiftly handed it to Nadine. In Peruvian culture, you can’t accept an offering and not finish it. Actually, it’s rude not to accept anything extended in friendship. Between mouthfuls of purple juice, we cordially exchanged insight about the government and the horrible state of the national Peruvian soccer team. When the movie credits for the first of three French Jean-Claude Van Damme movies dubbed in Spanish began to roll, and my chicha morada consumed, I seized the opportunity to excuse myself from the conversation, lean back in my chair and sleep, before a flying Frenchman thwarted any hopes of shuteye.
“¡Maestro, estamos aquí en Arequipa ya, tienen que bajar el bus rápido!” Perhaps it was an impending explosion, or the health benefits of a cold Arequipa morning, I felt that elderly man’s encouragement and hand that we should get off the bus as soon as possible. The internal florescent lights burst on, dictating we disembark and grab our packs from the under the bus. We shuffled off into the brisk, early morning air. We had no desire to explore Arequipa in the dark, rather find our hostel and catch a few more winks of sleep. Gathering our gear and small backpack storing our camera, journals, and books, we hailed the nearest taxi. A few minutes in transit, I checked the contents of my daypack. “Ah shit, that elderly man stole our camera with our photos of the Nazca lines! And he shared chicha morada with us, that old fart. No wonder he wanted us to get off the bus so quickly. Driver, ¡dale vuelta a la estación del bus!” Our driver returned to the bus station, but upon our return, the bus, camera, and trusted friend with chicha morada had already left for Puno.
El Misti looming high above in Arequipa
Midway through our experience, we had a volunteer retreat with the Lima volunteers, our friends Nate and Joe. That June weekend, we shared our exploits from our respective schools, a few bottles of Pilsen, and latest news from our respective houses.
Peru is a large country. It was not uncommon that people would ask me if I knew another gringo, who happens to be a friend of their cousin’s second removed aunt living in Lima. There was an unfounded assumption that all white people knew each other no matter what corner of the country they were located. I would always kindly inform them that I regrettably didn’t know the other white person 280 miles away.
We arrived to the remote town tittering on the edge of the world’s deepest canyon, Colca Canyon. By chance, we came during Cabanaconde’s annual pilgrimage and celebration, Fiesta de la Virgen de Carmen. In the heart of the main plaza, adults sold colossal amounts of popcorn and led children around town on the weathered backs of cows; believers solemnly followed the statue of the Virgin; kids threw firecrackers at gringos. With lit explosives being thrown in our direction, we encouraged them to play a safer game: tag. Soon, Nadine and I chased little Peruvian kids around the Plaza Mayor. Ultimately, when their thoughts returned to munitions, we bribed their focus with popcorn.
Señor, ¿conoces a mi profe Nate
“Señor, ¿conoces a mi profe Nate?”
“Nate? Well, I know a few Nates. Where does he live? Here in Cabanaconde?”
“No, in Lima,” she responded between mouthfuls of popcorn.
“Well, Lima is a big place. What barrio do you live in?”
“En Canto Grande.”
“What? Are you serious? Ok, what does this Nate look like?” realizing that this sounded awful familiar to the same Nate that I knew.
“Really tall, funny, long hair, likes to play soccer, lives right next to the school with the Christian Brothers.”
Upon further inquiries, deep in the middle of backwoods Peru, one random gringo knew another gringo 750 miles from her home in Lima.
A day of hiking requires some cooling off down below
It was the first time I had ever heard of this while living in Peru. As a Chimbote resident, paros soon served as my Peruvian snow days.
“There is a paro today, so school has been cancelled.”
“A paro. People are striking and there is no transport to school.”
From Puno, our camera’s new hometown, we journeyed to Copacabana, Bolivia on the shore of the highest navigable lake in the world, El Lago Titicaca. Before crossing the Andean border, our Peruvian driver quipped, “you must know that there are two sides to el Lago Titicaca. The Peruvian side that has all the Titis, and Bolivian side that has all the Caca.”
Comic relief stopped with immigration; we were greeted with a familiar South American tradition, the paro. A paro is a strike against the government, and these protests stop all public transport. Strikers place boulders and burning tires in the streets to halt the daily commute. Attempts to circumnavigate them inspire insults and thrown rocks.
This particular Bolivian paro forced us to walk five miles to Copacabana, the jumping off point for our visit, inhabited floating islands. Our Bolivian boat captain demonstrated a common sense of humor at the outset of our cruise with a familiar joke, this time shit was Peruvian.
The Uru people of El Lago Titicaca live on primitive floating islands constructed of reeds woven together. They are constantly maintained as reeds fall to the lake bottom through decomposition. One-bedroom homes are also woven from reeds. Yet, in a place that appears devoid of technology, televisions powered by solar panels located on top of thatch roofs air European soccer games.
Those are some poor quality shots of an amazing place. Damn camera thief!
Departing the contrast of ancient and modern technology, we chose to fly back to Lima with a flight back to the U.S. looming a day away. The nearest airport was located an hour away in Juliaca. Another disgruntled faction announced a paro in Puno in the day of our flight. This was a problem. All Puno roads were blocked. A driver was found willing to brave rocks, dodge boulders, and follow roads less traveled. In a minivan full of anxious tourists, including two American girls whose flight home left that night, our driver began his drive in the wrong direction. We raced down dusty side roads, hid behind buildings while our driver inspected blocked outlets, but finally an escape route that climbed the hills overlooking the town. Our birds eye view revealed few options. The desired passage was littered with dozens of white boulders. Our frustrated driver mumbled something into his cell phone while our viewpoint revealed a sliver of the Panamericana Highway and access to our plane.
Unexpectedly, he yelled for the testosterone to jump out and push the boulders to the side of the road. The next ten minutes, grunts and groans accompanied boulders shoved to the shoulder. We piled back inside, and our driver just as quickly raced courageously down the opposite side of the hill. Our minivan full of anxious and restless travelers pulled up to an unexpectedly empty airport, leaving everyone perplexed. A spattering of employees and even fewer passengers occupied the airport interior. Our scheduled flight should have left 15 minutes earlier. But as many things function in Latin America, a scheduled time serves as a suggestion. The flight was postponed until everyone arrived. Laughing at the turn of events, soon a trickle of passengers turned into a flood that filtered to the departure gate. Two hours later past our scheduled departure, Lan Peru started boarding passengers.
Focusing on our looming paro break
Sheltered inside the Lima International Airport from the challenges of Peruvian life, I stood staring at the rotating list of departing flights. For the second time in my life, I was minutes away from leaving behind a country close to my heart to return to the predictable and orderly life summoning me in Miami, never knowing when I might return again. How was I to know that my return would be tantamount with trouble?