There is a story that highlights how much I have changed since I came to Peru. When I was still working on Wall Street and came to visit, we went to Machu Picchu. After the trip, we spent the night in the city of Cusco. Ben found us a hostel for very cheap. I think it was ten dollars apiece. When I got to my room, I threw a sort of hissy fit.
“This place is gross,” I said. “I can’t stay here.”
All of my friends who were also visiting didn’t seem to have a problem with it. It wasn’t really that bad in hindsight.
“Well, I can’t sleep here tonight,” I insisted. “I am going to find a real hotel.”
I found one overlooking the Plaza de Armas.
“It’s only a hundred and fifty dollars. That’s cheap,” I told the other guys. “Done.” I got my own room.
A few months ago I was back in Cusco. I arrived by bus at 1:00 AM and found a taxi driver to take me to the Plaza.
“Know any cheap hostels?” I asked him in Spanish.
He took me to one that charged twenty soles – less than ten dollars. It was significantly more disgusting than the one I had rejected on my previous trip. There was no hot water. I don’t even want to think about the last time the linens were washed. And the room smelled like an old hippie’s poncho. I stayed there three nights without a problem.
When I first started working on Wall Street, my perception of money changed drastically. Numbers that had once seemed insane to me, were brought down to earth. You could say things like, “Yeah, he only makes a few million.” Not that I was anywhere near that, but the culture rubbed off on me. After one disastrous night, I woke up and checked my bank statements to learn that I spent over a thousand dollars. You can imagine what that hangover felt like.
It became an incident I bragged about to my friends. I wanted people to be impressed. I always picked up checks and bought rounds. I said douchey things like, “How can anybody live in Brooklyn?” When I met a girl at a bar, I was quick to let her know that I worked in finance (though it never did much good). I used to criticize friends who didn’t want to go to fancy restaurants or nice bars. I would say things like, “He’s so cheap, I just can’t hang out with him anymore.”
Now I try to downplay my excesses to my Peruvian friends. I hope none of them read this. They sometimes make fun of me for taking cabs instead of busses (“combis”). You have to negotiate with taxis before getting in, and when I take cabs to practice, I never pay more than ten soles. Sometimes the driver will start by offering fifteen soles, and I will negotiate them down to eleven. If they don’t budge any further, I will wave them off and flag down the next one. All because of one sol, around 35 cents.
Back in June I realized that my visa had expired and I had to leave the country, so I decided to make a border run for Chile. I took an eighteen hour bus ride to Arequipa in the south of Peru, then an eight hour bus ride to the border. When I reached Chile, I got on the very next bus right back to Peru, spending less than thirty minutes there.
When I got back to Arequipa, it was four in the morning and I was too tired to continue to Lima. I asked a cab driver for a cheap hostel and he dropped me off as the sun was coming out. I paid fifteen soles to the guy at the front desk and went up to my room.
What I saw there was horrifying. The walls were scuffed and dented. There was a layer of grime on everything. The bare lightbulb on the wall was attached to a chord that was taped down hastily. I went in the bathroom to brush my teeth and the water in the sink ran a certain brownish hue that I’d only seen in movies.
I probably shouldn’t stay here, I thought. No, I can do this! This is all part of the adventure, right? Don’t be so high maintenance. I paced the room and debated for several minutes. I plopped down on the bed. I can do this. It’s just for a few hours before my next bus. I closed my eyes and tried to sleep. As my mind wandered off, I shuddered unconsciously.
I jumped up, packed my things and ran downstairs, demanding my money back. The old man at the front desk took offense and aggressively asked me why.
“Es demasiado sucio,” I said.
I had reached the bottom, I had crossed the proverbial line in the sand.