Sunday is our day off from training. I live in a district called Barranco and there is a quiet park I like to walk to on nice days like these. I threw my stuff in my backpack so I could do some reading and writing. It had been a long week and I wanted to reflect, something I vowed to do more in my new life.
I sometimes like to picture myself a 21st century Hemingway, writing in the Parisian cafes. Except I write in Starbucks. It’s really the only place I’ve found where I won’t look like a total moron with a MacBook on the table. And unlike Hemingway, I drink iced green tea instead of whiskey.
There is a security guard stationed at the door of the Starbucks every morning. He always nods his head politely to me. When I sit down, he comes over and straps my backpack to the chair with a small nylon harness. “Cuidado,” he warns gently. Unlike usual, I sat at a table outside today. He watched me uncomfortably for several minutes before coming over.
I was able to make out his Spanish, “I wouldn’t sit outside, I have been watching people watch you. It is not safe with your computer.” He motioned that someone would grab my computer and run away. He was very sincere so I decided to take his advice.
On the flight down here from the US, an old Peruvian man next to me tried to explain the dangers of taxis in Peru. “They’re dangerous. Cuidado! They will take you, rob you and…” his voice trailed off and he made the universal hand signal for “shank you in the ribs with a sharp object.”
I was with a Peruvian girl last night. As we drove along the beach in Lima, I looked off into the distance. A few miles to the south, atop a peninsula that juts out, is perched a giant cross, lit up brightly in the night sky. I asked if it was possible to drive there. “Yes, but it’s too dangerous,” she said. Her friends had been robbed there recently at night. “Maybe if you leave your valuables at home.”
Peruvians did not seem to have a very high opinion of each other. Or maybe they were just looking out for a dumb gringo like me. Either way, as I sat in Starbucks, I was nearing the end of the piece I was writing and I got excited. I knew how I was going to end it, but I didn’t want to write it yet. I would take a walk and reflect.
From Starbucks, I walked down the old stone stairs and long ramp that cut through the steep cliff to the beach. I looked left and right. Probably four or five miles down the beach to the left stood the giant cross I had seen last night. I was going to walk there even if I had to cab it back.
The beaches that passed on my right were as packed as I’d ever seen beaches. I could barely see the sand. February is summer here and all the kids are on break. Some small rivulets of water formed tide pools near my path but they were littered with trash and debris. Little kids frolicked in them anyway, not seeming to care.
A few miles down, I was nearing the giant cross. The beaches slowly succumbed to a sort of commercial fishery. I came upon an enormous jetty that shot out maybe a quarter mile. I decided to walk through the fish market at its base. The putrid stench of fish invaded my nostrils like never before. Mangy dogs roamed around, and at one end of the market a group of pelicans stalked aggressively. I’d never seen pelicans like this before. They were mangier than the dogs and bigger too. They looked mean. When they got too close to the fish on the table, a purveyor sprayed them with a hose.
I walked down the crowded pier. Little kids pulled at me from every direction, and I kept my hand firmly on my back right pocket. It was quite possible I was the only gringo there. Kids were jumping off the pier and climbing back up the barnacle-clad pilings. The last fifty feet was fenced off, with a woman standing at the gate. The sign said something about 0.50 soles admission. She shot a bunch of Spanish in my direction. I nodded my head, pretending to understanding and said, “Si, si.”
She grabbed my arm and led me down to the end of the pier. There, down a small staircase, was a line of people boarding the boat. The woman turned to me, “Remos o motora?” I guess I had agreed to a boat ride. “Motora,” I replied spastically. She pointed to a large boat with four rows of seats and about 15 people already on board with fluorescent orange life vests. “Cinco soles.”
Just then, a guy pulled up to the dock with a ten foot long rowboat. It was rickety and wooden with long oars rowed by a middle aged man. There was a bucket of bait in the middle. The woman indicated to me this was the other option for diez soles.
“¿Por qué no?”
I hopped aboard the boat and before I could say anything we shoved off. It quickly became clear that we were having trouble communicating. I gathered he was a fisherman, but I couldn’t tell if he was taking me fishing. I didn’t know where we were going or what we were doing. We were weaving in and out of the moored boats that huddled in the bay before we got out to the open sea.
Suddenly my mind started racing. It was pretty obvious that I was a stupid American. The guidebooks, had I read them, would have surely warned me against something like this. I was all alone. I didn’t speak the language. Not a soul in the world knew where I was. As far as Ben knew I was still at the park reading. No one would notice I was missing for hours, if not days. Furthermore, my backpack contained my MacBook and my iPad. And I had $300 in my wallet. What did the guidebooks say about heading out to sea alone in a rickety boat with a strange man?
My heart was thumping and I had that feeling like I’d swallowed a pool ball. I hadn’t eaten much and I looked down to see my hand shaking visibly. I had just been writing Fear Itself in Starbucks, shouldn’t I listen to my own advice? Or should I take my cell phone out and call Ben? Nothing says scared American quite like that maneuver. I would try to stare the fear down.
He said something about another boat and I think he was asking my permission. “Si, si,” I said trying to sound confident. We pulled alongside a bigger fishing board with a bunch of dark, dreadlocked men aboard. They looked right out of Pirates of the Caribbean. Please don’t make me get aboard, I thought, I just want to get back ashore. I was hyperventilating.
The three men hopped onto our little skiff and he introduced me as an American. The only thing going for me was that I couldn’t see any cement among their belongings. Maybe they just didn’t care if I floated ashore.
I was relieved when we headed back to the dock. He dropped the fishermen off and they threw him a five soles coin. We did this several more times, shuttling fishermen from their moorings to the dock. After the third one, he asked me if I wanted to go out to the deep water. “¿Por qué no?” I said.
This small Peruvian man threw his entire weight onto two giant oars as he stood up and handled his craft masterfully. He introduced himself as Ivan. On the open water we talked of many things. It was a truly beautiful day and I leaned back and took in the sun. I looked at Ivan, he was smiling ear to ear. He really loved his life and you could tell. How had I been afraid of this man?
I asked him if he had children. Three daughters, he beamed proudly. He reached over the hull, rocking the boat slightly and pointed to the side. His boat was named “Mis Tres Amores.” My Three Loves.
He even let me row for a bit. I struggled and he corrected my technique. Keep the oars lower to the water, relax and use your body, he advised. This was a very heavy and old wooden boat. There were no oarlocks, instead the oars were lashed down with old shaggy rope. He had made it look so easy.
The larger motorboat tour passed by us at one point and we reeled a bit in the wake. Ivan looked over and scoffed. That’s not a good way to do it, he explained. They just take you out and back and you don’t get to really see anything. I couldn’t agree more, we were having a great time. Even with the language difficulties, we understood each other just fine, and we laughed a lot.
After we picked up another fisherman, we headed back into the dock with a bounty of fish. This was the end of the tour, and Ivan nodded solemnly. I got off and took out my wallet. “Diez soles,” he said. Less than I paid for my iced green tea this morning. I threw him twenty and walked off, sad to be ashore.