The day after my pro debut, I skipped town. There was a lot of pressure and anxiety leading up to the fight and I just wanted to get away for a few days. I boarded a bus for the mountain town of Ayacucho, a 10 hour ride through the night. I was still sore from my fight and I shifted uncomfortably in my seat the entire time, unable sleep more than a few hours.
It was the holy week before Easter, a big celebration in Peru called Semana Santa. In Ayacucho, tourists flock from all over the world for their renowned festival. I was especially looking forward to the Jala Toro, a sort of Peruvian running of the bulls. I was meeting a girl I knew who had helped organize a large tour group for exchange students. Every day, there were activities and excursions planned, and every night there were supposed to be wild parties.
When I arrived in the morning, I was tired and grumpy. I was immediately stricken with altitude sickness (9,000 ft.). It felt like I had been punched in the solar plexus and I was incapacitated with nausea. I left the bus station to find the hostel and meet the group, who had all arrived the day before. I had to explain my cauliflower ear several times, as it was still very fresh and very swollen. Shortly after, we left for a bus tour of the surrounding countryside. During the eight hour tour, I writhed in agony with a stomach bug.
I didn’t even get out of the bus towards the end. I curled up in the corner of my seat and counted the hours until it would be over. Even when we returned, I stayed in bed the rest of the day. That night, I drained my own ear in front of the mirror in the hostel’s bathroom. Then, I took a sleeping pill and tried to go to bed early. Right outside my room, the party raged. Heavy electronic music blasted with full bass until the wee hours of the morning. It felt like I was sleeping in the middle of a dance club. I tossed and turned in a sleepless trance all night, never really falling asleep but never really waking up. Like a crotchety old man, I cursed the kids and their loud music.
In the morning, I mustered up my strength and followed the group down to the main square where the bulls would to be running. The street was mobbed with people dressed in festive red shirts. The bulls were let out one at a time. I got as close as I could to the corral but the police backed us up. The first bull came out of the gates. It had a rope around its neck which extended 50 feet ahead. Two men on horseback held the other end of the rope and galloped ahead. After a few steps, the bull took a sharp right turn, directly towards me. All of my plans to hold the line flew out the window when I saw its horns thrashing wildly. I backpedaled frantically. Suddenly, the bull was tugged forward by the rope. I tried running after it, but the thin air crushed my lungs and I felt nauseous again. In all, five bulls ran through the streets. I was proud that I got some pictures of the bulls up close, but unfortunately, I left my iPhone in a cab that night and they were lost.
At least three other people in my group also lost their phones during this trip, but theirs had been stolen. Ayacucho, I learned, was one of the most impoverished regions in Peru. In the 1980’s, the terrorist group the Shining Path used it as a base of operation for their fight to overturn the Peruvian government. Someone told me there were huge military campaigns and it used to look like a war zone. “Used to?” I thought. Looking around, I wasn’t shocked that communist insurgents wanted to overturn the status quo. Everywhere I looked, there was despair and decrepitude. I saw crumbling houses and people cooking in dirty pots over makeshift fires in their tents. The local people were different; they came mostly from native blood and spoke Quechua. They walked through the streets somber and humble. It put things like a lost iPhone in perspective.
On Sunday, with the festivities over, it was time to go home. Everyone else took the morning bus out of the city, but mine wasn’t until 9:30pm due to my own poor planning. I checked out of the hostel and tried to pass time wandering the city. Over the previous few days, the city streets had been crammed full of tourists. Now, I noticed at once, everyone had left. As I walked through the vacant streets, I was suddenly extremely conscious of being a gringo. I got strange looks everywhere I went. Their faces seemed to say, “What are you still doing here?”
I usually made a sport of wandering around dangerous areas of Lima alone, but suddenly this lost its allure and was replaced by genuine concern. In Lima, I thought, the worst case is I get robbed. But here…well, I pictured my parents’ faces as they opened a note from the Shining Path. My tired mind was on edge.
I had 10 hours to kill before my bus departed. I went to the station and planted myself on a hard plastic bench. Transient people trickled in and out throughout the day and I sat there clinging to my backpack like a life preserver. I spoke to a few dreadlocked girls from the Peace Corps at one point. They asked what I was doing here and I told them. “But what did you do before?” one asked.
“I worked on Wall Street.”
“Oh, well that’s okay. I won’t judge you,” she said with a fake smile.
“Well thank you,” I said. What I really meant was, “Well fuck you too.” I cursed out the entire Peace Corps under my breath.
I was tired and sick. I had been boiling all day in an unsavory stew of frustration and bitterness. I had wanted to get away and now I couldn’t wait to get back to Lima. This trip was supposed to help me unwind after my fight, now I hated everyone and everything. I was in a distant corner of a foreign country, all alone, with no cell phone.
I passed the entire day reading Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, the story of a group of American expatriates in Paris who travel to Pamplona for the running of the bulls. It had seemed apt. I came across a bit of dialogue between the narrator Jake and his friend Robert,
“Well, I want to go to South America.”
“Listen, Robert, going to another country doesn’t make any difference. You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another. There’s nothing to that.”
“But you’ve never been to South America.”
“South America hell! If you went there the way you feel now it would be exactly the same.”
Maybe that was me. Maybe I had been trying to get away from the tension, but instead I brought it with me. I couldn’t blame Ayacucho for my misery, only myself. I sat there and finished the entire book.
When 9:30 finally rolled around, I was more than ready to leave. I went to the counter and asked about my bus. The woman informed me that they were running two hours behind schedule. All I could do was laugh.
I had begun to realize: this was an adventure. This was why I moved down here in the first place, to be helpless and stranded. With adventure you have to take the good with the bad. It can’t always be zip-lining and bungee-jumping. Don’t get me wrong, sitting on a beach drinking mojitos is great, but there is more to travel than that.
Sitting in a far corner of the world by myself, I realized that this was exciting. I had a whole new outlook. The wonder of traveling, it seemed, is that any bump in the road can be written off as a learning experience. I swore I would try to live my life with this new perspective. After all, life is an adventure.