I said I didn't want to float through my life. I came to South America, and now I'm running to keep up with it. It's a marathon that I have all the enthusiasm and motivation for, but I'm starting to lose my breath and the soles of my shoes are wearing thin. I can see the finish line and I'm called to it, and at the same time, I wish this last stretch would never end.
I had the very good fortune to fly home at the end of last month for my best friend's wedding. I had been looking forward to it as homesickness started hitting me a couple of weeks before. I was expecting a much needed water break, a few days of recuperation to finish strong. But it turned out to be a race in and of itself. It started with an interrogation at the airport in Lima. Laden down with the weight of a 45 liter backpack and equally large duffle bag plus my personal carry-on, I excitedly waddled up to the door of the airport. However, I was accosted by two apparently very bored airport employees who asked to see my passport. “Ok, but you’re kind of killing the mood…” I thought. I heard them whispering about the fact that my passport had been stamped for the maximum possible number of days, which to them is reason enough to suspect a ridiculously overpacked young gringa of some serious wrongdoing. But, after a good 15 minutes of questioning ranging from what I was studying and where I was going to school, to where, when, and by whom my bags were packed, I was allowed to continue on, though certainly less enthusiastic and confident than before.
Nonetheless, before I knew it I was back in Texas fighting the instinct to say “Gracias” and “Disculpa” in place of “Thanks” and “Excuse me.” What a relief it was to realize that asking a simple question no longer required that I plan out the question before hand. To drink water from the tap, flush my toilet paper instead of throwing it in a trashcan, prepare my own food exactly how I like it… what luxuries. And how luxurious, too, were those long nights passed with my family and friends reliving the past and looking excitedly toward the future. Four almost sleepless nights later, I found myself walking through those big glass double doors again. A mixture of physical and emotional exhaustion left me a weepy blob slumped in my seat by the window, trying to contain myself for the sake of the very uncomfortable California hippy with the misfortune of sharing an armrest with me. I had eleven hours to collect myself before we descended through dark clouds toward the expansive, dimly lit city below, slicing through its infamous layer of smog. Home.
Winter in Lima is the stuff of horror films. It becomes a city set in a cloud, except instead of bright and heavenly, this cloud blocks the sun so that it’s not seen for weeks at a time. It is perpetually wet and cold, misting all day long but without the satisfaction of actual rain. I spent the week doing nothing in particular except looking forward to the upcoming weekend where my study abroad group would take our final trip together.
Junín: A district to the east of Lima where the mountains and hills of the highlands slowly, almost stealthily, metamorphose into lush jungle. Twelve hours, 209 miles, 29 tunnels, and 58 bridges in the highest passenger train in the world would bring us to the industrial center of Junín--a city named Huancayo. My romantic ideals about traversing the countryside by train were quickly shaken out of me by the cars' violent rocking that did not cease until we reached our final destination. Instead of relaxing in my reclined leather seat, contentedly sipping my coffee and letting my mind float through the valleys below, I stumbled and swayed down the aisle like a drunken one-legged pirate, trying to make my way to the bathroom to clean the instant coffee off of my pants. However, a sanctuary awaited me in the very last car, where the open layout gave me an uninhibited view and a place to breathe in the fresh mountain air.
Naturally, after an entire day spent eating train food (use your imagination) and an assortment of our own sugary snacks, we were all craving a real meal when we arrived in Huancayo that night. Unfortunately or fortunately, Huancayo isn't exactly designed for tourists. But those of us who weren't willing to settle on fast food chicken or pizza managed to follow our noses to a lively spot with a big dance floor and live music and dance. Being the only gringos inside, we were easy targets for the invite-an-audience-member-to-dance portion of the show. But while reluctant at first, we continued to dance for several songs after the performers left the stage with our own fusion of traditional Peruvian, classic 80s and 90s, modern interpretive, and just plain ridiculous dance moves. Making America proud wherever we go.
We woke up early the next morning to get started on a full day of exploring. We walked through small, sunny plazas and white churches set into the rocky mountainside, marveled at the mariposaria swimming with butterflies, breathed in the sweet aroma of the coffee factory in the jungle, and were transfixed by the view out the bus window--the earth transforming from sprawling villages settled into the sunny, temperate valleys to rich, dense, deep rainforest. We stopped about midday and hiked a little into the jungle, right along the trickling river, to a roaring waterfall where we waded in its icy waters and awed at its strength. We left shivering and red, but exhilarated. So while we should have collapsed into our hotel beds that night, instead we sat out by the pool and relived the day over steaming mugs of mate de coca.
I woke up refreshed the next morning, took my breakfast, only cheating on my diet a little, and then set out to explore the little jungle town. That took a total of three minutes, as the only signs of life were the hotel guests, a few passing mototaxis, and a cheery old man desperately selling bottled drinks and desserts out of a wooden roadside shack. With nothing else to do, I sat under the shade of the man's tin roof, chatting and eating homemade snacks of questionable age and quality. Then after spending the next few hours remembering the feeling of the sun on my skin, I said goodbye and reluctantly headed back into the perpetual Lima city fog.