How I remember Peru the first time

I leave for Peru 20 days from today, and I will be there for six weeks. I still don’t have a picture in my mind of what this experience is going to be like. I’m not sure if it’s an advantage or a liability that I’ve been to Peru before. When I went three years ago, it was with two of my closest friends. The trip came in the midst of a difficult season when life, work, and friendships were hard, and I desperately needed to remember the things I like about myself, the things that bring me joy, the things that help me to heal. And my time in Peru gave me that, which is probably the main reason I look back on it with so much nostalgia.

At the start of our trip, my best friend and I spent 3 days in the Amazon rainforest at an eco-lodge. We shared a cozy cabin outfitted with a solar shower and beds draped in mosquito nets. The cabin had mesh screens in place of walls, so that there was nothing to separate you from the sights and sounds of the forest. One morning in bed, we heard what seemed to be a siren blaring on a loudspeaker from somewhere within the forest. We later discovered it was a red howler monkey, aptly named. Our tour guide through the Amazon was Elvis, a young Peruvian man about my age,  about my height, and very sweet. He hosted my friend and me, along with an older American couple. I am forever a biology nerd, and I listened in rapt attention as Elvis named various plants and animals.

All the tour guides were young men close to our age, and my friend and I spent one night drinking beer and playing cards with Elvis and his friend, teaching each other obscure Spanish and English phrases. It made tourism as an industry feel strange to me. Were we all from the U.S. or from Peru, we would have been peers. But we weren’t, and so my friend and I took vacations from our jobs to travel to Peru, where it was Elvis’ job to ensure we were well fed, relaxed, and appropriately entertained. I suppose it’s analogous to any hospitality profession here in the U.S., but it still felt a bit strange to me.

Far and away, the highlight of our three weeks in Peru was our 4 day trek through the mountains to Machu Picchu. Our tour guide on the Salkantay trek was Milton, a young Peruvian man who spoke English with a bizarre Australian accent and had a very smarmy way about him. He spent day one trying to gauge if any of the young women in the group were willing to sleep with him, and when it became clear that no one was interested, he took the liberty of reinventing his personal narrative each day thereafter. Day two, he went from being single to having a steady a girlfriend. Day three, his steady girlfriend was his fiancee. Day four, our final day, he revealed that his fiancee was actually pregnant. Eric, an older man from Colorado traveling with his wife, was over the moon with excitement that Milton was going to be a new father. I should mention that day four was the final day of the trek when we were given the option of tipping our tour guide. Eric lobbied kindly for all of us to consider the financial reality of a new baby when we made our individual decisions on how much to tip Milton. Like I said, totally smarmy.

Another thing about Milton – he couldn’t seem to craft a single linear thought. He would narrate the history of the ancient archeological sites we passed on the trek. We’d all wrinkle our foreheads and squint, trying to follow his slow-paced meandering speech, then finally give up and just look around at the majestic Andean landscape.

Peru helped me to heal by reminding me how much I value connection, with both friends and occasional strangers. We met other young travelers from Australia, Canada, Wales, and Israel. We laughed so much with the other folks on our Machu Picchu trek – about Milton’s antics and I can’t remember what else. There was  adventure, physical challenge, shared meals, conversation, laughter, silence, history, breathtaking landscapes, and a healthy dose of the discomfort that comes from trying to understand yourself and your worldview in the context of another culture.

There’s always a temptation to romanticize and exoticize foreign cultures. I’ve done it myself, and I don’t think it’s a healthy worldview. But whether or not it is romanticism, I still remember Peru as one of the best times. This next trip will be different, but I hope it is just as rich with learning and new experience.

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