I spent Christmas in Peru. It’s kind of a strange story how it all came to fruition. The idea was the brainchild of a family friend, living in Ecuador. She invited a smattering of folks to visit Machu Picchu with her over the holidays, among them her family and my brother and his wife. I’d heard rumblings of a plan early on in the fall of last year, but I wasn’t directly involved.
At the end of October I was in Washington DC, for… reasons. Sitting there on the counter-top of a gorgeous penthouse apartment in Chinatown was a postcard from Machu Picchu and a bar of Peruvian chocolate. That’s interesting, I thought. I’d like to go there someday.
A couple days later, still in DC, I received a message from my brother. What are my holiday plans? Why, I’m going home to Buffalo, I replied. I’m planning to book my flight this week.
Do you want to go to Peru?
I don’t believe in fate, but this was one hell of a coincidence. I needed a day to think about it. Again, in retrospect, I should have said yes immediately however I needed to do my due diligence on my finances. I examined my projections, messed around with the numbers, and decided to go for it despite a myriad of necessary preparations and expenses.
The process unfolded over the coming weeks. I coordinated with the others and acquired flights from San Francisco into Cusco, Peru via Mexico City and Lima; flights home via Lima and New York City (??). We reserved a trek through a reputable, well-reviewed (and relatively cheap) company — a trek from Cusco to the top of Machu Picchu! For our time before, a suite in a hostel. Afterwards, a hotel. This trek had everything: mountain biking! Zip-lining! Hiking up mountains! Trudging through rain forests! Flying across raging rivers! Hot springs! Hydroelectric power! Trains! We’ll get to all of that in time! But first, the boring part…
I needed hiking gear. The weekend before the trip, I took a long, but beautiful drive down through Silicon Valley to the REI in Palo Alto, where I acquired brand new waterproof hiking shoes, ventilated hiking socks, a 30 liter backpack, an LED flashlight, bug spray, and Clif Bars, along with a fresh camera battery and another batch of foreign power adapters (Type C, for Europe, Asia, Africa and most of South America) at the nearby Fry’s Electronics. I was also recommended to get travel vaccinations, which I got at the immunization clinic near City Hall. I don’t care for shots (who does) but they weren’t as bad as I was expecting. Once all set there, I discovered that I dropped far more dinero on these provisions than I was expecting. Merry Christmas! At least many of them will come in handy on future adventures, I justified. Theoretically, at the rate in which I go on such adventures, they should last forever.
Psychologically, emotionally, even physically, I was less than prepared. Traveling abroad is always an ordeal, for better or worse. I was nervous about illness, about food, about the quality of our lodging, about how strenuous our hikes would be, among numerous minor thoughts. However, as the date of departure approached, I couldn’t help but get more and more excited. I’ve taken few spontaneous trips in my life but never one of this magnitude.
I over-packed, stuffing eight days worth of clothing for all weather types into my luggage. My backpack contained hiking supplies and outerwear, as well as shoes, electronics, and light reading material. It bulged so far out that I was worried it wouldn’t be considered a “personal item” on the plane. I actually put off packing until nearly the last moment — hours after I’d went to see Star Wars on an already exhausting rainy day. As midnight rolled around, I took off for the airport; my first flight, to Mexico City, was departing at 3am.
Having no issues at SFO, I arrived at the gate with an hour to spare. Once boarded, I fell asleep quickly, numbing my mind with engine noise and my extensive backlog of podcasts. As the plane turned east over the Pacific coast of Mexico, we ran into the worst turbulence I’ve ever felt. It was rough; I could see the plane’s wings rapidly flexing in the light out the window, the blinking beacon diffusing through the clouds we were flying through. I was worried insofar as I don’t recall ever having flown through clouds at 35000 feet. I waited for the shaking to end, but it didn’t. I couldn’t fall back asleep. Dawn broke over Mexico a relatively short while later — the clouds eventually split open and the plane settled into a tranquil patch. I laid eyes on Mexico for the first time ever: the desert and mountain terrain somehow looked exactly like I imagined Mexico to. I haven’t had an out of country experience that started any other way, yet.
I shot photos as we descended into Mexico City, the expansive sprawl masked by a curtain of brown. Dust, smog, morning fog — I couldn’t tell. The cityscape around the airport was run down and ugly, not unlike the seedier parts of the Bay Area. All billboards and road signs were in Spanish.
Off the plane I slowly, cautiously meandered out into Mexican territory. Airport signage, thankfully, was bilingual. The airport staff, however, were not always. When I flew to Germany, despite my intermediate knowledge of German, I would chicken out and converse with staff in English; they would reply in English. In South Africa, English is one of the more popular official languages; not first, but most prominent on nearly all signage. In Mexico, they default to Spanish first. It makes sense, of course, but it was jarring to me. Previously, English was always the lingua franca for interacting with folks of unknown origin — not in Mexico. My knowledge of Spanish is somewhat limited. I took four years of it in elementary school (a lifetime ago), but I also live in California so there’s some cultural osmosis that has penetrated my mind since moving here over four years ago. I can generally pick up the idea of a read sign or a menu item or whatnot; spoken word is a bit trickier, unless it’s a basic phrase or numbers. My fluency would increase rapidly through this adventure, in that it went from like 1% to probably 3%.
I spent seven hours in the Mexico City airport. This long layover involved locating a train to cross over to the other terminal (which was a neat ride out along the perimeter of the runways, with the city on the other side); finding an ATM to acquire some Pesos, for buying lunch and for keeping as a souvenir; eating said lunch (bottled water and a croissant); finding more food when lunch wasn’t substantial enough (fruit candy, pretzels, and more water); and sitting for hours listening to podcasts, namely the entire backlog of Spontaneanation With Paul F. Tompkins, which made the interminable idleness infinitely more enjoyable. Lunch was the first of many occasions on this trip in which I’d have to buy water. Potable water in the developing and newly industrializing world is a luxury. It was the same in South Africa. I easily take fresh, clean, safe water from the tap for granted. Also like South Africa, bottled water is usually sold in “still” and “sparkling” varieties; in Spanish, they’re called “sin gas” and “con gas,” which I find funny.
One facet of the layover in Mexico that drove me slightly crazy was a slight lack of internet. The airport lacked free wi-fi (for non local-telco customers for some reason), however I was able to access the web for periods of a few minutes at a time because of some kind of temporary gateway between acquiring a wi-fi network and using the browser to enter credentials to log onto it. I didn’t really need it though; my main issue was to find my plane in a timely manner. See, the departure boards in the terminal showed about 20 flights at a time, scrolling through several pages over a period of a minute or so. The problem was, none of the flights listed were more than 90 minutes into the future. As a result, during my seven hour layover I was flying blind looking for my departure gate. Just trying to find a place to settle was a gamble since I didn’t even have an idea of which part of the terminal to go to. It would happen that a random empty gate I chose was only a few down from the correct one — I discovered this not through the unhelpful airline website, nor through my FlightAware app, but by simply walking up and down the terminal looking at the screens at every gate.
I eventually moved over to the correct gate about an hour before departure to Lima. There, an airport official requested my Mexican immigration papers, a request I didn’t understand because, again, it was asked of me in Spanish first. His English wasn’t particularly good either, but I gathered what he wanted based on what others at the gate had given him. As the plane began to board, I was relegated to the end of one of the longest queues, a swarm of people half of whom slowly realized they were in the wrong line. Once through to the other side, I was “randomly selected” for inspection. Being the only white person in line with a giant backpack and carry-on luggage may have skewed the randomness in my favor. The plane was nice enough, though. I settled in for the afternoon/evening flight.
This one was much better; smooth sailing the whole way. As the sun set over the Pacific out my window, I shot photos of puffy clouds dotting the ocean. They turned into dark monsters, eclipsing the setting sun and creating a large light contrast. I took perhaps too many photos of this sunset and the clouds over the ocean, but it was truly stunning from beginning to end. In the total darkness of the west coast of South America, Lima suddenly approached in the form of lights on the water, ships anchored off the port of Callao. The plane descended into Lima airport, located in said port west of the actual city proper. Off the plane and in the customs line I bought a day’s worth of wi-fi access for a S./10 before meeting up with my travel companions at a cafe in the terminal. Another several hour long layover was spent eating, socializing, trying to remain healthy and awake. It was getting rough, having been traveling for nearly an entire day at this point.
We attempted to shuffle over to our gate, but the domestic terminal didn’t open until 2am or so. Instead, we found a quiet corner and I took a nap on the floor. Of all the times I’d slept on an airport floor, this was one of them. When the domestic terminal finally opened, I was awakened and we breezed through security, scampered over to the gate, and again, went to sleep on the benches therein. I was ready for a real bed.
My flight to Cusco took off as the sun rose. We rose above the clouds, but stayed hovering at their tops for some time. That was a cool feeling; it really captured the speed of the aircraft as it skimmed the surface. As the clouds retreated, the green Andes mountains were revealed beneath. I didn’t know there was this much green in the entire universe! Settlements dotted the valleys and terraces hugged the mountainsides. I thought it looked really pretty. We lowered into Cusco airspace, mountain ridgetops floating a bit too close beneath the plane for comfort. We twisted and turned, falling through the narrow valley approach to the airport. It felt as though the plane did several loops on descent, but it was actually just one long half-turn. Cusco rose to meet the plane; the uniform cityscape becoming more detailed, more disheveled, less inviting, and less like somewhere I wanted to be. I started to regret my decision. I might not have been ready for Peru… What had I gotten myself into?