III. The house was quite dark, and the stone made it cold and damp, a bit like sleeping in a castle—or its dungeon. Veronica, it turned out, was going to sleep in the same room that we were, the big front room that looked out on the street. She had, though, a makeshift space behind a wall of curtains her family had made to give her some privacy. I was glad Veronica had a little corner all to herself, a place in which to play out her adolescence—and later, I felt terrible for keeping her up all night. Adolescent girls need their rest.
But the coca, which everyone insisted wouldn’t keep me up, was acting like a double shot of espresso in my stimulant-sensitive body. I was on high alert. My head ran thoughts like a film reel. Worst of all, despite the fact that I had gone once at the café and once when we’d gotten back to the house, I had to pee. After twenty minutes I had to pee so badly I knew I couldn’t wait until morning. So I rolled over as quietly as I could but I tripped a rogue bedspring: boiing! and I heard Veronica stir behind her curtains. I slipped out of the bed, tiptoed across the floor, and made it to the stairway leading down into the basement, leading to the bathroom I didn’t really want to spend any more time in than I had to. There was a gate at the top of the stairs, and I fumbled with the latch, worrying perhaps it was up to keep out the dog who had seemed friendly enough earlier but who, encountering me in the dark, might bark or bare his teeth at me. I was uncomfortable with dogs. In the state I was in, I was especially uncomfortable with dogs.
I managed to get the latch open and tiptoe down the stairs, where I did run into the dog, who panted and wagged his tail and let out a short bark. “Shhh!” I said. And then the guinea pigs starting shrieking “cuy! cuy! cuy!” rustling about in their straw. I pulled aside the bathroom curtain and yanked the light cord, crouched on the cracked seat and relieved myself. The floor was still wet, and cold; there was no mirror or window, just the electric showerhead and a small roll of toilet paper, and as I turned to look at the curtain walling me in from the cuy I noticed it was stained with brown.
Upstairs, I latched the gate, tiptoed across the floor again—creak, went the floor, and Veronica turned over again. Ben whispered “You okay?” and I lied and said yes. I wasn’t okay; ghosts were flitting about in my head. I wanted them to go away. I didn’t want to be in that dark town in that dark bed in a house full of strangers, with Ben calmly going off to sleep beside me like he always did. I began to panic. I thought I might cry. I told myself to stop it, that I was being ridiculous.
I repeated the process twice more that night: disturb Ben, disturb Veronica, fumble with the gate, encounter the dog, crouch while holding my breath, wonder whether anyone had ever died of electrocution in that shower, and think to myself: there’s a clothesline and a washtub five feet away—can’t they wash this curtain? And back upstairs. I was blessed with short periods of dozing in between, but my dreams were dark and twisted and drew me up gasping. I was sweating, and my head throbbed.
The next morning I felt like I’d been run over by a truck, but I guess in the daylight things felt a little less grim. The house was bustling: some neighbors came by to use the bathroom. In the kitchen, the Alvarezes offered us a cup of maté, which despite the past evening’s machinations I accepted gratefully, suspecting it was the only thing likely to get me through the day. We sat drinking our tea and chatting. I forced cheerfulness. Then, with a start, Papi turned to Dani.
“Well, what are you waiting for, man? Bread! Go get some bread!”
“No, really, we’re fine,” I protested quickly, because I knew they were poor, and I didn’t want them spending their money on a couple of gringos. But we were hungry, and another day I might have conjured the grace—the decency—to say, “We’d love some bread. Will you let us buy some for all of us?” We could have picked up some eggs, some fruit. It could have been a nice moment, a nice meal. But I didn’t. I might have been worried about offending them; I might not have been thinking very clearly. I’d had very little sleep. And Papi, visibly relieved, said, “Oh, you’re not hungry,” and changed the subject.
A cat hopped on the table and nosed around, looking for scraps, and if they were there before, I hadn’t noticed the chickens ducking about on the dirt floor. I recalled, then, the Thanksgiving turkey we’d roasted for our friends in Lima the week before, and how, reaching into the bird’s cavity to remove the giblets I withdrew not only a purplish sac of internal organs, as I would in the States, but the whole head and neck of the bird, encapsulated in wet plastic. The eyes shut, like a stillborn. The surprise of it. It was somehow so like a birth, pulling that wet head from the bird’s cavity.
Now, that visceral memory embodies Peru for me, and I wonder if one primary difference between “developed” and “developing” countries is the distance at which we stand from the corporeal: from our meat, from our animals, from our own bodily waste, and whether the reason I was so squeamish in the Alvarez house had to do with the fact that I had spent too long in a place like the United States, where everything dirty is hidden behind plastic and Styrofoam and disinfectant.
I couldn’t put words to it then, though. I just knew that nothing fazed the Alvarezes: not that bathroom; not the chickens; not that pen of cuy; and not the odd gringos. A bit later that morning, it hit me that Papi and Mami had allowed Ben and me to share a bed in their house. But, over maté, I had told everyone that we weren’t married. Were they shocked? We were in a Catholic country. I felt I needed to say something. So I found Papi in the living room, sitting in the easy chair, dozing.
“Papi,” I asked, “Is it okay that Ben and I are sleeping together in your home?”
“Is it okay with you?” he asked sleepily.
“Of course! I just mean—since we aren’t married.”
“We all pretty much sleep where we want,” he said. “Sometimes Veronica sleeps in that room, sometimes she sleeps in with us, you know, the boys, they sleep with us mostly, but maybe one of us would sleep in that bed where you’re sleeping if we wanted…” He waved his hand in the air and trailed off, and I realized sleeping was clearly a matter-of-fact activity in their house, and so, I guessed, was sex. So I said again, three or four times, how grateful we were, and how much I enjoyed sleeping with Ben, no I meant, um—and stammered my way out of the room, feeling a fool.
Mami stopped me.
“Do you think you could help us with something?” she asked. She looked very hopeful. She and Papi led Ben and me downstairs and out the front door, and in through another door. A very old, very massive photocopier presided over a pleasant, barn-like room that was only accessible from the outside. It smelled a bit of hay.
“It’s been broken for weeks,” Papi said. “We’ve tried everything.” He pantomimed pushing different buttons, opening trays. Apparently all the instructions were in English. So Ben leaned over the machine, where the little screen that normally tells you how many copies are coming out was flashing a message.
“Oh, I see,” Ben said, speaking in English as though they could understand him. “I need to pull out this side compartment”—he did—“and clear out this piece of paper in here”—there it was, right where he knew it would be—“and close this door again”—he did it gently—“and you should be in business,” and the thing stopped blinking and began to whir again.
“Oh!” Mami cried, clasping her hands together. “Oh! Thank you!”
“Nice work, man!” Papi said, slapping Ben on the back.
“No problem,” Ben said, smiling at them, and I wished I could have been the one to fix something broken.
IV. The sky was gray but it wasn’t raining yet. At the Casa de Guias, the House of Guides, we sat with a man and discussed various trip possibilities for the Cordillera Blanca. I liked the man. I liked his surety, his professionalism, his mountaineer’s body. But he wouldn’t commit to being our guide, kept saying “me or someone else” when I asked who would take us. I didn’t want to go on a three-day trek in the Andes with some guy I’d never met—in fact, the idea made me positively unhappy. So I told him we’d think about it, dragged Ben away, and pursued another avenue: we called a friend of Rosa’s. He took us in a taxi cab to meet Eduardo, a guy we were assured was the best mountain guide around.
Eduardo stood in his doorway, waiting. He was quiet, fortyish, I guessed, with a mouthful of gold teeth. His house was being renovated. There were tools lying around on the deck outside, and in the living room a tile floor and a fireplace. We discussed the particulars: we would pay him $35 per day, not including meals and gear. He could meet us late that afternoon at the Casa de Guias to fill out paperwork—I wanted to make it official, just in case, though Ben didn’t care—and then we’d rent tents and sleeping bags, and go to the store and buy food and supplies. We’d leave early the next morning, six a.m., catching a ride up into the mountains. We shook hands and left, accompanied by the friend, whom I let pay for the taxi when it dropped us off back in town.
Then we caught a bus out to the thermal baths Papi had recommended and spent some time in a private stone tub that stank of sulfur. We got caught in a deluge as we left, though, and as we walked along the dirt road towards town the rain seemed to be getting colder. No buses were going our way. After twenty minutes or so a car came rollicking along, and Ben turned backwards and stuck out his thumb.
“What if it’s not safe?” I asked him, grabbing his arm.
“Susie, please,” he said, his voice keening, not gentle, not understanding, just frustrated. “Please stop worrying so much. You’re soaked, I’m soaked. It’s cold. Let’s just try to get this ride, okay?”
The people in the car, a woman and a couple of men, squeezed in a little tighter so Ben and I could fit. When they dropped us off in town without hassling us, without a single moment when I even felt like they might, without having said a word to us besides buenas, de nada, and adios, I nonetheless fought an unfathomable urge to weep.
By the time we met Eduardo I had settled on a new source for my worry. We’d met the Alvarezes; we’d found a guide; the rain had arrived; we’d survived several rides with strangers; and we had a plan to get our gear and our supplies. There was nothing else to anticipate but murderers in the mountains.
This wasn’t pure delusion on my part. Several years earlier some travelers like Ben and me had been murdered in the Cordillera Blanca. We’d heard from fellow travelers and bulletins at the South American Explorers’ Club—Internet news sites told us nothing, so I can’t say how much is urban legend—that a bunch of Israeli guys, who’d been Special Forces soldiers in their own country, had been held up. The banditos—relics from the Shining Path, perhaps, or just some desperate locals—asked for their wallets, their passports. Because of their training, the Israelis didn’t turn over their stuff. They attempted to fight. But the bandits overpowered them, killed them with knives, with guns, with their hands, I don’t know. No one really said.
So when we met Eduardo at the Case de Guias, and he pulled out the map and showed us the route he thought we should take, I raised a question.
“Eduardo,” I said, “is this the same area where those people were killed?”
Eduardo looked at me with serious eyes. I was used, by then, to the South Americans—particularly the men—treating questions lightly. They had decent senses of humor, but sometimes they laughed at things I didn’t find funny: Ben cracking his head on a ticket booth in Bolivia; Ben being pursued by a shark in the Galapagos Islands; my anxious questions about flooding, terrorism, murderers.
But Eduardo didn’t laugh at me.
“No,” he said. “Promise.”
“Okay,” I said tentatively.
“Promise,” he said with finality, smiling this time, and the three of us walked together toward the grocery store. It resembled Safeway, totally: the same layout, the choices of bread, fifty kinds of peanut butter to choose from, a whole aisle of candy bars we recognized and candy bars we didn’t. We chose bread and cheese, peanut butter and jelly, dried potato flakes, instant soup. We bought Snickers bars for energy, dried fruit, a couple of apples. And then I turned to Ben.
“Ben, we still haven’t gotten the Alvarezes a gift of any kind. Let’s find something.”
“What should we get?” he asked, scanning the aisles. We looked at wine; we didn’t know if they drank. There were no flowers in the store, and buying groceries seemed wrong, though I suspect they would have been grateful for them. There was a long packed aisle of chocolate, fancy chocolate in bars, boxes of truffles.
“What about something like this?” I asked, grabbing a giant foil-wrapped bar with a fancy label.
“Yeah, that could work,” Ben said, and then Eduardo poked his head around the aisle. “Listo?” he asked, and we said si, and proceeded to checkout.
The chocolate bar, it turned out, wasn’t as fancy as I’d thought. It cost about forty cents.
Eduardo brought us back to the house, walked with us through the cellar. He lugged our groceries up the stairs and deposited them in the room where we were staying. Mami appeared in the doorway in her skirt with an apron over it and Eduardo took off his hat, nodded at her.
“Buenos tardes,” he said formally, folding his hands, and she asked him some questions about his family and his children, his plans for Christmas. Then Mami turned to us.
“Have you eaten?” she asked kindly.
“No,” I said, thinking, this might be our moment: Mami will feed us, we’ll bond over food, everything will be fine.
“Oh,” she said, her lips tightening. “Well,” and then I realized what she’d actually asked me was “Would you like to eat?” It was a simple mistake; I had merely misunderstood; I just had to fix it.
“I—” I began, my mouth gaping—it was the easiest thing in the world, really, to say, “Wait, no—we would love to eat,” even in Spanish—but somehow the words were getting caught in my throat.
“We—” I tried again, and then Eduardo interrupted me and the moment was forever lost.
“Okay! Well, tomorrow morning then?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said sadly. “Tomorrow morning.”
Mami left the room, and we told Eduardo we’d walk him out. But first we went and found the chocolate bar and put it under the Christmas tree, where it looked small and meager, like the lamest present I’d ever given. I think it was. I still don’t know why it ever seemed like enough. But because I didn’t know how to fix it, I just turned to Ben, asked, “Do you want to go get some food?” and he nodded. Ben’s Spanish wasn’t great; potentially he didn’t even see the full extent of what had happened, didn’t even realize that Mami had offered us a meal and that I had refused with no explanation or apology. Instead I’d given her a shitty chocolate bar.