Finally Home

What a thing that was, but, first, Lima.

The Marinas returned from their Machu Picchu trip pretty exhausted.  They’d had a hell of a day. While I was traipsing around Cusco spending money and avoiding huge parades, they were stuck on a train for four hours. Their train broke down on the way to Aguas Calientes.  How much does that suck? That was four hours they could’ve used at Machu Picchu, especially since they were only able to work in six hours to begin with because of all the tourists and the trains being full. (I finally figured out why there were so many people at Machu Picchu; turns out, and how I could’ve overlooked this is beyond me, it was the 100th anniversary of the ‘discovery’ of Machu Picchu. So, maybe, if you go, it won’t be as overrun with tourists as it was for me in this particular year.) (Oh, also, if you ever go, make sure you get your tickets for the day you want to go in advance. They are now beginning to limit the number of tickets sold per day to cut down on the damage done by tourists, which is good, but it will make it more difficult to get tickets for a lot of folks. In fact, they just started to enforce this rule and when the Marinas were there, they either witnessed (or heard about?) an entire tour group who had gone all the way to Aguas Calientes only to find out their tour company hadn’t bothered to purchase the tickets ahead of time. A riot ensued. Had tar and feathers been available, I’m sure there woud’ve been a very ‘decorated’ tour guide.)(Oh, and wear lots of bug spray. The noseeums are nasty.)

So, they sat on a train for four hours, they weren’t given very much information and they were barely given an apology. They were finally put on another train, in first class, which really didn’t make up for the nightmare, and were told that their return train would be delayed so they could squeeze in more time at the site, but that didn’t really happen. They’re glad the saw Machu Picchu, but the circumstances were less than ideal.  Hopefully, my father-in-law will write one helluva letter to the railway company and CC the tourist bureau. One thing EVERYBODY in Cusco cares about is making the tourists happy. Maybe they can at least get a partial refund, if not a total refund.

Anyway, early the next morning, we all flew to Lima. I have to say, flying in South America is civilized as hell. You don’t have to subject yourself to x-rays, pat downs and you don’t even have to remove your shoes. Additionally, you can go through security with entire bottles of water! Imagine that!  Of course, we landed on a holiday and every hostel we called that was listed in the Lonely Planet book was booked up. I wasn’t surprised. Peter was. (We have since made a mental note that before we take another trip, we will make sure to have a backup book of the least popular travel book series so we’ll have access to some secondary choices.) We had one hostel that was a tentative maybe and we figured we could drop our bags off there and look for something else nearby. Though the cab driver we got, Hugo, turned out to be very helpful and he hooked us up with a friend of his that had a hostel. It was a funny hostel. Nice and spacious with hot water, but they didn’t look particularly concerned with having paying guests. It was like, “Yeah, here’s your room, eh, maybe your key doesn’t work. Oh, you don’t want the one without the toilet seat? Huh. OK, here’s another room but this one definitely doesn’t have a key.” Very odd. It was in the Milaflores area, which is usually a gringolandia, but the old town did not sound interesting at all and all the bars and restaurants seemed to be out towards Milaflores.

Lima was cooler than I thought it would be. It was the most New York-ish city we’d been to since we left New York. It’s huge, almost eight million people, and it’s right on the coast. The edge of the city is a cliff that drops down almost 400 feet to the ocean. Everybody honks and traffic always looks snarled, yet, like New York, there are few accidents. We were on the highway in a cab and a motorcycle cop wiped out in front of the SUV in front of us. I thought we were going to rearend the SUV and then, I thought we’d be rearended as well but nope. Everyone stopped within inches of where they needed to stop. You might think they’re all driving like maniacs, but there’s a reason and order we just can’t comprehend as outsiders.

We hit a few tourist spots. One was a water fountain park. The tour books and Hugo the cab driver told us that it was spectacular and worth a visit. In fact, the Lonely Planet book says something like it’ll warm the heart of even the most jaded and cynical traveler. Well, apparently, Peter and I are even more jaded and cynical than the Lonely Planet people can even begin to imagine.  Neither one of us could figure out what the draw was. His dad and sister liked it well enough, but they’re more into ‘family fun’ than we are. The place was crawling with kids and their families as well as teenage boys trying to get their date’s t-shirt all wet. I mean, I suppose that if you like that sort of thing, you’d really like the fountain park.  But that’s all I can say about that without sounding too much like a gnarly bitch.

The next day, we went to the catacombs; huge pits, 20 feet deep with bones. (THAT’S more my style.) There was even a crypt of the Church’s largest benefactor from maybe 200 or 300 years ago. You could look down a flight of stairs and you could see his crypt and off to the left, you could see his wife’s body just laying there out in the open. I doubt very much a wealthy woman such as herself would appreciate the fact that her insides were forever being exposed to the riff raff.  All of that was in this lovely church near Plaza de San Francisco. There were lots of Spanish tiles and beautiful paintings. I’ll give them credit; the Roman Catholics really know how to build a monument or two. We also wandered around the colonial part of town a bit, had a delightful and simple lunch of a boiled egg, a boiled potato and an olive, all covered with huancaina sauce, which is a creamy yellowish sauce made with aji amarillo chile peppers and cheese. It’s so delicious. It’s very simple, totally Peruvian and really tasty.

We also found a Cuban bar near our hostel, which, of course, made Peter and his dad very happy. One of the things both of them are starved for is real information about what is going on in Cuba. On our first day in Lima, we met with a friend of the Marina family in Cuba. He’s a doctor there and he was on a yearlong mission in Peru. My father-in-law and this guy, Victor, talked and talked and talked. My word. I got some of what they were saying, but for the most part, they didn’t talk about food or travelling or cooking or cleaning or any of the mundane words I’m familiar with, so I missed a lot of it. The guys at the bar were artists and therefore had a much different take on life in Cuba. From what I understood, between translations and what I heard, even though the revolution was supposed to erase class, that didn’t really happen.  The guys at the bar got to travel and do what they wanted with very little interference from the government. Victor was a doctor whose life was not so much controlled by the Cuban government so much as he was subjected to it. Victor and the guys at the bar had very different ideas of what was right and what was wrong with Cuba. The only thing they could agree on was that things are going to change and the change will come sooner than later. While the conversations at the bar were occurring, I took the opportunity to drink way more Cuban rum than I really should have. DEEEElicious.

Lima was a good place to wind down from our two-month odyssey.  It was a big city, very cosmopolitan yet still very much South American.  They even have a Chinatown. His dad and sister left early on Saturday morning and we had a whole day to kill before our flight that night. We of course booked it to the mercado. His dad and sister weren’t as crazy about the mercados as we were. We agreed to not take them to a mercado if they agreed to not make us go to a McDonalds. I took some pictures of some really weird fruit that looked like a monster from the movie Monster’s Inc.

We ended up going to lunch at this lovely and pretentious restaurant on the beach. It was overpriced but we didn’t care. It overlooked the Pacific Ocean and it was our last day.  I have to say, we had a bottle of white Peruvian wine that wasn’t half bad. Again, Peruvian wine is so not complicated but it was very drinkable and went well with all the seafood we ordered. The appetizer was to die for. It was a very spicy red pepper stuffed with a creamy crawfish sauce and it was beautifully presented. The top of the pepper was like a lid that came off to reveal the deliciousness inside. We, of course, ate the lid too. (We imagined the kitchen staff looking at the plate and saying, “Those crazy gringos ate the freakin’ lid!”) Our entrees were excellent. I think we both had seabass but his was on a bed of outstanding mashed potatoes. It was all very rich. And when I say it was overpriced, I just mean by South American standards. The whole thing, the wine, the appetizer and two entrees, only cost $60 USD.

Our flight was for 10:55 pm and our taxi driver told us to get there for 7 pm because of how many holiday travelers there were.  And so our trip home began at 7 pm on Saturday night. I was tense, of course. I hate to fly. Peter ate something at the airport, but I just couldn’t manage it through the tension. Security was easy.  You could tell who all the Americans were though; they were the only ones removing their shoes to go through the metal detector. We quietly mocked them. Once at the gate however, we were quickly reminded that we were going to the United States. To get on the plane, we had to go through a secondary security check. Even though we could carry water through the airport’s security checkpoint and even though we could buy water from stores inside the airport, we were told we weren’t allowed to bring any bottles of water (or anything else with too much liquid in it) onto the plane. Additionally, all of our carryon luggage was physically checked and we were all patted down.  It’s like “You wanna’ come to America? Let’s see how you like this.” Land of the free my ass.  What I can’t get is how the United States government can get away with dictating the security policy of another sovereign state. Talk about audacity.

The flight was uneventful, if uncomfortable. Good ‘ole Spirit Airlines. Where anybody over 5’6” feels like a giant in their seats. I was very nervous when I saw that there was large group of Christian teenagers returning home from some sort of group trip. I couldn’t help but see a new script for yet another “Final Destination” movie. Fortunately that didn’t happen and we landed in Ft. Lauderdale without any hassle… that is until we had to go through Immigration and Customs.  Man, what a pain in the butt that was. The lines were tremendous. It took forever.  And for what?  So they could ask us a few questions about why we were gone for so long? Is it really any of their business? No. It’s not.

And Customs. What a joke. They don’t look at each individual bag anymore. They just run it through an x-ray machine, take your form and send you on your merry way… unless they see something hinky. Then your stuff is spread out all over hell and creation so everyone can see how much dirty underwear you have.  Fortunately, they didn’t see anything in our luggage and we could recheck our bags and find our gate for our connecting flight.

The most fantastic thing through all of this was that we were totally cool about the waiting and the lines and we had absolutely no reason to be. Not fantastic because we were cool, but fantastic because we were so completely clueless. Funny thing: we forgot that Ft. Lauderdale was an hour ahead of where we had spent our summer and while we thought we had 90 minutes to catch our connecting flight, we really actually had only 30 minutes! Had I been aware of the time constraint, I would’ve been freaking out. I mean FREAKING OUT. I’m not cool when I travel to begin with, but add pressure? Man, you’re asking for a freakout of monumental, nay, EPIC proportions. We got to the gate and heard the last call for boarding for the Chicago flight. I thought it was another plane for Chicago that left before our flight. I nonchalantly sauntered over to the counter. Peter lollygagged through the gate area. We lackadaisically handed them our boarding passes and they dismissively waved us on in. I was baffled. Peter scratched his head. The plane was pretty empty so we grabbed better seats. Then a few more people came on, looking breathless and flummoxed and then it hit me—Peter’s watch was off by an hour because of the time difference. We both did a facepalm at the same time. Wow. I can only figure that the good lord knew I couldn’t handle the truth. They ended up delaying the flight because of the backlog in Immigration and Customs. We got to Chicago about 30 minutes late. Our bags were first off and we zipped on out of there to my Aunt and Uncle’s house to grab our car.

The drive from Chicago to St. Louis was abject torture. It was long, hot and we couldn’t wait to see our dog. We hit the nastiest traffic on I-55 just outside Missouri, which only made matters worse. We made a quick stop at the grocery store, got to the air-conditioned apartment (Thank you Leslie), took a quick HOT shower (Thank you Terry) and went to get Lagniappe at about 7pm.

Man, I had forgotten just how cute that damn dog is. When she saw us, she ran circles around us and panted and licked and jumped up, then more circles. It was awesome. We thanked “Uncle Mike” for taking such good care of her and finally got home, made a couple of Sezaracs, ate a huge salad, cuddled with the dog and watched a movie on Netflix and passed out at about 11 pm. I hadn’t slept at all for any of the flights and Peter had only slept a few more hours than that. We hadn’t rested for more than 38 hours. That’s a lot.

Our first impressions of being back are what you’d expect. I’m grateful for a long, hot shower. I have to catch myself from throwing my toilet paper in the trash. And I brushed my teeth with tap water and was thrilled. Also, it’s nice to hear and understand everything that’s being said. (Except for that nonsense coming out of Washington about the debt ceiling. Seriously. WTF is up with that?) Even flying over Chicago, everything looks different. It all looks shiny and new. The roads are extremely smooth. There’s no smell of exhaust fumes everywhere you go. The cars look mostly new. There are no visible slums. I mean, everything is just so damn easy here.

In the places we were in South American (I don’t want to make a blanket statement about all of South America because that just wouldn’t be right) it seems that life is a struggle; there’s a lot of noise and irritation and mess, their governments don’t run as smoothly, people have to think and plan and function within what is, for the most part, a very dysfunctional environment.

And I think that might be a good thing.

Hear me out on this one.

There is a distinct possibility that our easy lifestyle here has made us Americans extremely complacent. What happened to me when I got to South America? I had this burst of creativity like I’ve never had before. I was off balance, out of my element, confused, baffled. I had to think and act in ways I wasn’t used to. I didn’t know I could write like this. I didn’t know I even wanted to write like this. Not to mention all the great ideas I can’t wait to apply to our graphic novel. It was in South America that I formalized the structure I wanted the novel to have. I should’ve done that months ago, but I just didn’t. I don’t know why.

And the South American people, they smile, they laugh, they’re so easygoing. “Eh, go over to that place, it opens at about this time, maybe not. Whatever.” I can’t testify as to whether or not their lives or minds are better off than Americans, but I can say their attitudes are way more pleasing to be around. I can’t recall too many South American in my entire two-month adventure who annoyed me. (Except for that awful woman behind me on the bus to Peru.) Trust me, I’m a long-time misanthrope. If a person is able to annoy anybody, they’ll annoy me, so the fact I wasn’t very annoyed is a miracle of some sort.  And as far as their inefficient government goes, while I wish they had better plumbing—and they probably wish they had better plumbing too—I totally appreciate the fact that their government’s nose isn’t into every aspect of their lives. Their police and military and government seem to not worry too much about what the general group is doing and they worry even less about the individual. Having lived in the most policed city in the U.S. (New York) I can really appreciate that.

I hope that my little missives haven’t discouraged anybody from going to South America themselves. The only people it should discourage are those people who absotively and posilutely cannot handle being uncomfortable. But then again, if you’re that friggin’ particular, you probably aren’t the kind of person who should ever leave the comfort of home to begin with. As for the rest of you, I recommend that everyone stray from his or her comfort zone every now and again. It really perks up the brain cells and the soul and you’ll come away from the experience enriched and invigorated.

Overall, I have to say, it was a helluva good time.  I wish for you all the opportunity to do something just as wonderful.


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