I arrive, after 24 hours stuck between a Peruvian teenager and a cold window, in Puno. As the afternoon crawls on, my head starts to ache and my bowels are informing me that I haven’t used them in a couple of days. I still have the city of Puno to explore, so I start downing water, slurping South American Gatorade (“Electrolight”), and pop an allergy pill and my daily antidepressant. I snap photos of Lake Titicaca and Puno Cathedral, but by 4 o’clock I am feeling closer to death than life. I have not yet eaten more than pretzels and weird bus-chicken sandwiches, so I decide to head to “Machu Pizza,” the third-highest rated restaurant in Puno. “Perhaps,” I think, “some American food will settle my stomach. After all, street ceviche and cow hearts may be taking a toll on my American sensibilities of what is to be considered ‘food.’” The restaurant doesn’t open until 5:30, so I head to a pharmacy to try to get some NyQuil, with which I intend to create a magical potion to cure my illness overnight by forced hibernation. I go to two separate ‘farmacias,’ and talk to half a dozen pharmacists, none of whom have heard of NyQuil. I say what I know about it, which is arguably more than most people since I recently went through my phase of college stress-based insomnia.
“Lo tiene acetominophen, y antihistaminos.” They seem to be understanding what I am saying. I continue explaining that it helps you sleep as well. I feel as though I am selling NyQuil door to door, and my admiration for the drug seems to be coming across.
I look it up on one of their phones, and she looks at the webpage and shouts “Vicks! El quiere Vick’s!”
She walks into the back and gives me a box with a little bottle in it and Vick’s stamped on the top. She charges me less than 8 dollars USD, and I explain that we call the drug something different in the United States. She smiles like she understands.
For the first time this trip I am freezing, a combination of the fact that it actually is freezing and I am shivering from my illness. “How is this only a two-day bus ride from the equator?” I wonder. I shiver and shake through the streets, stopping by my hotel room for my sweatshirt, which so far I have only used as a blanket in buses. As a result, it is covered in pretzel dust which a shake off before layering up.
I arrive at Machu Pizza at 5:45, fifteen minutes after opening, and only one table is occupied. Iam feeling worse than ever, so I am glad I’ll be able to fill my belly and get out of there fast. The waiter seats me upstairs and gives me a menu, which I look at quickly, ordering a personal-sized hot chorizo pizza. You know, as one does when they are ill. I also order a tea. After I order, I quickly run to the bathroom, which has no toilet seat and no soap. I do without the former, but sneak into the women’s room after I am done to find the latter.
When I leave the bathroom, a French couple is sitting at the table across the room, and the waiter takes their orders. It feels like forever before I get my pizza and tea, and I am nodding my head in my seat throughout the meal, trying to calm my tempestuous headache. My pizza smells and looks precisely like those 1-dollar Celeste microwave pizzas you buy at the supermarket, but a little larger, and I consider that maybe someone bribed a Tripadvisor employee to get Machu Pizza to the top. The online reviews note that it is not the pizza that is special at the restaurant, but the sauces you are given to put on the pizza that make the experience unique. Accordingly, I am also given two small clay pots, one with a spicy Peruvian sort of pico de gallo and the other with sour cream. Admittedly, the sauces did improve the pizza, though it made me sad that this was the third-highest rated restaurant in Puno.
I stumbled to my hostel, and bought two water bottles for my NyQuil nightcap. I stepped into my room, opened the box of what I thought was NyQuil and, instead, found that it was something called “TrataTos,” meant solely for curing a cough. This, of course, was the only symptom I did not have, so I read the label and tried to figure out what was in it and why. All I could gather was that this “TrataTos” (or "cough-treatment") was made out of some sort of tree syrup, and when I slug down the recommended capful (after all, four Peruvian pharmacists can’t be wrong), it became clear that it was not syrup from a maple tree, but rather some other tree that tasted more like, well, a tree. You heard it here first: TrataTos will likely not taste good over pancakes. Next, I took one of my prescribed sleeping pills and downed a bottle of water mixed with vitamin C powder. Bubble bubble, toil and trouble.
I awoke with my alarm from a positively blissful, one might say almost comatose, sleep with the opening number to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights in my head. To my surprise, my symptoms had miraculously vaporized leaving only an incredibly dry mouth and throat. I ingested the remaining water from the night before and began packing.
The low mountain sun nearly blinds me as I walk to my early-morning bus. I wait for the wrong bus for 20 minutes, drinking coffee with a German tourism major studying in Arequipa. She has been on that bus since Cusco, and looked desperately in need of caffeine. After paying the hotel employee with a 20 the night before, and receiving my change in entirely 50-cent coins, I decided that the coffee vending machine was as good a place as any to spend them. She seemed grateful, and I was happy to chat for a while about where she was going, and where she had been. When we were about to board the bus, the attendant informed me I was waiting for the wrong 7:00 am bus to La Paz, so I said ‘Ciao’ to the Ger-woman and spent the next eight minutes frantically running around the terminal to pay the tax on my ticket and find the right international bus. I arrived with minutes to spare and found my first veritable gaggle of gringos waiting for the bus with me.
How I had made it so long without taking a bus filled with tourists is a mystery to me, as the locations I had visited thus far on my South American journey had all been major tourist hubs. French, AmeriCanadians (as you often can’t assume someone is American, at least without offending them), Chinese, and more Germans abounded. I boarded and stretched out in the two-seat row I had to myself, as the bus attendant began handing out customs forms. Her face showed a look of grave terror upon seeing my American passport on the seat next to me.
“Do you have a visa?” she asked in grave, accented English, despite giving all the customs instructions in Spanish which most of the bus could not understand.
“Si, claro,” I responded, flipping to my visa page. She smiled, relieved. I asked if there were any other Americans on the bus without visas.
“No, thank God” she said in Spanish, rolling her eyes playfully. “The process takes 20-30 minutes, so it should be a quick ride.”
Last month, when I went to the Bolivian consulate to get my visa, one of the workers explained why Americans were essentially only the only people who needed to pay the $160 visa to enter his country. This price is the same amount Americans require Bolivians to pay upon entering the U.S., so Bolivia imposes the same cost. This tit-for-tat is relatively common, especially in those countries where Americans do not have many business dealings or travel to for tourism particularly often. Angola, Paraguay, and Algeria all have $160+ visa fees for Americans. Still, the U.S. passport is supposed to be one of the strongest for visa free travel. The only reason the U.S. passport is viewed as such is because the U.S. is able to negotiate visa-free access either by accepting people into our country visa-free from generally western countries like Canada, or else threatening to pull American money from a country unless Americans can go there with ease. Mexico is a textbook case of this. Mexican nationals need to apply for a visa in order to enter the U.S., but Americans don’t have to do the same when traveling to Mexico. In this way, American money in the form of jobs, tourism and trade makes the U.S. the more powerful in these negotiations, so the Mexican government would largely be doing the people a disservice by making it harder for Americans to enter Mexico.
This is why current border and immigration politics, in my opinion, and the idea that the U.S. should build a wall to limit the influx of Latin Americans, is so misguided. It acknowledges the politics of power, but not economics of mutual benefit. America benefits from being able to build cars cheaper on Mexican soil. Mexico benefits from receiving jobs offered by American manufacturing firms. It is foolish to think that asserting your dominance over such a petty thing as the influx of the Mexican people into the United States will benefit America, or anyone. But that’s just my two pesos. The U.S. passport is a strong one, but did not get to be so without cracking a few proverbial eggs.
The second consecutive night of not really sleeping in a bus seat has come to an end, and the sandy scrubland of northern Peru begins to appear through the dark, foggy window. The large man next to me has not yielded the armrest between us in 16 hours, and I don’t think he will start now. Aside from having a seatmate, this was a better-quality bus ride than the one into Sullana. The stewardess (bus-attendant?) provided us with a chicken dinner and breakfast of Saran-wrapped pastries, as well as cups of Inca Cola, which tastes strongly of bubblegum and looks like radioactive banana slug urine. When I finally get out of the bus at the station in North Lima, I am surprisingly not repulsed by the long string of interminable bus rides I have ahead of me. I smile at the thought that I just might be doing what I was meant to do with my life, even if that thing is being breathed on by large Peruvian men for unbearable lengths of time in small, enclosed spaces.
The Plaza Norte bus station is clean and new, and exits into a mall. I make my way through the mall and onto the street where several street food vendors are selling ceviche, met on sticks, lomo saltado, and sandwiches. Somehow, the smell is terrific despite the many gas stations and mechanics nearby, but I am able to refrain so that I can have a *proper* Peruvian lunch. I follow the Avenida Tupac Maru closer to the center of town, and realize I should take a faster mode of transport than walking if I am going to make it to my hostel before nightfall. I pull up my Uber app, but there are not available drivers. Eventually, I come to a city bus stop, and peruse the maps inside to find out which buses I am to take, and how far. The smallest Peruvian bill I have is 100 Soles (about $30 USD) and I somehow miss the sign that says “Esta maquina no darse vueltos.” “This machine does not give change.” As I wait for the bus I kick myself while I eat pretzels and wait in line.
When the first bus comes, it is packed and is not taking any new passengers. The same goes for the second and third. The fourth bus I am able to squeeze onto, backpack between my legs like a penguin keeping its egg-child warm. I mistakenly get off a stop too early, then take the next train, in which I am as equally sardined into. I pop out at the next stop, and walk the quarter mile to my hostel, wondering if I could sell my bus ticket to someone at the hostel.
At the front desk, the receptionist explains I am unlikely to be able to unload my Golden Ticket. He checks me in, recommends some sights nearby and is nice enough to call the bus company I am to travel with the following day, asking if there is bus depot closer to the hostel where I could pick up the bus, since my ticket read the bus station in the far south of town. He told me I could board an hour earlier, at 12:30 the next day at the terminal near the Parque de Exposicion, a 20-minute walk away. Finally, I ask what the best Peruvian restaurant nearby is, and he tells me to go to Casa Mama, a buffet of all the best Peru has to offer. I have not had real food in over a day, and practically throw my things on my bed and rush to the restaurant.
There, they have a long table of lomo saltado, ceviche, rice, beans, soups, and anticuchos, a stew made of cow hearts. I try, and love, everything, as it has all been cooked so tenderly and stewed so long that each dish is like a completely new experience, like trying pizza or cheeseburgers for the very first time.
I am in a t-shirt (my first clean one since I left home, I admit) and jeans, but do not notice the rain when I leave the restaurant because it is so light that each droplet seems to evaporate on impact. The weather hasn’t changed since I disembarked my bus, and doesn’t show any signs of changing. The benefit is that the clouds are finally thick enough that I am not dehydrated, I am not sweating, and I am not sunburnt. In other words, the weather is perfect. I walk to the Plaza de Armas, where some of the most impressive buildings in Lima are located, and I mill about with the other tourists in the incredibly large square. A man walks up to me and introduces himself as Tito.
“Hi Tito,” I say, not making eye contact. This isn’t a problem as he isn’t make eye contact either. His eyes are wandering somewhere above my left shoulder. I keep walking and he walks alongside me.
“You like to party?,” he asks. “You seem like you like to smoke weed.”
I smile, as no one has ever said this to me before. I often worry that I look more like a person who could teach you how to play dungeons and dragons than teach you how to roll a joint.
“I’m alright Tito. Thank you though.” I smile at the police officers passing by.
“You sure? What about a little blow maybe?” He smirks affably and puts an index finger on his left nostril. I pass on this offer, too, and he turns around to find another tourist.
It goes without saying that a stranger has never offered to sell me cocaine before. Furthermore, never had I ever been offered drugs on the street. Not even in Amsterdam, where marijuana is legal. It’s a wild world, I thought.
From there, I walked to the city’s Chinatown, curious as to what a Peruvian Chinatown looked like. As it turns out, there were several Chinese food restaurants, but very few Chinese. On a street corner, a man and a woman dressed in Native American clothing (that may or may not have been a Party City Halloween costume) were dancing while a man played some indigenous flute. I spent the evening in the hostel, catching up on sleep and reading. Perhaps it was the low-season, or I just picked an unpopular hostel, but there was hardly a soul around except for a shy American girl and a couple of Swiss dudes. In the morning, I chatted with them about their lives, routes, etc., and felt human again after a few days of being trapped on buses.
The young woman, from Michigan, purportedly came down to South America every summer to visit friends, each time exploring a new region of Bolivia or Peru. The Swiss guy was a medical student on summer break. I love to learn and speak foreign languages, but there is truly something to be said about the stress-free experience of communicating in your native tongue after days of only speaking a foreign language. It returns a sense of control and calm that one does not often feel in a foreign country, with another language. Haters will say I’ve gone soft, but to them I say: fly alone to a country or region where your second or third language is spoken. You will be relieved when you come across someone from Michigan or a German Swiss who can speak English. Our whole conversation I poured out three days of thoughts, and felt as if I had vomited after a long night of drinking. True relief.
I had a couple of hours until my bus, so I strolled through the Parque de Exposicion and gave my bus card to a homeless man sitting in a tunnel. I found the bus station, exchanged my voucher for a ticket, then wandered down the block to see what kind of Limeña street food I could find. As it turns out, there was a lot of amazing looking stalls selling tostones, eggs, and empanadas, all perfectly suitable for breakfast. Instead, I chose calamari and ceviche.
Now, you may be thinking: “why would Victor order an exclusively seafood meal on a street corner, the main entree of which is dish notorious for not being cooked at all? Are we to expect that Victor will eat sushi from a trash bin when he visits Japan, or chicken tartar at a kebab joint with a broken rotator in the Middle East?” Your concerns are noted. What adds to the situation is that I was easily able to coerce the woman at the ceviche stand to sell me the seafood dish for 5 Soles ($1.59). Though I feared it would kill me, each bite was pleasurable and easily beats any ceviche I have had before or since. For dessert, I bought what can only be described as a Peruvian street parfait. It was a mix of a ubiquitous gelatinous fruit, some sweetened condensed milk, a milky caramel sauce, some rice pudding, all garnished with raisins, coconut shavings, and powdered cinnamon. This was less likely to give me a parasite, but fairly bland.
I then boarded the bus, which I was not aware would take a full 24 hours to get to Puno. They offered the obligatory sliver of chicken atop white rice, and a breakfast of a shredded chicken sandwich. When I finally got to stand after 24 hours of sitting, I feared my legs wouldn’t work. Instead, they were elated to be free, and when I reached Puno I relished the walk to the hostel as an opportunity to stave off muscle atrophy.
The good thing about visiting South America in the summer is that there are often clouds that protect you from the sun, especially if you shaved your head before coming to South America and now look like if Tobey Macguire got leukemia. In order to get from Guayaquil, Ecuador to Lima, Peru, I first had to stop in Sullana in Northern Peru for about half a day. On the way there, the border crossing went smoothly as the Ecuadorian check-out and the Peruvian check-in people were seated at the same desk in the same building, and didn’t ask for any departure taxes or fees. On the bus, I met a Swiss technical medicine student and a Kiwi who just had to hop the border because he accidentally would have overstayed his visa in Ecuador if he did not hop the border for a day.
I got no sleep on the bus, but was able to reach a state of prolonged, restful, semi-consciousness so I did not crash the next day. It is not as if that mattered, however, as I had from the time my bus pulled into Sullana, Peru at 9:30 am, to the time my bus out was to leave at 5:30 pm, to do absolutely nothing. Before the sun rose high enough to burn me, I mapped out the nearest park, a traffic circle with benches and a few shady trees, and made my way toward it. There, I sat for three hours reading and chatting with evangelicals in broken Spanish. When I grew tired of that, I mapped out another park with shady trees, walked there, and stretched out to take a nap, only opening my eyes when the piragua vendor walked by blasting his bike horn. When I awoke, I finished reading Slaughterhouse Five and began walking back to the bus station where I passed approximately 3 cevicherias per block. I did not come across any exchanges and I still had several pounds of pretzels, fig bars, and beef jerky in my bag from home, so I decided to have ceviche when I arrived in Lima the next day and focus on eating some of the vittles from my burden rather than dive into another full seafood feast, especially this far from any source of fresh seafood.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.