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.
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.