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.
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.